Rhea Seddon: From ‘Southern Belle’ to Space Explorer
“If you can see it, you can be it.”
The popular motivational slogan is one of Rhea Seddon’s favorite expressions. To Seddon, the gist of that message is that people need role models in order to help develop and realize their dreams.
However, Seddon didn’t have the luxury of a role model when she was preparing for the job for which she is best known. The Murfreesboro native was, along with Sally Ride, among the first handful of women to be accepted as astronauts and fly on one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) space shuttles.
Seddon endured grueling training and flew three space missions, sticking with the space program in the wake of the Challenger shuttle explosion. That would be a remarkable enough achievement, if that’s all Seddon had ever done with her life. But her resume is filled with other notable accomplishments:
She’s been an emergency room doctor. A health care executive. A business efficiency consultant. An author. A motivational speaker.
It’s been a remarkable journey – recounted through interviews and excerpts from her book, Go for Orbit - for someone who as a child expected to “follow in her mother’s footsteps” and grow up to be “a sweet Southern lady.”
‘I Always Knew She Would Do Something Amazing’
Seddon grew up on a quiet street in Murfreesboro during the 1950s, before the growth boom extending outward from Nashville transformed the community into a bustling suburb. Susan Bradford, a friend who has known Seddon since they were three or four years old, remembers the two of them participating in typical childhood activities like softball games, bicycle rides, skating, treehouse building, dance shows and plays.
“A lot of the activity was at Rhea’s instigation,” Bradford said. “She was always thinking of things to do. I spent hours at her home (and) we never watched television. Most of our adventures were outside.”
During elementary school, Seddon remembers watching news coverage about the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, an event that triggered an increased interest in emphasizing science education at schools in the United States. That was one of the earliest events that sparked her interest in becoming an astronaut.
Seddon attended a Catholic parochial school until her freshman year, when she enrolled at Murfreesboro’s Central High School. Bradford said Seddon knew few people since she hadn’t been attending public schools prior to that time, but it didn’t take long for her to change that.
“Rhea worked hard and became a cheerleader in her freshman year,” Bradford said. “From then on, she knew everyone and everyone knew her.”
Although Seddon may have thought for a time that she would have a life similar to her mother’s, she wasn’t particularly drawn to sewing or other domestic pursuits. Instead, with her father’s encouragement, she developed an interest in science at a young age and was inspired by Dr. Lois Kennedy, a physician and family friend who served as an early role model for Seddon’s initial career path.
In high school, the father of one of her best friends was a doctor, so Seddon frequently spent hours after school at his office, killing time by reading medical publications.
While attending college at the University of California-Berkeley, she spent her summers working as an administrative assistant at the emergency room of a Murfreesboro hospital where her father served as a board member. After getting her undergraduate degree, Seddon enrolled at the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis with dreams of becoming a plastic surgeon.
Bradford said her childhood friend’s climb up the ladder of academic success came as no surprise to her friends.
“Rhea was outgoing and assertive as a child,” Bradford said. “I always knew she would do something amazing as an adult and was not surprised when she chose Berkeley for college or when she was chosen for the first astronaut class to include women.”
‘The Right Place at the Right Time with the Right Credentials’
As she was working her way through medical school, Seddon wasn’t thinking about the possibility of becoming an astronaut. In the early days of the space program, all the astronauts were selected from the ranks of jet fighter pilots, so that option didn’t seem suited to her skills.
Seddon did take flying lessons, but not with the idea that would be a stepping stone toward trips to outer space.
“I thought, ‘you know, I’m going to be a rich plastic surgeon someday,” Seddon recalled. “’Maybe I’ll need to have my own plane.’”
While doing her residency after medical school, Seddon began moonlighting as an emergency room doctor in Memphis and in rural communities in West Tennessee and Mississippi.
When she learned that NASA was expanding its pool of potential astronaut candidates to people with scientific backgrounds, she was intrigued enough to apply.
“I had no idea what they were looking for beyond the technical backgrounds,” Seddon said. But with experience as an emergency room doctor and a researcher in nutrition, she thought she might be a good fit in the program.
It turns out that she was right. More than 8,000 people applied to be part of NASA’s astronaut training class in 1978 – and Seddon was one of about 200 selected to be interviewed. She was the first woman interviewed and one of a handful eventually selected to participate.
“I was in the right place at the right time with the right credentials,” Seddon recalled.
She accepted a position as an astronaut trainee at a salary of $22,000 per year, about half as much as she had been making moonlighting as an emergency room doctor.
Overcoming Obstacles in Training
While Seddon had to beat out thousands of other applicants to be admitted to the astronaut program, that was still comparatively easy to the training that lay ahead.
