Ad Astra with Astronaut Wendy Lawrence
Wendy Lawrence is a retired NASA astronaut and pilot for the United States Navy. She joined host Sean Mobley for a frank and honest conversation about resilience, finding community, and reflecting on her time in the Navy and at NASA through an LGBTQ+ lens.
Links and episode transcript after the player.
Photo of Wendy Lawrence with fellow "Russian Reject" Scott Parazynski (courtesy of Wendy Lawrence)
Sean Mobley: Hello and welcome to The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. I’m your host Sean Mobley.
Today we’re wrapping up Season 3 of The Flight Deck, where we’ve been spotlighting LGBTQ+ stories in aerospace…and we’ve got an epic season finale. Wendy Lawrence is a retired NASA astronaut and pilot for the United States Navy. She joined me for a frank and honest conversation about resilience, finding community, and reflecting on her time in the Navy and at NASA through an LGBTQ+ lens.
Sean Mobley: Wendy Lawrence, thank you for joining me today on the Flight Deck.
Wendy Lawrence: My pleasure, Sean. Thanks for the opportunity.
SM: Now, you’ve done some work here with the Museum of Flight in the past. You were a pathfinder in one of our recent classes. And you’ve also done an oral history for the museum which has played portions on the podcast here. So, I don’t want to retread some of the questions that you’ve already been asked. But I am always curious, especially when talking with astronauts, like, what are the earliest memories of space or of the Apollo program, or anything like that? What are your early memories?
WL: Well, my answer’s probably a little more in-depth and a little more involved. My dad was a naval aviator. He got his wings in the early fifties. Was flying jets. I wasn’t born yet. But the first squadron he was sent to was out in San Francisco Bay area. And being a newly minted naval aviator without much experience, he was paired with a more experienced aviator. My dad was going to be his wingman. So, my dad was Alan Shepard’s wingman. So, they became good friends. And then once my dad finished that flying tour, he got sent back to Patuxent River which is the, basically a test pilot school for the United States Navy Test Pilot facility, testing facility.
And again, not born yet, but down the street from where my family was living lived John Glenn and his family. So, my dad also became very good friends with John Glenn. When NASA was getting ready to select the Mercury astronauts, they specifically looked for military aviators with test pilot experience. And so, my dad got to participate in that selection process as you know along with John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Unfortunately for my dad, he was disqualified due to a small medical problem. And I don’t remember Alan Shepard launching in space, nor John Glenn, but we certainly talked about those individuals as I was growing up.
Really, for me… I have to be honest and say what I remember first and foremost was Apollo 11. I have no doubt we were watching the missions before that. But it was Apollo 11 that left its mark. Because like millions of people around the world, I was watching at home on our television. And probably like millions of kids around the world at that point, I went, Oh. That really looks like a fun job. I think I want to do that.
And that’s the great thing about being 10 years old, because I had just turned 10, you just dream the dream. You don’t stop to think about, ooh, how do I make it come true? What are all the steps that I need to take? You’re just content to have degree—
SM: And did you surround yourself with other, kind of, space culture growing up? Did you read science fiction, or watch Star Trek, or anything like that?
WL: So, yes. Growing up, the original Star Trek came out. I think my older brother and I watched every one of those very first episodes. And, you know, we were hooked. That was the future we wanted to be a part of. I mean, it was, when you think about it, mid-sixties, and some of the technologies and ideas that they were showing were pretty far-fetched and pretty advanced. So, yeah. I am a William Shatner person. He will always be my Captain Kirk.
SM: Yeah. And he made it into space too. So, you’ve—
WL: And I got to be there at that launch.
WL: I didn’t get a chance to meet him, but it was still a very exciting day for me to see my Captain Kirk get his opportunity to get a few moments of weightlessness.
SM: Was he on the same – I can’t remember if he was on the same flight as Wally Funk, or if that was a different flight.
WL: Different flight.
SM: A Different flight. Were you there for that flight too?
WL: No. No. But I have had the opportunity to meet Wally Funk; quite a character. Amazing accomplishments. Very memorable individual.
SM: [Chuckles] Yeah. I mean, her story is a whole other story that deviates from your own, but. Should do a podcast about her in the future because—
WL: You should.
SM: …we’ve done some on some of the other Mercury 13, but not on her specifically. You know, one thing I admire about… I listened to your oral history in preparation for this conversation. And one thing I really admire about how you speak, and you just did it here too, is you speak with so much confidence that you were going to get to space. You were going to be a pilot. Even though you were kind of growing up in the time when women weren’t necessarily allowed in the service academies. And there had really been women astronauts.
Did you ever consider alternatives? Or were you just, like, I’m going to fly come heck or high water. Nothing’s going to stop me. And that’s just that.
