It's impossible to argue with the choice of Anna Lee Fisher as a UCLA Alumni Day speaker. Fisher is the ultimate alumna, with no fewer than three degrees from UCLA. And as a NASA astronaut, she brings not only expertise but a personal perspective to the topic of “Watching the Skies: Bruins in Space.”
Fisher, who still works in management at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, earned a B.S. in chemistry in ‘71 and an M.D. in ’76, before being chosen an astronaut in 1978. (Her third degree, an M.S. in chemistry in ’87, came after her space flight.)
Her training class, the first female astronauts recruited by NASA, included Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, and Judith Resnik, who died when Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed during launch in January 1986.
How committed to the space program was Fisher? Assigned to her first flight two weeks before giving birth to her oldest child, Fisher delivered Kristin on a Friday and was back in the office three days later for a Monday meeting.
In 1984, on a mission to recover two failed satellites expensively orbiting Earth, Fisher became the first mother to enter space. And if you think that's no small feat, then you've never had a 16-month-old child at home who you weren't sure you were going to ever see again.
Dr. Fisher has been paired with Ian S. McLean, professor and vice chair of physics & astronomy and director, UCLA Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics. They will talk about “Watching the Skies: Bruins in Space” on Saturday, May 15.
"I flew before Challenger and Columbia, but I don't think you're in this business without realizing that possibility exists," Fisher says. "That was the most difficult thing of the entire year: knowing you could get through training but there is also an amount of luck involved."
Fisher's mission was a success and she was assigned to a second flight, the shuttle that would follow the Challenger disaster. But Fisher and her husband decided to have another daughter and this time Fisher took a leave of absence. She returned seven years later, in 1996, and did some of the testing of the Space Station's robotic arm before it was transported up.
"The most satisfying part," she says, "is being a part of something you really believe in and feeling that in some small way we are part of the beginning of humanity leaving our planet. It is not going to happen as fast as I, or others, would like. But we're hitting those first steps."
Dr. Fisher was a mission specialist on STS-51A, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 8, 1984. This was the second flight of the orbiter Discovery.
Adapted from a story by Brad Greenberg in UCLA Magazine, Oct. 1, 2009. All photos from NASA.