Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham
Two words describe Joan Higginbotham's path into space -- persistence and flexibility.
Some astronauts have a straightforward path into spaceflight. They might, for example, join the military, become test pilots and be selected as astronauts the first time they apply. That doesn't happen for everyone, but it does happen.
Image to right: STS-116 mission specialist Joan Higginbotham. Credit: NASA
But some astronauts follow a different path. Higginbotham falls into the latter category.
Higginbotham earned a degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University. Like many aspiring engineers, she dreamed of working at a place that is a giant in the field. That place wasn't NASA, though, but rather IBM.
"It seemed like a natural fit at the time because I had interned with them for two years in college," she said. "They were a good company; and they thought I was a good employee."
When Higginbotham graduated, however, the company had a hiring freeze on engineers. She was offered a position in sales, with a promise to move into engineering when the freeze ended. In the meantime, someone at NASA had seen her resume, and the agency offered her a job.
She was quickly assigned to her first space shuttle mission -- not as an astronaut, but as a payload engineer. She was responsible for preparing the shuttle cargo bay for the experiments it would carry on different flights. Higginbotham would eventually be promoted to the lead project engineer for one of the orbiters. She was involved in a total of 53 space shuttle missions during nine years at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While working at Kennedy, she earned a master's degree in management from the Florida Institute of Technology. Her supervisor encouraged her to apply for the astronaut corps. She applied. And she was not selected.
"After talking to some [selection] board members, they suggested I go back and get a more technical advanced degree, which is what I did," she said. Higginbotham went back to FIT and earned a second master's degree, this one in space systems.
"It was hard," she said. "I'd been back two years earlier. I'd gotten a master's degree. I'd pretty much figured that I was done. And it was hard, too, because I was working full time while getting both of these master's. So I worked essentially night shift so that I could go to the school during the day and get my second degree."
She applied again to the astronaut corps, and was selected in 1996. It was a challenging road to selection. "But obviously it paid off," she said.
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services