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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

An ER Doctor in Space: The Story of Astronaut Rhea Seddon

The first astronaut class to include women candidates, announced in 1978 and self-dubbed the TFNG, or Thirty-Five New Guys, brought six women into the variously welcome glare of public scrutiny. Each of those six was a remarkable individual, but over time we have privileged in our memory those of them whose name is attached to some national or human first.

We remember Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to perform a spacewalk.

We remember Anna Fisher, the first mother in space, Shannon Lucid, the first woman to undertake a long-duration spaceflight, and Judith Resnik, both because she was the first Jewish American in space, and because of her tragic end aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

But what of that sixth astronaut, Dr Rhea Seddon? Lacking asterisk or acronym (though admittedly Sally Ride’s FAWIS does not precisely flow off the tongue), need we relegate her to the faceless ranks of the Alsos, those who were not first at a thing and therefore deserve all of the inattention our worn and tired brains can muster?

The First Six NASA Women Astronauts, Photo by NASA

We need not, and it would be a true shame were we to do so, because Seddon’s story is an incredible one. At one point in her career, she was simultaneously an ER doctor, an astronaut, an astronaut’s spouse (a job in and of itself with unique unpaid duties and responsibilities), and a mother. She went into space three times, two of them on Spacelab missions, was the first woman to hold the position of Technical Assistant to the Director (popularly called The Bubba), served on the Astronaut Selection Board, and worked as both CAPCOM and payload commander.

For somebody who served in so many different capacities during NASA’s space shuttle era, her early story contains little that would hint of the stars as her ultimate life’s destination. Born in 1947 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she was the inheritor of a tradition of Southern gentility that was rapidly being superseded by the educational demands and opportunities of the Space Age. She went to a Catholic elementary school, where an outside teacher was engaged to give the children the instruction they needed to be competitive in this new world that stressed technological competence over classical refinements and impeccable manners.

Science, it turned out, was something that came naturally to Seddon, and by the time she attended Murfreesboro High School she had decided that, if it were at all possible for a woman to do so in 1960s America, she would like to make science her vocation, and after a summer working in the office of Dr Lois Kennedy, she saw the life sciences in particular as her probable specialty. On the advice of a family friend, she decided to apply to Californian universities, and in 1965 arrived at UC Berkeley, a refined Southerner, devoted Christian, former cheerleader, science enthusiast and all round workaholic who was about to touch down directly in the epicentre of the student protest movement of the late 1960s.

It must have been a cultural adjustment, to say the least, but in her memoirs, Seddon relates that she pushed through the turmoil, tear gas and omnipresent newness by putting her head down and ploughing forward with the work at hand. Tonally alone and fending for herself in one of the nation’s most prestigious pre-med programmes, she pushed through her difficulties and self-doubt and found herself working during a summer for the surgical suite at Rutherford County Hospital, where she discovered a deep interest in and fascination for surgery.

After receiving her physiology degree from Berkeley in 1970, she attended the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, one of six women in a class of a hundred. Thence began the usual horrors of an early medical career, the internships, residencies and moonlighting that collectively result in 100-hour working weeks experienced as blurs of intense life-or-death decisions alternating with the steady press of paperwork and the insistent thought, picking at the worn defences of a frazzled mind, ‘Is this what you want your life to be?’

For most of us, psychological survival is predicated on vigorously suppressing that question, because for most of us nothing good could come of it. Either you are living the life you want (fun fact: you are not), or you are not but it is far too late to change and all that has been gained by asking the question is to make you feel miserable about something you are stuck with. Usually, then, humans are good at deflecting that thought, but one day, in the middle of an interminable shift, while sitting in the bare bones doctor’s lounge, a co-worker asked Seddon what she would like to do, if she could do anything with her life, and from seemingly nowhere she replied, An Astronaut. As it happened, that co-worker once worked for NASA himself, and when, in 1977, NASA announced it was looking for the first new crop of astronauts in just under a decade, he noticed and passed the announcement on to Seddon.

This new group was not going to be composed exclusively of test pilots cut from essentially the same military cloth, but it would feature Mission Specialists, whose job was to run various experiments and technical tasks on the space shuttle, a new, reusable space vehicle that would balance original scientific research with paying satellite deployment missions for private industry and the military. These specialists need not be pilots or at the height of possible human fitness, but instead could be simply scientists of good reputation and reasonable fitness working in interesting fields that might tangentially be related to the conquest of space. Though she strongly doubted she would be admitted, Seddon submitted her application and carried on with her life.

