December 19, 2014

An Interview with Former Astronaut Rhea Seddon

Rhea Seddon, M.D., has a history of strapping herself into rockets and orbiting the earth in the name of medical science. As I write in She’s Such a Geek and allude to in my poetry collection Heaven Was the Moon, astronauts have been my heroes since Neil Armstrong took those first small steps on the moon, so I’m thrilled to have an interview with Seddon now appearing in 2nd & Church.

Kory Wells and Rhea Seddon

Although Rhea and I live in the same city, I didn't meet her until she enrolled in the MTSU Writer's Loft program, which she talks about in the interview.

I’ve been intrigued with all the buzz surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, so it feels a bit serendipitous that my interview with Seddon, conducted last fall, has been published just as I’m reading Sandberg’s book. I’m about halfway through, and while I’ve had a lot of reactions based on my own experience as a woman working in a male-dominated domain (software development), for now I’ll share only this:

In Sheryl-Sandberg-speak, Rhea Seddon has been leaning in for a long time.

One of the first six women chosen for NASA’s astronaut program in 1978, Seddon found her passion in two Life magazine science articles that she read when she was only 12 or 13. Those articles – about the double helix of DNA and theorizing weightlessness in space – led her to medical school and eventually to apply to NASA.

Seddon is now working on her memoir, a process she talks about in the interview. While her three trips to space represent a fascinating journey that few people on earth have experienced, she acknowledges that her story is also significant as one of the first women in a man’s world – and as a woman who knew she wanted a family as well as her leading-edge career. Here’s a bit of our conversation that didn’t make the 2nd & Church interview due to length:

Rhea Seddon [discussing a mental low point of her astronaut experience]: Training with a small child at home, for the science for my second flight – there was so much of it, and I felt like I was not learning all the things I needed to learn. It’s like med school, more than you can absorb. But I felt torn between my job and my baby. Mentally and physically I felt like I was not doing what I wanted to be able to do – but, you get through it. Do I need to be perfect? Maybe not. Maybe all I can do is the best I can do right now. I think a lot of women have to come to grips with, “I can’t be perfect.”

Kory Wells: It’s interesting you say that, because when I think about your accomplishments, and even consider you – you’re a neat dresser, your living room is so tidy – everything about you would suggest perfectionist – and you’re telling me you’re not?

Seddon: I am, but I had to come to grips with not being. Even in the things I do now – writing my book! – I wish it were going to be perfect, but I have to – at some point in time – say it’s good enough to go.

One of my favorite presents ever, from my daughter - a series of LIFE from July 1969. Seddon and I talk about this time in history and Kennedy's 'audacious goal' for the country.

You get through it.

Good enough to go.

Mantras from an astronaut. I know they apply to my life pursuits: creative writing, my technical/analytical career in software services, juggling that elusive “work-life balance.” How do they apply to yours?

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg credits Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt with “perhaps the best piece of career advice” she’s ever heard: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”

Rhea Seddon was literally offered a seat on the rocket ship. She got on and has no regrets.

What’s the rocket ship you’re waiting on? When you have the chance, will you say yes and get on? Or have you thought about building that rocket yourself?

Read:

  • “Her Amazing Journey: A conversation with doctor and former astronaut Rhea Seddon” in 2nd & Church Issue 3 (click on the issue cover on the right side of the page for free download or paid print/subscription options)
  • An excerpt of my essay “Really Good for a Girl” in She’s Such a Geek on Amazon.com
Watch (because we have to work in a little poetry every chance we get):

 


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