WL: Oh, yeah. You have to consider other alternatives. So, yeah. I applied to civilian universities as I was finishing up high school. But, really, at the end of the day, what did I really want to do? I really, really wanted to be an astronaut. So…
I think the other factor that played into it was I grew up a Navy family. My mom’s dad went to the naval academy. He was a naval aviator. He was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in 1943. So, he was amongst the initial members of the Navy to be stationed at that new base. And then, my dad went to the Naval Academy, was a Navy pilot. So, what did I know growing up? Serving in the Navy, being a pilot. So that was also of interest to me. And I guess you could say that was, kind of, my fallback plan was, well, I’ll go in the Navy ‘cause that’s what we do in my family. And I’ll become a pilot, hopefully. And just make it a career.
SM: I really feel that because I grew up, my dad was career Navy and so was his dad. In fact, my dad was at the Naval Academy for a year when you were there. He was a senior. Is that first year? Or, first class?
SM: When you were a plebe.
SM: He says he never met you, but he knows of you and he knows people who know you. But…
WL: Do you know what company your dad was in?
SM: Oh. I can text him and ask him, but.
WL: I’m just curious because we would call it the other side of the world. There were – the Brigade of Midshipmen, the way the dormitory was arranged was literally split you into two regiments, 1st or 2nd regiment. So, somebody was in the other regiment, they were on the other side of the world. [Chuckles]
SM: Yeah. [Chuckles] He may have been just because that’s just what happens. We were actually just in Annapolis a few weeks ago burying my grandfather. He’s in the columbarium there. It’s always – I know you spent a lot of time in Annapolis. It’s always a great time to go back there and visit. It’s a beautiful city.
WL: Yes, it is.
SM: And so, you went to the United States Naval Academy. You were in one of the early classes of women. When you went, I’m curious what sort of… There have been stereotypes about the type of women who might join the military that have existed for many, many years. Were you aware of any of those stereotypes? And did that inform the way other midshipman, especially the male midshipman treated you and the other women in your class?
WL: So, I was in the second class of women. I always take the opportunity to pay compliment to the women in the class of ’80. What an incredibly difficult situation they found themselves in. I mean, to blaze that trail. You know, their life was not easy. But collectively, that first year, I think they did a great job. Things felt much better, I thought, by the time the women in my class arrived just a year later. I think the predominant stereotype… And I don’t want to use a broad brush here because not every male midshipmen felt this way. In fact, a lot were supportive. Unfortunately, you know, the case right now as you seen the United States, it tends to be the very, very vocal minority that dominates the conversation. And, you know, unfortunately other points of views don’t get heard, don’t get recognized.
But the predominant point of view amongst those very vocal minority was you don’t belong here. Women can’t fight. They shouldn’t be in the military serving. And so, the assumption was we, women, didn’t have what it took to serve in the military. And they wanted us to be gone. Many of us were there because we wanted to serve our country. Many of us were there because we had had a family member who had served in the military. So, we wanted that very same opportunity.
And more than anything, it was, like, just give us an opportunity to show you that we do have what it takes to wear a uniform and give back to our country by wearing that uniform. And so, that was the challenge was to prove to this minority group that we’re just as capable as you are. All we want is the opportunity to show that to you. All right. So, this is what you need to tell your dad.
WL: [Chuckles] Okay. You know, show up, plebe year. Plebe year is just hard for everybody because it’s your transition from civilian to military life. Then, my father shows up to be the superintendent for the next three years. So, when people ask me, ‘What was it like to be a woman in the Naval Academy?’, I have to honestly say to them, I don’t know. That’s a question for the other women that were there because as soon as my dad showed up to be the superintendent, I was in a very, very different category. I was the sup’s kid. So, did I ever do any hijinks? Nope. It was life in a fish bowl. Everybody knew me even though I did not know them. And I knew pretty much the eyes of the brigade were upon me. And I just said, all right. I’m going to do things by the book. I’m just going to keep my head down, work really hard, and I am going to do my best to not draw any unwanted attention to myself because I already have all this unwanted attention on me.
You know, for the vast majority of, you know, even the male midshipmen, life at the Naval Academy is, like, I’m just trying to make it through this place. And, kind of, each day is get up, one step at a time. Challenge of trying to figure out how you’re going to get everything done. So, for me, a lot of times, it’s just like, I’m in survival mode. You know, how am I going to get all the work done?
SM: So at what point in your life did you realize that you might not be straight/ Did you already know that when you were at the Naval Academy?
WL: Nope. That happened much later in my Navy career, so that was not really a factor at all at the Naval Academy.
You know, it’s a very challenging environment. The academic load, as I say to people, yeah, particularly as an engineering student, you have four years to finish. You do not have the option of slowing down. So, if you’ve got 21 credit hours, that’s just the way it’s going to be. And you got to figure out how to manage your time. But, yeah, for me, I felt, you know, survival mode. Just make it through. Focused on graduation.
Also, I should add, it was more difficult for the women because we were in such small numbers. And that was reflective of the numbers of women out in the fleet, in the Navy at the time. Only five women in my class were going to be allowed to select a Navy Pilot slot. Only five women would select a Naval Flight Officer slot. So, that was primarily based on your academic standing. So, there, really, I felt, a lot of pressure that if this is what I want to do, because if this is the path I’m going to take to become an astronaut, I’ve got to get good grades.
SM: Did you find a community of support just in general to pull through this time? Who were the people that you surrounded yourself with?