At 5’2’’, her height could make some tasks – such as climbing the ladders of fighter jets or even fitting into a spacesuit – more difficult for her than they were for taller astronaut trainees. Being unable to fit into a spacesuit was a significant issue during training because the suits were used in underwater exercises to simulate the gravitational conditions in space.
“I was the smallest person who had ever been an astronaut,” Seddon said. “I (also) had to do some things I wouldn’t have chosen to do, like water survival training.”
Water survival training was considered important in case a space shuttle had to make an emergency landing over water after launch or upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Seddon wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer when she began the training, but she spent hours in the pool trying to improve her skills.
That water survival training also included simulated crashes. Seddon described the terror she felt while parasailing to simulate a parachute crash landing over water.
“In those few minutes as I was hoping I didn’t get killed, I was once again wondering if this was really what I wanted to be doing,” Seddon said. “I was raised to be a fine Southern lady whose scariest moment should be whether the soufflé at the dinner party would puff or not.”
There were other intense moments during training. On one occasion, she was on a practice jet flight with fellow astronaut trainee Hoot Gibson when the engines stalled. Gibson was able to get them restarted and guide the jet to a safe landing.
“The beer at the officers’ club tasted especially good that evening,” Seddon recalled of the experience.
Gibson and Seddon eventually developed a bond that went beyond the typical camaraderie astronauts share. Three years after meeting during the training program, they married at Murfreesboro’s Stones River Country Club, feasted on wedding cake topped by an astronaut’s logo and danced at their reception to songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Up, Up and Away.”
During the training, the mental demands on astronauts were as great as the physical ones. While Seddon was well versed in medical knowledge, she and the other astronauts had to learn about many other scientific disciplines – including geology, oceanography, meteorology, photography, computer science and engineering.
Seddon admitted that some of the subjects interested her more than others. She acknowledged that she sometimes nodded off during lectures about tire pressure or hydraulics, then caught up later using the written materials provided.
As one of the first women in the program, she also had to endure the chauvinism prevalent in NASA’s macho fighter pilot culture of the era.
Mike Mullane, another trainee in Seddon’s class, said he and many of his male colleagues had a hard time adjusting to the idea of a coed space program.
Asked about his first impression of Seddon, Mullane said: “As a male sexist pig at the time, I thought, ‘wow, she’s hot!’…Frankly, I thought all of us (men) felt ‘what are they (women) doing here?’ We were dinosaurs in a lot of respects. It was a whole new world when those women walked through the door because there had been none.”
Given the intense scrutiny the women were under from the media and the public, they had much less margin for error than the men in the program did, Mullane said.
“There was a double standard that women could not make a mistake,” Mullane said. “The women had to be absolutely sexless in their performance. They didn’t want anything that indicated they were any different from the men.”
Over time, Mullane said Seddon and the other female astronauts earned the respect of their male colleagues. And Mullane said his own attitudes about women have evolved “180 degrees” from where they had been when he was an astronaut trainee.
Flying High, Yet Staying Grounded
After a year of training, Seddon and her classmates officially became astronauts and began preparing for shuttle missions. Even the astronauts who weren’t scheduled to fly on a particular mission had ground support tasks that they were expected to perform. And they continued to practice skills that they would need when they were selected to fly.
Seddon was pregnant with her first son, Paul, at the time Sally Ride was selected to be the first woman to fly on the shuttle. She reflected on her mixed feelings about that experience in her book.
“It was a bit of a disappointment for my enlarging self, but I had made the decision that I would rather have a child than an early flight assignment,” Seddon said. “In my thirties and figuring on some difficulty getting pregnant, and with the uncertainty of early flight schedules, I didn’t want to wait. I tried to envision what my life would be like at 60 with ether many flights and no children, or children and perhaps no flights. It was an easy decision for me. Anyway, Sally would have to go through the rest of her life as the FAWIS, the First American Woman in Space. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a great deal. Maybe it would be easier to just be one of the first.”
As it turned out, Gibson was selected for a mission before she was. So, while Gibson was away from home during various specialized training assignments, Seddon experienced life not only as an astronaut, but as an astronaut’s spouse.
“With a toddler in tow, there were times when I felt abandoned,” Seddon reflected. “The military wives seemed more accustomed to these sorts of deployments, but the loneliness was new to me.”
Gibson and Seddon were the first astronauts to be married while serving as astronauts. NASA developed an unwritten rule, which applied to them and other astronaut couples who later married, that two spouses couldn’t fly on the same mission. The concern was that if a mission suffered some sort of catastrophic failure, a couple’s children wouldn’t be orphaned.
