Renowned astronaut offers lessons on dealing with the unknown

Published on

Kathryn D Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, shared fascinating lessons on leadership and dealing with the unknown when she joined us for a virtual event, ‘Handprints on Hubble’, on 21 April.

The renowned NASA astronaut and member of IWF Ohio spoke candidly about being a pioneer, her challenges and achievements, and how it took risk, imagination and teamwork to accomplish unimaginable success.

Drawing on lessons from her book, ‘Handprints on Hubble: an Astronaut’s Story of Invention’, she said: ‘Reconciling with the unknown is a reality, as well as how do you stay on point. Keep the main thing, the main thing.’

She talked about problem solving within the NASA culture. ‘When you make a mistake, acknowledge that you should have handled it differently, that you see it, get it and have learned from it. Pledge to your teammates you won’t make that mistake again. This direct accountability speeds up communication and short circuits potential future issues.’

Asked if she felt cooped up in a spacecraft – particularly relevant to our current Covid-19 quarantine – Kathy said: ‘Focus on what you have and where you are, how unique, special and different. Be here now … Find the magic and beauty and glory in where you are, rather than pining for what you don’t have.’

Questioned about the attributes that attracted organisations to hire her, she said: ‘People observe I am good at figuring out organisational and people dynamics – and how to bring people along on your vision. The trick to that is to bring them along at a time when you don’t actually really see it clearly yet and how to do that - and yet be honest, be genuine and be authentic about it. Follow me into the fog.’

Nearly 30 members attended the event and were inspired by Kathy’s story. ‘Kathy was fascinating and offered an amazing insight into a world we would never have been exposed to otherwise,’ said one member afterwards.

Kathy’s book is published by MIT Press. Special thanks to our members Marty Wikstrom for bringing Kathy to us and Kathryn Pretzel-Shiels for organising and moderating.

Jill Rudnick

the galaxy
Kathy Sullivan