WL: Yes. And I say this to young kids. To me, this is one of the most important lessons I learned at the Naval Academy is it’s very difficult, in fact, virtually impossible, to do it all on your own. It is very tiring. It takes a lot out of you. You need a support system. So, some way, shape, or form, you’ve got to find that group of people who you can surround yourself with who are going to pick you up when you’re down. They’re going to give you that pep talk when you need it. Who are going to be willing to walk alongside you when you hit those low points.
During my very first summer at the Naval Academy, one of my female classmates came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to start a rowing team for women.’ She had been at the Naval Academy Prep School. One of her good friends there had been recruited to row on the men’s team. She thought, I want to have a women’s team. So, she came up to me. And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I know the sport crew. My high school had a rowing team. Yeah. I’d be interested.’ I got my two roommates. And then, we kind of worked over the summer to gather another, a larger group. That classmate and I went over to the boathouse and we talked to the men’s coach, and said, ‘Can we have a women’s team?’ He said, well, yeah, you can spend the summer. I’ll teach you how to row. But come academic year, if you can recruit enough women to fill basically two boats to take out to practice, I’ll go find you a coach. So, we did. When the class of ’80 came back, we recruited more women. We showed up over at the boathouse. And he went, hm… Okay. [Chuckles] Now I have to deliver on my promise.
WL: He went over to the athletic director who apparently said, ‘Okay, fine. But work them really, really hard and they’ll go away.’ Well, we didn’t go away. And they got us a coach. And we formed a women’s rowing team. And that definitely became my support system. And it became – the athletic teams, I’d say for many midshipmen, become their support system or extra circular activities that they’re involved in, like, Drum and Bugle Corps, or the Glee Club, or the drama club which was called Masqueraders. I mean, some activity like that becomes the group of midshipmen that you then know the best. And that, again, becomes your support system. So, I – you know, trying to make it through the Naval Academy without that, you know, I think that’s almost impossible to make it through by just being on your own.
SM: And rowing, if I’m correct, kind of became a lifelong thing for you. You’ve got other family members who have vessels named after them. But you’ve got two rowing shells named after you.
WL: Yep. Yes. Yeah. [Chuckles] You know, about which I quit – you know, like, you know, usually the Navy names boats after people who are no longer with us, but. [Chuckles] I’ll take this honor. No. I mean, it was a… Not to make light of it, that was… It’s definitely been a highlight for me to be honored in that way, to have a rowing shell named for me. Yeah. That really, really means a lot.
SM: So, you mentioned flight training. Only 10 women total out of your class—
SM: …picked between the two. And you were one of them. And you went to helicopter—
WL: I did. Yes.
SM: Tell me more about that.
WL: When you’re a senior at the Naval Academy, you’re called a midshipman first class. So, my midshipman first class cruise was on the USS Lexington which at the time was the training aircraft carrier for the Navy. So, I went down to Pensacola. Periodically, the Lexington would go over to Corpus Christi so those in the jet pipeline could practice carrier landings. And while we were underway, I had an opportunity to fly onboard the H-46 helicopter which was used for search and rescue plane guard. And it just so happened, the senior pilot was a Naval Academy grad. And he knew there were midshipmen on board. He’s, like, ‘Ah, come fly with me.’ I’m, like, oh, this will be fun. And the thing that just wowed me, and just was, like, okay, this is it. This is what I want to do. Is he took the helicopter, oh, probably about 400 yards away from the ship. And the great thing about the H-46 is it had tandem rotors on top. So now, you have the Army Chinook, the H-47. The H-46 was a smaller version of that.
But those two rotors on top meant you didn’t have to care about where the wind was coming from. You were not restricted like you are in a tail-rotor aircraft. So, he turns the helicopter sideways. We’re far enough away that we can see the entire carrier. And he’s matched the speed of the carrier. So, we’re probably flying sideways at about 20-25 knots. And I thought, this is amazing. This is so much fun. And that’s when I fell in love with helicopters. And I ended up on my first flying tour in the Navy flying the H-46.
SM: You have a very unique and interesting path too because you were a helicopter pilot, but also had, kind of, this academic career. You studied oceanography or ocean geology. You can correct me there. [Chuckles]
WL: So… Yeah. I went in the helicopter community because at that point in time, I felt it offered the best career path for women. The Navy had not figured out what to do with women who were flying jets at that point in time. It was just way too early to integrate them into the operational squadrons. Helicopter community, there were more opportunities. So, that was part of my decision also to go helicopters.
But because I opted to fly helicopters and was not going to get jet aircraft experience, knowing enough about the backgrounds required to become a shuttle astronaut. I knew that I really needed to go get my master’s degree. And I had studied ocean engineering at the Naval Academy. And about half way through my first flying tour, I got a call from the naval officer who was responsible for deciding where I was going to go next. That person was called your detailer.
And he said, ‘Hey, the secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, has just started this new program at MIT in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And we’re looking for six naval officers to send there to get their master’s, but you need to have a background in either oceanography or ocean engineering.’ And then the detailer says, ‘And I see here, you studied ocean engineering at the Naval Academy. So, I was curious. Are you interested in applying for the program?’ And I’m thinking to myself, okay, the Navy is offering me an opportunity to go to MIT in Woods Hole to get my master’s, which they will pay for. Hm… That would look good, I think, in the eyes of NASA.