Despite the challenges, Seddon continued her work as an astronaut, while also moonlighting as a doctor and continuing to grow her family. Seddon recalled one example of how hectic her life had become from around 1983 or 1984: “One minute I was sitting on the side of the tub trying to potty train Paul, and the next I was learning how to read the space shuttle’s electrical wiring schematics.”
Throughout her marriage, Seddon’s conversations with Gibson ranged from work-related talk about shuttle operating systems to mundane details about repaving the driveway, mowing the lawn or signing kids up for soccer practice.
The couple had to spend long periods of time apart when one would be preparing for a mission and the other would be staying home. Also, spouses of astronauts had to play host to family and friends who came to see the shuttle launches. Gibson and Seddon alternated those duties, depending on which one of them was flying.
Gibson and Seddon’s differing aptitudes complemented each other at work. Seddon was able to rely on Gibson for questions about aviation and engineering-related matters, while she was able to help him understand biological sciences better.
Seddon was scheduled to fly on her first mission in August 1984, but seven weeks before the scheduled launch date, the mission was delayed until March 1985 due to a mechanical issue with the shuttle. “Never had I been so shocked, angered and disappointed in my life,” Seddon said about the delay.
After the flight was rescheduled, Seddon’s team did complete its mission, making her the program’s fifth female astronaut to venture into space. It was the first of three shuttle missions in her career.
Seddon described the experience of flying in the shuttle as terrifying at first, then wondrous.
“When the (shuttle’s) boosters light, it’s like a huge explosion,” Seddon said. “There’s so much noise and vibration and acceleration. The first few seconds, you’re just kind of stunned and don’t know what’s going on.”
After the first couple of minutes after launch, the boosters would separate from the shuttle, at which point the ride would become smoother. It would take about eight and a half minutes after the launch to clear the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The last 30 seconds, you begin to feel the G-forces,” Seddon said. “It’s pushing your chest as you’re going upward, upward. The sky goes from blue to black.”
Seddon said the experience of weightlessness after escaping the Earth’s gravitational pull is very difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
“Living and working in weightlessness is a whole different realm,” Seddon said. “You just fly around. I felt like I had been existing in a totally different world.”
Yet weightlessness makes even simple tasks like eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom a challenge. Food and drink have to be properly contained so they don’t float away. Using the bathroom requires a toilet with suction. And sleeping bags need to be tethered to fixed objects in order to prevent the occupants from drifting around the shuttle cabin.
During missions, astronauts have tasks to perform onboard and don’t have an unlimited amount of time to take in the view from the shuttle. On those occasions when she was able to look outside, Seddon describes the experience as somewhat disorienting at first.
Flying in the shuttle is a bit like flying in a hot air balloon, Seddon said, except that sometimes the usual preconceptions about “up” and “down” don’t apply. In orbit, sometimes Earth could be seen “below” the shuttle, but sometimes it also appeared to be “above” the shuttle.
After getting her bearings, Seddon learned to spot landmarks near her Houston home large enough to be visible from space, such as the Astrodome or the runways at Houston’s airport.
She could also see phenomena such as dust clouds in Africa, ship wakes in the ocean and currents passing through the Strait of Gilbraltar. Observations made by astronauts have helped provide a better understanding of weather on Earth.
“Astronauts get to see everything,” Seddon said. That includes the stars, which Seddon said appear much different from outside the filter of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“If you’ve ever been on a mountaintop on a clear night and marveled at the huge number of lights in the sky, then imagine a thousand times more, and you will get an idea of what the stars look like when you’re up above the Earth’s atmosphere. (When I was in space) I hoped that in later years I would be able to conjure up that view in my mind’s eye.”
Seddon said just seeing Earth from the shuttle for the first time had a profound spiritual effect on her:
“While I am a scientist who believes in the scientific truths of the Big Bang, the evolution of the Earth, and the living creatures on it, I am open to the differing beliefs of others. I couldn’t help but believe that the hand of God or some higher being was responsible for creating the beauty before me. I couldn’t pretend to understand the how or why of it, but the greatness and complexity of what appeared touched my soul.”
Flyswatters, Blood Tests and Rat Autopsies
As a doctor, much of the work Seddon did during her three shuttle missions centered on the effects of space travel on the human body. She took blood tests and collected urine samples from herself and her crewmates and studied how lack of gravity could affect the strength of human bones.
On her first mission, she was also called upon to provide assistance when a satellite released from the shuttle failed to launch properly. Studying the satellite, NASA’s engineers concluded that the problem might have been a switch that wasn’t in the proper position.
