Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Astronaut Judy Resnik was killed in the 1986 Challenger Disaster.
Judith Resnik was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1949. At a young age, Resnik displayed dedication to her studies, especially the fields of science and math. She attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Resnik also attended the University of Maryland and received a master's degree and a Ph. D. She worked at the Radio Corporation of America, National Institutes of Health, and Xerox Corporation. While working at NASA, Resnik became the second American woman to orbit the Earth during the mission of Discovery. Resnik was killed during the explosion after the launch of Challenger on January 28, 1986.
Judith Arlene Resnik, the second American woman and second Jewish person in space, was born on April 5, 1949, in Akron, Ohio. Her parents were Dr. Marvin Resnik, an optometrist, and Sarah Resnik Belfer, a former legal secretary. Judy Resnik had a brother named Charles Resnik, now a radiologist and M.D., who was four years younger.
By the time Resnik entered school at Fairlawn Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, she could read and do math. She skipped kindergarten and went straight to the first grade. Resnik and her father always had a very close relationship. Marvin Resnik instructed his daughter in her first electrical work, and taught her to build simple machines. He had special nicknames for his daughter such as "K'tanah," which means "Little One" in Hebrew. Resnik's relationship with her mother was not as intimate. Sarah Belfer believed in discipline, organization, and strict schedules. She taught her daughter piano, typing, and cooking, but was never as affectionate as her husband.
The young Resnik was a Cleveland Indians fan, an avid Nancy Drew mystery reader, a quick typist, and a budding pianist and singer. Her music teachers described her as a focused student who knew how to use her time wisely. Jewish culture was a very important part of Resnik's childhood. Resnik's Sunday school teachers remembered her as a student who was more serious than others but friendly and warm.
Judy Resnik graduated Harvey S. Firestone High School as valedictorian of the class of '66. She was involved in the chemistry, math, and French clubs; National Honor Society; and class week committee. Her involvement in extracurricular activities was in part a result of school providing a safe haven from her parents' arguments.
When Resnik was 17, her parents were divorced. She was intended to live with her mother, but she transferred custody to her father in domestic court. Soon after, Marvin Resnik married Betty Roduner, the aunt of Judy's childhood friend. Roduner's twin daughters, Linda and Sandy, were nine years older than Resnik, but the three women became close.
Resnik considered becoming a classical pianist, but ultimately decided to pursue her interests in math and science at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. She took an active role in campus organizations at school. She was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, and became part of the engineering department's advisory committee, helping younger students adjust to college life. Upon graduation, she was one of the top five students in her major. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.
In 1970, Resnik married Michael Oldak, an engineer she had met at Carnegie Mellon. They rented an apartment in New Jersey and bought a Steinway piano with their wedding gift money. The two worked together at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA); Resnik was part of the missile and surface radar division. Her work included development of circuit designs for radar systems, and space-related projects. Resnik began taking night classes at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, working toward a master's degree.
In 1971, Michael Oldak was accepted to Georgetown University in Washington D. C. for law, and the couple moved to Washington. Resnik transferred to the Springfield, Virginia, RCA office, where she received a Graduate Study Program Award from RCA. She received her master's degree from the University of Maryland, and entered a doctoral program there. Robert Newcomb, UMD professor of electrical engineering, described Resnik as "a very capable woman, always the first one to work in the morning and always the most industrious."
During her studies, Resnik left RCA and became as a biomedical engineer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. There, she worked in the Neurophysiology Laboratory combining her skills of engineering with medicine.
Resnik and Oldak divorced in 1975. According to Resnik's close friend Connie Knapp, Oldak wanted children but Resnik did not. Despite the separation, the two remained friends.
Resnik received her Ph. D. in 1977 from the University of Maryland. She moved to Redondo Beach, California, to work at the nearby Xerox Corporationa as a senior systems engineer in product development.
Around this time, NASA began focusing its recruitment on minorities and women. After a recruitment notice piqued her interest, Resnik quickly became immersed with the idea of becoming an astronaut. She began a strict diet and exercise regimen and obtained her pilot's certificate, receiving near-perfect scores on her pilot exams. She even tracked down Senator John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the Earth, and asked him what qualities NASA looked for in its recruits.