So, it didn’t work out for me to do it the first year because I was still midway through my first flying tour and getting ready to deploy out on a ship. And I said, how about the follow-on year? Would that work? He said, oh, yeah, absolutely. Because this is, you know, the program’s not going away. Something – we’ll need to fill that second year too. So, the deal was, you know, I had to take the GRE. And if my score was good enough and MIT accepted me, the Navy would send me. So, I did a lot of studying, got accepted by MIT, and off I went to get my master’s. And fortunately, for me, I had a thesis advisor who also did some research for the Navy, and came up with a research program for me that allowed me to actually publish an article in an academic journal which, I think, was one of the things that helped me stand out in the eyes of NASA; that, here, I was a military officer, but I also had published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
SM: Yeah. The early officers, like you said, they were just looking for test pilots. But by the time the shuttle came around, the qualifications were shifting quite a bit in some ways.
WL: Yeah. Because you had a different category of astronauts now, basically. Non-pilot astronauts. And so, the academic background was much more important now.
SM: And you’d talked at length about your actual, what you did with your helicopter service in the oral history. So, I’ll just encourage people. It’s free at the Museum of Flight’s website. I’ll include a link in the show notes. If you want to learn a bit more about that, head over to the show notes and you can listen to an hour conversation all about that. [Chuckles]
I’m curious. In 20th century military history, it’s just filled with stories of these underground networks that kind of sprung up amongst LGBT people where they just kind of found each other and built communities of support. You said that you started understanding your identity of it later in your Navy career. Were you aware of any of these communities? Did you find other folks like that to just, kind of, support and know each other and be friends with?
WL: No, not at the time. When you get to your first squadron, there are a lot of milestones that you need to complete. When I got to my squadron, there were three women there to be pilots. I was the fifth who had ever been assigned to that squadron. So again, very much life in the minority. You know, you feel the pressure of everybody’s going to evaluate you. And it’s important for you to be the best pilot that you can possibly be. So, you know, I had to do my initial qualification to be what was called a helicopter second pilot. And then it was expected that you would get further qualifications and become a helicopter aircraft commander. And then eventually, you know, a test pilot, a maintenance test pilot for the squadron.
So, for me, that first flying tour was almost like being back at the Naval Academy. There was a lot of studying, a lot of qualifications, schools to go to. And I just remember being really, really busy. And then, I had great commanding officers who looked at the women and said, you’re here on sea duty. I intend to send you out to sea. So, I’m going to find commanding officers of the ships that we deploy on who will be willing to have women on board.
So, we went off on some of these ships and we were the only women on board because we were blazing that trail. So, for me, that first flying tour was really, really busy studying, doing all the work-ups you had to do to get ready to deploy. I just don’t remember having a lot of free time. And the free time I did have, I was periodically going back up to the Naval Academy. Or I was also… I run marathons, a marathon when I was in the academy. So, I think I was still doing some marathon training to do Marine Corps Marathon.
SM: Is that at Quantico?
WL: No. Marine Corps Marathon’s around DC. It’s a nice tour of the monuments over 26 grueling miles. [Chuckles]
SM: [Chuckles] So you just said, you returned to the Naval Academy later as an instructor, as a professor. In what ways had the environment there changed for women? What year did you return?
WL: I got back there in, I think, October of 1990. And that was, kind of, for two reasons; one, when the Navy goes and sends you to get a master’s degree, they want you to pay them back. You owe them more time. So, one of the ways the Navy said you can pay us back is you can go to the Naval Academy to teach. I’d like that. Be happy to do that. There was also another reason why they wanted to send me back. There were still challenges of fully integrating the women into the Brigade of Midshipmen. And so, they were looking for women from the very first class as you graduated to go back now as officers and basically show the Brigade of Midshipmen, like, hey, you know, look at what the women have already done.
So, I was desirable in that I had my wings of gold. I was a naval aviator. So, I could go back to the midshipmen and they could see somebody who had a great deal of operational experience. So I was, kind of, dual-hatted in that regard, I guess you could say. Two purposes for me being back there.
I think in general, things were getting better. There was the women more widely accepted. There were more opportunities for the women, more sports teams for them to be a part of. But, still, there were challenges which, again, was one of the reasons why I was back there. Fast-forwarding to now, it is a completely different environment. I am just so impressed by not just the young women, but the young men who are there now. They’re just, they’re poised. They’re confident. They’re articulate. Very clear idea of what they want to do. You know, they understand why they’re at the Naval Academy, the commitment that’s going to be required of them. They’re there because they want to be, because they want to give back to this country. So, it’s always very motivating to go back and see, and spend some time with the Brigade of Midshipmen right now.
SM: Let’s talk about your NASA career for a little bit then. I’ve heard about a lot of astronauts who applied multiple times to become an astronaut and didn’t make it the first time. How many times did you apply before you were accepted into the program?
