Remembering Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American woman in space
Judith Resnik never showed any particular interest in space travel – but when NASA began recruiting women and minorities, she decided to apply anyway. It was Star Trek actress and NASA recruiter Nichelle Nichols, whose job was to focus on finding women and minorities for the space program, who successfully enlisted Resnik to join NASA. It was 26 years ago this week that Resnik and her fellow astronauts died aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded just after takeoff.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Resnik was born in 1949 to an upper middle-class Jewish family. Always a bright child, she grew into a disciplined academic, graduating with bachelor’s, masters and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering. She worked in the missile and surface radar division of the electronic company RCA and later as a biomedical engineer in the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health just outside Washington, D.C. In 1978, she was working as senior systems engineer for Xerox when NASA selected her for the space program. She was just 29 years old.
Of 8,000 NASA applicants, only 35 were accepted into the program; Resnik was one of just six women. After successfully completing a one-year training period, she spent six years focused on the operation of a remote-control arm designed to move objects outside spacecrafts. In August 1984, she became the second American woman (and the first Jewish American) in space during her first mission as a specialist on the orbiter Discovery. During thatseven-day mission, she held a sign up from space that read, “Hi Dad” and became famous for her zero-gravity mane of dark, curly hair. That year, Resnik told an Akron community forum, “I think that astronauts probably have the best jobs in the world.”
Resnik was a mission specialist on orbiter Challenger, the famous space shuttle that launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center the morning of January 28, 1986. The launch was live-broadcast and widely watched because crewmember Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, N.H., was the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, designed to generate student interest in mathematics and space exploration. Just 73 seconds into its flight, the Challenger broke apart due to mechanical failure, killing all seven crewmembers in the explosion, including both Resnik and McAuliffe. Congress posthumously awarded Resnik the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Today, Resnik is largely remembered as the city of Akron’s most famous and perhaps most beloved daughter. The grounds of Firestone High School, her alma mater, are the site of an Ohio Historical Marker telling her story, and in 2010, Resnik was one of 10 finalists proposed to be made into a statue to represent the state of Ohio in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol (though Thomas Edison ultimately won the vote and the statue). Helen Norin, Resnik’s first cousin, told Akron’s West Side Leader of her deep love of science and her dedication to the space exploration program. “When she heard NASA was looking to incorporate female astronauts, immediately it just grabbed her,” Norin said of her cousin. “She worked hard for that.”