In January 1978, Dr. Judy Resnik and four other women were accepted by NASA as the new astronaut candidates. Resnik was only 28 years old. She left the Xerox Corporation and moved to Houston, Texas, to begin training and evaluations at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Resnik enjoyed the serious atmosphere of the Space Center. It was there that she received the nickname "J.R.," which would stick with her for the rest of her life.
In 1983, Sally Ride became the first female to orbit the earth. Though it had been expected that Resnik would receive this honor, she didn't seem to mind. Later, when she was publicly noticed as the first Jewish American to go into space, she explained to her father that such titles didn't matter to her: "I don't want to be a Jewish astronaut, I just want to be an astronaut, period." Resnik's least favorite part of astronaut life was dealing with the public. She was treated like a celebrity, but was reluctant to give personal interviews, saying that they were too intrusive.
After almost six years of training, Resnik was offered the position of mission specialist aboard the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Discovery. She would be one of a six (five of whom going into space for their first times) in a disparate group nicknamed the "Zoo Crew."
Only the third orbiter in the United States space shuttle program, the Discovery encountered problems before liftoff. On June 26, 1984, a fuel valve malfunctioned and sparked a fire. The fire was immediately put out, drenching the crew members. No one was harmed, but it was the first aborted launch of any shuttle. Due to the detection of more problems, the mission was delayed two months.
On August 30, 1984, the Discovery lifted off successfully. The main objectives for the voyage were to deploy three satellites and test the solar sail. Resnik used the mechanical arm to raise and lower the sail throughout the mission in order to learn how the 102-foot apparatus handled in space. The crew also took photographs with an IMAX motion picture camera and performed crystal growth experiments. The crew earned the nickname "Icebusters," because they had to clear dangerous ice particles that formed on the side of the space shuttle using the mechanical arm. Despite the tough work, Resnik enjoyed her first mission. She was photographed by the television cameras on board holding up a "Hi, Dad" sign and grinning.
After 96 orbits around the Earth, the Discovery crew completed its mission. Resnik had logged 144 hours and 57 minutes in space, and was now considered a veteran astronaut. She told a crowd after returning home that she wanted to become a career astronaut and stay "as long as NASA wants me."
Henry Hartsfield, the commander of the Discovery mission, described Resnik as "an astronaut's astronaut... not satisfied with second best." Discovery's pilot, Michael Coats, explained that "she was headstrong, and she always had to get her two bits in. But when she'd be all done arguing, she'd just smile and that'd be it... In a lot of ways, she was an ideal astronaut." In 1984, Resnik was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal of Honor, the highest award given by NASA.
By 1986, Resnik was awaiting her next mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The Challenger launch, the?ö 25th shuttle launch in the United States, was noted for its diverse seven-person crew, including an African American, a Japanese American, and the first schoolteacher to go into space, Christa McAuliffe.
The main objective of the mission was to launch a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite into space, which could improve communications for future space shuttles. Resnik, again mission specialist, was assigned use the mechanical arm to install the satellite, and to track and photograph Halley's Comet, which was approaching earth.
The Challenger was scheduled to launch in January 1986. Lift-off was originally slated for January 24, but was delayed for several days due to a series of disruptions and windy weather. Tuesday morning, January 28, the shuttle was ready. It was 27 degrees Fahrenheit, unusually cold for Florida and one degree below the designated minimum temperature for launch. Engineers warned that the O-rings in the rocket boosters could become less resilient in cold weather, and could risk leaking explosive gases. NASA administrators, however, dismissed these concerns and decided to continue with the flight. There was also a concern about icicles forming on the launch pad. The NASA ice inspection team carefully went over the shuttle many times, and they decided that the icicles would break away after lift off and would cause no danger to the flight. At 11:38 A.M., the crew was strapped tightly into their seats, and the countdown to lift-off began.