WL: One. But I also waited until I thought I had the qualifications that would make for a competitive application. I mean, I know of several of my classmates who just, as soon as they could apply, they did, even though they knew it was very unlikely that they would get selected. But they just, you know, like, what does it hurt? I’ll throw the application in.
I took a different approach and said, well, I don’t want to apply until I have my master’s ‘cause I knew without that I was really, I wasn’t going to get selected. So, part of that was intentional on my part.
SM: Extremely strategic it sounds like. I’m curious in the wider sense though, I’m sure you’ve experienced failures over the course of your career. How have you pushed past them? How do you overcome that failure and work towards ultimate success?
WL: You know, I think you have to realize first and foremost, failure’s just a part of life. You know? Everybody can – you know, they want to openly talk about it or not, everybody has experienced a situation where they just did not perform the way that they wanted to. And then it boils down to, okay, what am I going to do next? How am I going to respond to this situation? And again, it’s part of life. So, don’t – yeah. You can be upset about it and feel some shame, but that can’t paralyze you. Otherwise, you know, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? Because you still have a lot of it left to live. So, for me, it was a, you know, situation of, all right, get up, brush yourself off, and figure out how to move forward again.
And the other critical thing I think it’s important for people to realize, and I stress this a lot to young kids, I don’t care what you hear people say. And I’m not going to name any names. I’ll be good in this interview. But there are too many people in the country right now who say, oh, I did it all on my own. They – no. Sorry. You haven’t. Because growing up in the United States, that means you get to grow up in a situation where you have clean air, you have clean water, you pretty much have food security. Somebody is supplying you with electricity. Now we have the internet that you can take advantage of. We have a public school system. So, you’re not doing it all on your own. You’re not paving the roads that you’re driving on. So that is really a very false narrative that you have to do it all on your own.
That said, if you want to be successful in life, you have to be able to ask for help. There’s no stigma associated with that. And that’s what I really want to drive home to young kids is there’s no stigma associated with asking for help. And then I give them an example. Going back to MIT after five years out of a classroom, that was not easy. I had to learn how to be a student again. And I appreciated the way the Navy structured the program. I got to MIT over the summer semester. And I only had to take one classes, Calculus for Engineers. Very first test I took, I failed badly. And I was not close at all to passing. So, there’s the moment where you, okay, what do I do next? Like, ah, I’m going to go to the teaching assistant. And teaching assistant and I are going to become best buddies because I’m going to spend, I don’t care how many hours a day with you until I understand this information well enough that I can pass the class. [Chuckles] That’s what I did the rest of the semester. It’s, like, okay. Every day, I’m going to go get extra instruction. I’m going to get help because I cannot do this all on my own. And if I hadn’t done that and I wouldn’t have passed that class, and I wouldn’t have passed, you know, the rest of the classes in MIT.
So, if you want to get to where, you know, eventually get to where you want to end up in life, you’re going to need a lot of people to help you along the way.
SM: A very specific question about your training; At the Museum of Flight, we have the NASA space shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. That was from NASA Johnson. Do you have any memories of training on that specific piece of equipment?
WL: Oh, yeah. Repelling down the side of it.
WL: [Chuckles] Typically, you’d use the FFT once you were assigned to a mission. Sometimes we would be down in the flight deck, in the flight deck in mid-deck areas, kind of, reviewing how things were going to be stowed, the stowage plan for our mission. Particularly in those space station flights when we were doing a lot of transfer of equipment back and forth, we had a lot of stuff in the mid-deck. So, we would go over there and, kind of, sort out our plan for getting access to all that once we were on orbit.
But really, we used it for emergency egress training. So, there were a couple of ways that we would do the, you know, post-landing. If you weren’t able to get out through the side hatch for some reason, you had to climb up through the overhead windows on the flight deck and literally repel down the side of the vehicle. We’d also practice emergency egress where we could go out the side hatch, but for some reason, our ground support team couldn’t get access to the vehicle and we had an escape slide that we could use. So that’s primarily how we used the FFT.
SM: Now, you were in the same class as a number of other people including somebody who was, I think, maybe even the first episode of the podcast. We interviewed Scott Parazynski.
WL: Yeah. Scott and I are classmates. And we are forever linked by our nicknames. We are known as the Russian rejects. He is too tall and I am too short. And it all relates back to the Shuttle–Mir program which virtually nobody (unless you’ve worked inside of NASA or worked at NASA) knows about. That was, kind of, the precursor to the International Space Station Program. It was NASA’s opportunity to start working with the Russian Space Agency by having seven NASA astronauts do long duration missions onboard the Russian Space Station, Mir.
So, Scott and I initially volunteered to be back-up crew members after we finished our first shuttle flight. But to fly on Mir meant you had to be able to fit in the Russian Crew Transportation Vehicle, the Soyuz, and fit in their space walking suits. And long story short, Scott and I didn’t meet that [chuckles] those criteria. And so, he became too tall and I became too short. But the great part of the story is once Scott and I were rejected, we actually ran into one another in our office building. And we knew that NASA was going to have some more crew members, go from five to seven crew members. So, we knew that meant more shuttle flights.
