By Evan Leahy
On Friday, February 5, retired astronaut, Capt. Wendy Lawrence, spoke at an event cosponsored by Whatcom Community College’s Engineering and STEM clubs, speaking about the STS-114 shuttle flight she captained, the path that got her there and what it’s like to get to live out one’s dreams. “It is AMAZING!” she said.
Lawrence said she was mesmerized by the historic Apollo 11 mission when she saw it on television at the age of 10. She said she remembered thinking to herself, “Coolest job ever! That’s what I want to do!”
Lawrence was warned that it would be a difficult path for her, particularly because she was a woman, she said. Lawrence added that her father, a Naval aviator at the time, encouraged her and suggested that, if that was really what she wanted to do, she do all the same things other astronauts before her had done. Lawrence added that, after a lot of work and study, she ultimately ended up getting accepted to the Naval Academy and was on her way to becoming an astronaut.
Lawrence said that, as a freshman Aeronautics engineering major at the Naval Academy, she heard senior students in the same program talking about how impossible their workloads were and she said she gave up before she ever really tried. She said the alternative she chose was ocean engineering and, while she loved it, that she wished she hadn’t initially given up on herself so easily.
“Making your dreams come true is not an easy thing,” Lawrence said. She later added that it can be even harder to do as a minority in one’s particular chosen field, but that “if you can persevere,” Lawrence said, ”you will be a better person.”
STS-114 was the first shuttle mission to follow the Columbia re-entry disaster of 2003 and Capt. Lawrence said the NASA team had to pull together to persevere after that tragedy. She said that there were people still in space relying on shuttle missions and that careful review would have to happen before NASA could complete those missions, highlighting the importance of teamwork and maintaining focus.
Lawrence commended the Russian space program for the work they did to keep operations at the International Space Station running after the tragedy. She said that it was inspiring to see people pull together to make the project work in the face of adversity.
Lawrence said the importance of communication was paramount at NASA, chuckling a little when she said that about half what they do is determine the correct words to use for things. She said that concepts as simple as up and down can become vague when in space. Because of this and the unique nature of the challenges astronauts face, she said that practicing effective communication was crucial in those kinds of challenging situations.
The event drew a very large audience, filling all of Heiner Theater 209 and many additional audience members stood. Much of the audience asked the retired astronaut questions including many of the children in attendance. The event was scheduled from 5 PM until 6, and finally had to be asked to conclude at 6:30, as Lawrence was still answering audience questions. Virtually the entire audience stayed past the scheduled end to hear Lawrence talk with the audience.
Capt. Lawrence mentioned that she had spoken once before at Whatcom Community College for last year’s “Girls Go Tech” workshop and that she was happy to see some familiar faces at Friday’s event.