Cady Coleman is at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where the conversation is orbiting around what it’s like to be an astronaut.
“I was taking a cab a week after I got home from space, and I asked the cab driver where he was from. He said, Egypt, and I said, ‘I was just there.’
“He thought I meant by plane, but I explained. You know, so few people actually get to go up in space that if you can, it’s nice to share the experience.”
Once a member of MIT’s ROTC Air Force program, Coleman graduated from the Institute in 1983 with a degree in chemistry. She then became a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force and did graduate work at the University of Massachusetts before reporting to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where she was a research chemist. Then in 1992, at age 31, NASA chose her as an astronaut.
“It was the most amazing day of my life. When the administrator called to tell me I was hired, I was just speechless.”
For 16 days in October 1995, Coleman flew into space, orbiting the Earth 256 times. “Oh, it’s wonderful,” she says, adding it took eight and a half minutes to get from Earth to space.
“The ascent feels a little like being on a train, rattling back and forth. It’s loud and you’re thrust back in your seat. It’s like driving a car over railroad tracks. It’s bumpy until the solid rocket boosters are gone.
“And it’s hard to ignore the lack of gravity,” she says. “In the beginning, you grab for things hand over hand, and it takes just a few minutes to realize that all you need is the touch of a finger to sail across the room.
“Weightlessness feels a little like when your car goes over a big bump and your stomach lurches up, or when you’re inside an elevator and it drops really quickly.”
On the first mission, she says, “we were all hooting, hollering and yelling because we were just so excited. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s addictive. Once is not enough.”
Coleman’s second mission will be in July when she once again will board the Space Shuttle Columbia for a five-day flight.
The purpose is to enable scientists to study exploding stars, quasars, and black holes, but the main reason is to launch Chandra, an X-ray telescope.
Coleman, a mission specialist who is trained to space walk and to do experiments, will be in charge of managing the controls to launch the telescope which will travel 90,000 miles up.
“X-ray astronomy is really just beginning. Many have been waiting their whole careers for this telescope to be up in space, so it’s really a privilege to get to bring it there.”
When Coleman was a sophomore at MIT, Astronaut Sally Ride came to speak to women students, and for the next 10 years Coleman wanted to become an astronaut. “It was a memorable moment for me, because it had never occurred to me to want to do this — because it never occurred to me that I could.”
Now, twice a month, Coleman also travels to schools around the country and the world to inspire young people. “The message I try to send is that people who get jobs like this are people just like them.”
The second of four children, she was born in Charleston, S. Carolina, in 1960 and grew up in Virginia. The daughter of a Navy man and an executive secretary, she says she got her sense of adventure from her Dad, a scuba diver.
As a child, mostly she read. Her favorite books were about science fiction and fantasy. She loved learning about different worlds.
Unfazed in 1969 when the men first walked on the moon, Coleman says she remembers sleeping through the moon landing.
Her husband, a glass artist and pilot, who lives in western Massachusetts, (“We fly back and forth.”) thinks his wife’s career is great, she says. “He wishes he could go, too.”
Her goal for the future is “to go up and do science on the space station. I’m looking forward to that,” says Coleman, who hopes to stay six months.
“When you attain something that you just never in the world thought that you could do, then it’s really an amazing feeling. It’s like a dream come true.”