Rocket Woman: Anna Lee Fisher

Anna Lee Fisher in NASA uniform
Anna Lee Fisher (NASA)

Today marks the birthday of Anna Lee Fisher, an accomplished astronaut who has contributed over 30 years of work to NASA. Born August 24, 1949, Fisher was one of the United States’ first female astronauts. She still works in the space program today.

As a child, Fisher’s family moved often because her father was in the military. She describes her younger self as “kind of shy” and says that she was “always interested in science and math.” When Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Fisher was listening. That day, she knew she wanted to become an astronaut.

It was my dream job,” Fisher says. “It’s what I always had wanted to do since I was twelve years old and listened to Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight, and it just seemed like a dream that wasn’t going to be possible because there weren’t a lot of women astronauts.”

Despite her love of space, Fisher never became interested in science fiction, saying that she “only liked to read books that had a female lead character. There weren’t a lot of books with female lead characters that were in science fiction.”

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The United States’ first female astronauts (from left): Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride (Great Images in NASA)

The first person in her family to attend college, Fisher earned a BS in Chemistry (’71) from UCLA. She followed up with an MD (’76) from the same school and then spent a grueling year practicing emergency medicine in Los Angeles. When the opportunity came to apply to NASA, she jumped. She mailed her application just one day before the deadline.

NASA accepted her in 1978 and placed her in Astronaut Group 8. There she became one of the US’s first female astronaut candidates, alongside Sally Ride, Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, and Judith Resnik (who was also the first Jewish American in space). Group 8 also included Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space, and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American in space.

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From left: Ride, Resnik, Fisher, Sullivan, and Seddon relax between water survival training exercises (Great Images in NASA)

After completing an initial year of training, Fisher worked on NASA projects from shuttle hardware to flight monitoring software. But while she waited for a spaceflight assignment, another dream kept Fisher’s feet on the ground: she wanted children. Despite the uncertainty of waiting for an assignment, she and her then-husband Bill Fisher—also an astronaut—decided to go ahead with their plans to start a family.

She kept her pregnancy hidden as long as possible to avoid missing time at work: “I’m kind of small, and I wore my flight suit a lot. I don’t think people really knew I was pregnant. So I was flying T-38s up until about I was probably four, four and a half months pregnant.”

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Anna Fisher (right) and Sally Ride run tests for Ride’s mission STS-7 aboard Challenger (NASA, Human Spaceflight Gallery)

In the end, Fisher’s capabilities outweighed her pregnancy. Her superiors handed down her assignment in July 1983. She gave birth to her daughter Kristin that July 29th, a Friday, and showed up to a Monday morning meeting.

“I’m probably the only person who’s been assigned to their flight about two weeks before they deliver,” Fisher said. “I doubt that’s probably ever happened in the history of the space program since, which I thought was really neat that he showed that confidence in me.”

One year later, Fisher reached the stars.

Mission STS 51-A, which was to be her first and only space mission, launched on November 8th, 1984. The Discovery launched Fisher through the atmosphere alongside Commander Frederick Hauck, David Walker, Joseph Allen IV, and Dale Gardener. The team’s mission: retrieve two incorrectly orbiting communications satellites and replace them with two new ones.

“This was the Anik [D2] satellite that I was the lead for that we launched for the Canadian government, and it’s still up there functioning,” she said in 2012. It remains true as of this writing.

With both new satellites deployed and the old ones retrieved, the mission ended in success. The Discovery returned to earth on November 16th. In those eight days, Fisher—the first mother and sixth woman in space—experienced our world in a way most of humankind will only ever dream of.

“In one second you go from three g’s to zero-g,” she says of the “amazing” experience of weightlessness. Returning to gravity’s mercy left her less elated: “I felt like an 800 pound gorilla.”

Another spaceflight waited on the horizon in 1986, but the sun had set on Fisher’s time in space. Just five months before her mission’s launch date, the Challenger came crashing down over the Atlantic Ocean and took the next two and a half years of NASA’s flight schedule with it.

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The crew of canceled mission STS-61-H, from left: Michael Coats, John Blaha, Anna Fisher, Robert Springer, and James Buchli (NASA)

Though she never left orbit again, Fisher has remained at NASA to this day, with the exception of a six year break to raise her family in the early 90s. She has worked on development for the International Space Station and as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control.

She currently works on display systems for Orion, the spacecraft NASA hopes will bring humans to Mars.

 

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