Remembering Judith Resnik: EE and Second American Woman in Space

March 20, 2023 by Robert Keim

First a scholar and later an astronaut, Resnik was a crew member on Discovery and lost her life in the Challenger disaster.

We countinue our celebration of Women's History Month with the story of Judith Resnik. Most people who complete advanced degrees in electrical engineering, work in the defense industry, and perform distinguished research in neurophysiology would probably feel quite satisfied with their accomplishments, and rightly so.

For Judith Resnik, however, all this was a prelude to a career that would both enrich her life and bring it to a premature end. As a member of the crew that flew into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, she was the fourth woman in the world and the second American woman to enter outer space. As a member of the crew on Space Shuttle Challenger, she was one of seven astronauts who perished when the spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after takeoff.


Resnik’s official NASA portrait

Resnik’s official NASA portrait. She had a keen sense of humor and a zest for life. Image courtesy of NASA


From EE to Astronaut

Born and raised in Ohio, Resnik was a dedicated high school student who excelled in mathematics, played the piano, had a hearty appetite for knowledge, and demonstrated an impressive ability for time management and organization. Even in this early stage of life, she exhibited some of the qualities that later made her a successful candidate in NASA’s space program, but her path from high school to Discovery was a rather circuitous one.

After graduating as valedictorian and achieving a perfect score on the SATs, Resnik entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon). The year was 1966, and the Space Race was in full swing. She planned to major in math, but after developing an appreciation for the more practical technical fields, she became an electrical engineering major. She graduated in 1970 and soon found herself employed at RCA, where she designed circuitry and software for radar, missile, and rocket systems.

Apparently not the sort of person who is easily satisfied, Resnik went back to school for a Master’s and then continued with doctoral studies, completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1977. After leaving a job as a biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of Health, she applied to the space program, despite the fact that she had never exhibited a strong interest in astronomy or space flight.

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly why she made this ambitious and fateful decision. According to her father, quoted in a New York Times article from 1986, “She was looking for a purpose in life.”


Discovery and Challenger

After strenuous preparation, Resnik was accepted as one of NASA’s first female astronauts. In 1984, she spent six days in space as Mission Specialist 3 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, operating the shuttle’s robotic arm and contributing to the successful deployment of communications satellites.


Resnik with other members of the Discovery crew

Resnik with other members of the Discovery crew. Image courtesy of NASA


Two years later, she blasted off from Kennedy Space Center as Mission Specialist 2 aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. According to Carl Glassman, author of the 1979 book Dangerous Lives, Resnik “[didn’t] question the safety of flying in space.” She was convinced that astronauts were trained and prepared for all possible malfunctions: “It does not enter any of our minds that it is dangerous. The world might think it is. We don’t.” This level of confidence is perhaps a bit surprising given the Apollo 13 crisis, but that occurred back in 1970, and aerospace technology had changed significantly since then. After Challenger, only the boldest of astronauts could have made such statements about the safety of space flight.


Challenger crew

Resnik, far right in the back row, poses with the Challenger crew. The other woman is Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher who, as a result of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, would have been the first professional educator in space. Image courtesy of NASA


Challenger’s rockets ignited in the late morning of January 28, 1986. Cold temperatures preceding launch had rendered rubber O-rings incapable of providing an adequate seal. About one minute after takeoff, the seals failed, and high-pressure gas leaks led to uncontrolled shuttle motion. The craft broke apart while traveling at almost twice the speed of sound, and the crew cabin separated—intact—from the rest of the wreckage. It entered free fall and impacted the surface of the ocean at terminal velocity. How long the crew members survived is not known; the exact causes of death are not known.


Her Legacy Endures

The Challenger disaster was a technological failure of epic proportions and a singularly traumatic moment in the history of the United States space program. It brought Judith Resnik’s life to a tragic end, but her historic accomplishments are not forgotten. A Moon crater and an asteroid have been named after her, and she posthumously received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. The IEEE has helped to ensure that she is remembered not only as an astronaut but also as a brilliant electrical engineer: the IEEE AESS Judith A. Resnik Space Award is given to candidates who “have provided outstanding contributions to space engineering.”