Against her own expectations, however, she was selected, and the ER physician from Tennessee joined biochemist Shannon Lucid, engineer Judy Resnik, physician Anna Fisher, astrophysicist Sally Ride, and geologist Kathryn Sullivan in the class of the Thirty-Five New Guys revealed to the world in January 1978. Another member of that class was former Vietnam combat pilot Hoot Gibson, whom Seddon would go on to marry, making Gibson and Seddon the nation’s first married astronaut couple, and effectively doubling each of their workloads in the process as the organisational duties of an astronaut spouse had to be balanced with the all-consuming task of preparing for one’s own next mission.

Sally Ride was an early favourite for the role of FAWIS – a sharp physicist, she was also a disciplined athlete, a natural ace at the use of the shuttle’s mechanical arm, and an expert in the life compartmentalisation that allows for total focus on whatever task is at hand. Resnik was to be the second American woman in space, with Seddon marked to become the third aboard STS-41E (later 41F), set for a mid-1984 launch, which was soon pushed to an August 1984 launch and then to March and ultimately April 1985, shuffled backwards by a series of bad luck occurrences that meant Seddon had to scramble to train and retrain for her flight’s shifting array of missions and priorities.

That flight, STS-51-D, while on the docket it looked to be one of the more routine shuttle missions yet flown, ended in the world’s first unscheduled spacewalk that attempted gamely, by ingenious use of a variety of at-hand materials (including a bone saw that Seddon, the resident surgeon, wielded to produce a necessary satellite-snagging component) to reinitiate a malfunctioning satellite. That flight also featured Seddon employing an onboard echocardiograph to record the world’s first images of a heart grappling with the effects of space flight.

51-D turned out a good deal more exciting than anyone had anticipated, but with the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the subsequent payload reshuffling, it would be another six years until Seddon returned to space. Her next assigned mission, Spacelab Life Sciences 1, featured an array of biological studies that had to take a back seat in the flight rotation to the paying customers who had been waiting two and three years for NASA to place their satellites in promised orbit. In the meantime, Seddon prepared for that mission, served in a number of different administrative capacities, and found an ER unit where she could keep her skills sharp in her ‘spare’ moments.

Launched in 1991 and 1993, the two Spacelab Life Sciences missions studied the effects of weightlessness and space travel on animal physiology. How much harder does the heart need to work to push blood through a body evolutionarily adapted to gravity? What happens to the inner ear and brain as an individual spends a week in a weightless state then returns to Earth? What is the fate of muscle growth and differentiation in a zero G environment? These are important questions to a species looking to expand beyond the comfortable expectations of its home planet, and Seddon played an important role in defining their base parameters.

The arrival of the 1990s, however, and of a political rhetoric that found easy capital in publicly advocating a heavy curtailment of NASA funding, sent the organisation Seddon had joined in a burst of youthful adventure in 1978 into a new era that featured as its lynchpin collaboration with a Russia just emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union. For the foreseeable future, astronauts would be expected to learn Russian, and spend long periods of time training in Russia, prospects which, though perhaps tantalising to a single 20-something, were singularly less so to a 45-year-old married mother of four with 700 hours of spaceflight already under her belt, and horror stories of the operational prerogatives and norms of the Russian space programme in her ears. The Spacelab missions were concluded by 1995, with no plans for extensive science experimentation aboard the International Space Station for at least a decade thereafter. Taken in total, the universe seemed to be saying, ‘You have done what you needed to do. It’s all right to move on now.’

Margaret Rhea Seddon retired from NASA in 1997, and devoted herself to the development of her medical career, the writing of her memoirs, the fostering of space education, and the needs of her children and grandchildren. Hers was the first heart the world had ever seen in space, and through two decades of low-paying service to NASA in the name of science and adventure, she showed how much heart, wedded to persistence and brains, can accomplish in our lives, so short as against those of the stars, but so very full when we choose them to be.


Seddon’s memoirs, Go For Orbit: One of America’s First Women Astronauts Finds Her Space (2015) is a treasure trove of space-shuttle-era autobiography that serves as an interesting counterpoint to Kathryn Sullivan’s Handprints on Hubble (2019). Sullivan and Seddon are both hyper-talented, intelligent, and driven individuals but it would be hard to find two books so different in what they choose to focus on in the sharing of their shuttle-era memories. Seddon’s is a story of achieving life balance across multiple talents and priorities, Sullivan’s one of long-term focus on the achieving of specific technical goals, and together they make for a delightful reading experience.

If you'd like to read more about women astronomers and medical figures like this one, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration or History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.


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