And we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could fly to Mir together as members of a shuttle crew? So, fast-forwarding again, low and behold, we did end up together on STS-86 and on the seventh shuttle docking flight to Mir. So, there’s a very nice picture of Scott and myself looking through the hatch of the Soyuz spacecraft during our dock period on STS-86. So, the Russian rejects to get to go to Mir together.
SM: Well, we’ll find that picture and put it in the show notes. That’ll be a fun one.
WL: You should. Yeah. Or, actually, I’ll send it to you.
SM: Oh, please. Thank you, Wendy.
WL: It’s in my files.
SM: Speaking of Scott, he mentioned that his family picked a wake-up song of the Star Wars music because they were big fans of Star Wars. A lot of people don’t realize, like, the astronauts are woken up on shuttle by music a lot of the times. What songs do you pick, or do you remember, from your wake-up songs?
WL: You know, I don’t remember what I chose on STS-67. [Chuckles] That was probably too long ago. On my last flight, we had, Jim Kelly was an Air Force Academy graduate. I was a Naval Academy graduate. John Phillips who was a station crew member, also a Naval Academy graduate. So, our commander, Eileen Collins, thought it would be nice to have basically songs from the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy played for our wake-up music. So, she played “Anchors Aweigh” for me. That was one of my wake-up songs. And then, what Star Trek was it? The song was, you know, it has, you know, it’s been a long road getting from here to there.
SM: Oh, yeah. Enterprise. Star Trek Enterprise.
WL: Yeah. Enterprise. Thank you.
SM: Scott Bakula. [Chuckles]
WL: Yes. Yes. I chose that one because, for me, I thought that captured what NASA had endured on that, during, we were on the return to flight mission on Columbia. And so, I just thought that whole two-and-a-half-year period where we were trying to come up with ways to meet the recommendations of the accident investigation for that. That song, kind of, captured, you know, that process, that journey.
SM: It’s funny you mentioned Star Trek again. I have this unscientific theory of, mentioned this before, that a lot of LGBT people are drawn to space exploration because of Star Trek. They watch Star Trek. And it’s this show where a person’s identity both doesn’t matter – and I don’t mean that flippantly. I just mean, like, people just exist. [Chuckles] And people – it’s not a question. It’s not a thing. It’s not a big deal.
But at the same time, they’re just, they’re also allowed to make it a part of themselves publicly in a way that I think, I certainly, and I know a lot of LGBT people hope for. And so, I feel like a lot of people are drawn towards working at NASA because they want to make that happen. They saw that and they’re like, I want that.
WL: You know, to your, what you said earlier about, you know, I grew up not seeing women as astronauts. That said, I grew up watching Star Trek. I saw women on Star Trek. Thank you, Lieutenant Aurora. I mean, what a tremendous impact she had. And I think it was great that she got a chance to realize that, you know, as she lived her life. And NASA took advantage of that as well. I think it was great to get her involved in the selection of astronauts. So, you know, yeah. I didn’t see people at NASA, but I did on Star Trek. And that had an impact. That made an impression.
And NASA’s a great – it’s a great place to work at. When I got there in ’92, I think at least 30 percent of the astronaut office at the time were women. You looked across the center, and, like, there were women everywhere. This was so different than my experience in the Navy. I’m, like, this is a breath of fresh air. I love it. Finally. I don’t feel like I am really, really, really in the minority. And, you know, the great thing about NASA, particularly if you’re, you know, of the Johnson Space Center, the human spaceflight program, you’re always focused on carrying out the mission. And so, that becomes your identity.
What mission are you working on? You know, if you’re in the training department, which crews are you training? You’re over in mission control. You know, which flights are you going to support? And that, you know, became the identity that brought the team together. And, you know, other things like where you’re from. [Chuckles] You know, what do you look like? People didn’t care. That really was just down in the weeds.
SM: You talked about seeing women in Star Trek on TV. [Sighs] I don’t know if this is a question or not. I don’t even know quite where it’s going. But it gets – as someone who has spent time researching LGBT aerospace history, it’s… I don’t know what the right word is. Frustrating. I don’t know. But the fact that at this point in time, there’s only, at least that I know of, three astronauts in the whole history of astronauts who are known to be LGBT. And you talk about, like, identity being on the side, which is definitely – should we also think about though in the Apollo era, were these astronauts, like, being presented as the perfect American, you know, with the wife and, you know, the kids, was part of, like, the political aspect of being an astronaut. That was back then. You know, it’s different than working today.
Again, I don’t necessarily know what the question is besides just an observation that there’s so few visible examples. And the ones that exist, you know, Sally Ride passed away. And [chuckles] oh, my gosh, I’m forgetting her name. I’ll have to check it. But, like, another astronaut was outed without her consent, kind of, pretty traumatically while she was in space.
WL: Yeah. Anne McClain.
SM: Anne McClain. Thank you.
