The astronaut Judith A. Resnik (1949-1986) became the second American woman in space in 1984, on the maiden flight of the orbiter Discovery. She logged 145 hours in space on that mission, at what should have been the beginning of a promising career. But on January 28, 1986, only seconds after liftoff during her second mission, Resnik died in the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Six other astronauts perished with her, nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean, leaving a country shocked and mourning.
The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Judith A. Resnik was born (on April 5, 1949) and raised in an affluent neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. Her parents were Marvin Resnik, an optometrist, and Sarah Resnik. She had one brother, Charles, who was four years younger.
Resnik attended Firestone High School in Akron, where she was a diligent student who excelled in mathematics and played classical piano. The valedictorian of Firestone's class of 1966, Resnik was described by friends as popular and meticulous, rolling her hair in orange-juice cans to straighten her curls and attaining perfect scores on her college entrance exams. "She seemed more focused than most of the teenagers I knew," high-school music teacher Pat Pace told the New York Times. Raised in a Jewish household, Resnik attended Hebrew school and was bas mitzvahed in a local synagogue. As an adult she did not practice Judaism and disliked any reference to her as "the first Jewish astronaut."
In 1966 Resnik entered Carnegie Tech (now called Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, where she planned to major in math. "I was good at math, so I decided to become a math major," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1984. "After a year, math stopped being numbers, which I liked, and started being concepts, which I didn't. So I looked around for the most mathematics-oriented major I could switch to, and that was electrical engineering." As a freshman at Carnegie Tech, Resnik met Michael Oldak, another electrical engineering major, who became her boyfriend. She studied so hard in college that friends teasingly referred to Oldak as "Judy's only extravagance."
The couple married in 1970, the same year Resnik entered a graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. When Oldak started law school at Georgetown in 1971, she attended the University of Maryland as a doctoral candidate. While working toward her degree, Resnik held several jobs. She and Oldak worked together for RCA, designing radar circuits, and Resnik later worked for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, as a biomedical engineer. By 1977 Resnik was finishing up her Ph.D. in electrical engineering, but on the home front her marriage was ending, in part because Oldak wanted children, but Resnik chose to focus intensely on her career. She and Oldak separated in 1975 and divorced two years later, remaining friends.
Headed for the Stars
Not long after her divorce, Resnik spotted an advertisement for NASA's astronaut program. The then-all-male program, influenced by the affirmative-action movement, was looking for women and minorities with "the right stuff" to become astronauts. NASA was also looking for scientists, or "mission specialists," to conduct experiments in space. On a lark, Resnik decided to apply.
Resnik was not your typical astronaut applicant. Unlike her future coworkers, she did not grow up with dreams of walking on the moon; her decision to apply for the job was the result of a spur-of-the-moment urge, not a lifelong desire. She competed with some 8,000 military and civilian applicants, 1,000 of which were women. Although she did not think NASA would select her, she told friends she was going to fill out the application because she had nothing to lose. "She was looking for a purpose in her life," her father told the New York Times. In preparation for her NASA interview, Resnik began a program of exercise and reading. She was particularly anxious about passing the notoriously rigorous physical examination. While NASA considered her application, she also started a new job, relocating to California to work as a systems engineer for the Xerox Corporation.
To her amazement, Resnik found out in January 1978 that she had been selected by NASA to become an astronaut. Her background in electrical engineering had made her a primary candidate for the mission specialists needed to conduct scientific experiments in space. Along with Resnik, five other women were also accepted. The newcomers commenced their one-year training and evaluation period in August 1978, periodically flying from NASA's Houston, Texas, base to Washington, D.C. to log hours in modified flight training. "She was so imbued with the philosophy that space was a coming frontier," her father told the Washington Post. "She was the hardest-working astronaut at Johnson Space Center, and they knew it because they always asked her to do more. … If I wanted to get her, I'd call her at Johnson Space Center."
By 1979 Resnik had completed the training and evaluation period and had become a mission specialist eligible for assignments on space shuttle flight crews. Her work on the ground included the development of experiment software for astronaut-scientists and the creation of a remote manipulator system, an exterior mechanical arm astronauts could use to perform operations outside the spacecraft.
