CORNELIUS – “The oceans were blue and green, the deserts so many shades of tan,” former NASA Astronaut Joan Higginbotham told United Way supporters March 14 about her time in space. “There was no pollution to distort the colors; the earth is beautiful.”

Higginbotham was United Way of Central Carolinas’ keynote speaker at its “Shoot for the Moon” appreciation event held at The Penninsula Yacht Club.

 “We’re recognizing our donors and partners as well as local businesses that do campaigns and raise money for us,” Linda Beck, director of the Mooresville / Lake Norman United Way office, said. “This is an incredible community that not only gives of their income, but they give of their time, over and over again.”

Representatives from companies like The Stoner Group and Ingersoll Rand along with local leaders such as Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell and Mooresville Town Manager Erskine Smith mingled on a heated deck overlooking a lakefront sunset before moving inside to hear Higginbotham speak.

After 20 years with NASA, Higginbotham appreciates the opportunity to serve her country and community in a different way through her job as director of community relations at Lowe’s Corporate.

“Lowe’s is a partner in the campaign, so it was a natural fit that one of our own would speak tonight,” Beck said.  

United Way of Central Carolinas raised just over $21.2 million during its 2012 campaign, distributing $925,000 to 15 Lake Norman social service agencies including the Ada Jenkins Center, Barium Springs, the Mooresville/Lake Norman Christian Mission and United Family Services.

Shannon Young, vice president of donor relations for United Way of Central Carolinas, said that money helps almost 36,000 clients pay for their groceries and utilities as well as provides disaster emergency and child abuse prevention services for the area.

A hush fell over the room as she introduced Higginbotham, and guests got their first glimpse of the petite, 5'3" woman.

Higginbotham explained how an internship with IBM in Binghamton, N.Y. during her undergraduate years at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. led to employment at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a payload electrical engineer in 1987. 

“I got to see the launch pad,” she said. “It was like Star Wars. I said, ‘You’re serious? You want me to work on this? I had to go!”

For nine years, she worked on shuttles’ electrical systems and participated in 53 space shuttle launches including those for Atlantis, Discovery, Columbia and Endeavor.

Eventually, the lure of floating in space cast its spell on her, and she interviewed at Johnson Space Center in Houston to be an astronaut. Out of over 6,000 applications, Higginbotham said, only 122 people were interviewed and after months of medical, psychological and even FBI background checks, 15 were selected.

She said the interview process was intimidating and full of military personnel applying for the same opportunity.

“There was Top Gun guy here and General something over there, and I flew on Delta,” she joked.

Although initially rejected, Higginbotham said it was important to dust herself off and rely on friends to “lift you and kick you in the pants” when stewing time was over.

After receiving a second masters degree in space systems from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1996, she reapplied and was accepted as an astronaut.

“I don’t like being told that I can’t accomplish something,” she said. “Don’t let a setback keep you back.”

Higginbotham became the third African-American woman in space in December 2006 on the STS-116-Discovery’s 13-day mission.

After over 3,000 hours spent playing simulated video games to work a robotic arm that the mission would bring to the International Space Station, she was ready for take off.

It took eight and a half minutes to reach space, and when her crew did, she hit the ceiling due to lack of gravity and giggled. But it wasn’t until the second day that her commander ordered her to strap in and look out the window.

“I was looking at the top of the curvature of Earth, and then the sun burst over it. It just warmed me in the window,” she said.

The shuttle moved at 16,600 miles per hour and revolved around the Earth once every 90 minutes, meaning the crew saw 16 sunrises and sunsets per day.

One of the hardest tasks to master in space was putting in contact lenses, which took Higginbotham an hour on the first attempt.

Once they finally were affixed to her eyes, she recalled seeing the Earth’s atmosphere, which looked only one-eighth of an inch thick and thinking about “the insignificance of us as humans. This is the only thing keeping us from extinction.”

Philosophical thoughts soon gave way to practical matters.

“We could see the space station from a long way off, like a distant star,” she said. “It was huge, full of a million moving parts and a work of art.”

Aboard Discovery, Higginbotham’s main task involved operating the space station remote manipulator system, but she was also surprised by the cultural education she gleaned from the ultimate abroad experience.

Between the flight crew and members of the International Space Station, Higginbotham said numerous nationalities were represented, including Russian, Korean, Swedish, British, Indian, Spanish and German.

“You could see smoke over the Middle East when we flew over it, and I thought, ‘someone is bombing their neighbors,” she recalled. “Here we were in this sardine can, speaking 11 languages, and we can get along. Why do you have to kill your neighbor? Why can’t you walk one way and he walk the other?”

After being reacquainted to Earth’s gravity, Higginbotham lost an inch of growth she’d gained and had to keep her head in proper alignment to prevent fainting. A brief loss of depth perception also meant she couldn’t drive for three days.  

Higginbotham knew that NASA’s shuttles were retiring, and her astronaut days were numbered.

“I could stay with NASA when there’s no vehicle to fly on or reinvent myself,” she said. “I knew that nothing could top (space). My new calling was to give back.”

Childhood years spent in the Girl Scouts and tutoring others encouraged her to pursue a post-astronaut life of service, and she received a job with Marathon Oil Corporation, working on a project to control malaria in Equatorial Guinea.

Since October 2011, she’s been at Lowe’s, overseeing programs including Toolbox for Education, which has donated almost $30 million to public schools since 2006. She was inspired to find job in the Lake Norman region upon getting engaged since her now-husband is a Charlotte native. 

Her awards are numerous, including an Commendation of Merit for Service to the Department of Defense, but a framed thank you note from students at Ada Jenkin’s LEARNworks program elicited the largest smile of the night.

When a mother in the audience asked Higginbotham about how to encourage her own 14-year old daughter to continue her math and science studies because “the sky’s the limit,” Higginbotham gently corrected her, “No, the sky is no longer the limit.”

Want to go?
Higginbotham, along with five others, will be inducted into the Women’s History Hall of Fame on March 22 at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St., Charlotte. Tickets are $15 and must be purchased in advance. The event runs 5:30-7 p.m. 
Details: Annie Gillespie at amg68@windstream.net or 704-454-5292.