WL: So, I’m going to answer your question this way because… And it goes back to what I just answered. Your focus is the crew that you’re a part of, the mission that you’re a part of. The other stuff people just don’t pay attention to. It’s not important. There’s a significant number of astronauts right now who identify as LGBTQ. It’s just not something they’re going to go out and talk about all the time because that’s not what they’re focused on. They’re focused on supporting the human spaceflight program. So, just because you’re not hearing about it doesn’t mean it’s not in existence.
It’s just – and that’s the great thing, for me, about NASA. It’s not the priority. We have, you know, we have a different priority. We know that everybody on that team needs to contribute because everybody is bringing something to the table. Everybody has an important role to play in ensuring that this mission is safe and successful. And that’s what we’re going to focus on, and that’s what we’re going to talk about. The other stuff just is not allowed to become a distraction. Sadly, outside, you know, in the, what gets reported in this day and age, and what people do on social media, the distraction becomes the dominant noise. But that’s not the case at NASA.
SM: Yeah. And I want to be clear. I don’t mean that… Everyone should be able to tell their story however they want. I’m not saying that anyone is obligated to come out with the flag waving. [Chuckles] That wasn’t my point if anybody heard that in what I was saying. It’s more, I’m grateful that you’re having this conversation right now. I really am. Because I think that a person like me would have loved to talk to you and know about you when I was younger.
WL: Yeah. Well, you know, there are a lot of opportunities. And sometimes, you just have to not let the noise become the thing that you listen to. One of the things I learned in the Naval Academy was – actually, my mother would say, ‘Growing up, you had a lot of focus as a kid.’ But sometimes, you have to be singularly focused, and you just have to decide that you’re not going to pay attention to that outside noise.
I look at these poor kids though growing up right now with… You know. I don’t think I could have gotten through high school with the way social media functions right now. You know, they’ll walk around with your phone in your hand that keeps you constantly connected. Personally, I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we need to help these young kids growing up to learn how to ignore that. Of course, that is much easier said than done. Because, I talked about before, you want to have a support system. You want to feel like you fit in in some way, shape, or form. And that’s the challenge that these young kids have as they navigate through school systems and, you know, other activities that they’re a part of. Where do I find a place to fit in?
That’s why I love programs like the Washington Aerospace Scholars because, for so many of the kids who participate in that, that is finally the place where they feel like they get to fit in. They are around kids who have similar interests. And that becomes their support system. And that is very powerful.
SM: Washington Aerospace Scholars is a program that the Museum of Flight does with high school juniors who are people like Wendy who are, like, I want to be involved in space, go to space, do whatever with space.
It’s funny you say that because for a brief period during Covid when there was chaos and it was online, I was actually in charge of, was for about four weeks [chuckles] because of the chaos. And I will always remember that they had launched Perseverance, the Mars probe. And the group was so excited. This was all virtual, by the way. This was 2020 or 2021; all virtual. So, these were kids who were not going to be able to meet each other in person. And I remember logging in the morning of the launch. So, the launch happened in the middle of the night. And there, in all the chat (because the chat is all saved) were a dozen of the students who had gotten up at one in the morning and were, like, ‘Is anyone watching?’ ‘Oh, yeah, I’m watching.’ And they were just so excited. And it means a lot to see – we’ve talked about community a lot here. You can just see that they’ve found the people that they need to support them through whatever it is that’s coming next.
WL: Yep. Yep. And it’s great they’re back in person.
SM: Yes. It’s a fantastic program. If you are a Washington State resident and you’ve got a high schooler who is interested in space, I’ll leave a link in the show notes because this is an exceptional, awesome program. And you can get college credits out of it, so. [Chuckles]
SM: Definitely something to look into. So, you’ve talked about, kind of, the next generation then. What is your hope for the next generation of LGBTQ+ astronauts?
WL: Well, that they’re just treated like any other astronaut. That the focus, again, is on what mission they’re assigned to, and that the other stuff doesn’t become a distraction or used, you know, in any way, shape, or form against them. I think it’s great because you can show up as… Technically, you show up as an astronaut candidate. And you’re known as an ‘ass can’. You know, you can show up and just focus on – yeah. And the emphasis is always on the first syllable. You know where you are in the pecking order which is down at the very bottom. So, that’s where life is a plebe at the Naval Academy was very open.
SM: [Chuckles] Really cut the plebe summer.
WL: I’ve been here before.
WL: Bottom of the bottom. So, you know, that, you know, you show up as an ass can. You come together as a class because you can’t – again, you know what you’re not a flown astronaut. You’re the new group. Everybody’s, kind of, waiting to see how you’re going to do. And that brings you together as a class. You had that common identity. And, you know, you just focus on your training. There’s a lot to learn. And I think, you know, I want to see them be given the opportunities to demonstrate that NASA made the correct decision in selecting them. And then, for them to have lots of opportunities available to them when it comes time for them to be assigned to a mission.
SM: Your dad, as you said at the beginning, was part of the astronaut selection, and never made it to space. But you did. You made it to space several times. Do you remember anything about that first interaction you had with him when you came back from STS-67, your first shuttle mission?