Since Seddon wasn’t able to participate in space walk training because she was too small to fit into the suits, she had learned how to use the shuttle’s mechanical arm. Using tubes, book binders and duct tape, the crew aboard the shuttle created a makeshift “flyswatter.” It was Seddon’s job to grab the flyswatter with the mechanical arm and move it into position to flip the switch on the satellite floating near the shuttle.
Mullane, the fellow astronaut from Seddon’s training class, said that kind of work is no trivial matter when a mistake could potentially damage a $100 million satellite.
“It required some pretty significant finesse,” Mullane said.
Seddon was able to maneuver the arm into position and flip the switch, but that wasn’t the problem that had caused the satellite to fail to deploy properly.
On her missions, she also conducted numerous medical experiments - exploring, among other things, the effects space flight had on the human heart and fluid distribution within the body. In her final mission, she performed autopsies on rats to determine how space travel affected various parts of their bodies like their inner ears, which are critical in maintaining balance.
One of her most poignant moments came while she was talking to her son Paul’s elementary school class via ham radio while she was in flight. Seddon said she was trying to be careful not to saying anything that would embarrass Paul in front of his classmates.
Seddon played it straight, fielding questions from Paul and his classmates without getting emotional. Then, just as she was preparing to sign off, Paul said: “I love you, Mom. Have a safe trip home.” Seddon said the experience moved her to tears.
Recovering from the Aftermath of the Challenger Explosion
Seddon was in the middle of her career as an astronaut when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all the crew aboard. Nearly 30 years later, Seddon still struggled to talk about the tragedy without choking up.
Seddon described the pre-flight uncertainty among NASA officials about the effect the sub-freezing temperatures on launch day might have on the shuttle’s O-rings. That part was later determined to have failed and caused the explosion. The mission had been delayed several times before for various reasons, including a problem with a side hatch the day before.
Ultimately, despite the uncertainty, a decision was made to proceed with the launch.
“It was just an incredibly horrible event,” Seddon said. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for it. It’s not every day you see seven good friends just blow up.”
Seddon was assigned to various tasks following the disaster, including helping with invitations for the memorial service and examining the equipment recovered from the wreckage.
“I think at first our bosses and our managers just tried to keep us busy,” Seddon said.
While the Challenger’s explosion was a devastating blow to the space program, Seddon said neither she nor her husband considered quitting. In fact, two of Seddon’s three space missions occurred after the Challenger mishap.
“We lost some friends to other jobs,” Seddon said. “We got through it. We had a more realistic view of what might happen.”
Her second flight was in June of 1991, after the birth of her second son Dann and more than five years after the Challenger explosion. During water survival training in a pool in preparation for the mission, she failed to properly open an air valve on her survival suit. Astronauts were required to wear the suits for safety following the Challenger crash.
During the training exercise, Seddon was able to get to the side of the pool and lift the visor on her helmet, which prevented her from passing out. However, she was never really comfortable with the bulky suits that were ill-fitted to her small size.
As she prepared for her second shuttle flight, Seddon had some lingering anxiety after what had happened to the Challenger. To help cope with her fears, she carried on board with her a Methodist hymn that read:
“And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.”
Her second flight went off without incident. However, Seddon had to overcome more adversity while training for her third flight the following year. While practicing an emergency exit on the shuttle’s escape slide, Seddon broke four bones in her left foot.
Although the scheduled launch date was only three months away, Seddon continued to train with her fellow crew members, first in a cast and then in a walking boot. As it turned out, the mission was delayed by a couple of months for other reasons, so Seddon had made a full recovery by launch day.
Seddon said her third mission, in which she conducted numerous experiments on rats while in orbit, may have been her most productive due to the amount of information she and her crewmates were able to collect.
Seddon and Gibson eventually did leave the space program as it was in the process of moving away from shuttle missions and more toward work on the international space station Mir. At the time, Seddon said she felt there was a lack of coherent vision about NASA’s mission.
“It was a chaotic time,” Seddon said. “How could NASA form a forward-looking strategic plan and propose a long term annual budget with ever-changing directives?”
She also wasn’t interested in relocating to Russia, where astronauts lived in relatively primitive conditions, in order to prepare for time on Mir. She said the Russian space program didn’t seem to value efforts to upgrade operating systems and procedures the way their American counterparts did.
“In the coming years, I’d learn that this continuous updating and improvement with its inherent risks was not a trait of the Russian space program,” Seddon said. “In their system, if it worked you kept doing it the same way. In the old Communist system, failure was punished, and the rewards for success were not great. No one was willing to take a risk. Capitalism has its upside.”
Seddon said she also believes the Russians took advantage of their partnership with the United States by stealing money and equipment.
