Challenger astronaut Resnik's legacy continues to inspire

Elizabeth Behrman
| Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Judith Resnik is not forgotten at Carnegie Mellon University.

A monument honoring her life stands near Hamerschlag Hall on campus. The university promotes Resnik House, the residence hall named for her, as a hub for student leaders.

“She's a name at Carnegie Mellon,” Angel Jordan, professor emeritus and Resnik's former adviser at the university, said this week.

Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion, which claimed the life of Resnik and six other astronauts seconds after they launched on Jan. 28, 1986, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Resnik died during what became a national tragedy and a pivotal moment in the NASA shuttle program, but many say she is remembered more for the legacy she left.

“Now it's a little more common for women to be in the sciences, but there's definitely still some imbalance, and I think she serves as an inspiration in that sense,” said Katy McKeough, a Carnegie Mellon alumna and the 2015 recipient of the university's annual Judith A. Resnik Award.

The award is given to a female student graduating with a degree in engineering or another science, according to the university website. McKeough, 23, double-majored in physics and statistics and is pursuing a doctorate in statistics at Harvard University.

Although she left Carnegie Mellon more than four decades ago, Resnik's name is recognized on campus, McKeough said.

She was “flattered” to receive the award last year because Resnik is known as someone who pushed boundaries.

“It made me think I have some really big shoes to fill,” McKeough said.

Resnik was born on April 5, 1949, in Akron, Ohio. She received a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon in 1970 before taking a job as a design engineer with the RCA Corp. She later obtained a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland and worked as a biomedical engineer at the National Institutes of Health.

Jordan encouraged her to apply for the NASA astronaut program in 1978.

“The rest is history,” he said. “She became very successful.”

Resnik became the second American woman in space — after Sally Ride — as a member of the crew on the maiden flight of the Discovery orbiter, according to NASA.

But she always wanted people to focus on her work, not her gender, said friend and fellow astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. She didn't have to kick down any doors at NASA because the space agency was “ahead of the curve” in that area.

Dunbar and Resnik interviewed with NASA at the same time and became friends, Dunbar said.

“She was very bright, very smart,” said Dunbar, a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University. “She was a fun person to be around.”

In 1992, Dunbar was the recipient of the Society of Women Engineers Resnik Challenger Medal, which the organization gives to women who have made contributions to space exploration. The organization also provides the Judith Resnik Memorial Scholarship to women pursuing degrees in engineering or computer science.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers offers the Judith A. Resnik Award to both male and female scientists, Dunbar said.

“She touched people around her. That's why you have the scholarships and you have the recognition,” Dunbar said. “You want to recognize people that can inspire.”

Resnik might be a little embarrassed by all the attention and honors that have been heaped on her in the past 30 years, Dunbar said, but she would be proud of any student who worked hard and became an engineer or space explorer.

“I think she'd be very disappointed if we gave up on human space flight exploration,” Dunbar said.

So would the other Challenger astronauts.

“We shouldn't remember just the tragedy. We should remember why they were living the life they were,” Dunbar said. “It's about that investment in the future.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or Lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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