Spent Seven Days in Space
Of the six new female astronauts, one was destined to become the first American woman in space, but the honor did not go to Resnik. Sally Ride took the title in a 1983 mission of the space shuttle Challenger. Resnik was second on the list, and she was promised a role in a mission planned for the following year. On June 26, 1984, Resnik boarded the orbiter Discovery, geared up in her spacesuit and ready for her first flight. But it was not to be. Four seconds before liftoff, a fuel valve malfunctioned, and the launch was aborted. Two months later, on August 30, she boarded Discovery once again, and this time the orbiter launched without a hitch. Resnik was to spend a week in space as a mission specialist on the Discovery's maiden voyage. Accompanying her were spacecraft commander Hank Hartsfield, pilot Mike Coats, payload specialist Charlie Walker, and fellow mission specialists Steve Hawley and Mike Mullane.
During the mission, Resnik had the job of operating the remote manipulator system she had helped to design. With this exterior mechanical arm, she successfully positioned multimillion-dollar satellites and removed dangerous ice particles from the surface of the Discovery, earning her crew the nickname "Icebusters." Other goals of the mission carried out by Resnik and her crewmates were to activate a solar cell wing experiment, to deploy three satellites, and to operate a series of scientific and photographic experiments. Several of these experiments involved using an IMAX motion picture camera.
Watching video images beamed back to Earth from the Discovery, viewers could spot Resnik by the dark, curly halo of hair floating up around her in zero gravity. She was serious about her responsibilities, but she could also be playful, holding up a sign that said "Hi Dad!" to the video monitor. The spacecraft completed 36 orbits of Earth during its week-long mission, touching down at Edwards Air Force Base in California on September 5, 1984.
Perished in a Star-crossed Launch
Resnik, who had now passed from a rookie to an experienced astronaut, busily prepared for her second mission, which was to take place a year and a half later. This time she would ride in the space shuttle Challenger. Shuttle missions had become fairly routine for NASA, which had completed 24 of them without a hitch. In late January 1986, the launch of the Challenger was scheduled to occur any day, but inclement weather and mechanical problems caused several delays. Finally, on the unseasonably cold morning of January 28, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the launch was set to take place. At 8:35 a.m., Resnik boarded the Challenger with her crewmates: Francis "Dick" Scobee, the commander; Michael J. Smith, the pilot; Gregory B. Jarvis, a Hughes Aircraft engineer; Christa McAuliffe, a teacher and the first "private citizen" to accompany a shuttle mission; and two other mission specialists, Ellison Onizuka and Robert McNair. On this mission, Resnik would again have the job of operating the spacecraft's exterior arm. One of her tasks would be the deployment of a satellite designed to study Halley's Comet, which was then approaching Earth.
Among those watching the space shuttle launch were Resnik's father as well as a childhood friend and her family. "Roger, go with throttle up," commander Scobee radioed to mission control. At 11:38 a.m. the Challenger roared off the launch pad and into the sky. But after only 73 seconds it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. The shuttle had carved an arc into the sky, but then suddenly it blossomed into an orange fireball. "Obviously a major malfunction," came an announcement from the public affairs officer. After a long pause the officer added, "We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded."
Throughout the country Americans watched in horror as television stations aired the Challenger explosion footage over and over. Debris rained down into the Atlantic Ocean, and it required seven months for recovery teams to retrieve the wreckage. Forty days after the accident, they recovered the crew compartment and discovered that some of the astronauts had been alive during the spacecraft's three-to four-minute plunge into the sea.
Investigations after the explosion revealed that a faulty O-ring seal on the solid rocket fuel booster had led to the demise of the $1.2 billion space shuttle. The O-ring—a $900 synthetic rubber band—had been an object of some concern to engineers because it was vulnerable to changes in temperature. When the Challenger launched it was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to weaken the O-ring's seal. The decision to go ahead with the launch on such a cold morning had proven fatal for the seven astronauts.
After the tragedy, the U.S. government settled with the victims' families, but less was done for the families of the two unmarried astronauts, Resnik and McNair. Resnik and McNair's families sued the manufacturer of the O-ring, Morton Thiokol, and each family settled for more than $2 million. Resnik's family donated part of the money to the Challenger Center for Space Science in Houston and created scholarship funds in Resnik's name at her former high school and three universities.
Resnik was 36 years old when she perished in the Challenger explosion. The unidentified remains of all seven astronauts lie in a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, not far from a famed memorial to an unknown soldier.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 28, 1996.
Columbus Dispatch, January 28, 1996.
Life, February 1, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1988.
New York Times, February 9, 1986.
Washington Post, February 2, 1986.
National Aeronautic and Space Administration Web site, http://www.christa.org/ (November 2, 2001).