Following her retirement from the space program, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2015. When Gibson, her husband, got the call announcing her induction, Seddon said she was reluctant to take the telephone from him because he seemed so edgy and excited that she thought the call might be bad news.
Seddon said it was an honor that caught her by surprise.
“This was for the spectacular people,” Seddon said. “I was just a worker bee.”
‘Tennessee Belle’ with Technical Expertise
After leaving the space program, Gibson retired from the Navy and took a job as a pilot for Southwest Airlines. The family moved back to Murfreesboro in the mid-1990s.
Seddon went back into the medical profession, taking a job as assistant chief medical officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her responsibilities included finding ways to help the medical center operate more efficiently.
In 2003, she and some business partners formed LifeWings, which was originally introduced as a training program to help health care companies apply best practices developed by other industries, particularly aviation-related businesses. Two years later, LifeWings spun off as an independent business partnership.
Steven Montague, one of Seddon’s partners in LifeWings, said Seddon has a way of bridging the gap between people within an organization who have conflicting points of view.
If, for example, a chief surgeon and hospital CEO are arguing over a particular course of action, Montague said, “she will find a way to acknowledge both their points and focus them on moving forward.”
Montague said Seddon understands how different organizational cultures work, from both her time at NASA and in the health care industry.
“It’s a cultural thing. It’s a respect thing,” Montague said. “She’s a great listener. She’s loyal. She sticks with you through thick and thin.”
While Seddon comes across as well dressed and well mannered, she also demonstrates a vast wealth of knowledge that she has acquired throughout her career.
“She’s a perfect blend of Tennessee belle and technical expertise,” Montague said. “She has friends from all walks of life.”
Seddon has also found time to become active with civic groups in her hometown, including Charity Circle of Murfreesboro, which raises money for various organizations in Rutherford County. She’s also served as a board member for St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital and worked for the hospital’s foundation.
In addition to writing “Go for Orbit,” Seddon has spent part of her post-NASA life as a public speaker. Her topics vary depending on the audience, but she’s particularly interested in motivating young girls to understand that they, too, can overcome obstacles as she did in the pursuit of their dreams.
Seddon notes that she is small in stature and came from a small town, but that didn’t prevent her from becoming a doctor and an astronaut.
“I got to where I wanted to go,” Seddon said. “It took a lot of hard work and keeping on, keeping on.”
“You Don’t Get There Without a Goal”
Seddon is outspoken about many topics, including the state of math and science education in the United States.
“We haven’t made it exciting, number one,” Seddon said. “We haven’t encouraged people to do the hard work in math, science and engineering.”
Seddon said part of the problem is cultural. In some other countries, math and science teachers are highly respected, even revered, members of the community. In the United States, they’re often underappreciated.
As a result, Seddon said, many people who could be excellent math or science teachers instead choose better-paying jobs in the private sector, making it tougher for future generations of children to develop the knowledge and passion to succeed in those disciplines.
Seddon said it’s important for parents to help children set goals for themselves, but also to provide realistic assessments of what they will need to do in order to meet those goals.
“I say to parents: Your kids may surprise you with what they want to do, but that’s fine,” Seddon said.
As for the space program, she predicts a number of changes in the years ahead. Already, private companies are beginning to cultivate “space tourism” – offering civilians opportunities to experience space flight in low Earth orbits.
Seddon compared space tourism to the early days of airplane flight.
“I think we’re in the early stages of the commercialization of space – and I’m all for it,” Seddon said.
In the future, Seddon said she expects space exploration to become more of a partnership balancing the safety NASA offers through the use of operating systems with multiple backups and rigorous training programs, and the operating efficiency private enterprises can offer.
The key will be striking the right balance between safety and cost efficiency in that partnership, she said.
Seddon believes there is life on other planets somewhere in the universe, but isn’t sure what form it might take and how humans would ever find it. She considers a mission to Mars a logical next step in space exploration.
In order to travel to Mars, Seddon said a number of challenges would have to be addressed. Astronauts on such a trip might have to cope with calcium loss in their bones, the effects of space radiation or other as-yet unknown physiological or psychological issues.
Also, a better spacecraft propulsion system would be needed to make such a trip feasible.
“None of those problems is insurmountable,” Seddon said. “The money is the problem. We need to galvanize.”
She believes a mission to Mars might be exactly what’s needed to reinvigorate interest in the space program. Just as was the case during her elementary school years with the launch of Sputnik, Seddon said sometimes it takes a major event to steel people’s resolve and convince them to commit the resources needed to get the job done.
“It’s that sort of excitement that’s needed again,” Seddon said. “You don’t get there without a goal.”