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Dr. Long Remembered as a Trailblazer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Dr. Irene Long, former Chief Medical Officer at Kennedy Space Center
Dr. Irene Long was the first female and the first minority to hold the position of chief medical officer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Long died Aug. 4, 2020, at age 69.

By Jim Cawley
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center


Dr. Irene Long, former Chief Medical Officer at Kennedy Space Center
Dr. Irene Long was the first African American woman to serve in the Senior Executive Service at Kennedy.

There were many firsts in the life of Dr. Irene Duhart Long, a pioneer and accomplished physician who left a lasting impression on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Long died Aug. 4, 2020, at age 69.

“She was very inspiring,” said Kennedy Office of Communication and Public Engagement Director Hortense Diggs. “She was Kennedy’s first ‘Hidden Figure.’”

Long was the first African-American female to serve in the Senior Executive Service (SES) at Kennedy. As chief medical officer at the Florida spaceport, she was the first female and the first minority to hold that position. Her NASA career spanned 31 years.

“Irene was an outstanding ambassador for NASA, and she inspired many youth looking to pursue careers in science,” said Burt Summerfield, associate director, management at Kennedy. “She was an agency leader in occupational health who developed initiatives that are the foundations of many of the agency’s programs that exist today.”

In 1994, Long was appointed director of the Biomedical Operations and Research Office, leading Kennedy’s efforts in occupational and aerospace medicine, life science research, and environmental management. In 2000, she was named Chief Medical Officer and Associate Director of Spaceport Services. That’s when Kennedy Public Health and Sanitation Officer Stephen Pilkenton met Long, working with her until her retirement in 2010.  

“She was very thorough, very detail-oriented, but also very personable,” Pilkenton said. “She was genuinely concerned about other people’s perspectives.”

Working in a mostly male, non-minority field, Long faced — and overcame — many obstacles and challenges during her decorated career. She helped create the Spaceflight and Life Sciences Training Program at Kennedy, in partnership with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), a program that encouraged more women and minority college students to explore careers in science.

Debbie Houston, medical contingency and record specialist at Kennedy, worked with Long for more than 25 years. Houston said Long’s influence — both professional and personal — has been invaluable to her.     

“Not only was Dr. Long my supervisor, she was my mentor,” Houston said. “She definitely championed my career.”  

According to Houston, Long’s can-do attitude was compelling — and contagious. If it was in Long’s control, she simply wasn’t going to fail.

“She gave me motivation on top of motivation,” Houston said. “She just always made you feel like you can do something.”

Kennedy Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Tipton was hired by Long in 1983, and worked with her until she retired. In 1990, when Tipton’s late wife had to go out of state for cancer therapy, Long arranged for Tipton to telework from the hospital — well before telework really even existed.

“She cared for the people who worked for her and ensured that all of her folks were treated fairly and equitably,” Tipton said.

According to Tipton, that concern extended well beyond her staff.

“She cared about people; when someone was hurting, so was she,” Tipton said. “She would go out of her way to help people.”

Kennedy Employee Assistance Counselor Patricia Bell applauded Long for her efforts in coordinating an educational women’s forum, focused on health, mental well-being and other topics of interest for women. 

“It was a glorious day for women helping women, and I attribute it all to her,” Bell said.

“One of the admirable qualities of Irene Long was her inclusion mentality regarding women in the workplace,” Bell continued. “She was a front runner in advocating for women.”

Dr. Long received several distinguished honors and awards throughout her career, including the Kennedy Space Center Federal Woman of the Year Award, the Society of NASA Flight Surgeons Presidential Award, Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award, Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Women of Color Technology Awards Conference.

“Dr. Irene Long was an important part of the NASA-wide health and medical community,” said Dr. J.D. Polk, chief health and medical officer at NASA Headquarters. “Her leadership was seen in many areas of NASA life, including preventive and occupational medicine, clinical care and health education for NASA employees, and encouraging and leading research for both space exploration and to help people here on Earth. She was a great colleague and friend.”

Long and her office provided exceptional medical services to numerous astronauts and Kennedy employees. She was instrumental in coordinating with the American Heart Association to produce the “Go Red for Women” campaign at Kennedy. The program provided vital information about cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death for women in the United States.  

Long empowered both Houston and Pilkenton to organize the presentation so it was available to the entire Kennedy community.  

“Her management style — it’s so reflective of my life today,” Houston said. “Even in my personal life, my husband will say ‘You’re just like Dr. Long.’”

That’s high praise for anyone.