WL: No. Because I – we had a lot of stuff to do right after postflight. So, I can’t even remember how long it took me to actually go back and visit. But I’ll tell you a fun story beforehand, before that flight. For people who have been in the human spaceflight business for a long time, they know the name of George Abbey; long time NASA employee, human spaceflight. You know, in charge of the flight crew operations directorate, astronaut assignment to missions.
So, George Abbey also went to the United States Naval Academy. He was in the class three years behind my dad. My dad was the brigade commander his first class year. So, as I get down to NASA and I’m an astronaut candidate, and finishing up that, and training for my first mission, I’m home on a visit one time. And my dad gives me a picture of him as the brigade commander doing a room inspection for three plebes. One of them is George Abbey. My dad said, “Would you like this photo?” And, like, “Yeah. This might be nice to have in case I need some ammunition at some point in time.” [Chuckles] So, also in the United States Navy, there’s this thing called a tiger cruise where basically a ship goes out for a short period of time. And family members of the crew assigned to the ship are allowed to go out on the ship. So, throughout the training flow for my first mission, my dad would constantly say, “Hey, go talk to George Abbey, and see if he’ll let me do a tiger cruise on your flight.”
WL: No, dad. No. Not going to have that conversation with Mr. Abbey. No, sorry. Nice try, but no.
SM: [Chuckles] That’s a good one. I’ve been on many a tiger cruise as a Navy brat myself, so.
WL: Yeah. So, you understand. But I’m, like, dad, I’m not – no. I’m not going to Mr. Abbey.
SM: I know you give talks to groups all over the country, all over the world. And I know you talk a lot with kids and young people. I’m curious. Specifically, LGBTQ+ youth, what do you want them to remember or learn from your story?
WL: Well, I’ll use my first year at the Naval Academy as an example. Like, don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do. You know? So, sometimes, you just have to, again, shut out that noise and dig down inside of yourself and say, I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m going to show them that I deserve to be here, that I have what it takes to be here. And I’m going to work really hard to be successful. But I’m not going to let you tell me what I can and can’t do, particularly if this is something that I really, really want to do. And moreover, if it’s something that my family has done for decades. So, some – I think it is important.
Another thing that you need to learn how to do in life is develop that thick skin. Learn how to shut out that noise and stay focused on what it is that you want to accomplish. And along those lines, that also means finding that support system so that you do not do this on your own. Because it’s not easy, what I am saying. You know, developing this thick skin and learning how to shut out that noise, those aren’t easy things because you still have to live day in and day out in that environment. So that support system is absolutely critical. And it can take a wide variety of forms.
There are many groups of people out there that you can become a part of. And I would say keep an open mind as to which groups it is. You know, what groups that you want to explore and then possibly become a part of. You may be surprised that the group that you think you had nothing in common with becomes your best support system.
And also, don’t fall into the trap of stereotyping yourself. Because let’s – you know. You’re in that situation because people are stereotyping you. Don’t stereotype others. Give other people an opportunity to show you who they really are. Treat them like a blank slate until they show you who they are. Again, you may be very, very surprised that this person that you think you have nothing in common with, you have a lot in common with. So, seek that common ground. Rather than focusing on what are differences, or perceived differences, strive to find what you have in common, and build on that.
SM: Along those lines, I was working with a high schooler a few years ago who was interning at the museum. And she wanted to get into astronomy. And she kept saying that, like, she knows that as a woman, she’s going to just have a much more difficult route. And she kept, kind of, being very doom and gloom. And I don’t want to take away the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated environment, but I kind of said the same thing to her. It’s, like, if you’re walking in assuming that everybody in this field is going to be your enemy, then that’s what you’re going to encounter. Let people show themselves to you.
WL: Yeah. Yeah. And you may find out that one of your male professors becomes your big cheerleader, becomes your strongest, most vocal advocate.
SM: Your wife is an accomplished scientist in her own right. What are some achievements of hers that set her apart in her field?
WL: She worked at NASA Langley for many years doing atmospheric research, really, the beginning of climate research. They were flying over the tundras of Canada looking for emissions as the permafrost was beginning to melt. Did studies of contrails and how much they were contributing to pollution, climate change, which I find fascinating. That, once again, people are beginning to worry about contrails, particularly with the sustainable aviation fuel. So, you know, that initial research done 20-, you know, 25 years ago is still very, very important. And rightfully so, they are paying attention to, again. She also went on to manage some of the experiments that were flying onboard the International Space Station, particularly some of the experiments in the human life sciences range. And then she worked public affairs. And if you’ve ever watched any of the shuttle missions listening to the commentary for mission control, she was one of the commentators of the voice of NASA.
SM: Well, Wendy Lawrence, it’s been an honor to have this conversation with you. Thank you for taking time out of your schedule and meeting with us today.
WL: Again, Sean, thanks for the opportunity and fun questions. It’s always nice to reminisce about some of my younger days.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of The Flight Deck.
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If you want to hear more stories from Wendy, I’ve included a link to a previous episode of The Flight Deck that features excerpts from her oral history in the podcast’s show notes, which you can find at museumofflight.org/podcast.
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Until next time this is your host Sean Mobley saying to everyone out there on that good Earth, see you out there folks!