As the Challenger shuttle left the space pad, Mission Control heard Resnik say "All right." 52 seconds into the flight, the engines had reached full power, and everything appeared from the outside to be running normally. The only problem seemed to be windÄü?the Challenger was battling the most violent winds ever encountered on a space shuttle. One minute into the flight, black smoke and an orange plume erupted from the right rocket booster. Unbeknownst to the passengers or mission control in Houston, the booster's O-ring seal had weakened, causing an intense flame to burn through it. This flame seemed under control, and Mission Control told the crew to "go at throttle up," but by 73.2 seconds, the shuttle had begun to break apart. The hydrogen and oxygen tanks crashed together, and the right booster swung on its attachments and struck the body of the shuttle. ?ö Over nine miles in the air, the Challenger rapidly disintegrated. Though findings were inconclusive as to whether the crew lived through the shuttle's initial break-up, no one on board lived through the impact with the water that followed. Judy Resnik died with her six crewmates on January 28, 1986.
According to author Malka Drucker in the book Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes, Resnik once said, "Äü?I think something is only dangerous if you aren't prepared for it, or if you don't have control over it, or if you can't think of how to get yourself out of a problem.'" The Challenger incident was completely out of her control. Even if she were conscious during the rocket's descent into the ocean, there were no escape mechanisms on the shuttle.
A memorial service was held for Judy Resnik on February 3, 1986, in Akron, Ohio. Senator John Glenn spoke to mourners: "as we reflect on Judy's life, and Challenger's last voyage in the days and weeks ahead, let's never forget the last words that came from that spacecraft: Äü?Go at throttle up.' Those are far more than a courageous epitaph. They are America's history. And they will turn tragedy into triumph once again."
Judy Resnik was survived by her father Marvin, her mother Sarah Belfer, grandmother Anna Resnik, her stepmother, Betty Resnik, her brother, Dr. Charles Resnik, and her two stepsisters, Linda Reppert and Sandy Visleck. Resnik was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor after her death.
In tribute to the Challenger crew, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education was founded in April of 1986. The first center opened in Houston, Texas in 1988, and today there are over 50 Challenger Centers in 31 states as well as Canada and the United Kingdom. The Center aims to increase students' interests in mathematics, science, and technology.
Judy Resnik's name is remembered in the titles of learning centers and libraries in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. In 1995, the Akron City Hospital opened the Judith A. Resnik Center for Women's Health. The Akron Board of Education offers two one-thousand dollar scholarships in her honor, to high school students pursuing a career in math, science, or space technology.
Resnik has received similar honors nationwide. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers sponsors an annual Judith A. Resnik Award for exceptional contributions to space engineering. The American Flyers give Judith Resnik scholarships to female pilots. Graduate students at the University of Maryland can receive a Judith Resnik Memorial Fellowship, and Carnegie Mellon University students can apply for the generous Judith Resnik Challenger Scholarship.
And since Resnik herself couldn't be confined to earth, neither could her honors. A star, a lunar crater, a crater on Venus, and an asteroid all bear Judy Resnik's name.
Bernstein, Joanne E., Rose Blue, and Alan Jay Gerber. Judith Resnik: Challenger Astronaut. New York: Lodestar Books, 1990.
Drucker, Malka. Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes. Illus. Elizabeth Rosen. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 83.
Galloway, Barbara. " 'I Just Want to Be an Astronaut...' Judith Resnik Remembered as Brilliant, Strong-Willed." Akron Beacon Journal 29 Jan. 1986: A1.
"In Her Memory." Akron Beacon Journal 22 Jan. 2006: A8.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Two Paths to the Stars: Turnings and Triumphs; Judith Resnik; [Seven Lives/The Last Crew of the Challenger: First of a Three-Part Series]." New York Times 9 Feb. 1986 late ed.: A1.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Astronaut Bio: Judith A. Resnik (Ph. D.)." Biographical Data. Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Dec. 2003. 17 Feb. 2010.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Remarks of Senator John Glenn Memorial Service for Judith Resnik Firestone High School, Akron, Ohio." Glenn Research Center. NASA, 3 Feb. 1986. 27 Mar. 2010.
Offringa, Karen. Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Groundworks Interactive, 17 Feb. 2010.
Schackner, Bill. "Having Assorted Talents Proves to Be Beneficial." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 25 Oct. 2006: EG15.
Taylor, Kathie L. "Memories of Astronaut Carried to a New Home." The Tribune 6 Nov. 1987: B1.
"The Shuttle Explosion; The Seven Who Perished in the Explosion of the Challenger." New York Times 29 Jan. 1986 late ed.: A6.