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Nishita Vegi, a master's student in Aerospace Engineering, interviews her hero, astronaut Anna Fisher. (Photo: Adam af Ekenstam)

Career advice from a space pioneer

Published Sep 28, 2015

Nearly 31 years ago, Anna Fisher sat inside the space shuttle Discovery on its way into space. Last week, she sat at the KTH library and shared her experiences in space work for master's student Nishita Vegi.

"It feels great to get to meet her, and I am a little nervous. Of course it's my dream that one day I might get to do the same as she has done," Vegi says.

Fisher, who among other things has become known as the first mother in space, explained that she felt welcome in the space program when she was accepted into NASA's eighth astronaut group in 1978. (The first father in space is said to have been the cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.) The fact that she was a woman seemed not to matter, she says.

"There was nothing special that I noticed. It was worse when I studied medicine, chemistry and mathematics, for example, where I felt probably more isolated as a woman."

Fisher had a variety of assignments as ground personnel at NASA. But two weeks before the birth of her first child, she got word that she was accepted as a member of the crew on the next scheduled space mission, STS-51-A, which left Earth on Nov. 8, 1984.

"It never occurred to me to say, 'no'," she says. "My husband was also an astronaut, so we knew what it involved. It certainly was difficult then, but in retrospect I have thought that it was fortunate that she was so small. Had I been forced to leave a teenager, I would have gone crazy, since I have a need for control," Fisher laughs.

During her daughter's first year, Fisher was filmed often. "We thought that if I didn't make it back, it was important that in any case she had movies of me."

There were a lot of practical problems to solve before the space mission, including making a space suit that was small enough to fit Fisher — without arms that were too short.

"Arm movements are crucial for you to handle instruments in space, so that was very important."

Another thing was toilet visits. Men had used catheters, but these sometimes did not work as they were supposed to. When women began making space flights for NASA, beginning in 1978, a special diaper was developed for spacewalks. These so-called Maximum Absorbency Garments (MAG) are now used by all American astronauts.

Vegi has read considerably before the meeting and the 15-minute long interview. She wonders if it is true about the five-people-strong crew emblem that is adorned with six stars. Is the sixth for Fisher's daughter?

"Sure. Has the story leaked out? Well, it is true," Fisher replies.

After seven days, 23 hours, 44 minutes and 56 seconds in space, Fisher and Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Center. What followed for Fisher was ground work, which included sitting on an astronaut selection committee in 1987.

What personal traits and skills does one look for, in addition to the purely technical background? Vegi asks.

"First impressions are important," replies Fisher. "The first 15 seconds shows how a person carries themselves. I rarely had occasion to reconsider. Everyone who comes to the committee is very skilled. But it is important to be a team player and that you are able to both lead and follow, and be able to switch between roles that most people do as a career."

Fisher says that another part of the admissions process was a compulsory essay-writing exercise on the theme, "Why I want to be an astronaut."

"It sounds like something you write on your summer vacation, but the essays were actually both revealing and exciting to read.

What do you recommend a young girl today who wants to become an astronaut? Vegi asks.

"Choose a technical training. Do your absolute best. Maintain good fitness, and if you are sufficiently devoted and passionate, the doors may be opened. Do not give up."

Vegi is pleased with the interview and asks Fisher to pose for a photo with her.

"I'll send it to my mother in India," Vegi says. "She will be so happy."

Vegi is in the master's program in Aerospace Engineering at KTH after winning the KTH Master Challenge in India, in which participants demonstrate their expertise in their field in different ways. The prize was a scholarship for two years of master studies and living expenses, plus an internship with an opportunity to do a thesis in one of the companies who support the competition. In Vegis' case it will be the defense company Saab AB.

"I never thought I would win, but thought that there probably was a small chance and that I had to take it."

So in early August, she came here from Hindustan University in Chennai, southern India, where temperatures soar to 45 degrees.

But the autumn chill in Stockholm does not appear to bother Vegi.

"KTH is amazing! First, Stephen Hawking, and then this! It is one of the best days of my life!"

Jill Klackenberg

Belongs to: About KTH
Last changed: Sep 28, 2015