Biography of Judith Resnik, Second American Woman in Space

Judith Resnik
30th August 1984: Mission specialist Judith A Resnik sends a message to her father on board the shuttle Discovery, on its maiden voyage STS-41D. Nearby, payload specialist Charles D Walker examines the contents of a storage locker. NASA / Getty Images

Dr. Judith Resnik was a NASA astronaut and engineer. She was part of the first group of female astronauts recruited by the space agency, and the second American woman to fly in space. She participated in two missions, logging a total of 144 hours and 57 minutes on orbit. Dr. Resnik was part of the ill-fated Challenger mission, which exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986.

Fast Facts: Judith A. Resnik

  • Born: April 5, 1949 in Akron, Ohio
  • Died: January 28, 1986 in Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Parents: Sarah and Marvin Resnik
  • Spouse: Michael Oldak (m. 1970-1975)
  • Education: Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, doctorate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland
  • Interesting Fact: Judith A. Resnik planned at one time to become a concert pianist. She was accepted at Juilliard School of Music but turned it down to study mathematics.

Early Life

Born on April 5, 1949, in Akron, Ohio, Judith A. Resnik grew up under the influence of two talented parents. Her father, Marvin Resnik was an optometrist who had served in the Army in World War II, and her mother, Sarah, was a paralegal. Resnik's parents raised her as an observant Jew and she studied Hebrew as a child. She was also very much interested in music, planning at one time to become a concert pianist. Many of her biographies describe Judith Resnik as a very strong-minded child, bright, disciplined and talented at whatever she set out to learn and do.

Judith Resnik, NASA astronaut.
Official NASA portrait of astronaut Dr. Judith A. Resnik. NASA 

Education

Judith (Judy) Resnik went to Firestone High School, graduating as valedictorian of her class. She actually had a place waiting for her at Juilliard School of Music in New York but elected instead to study mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University. While there, she began studying electrical engineering. She did her master's degree work at the University of Maryland. Eventually, she went on to get a Ph.D. in the subject in 1977.

While pursuing her graduate studies, Resnik worked at RCA on missile and radar projects for the military. Her research into integrated circuitry caught NASA's attention and played a role in her acceptance as an astronaut. She also did research into biomedical engineering at the National Institutes of Health, with a particular interest in vision systems. During her graduate studies, Resnik also qualified as a professional aircraft pilot, ultimately piloting NASA T-38 Talon aircraft. During the years before her eventual acceptance at NASA, she worked in California, getting ready for the application and tryout process.

NASA Career

NASA's first class of female astronauts: Shannon W. Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher, and Sally K. Ride.  NASA

In 1978, Judy Resnik became a NASA astronaut at the age of 29. She was one of six women accepted into the program and went through its rigorous years of training. She often cited the actress Nichelle Nichols (from Star Trek) as an influence on her decision to join NASA. In her training, Resnik focused on all the systems astronauts were required to know, and paid particular attention to robotic arm operations, as well as the deployment of orbiting experiments and solar array systems. Her work on the ground focused on tethered satellite systems, spacecraft manual control systems, and software applications for the remote manipulator systems. 

Judith Resnik in training.
Astronaut Judith Resnik during egress training at NASA. NASA 

Resnik's first flight took place aboard the space shuttle Discovery. It was also the maiden voyage for the spacecraft. With that mission, she became the second American to fly, following the first woman, Sally Ride. Many viewers of the IMAX film The Dream is Alive first saw her as the astronaut with long, flowing hair, fast asleep on orbit during one of the scenes.  

Astronaut Judith Resnik aboard Discovery.
Astronaut Judith Resnik (left) and crewmates aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1984.  NASA

Resnik's second (and last flight) was aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which was to carry the first teacher to space, Christa McAuliffe. It broke up 73 seconds into launch on January 26, 1986. Had that mission been successful, she would have been one of the mission specialists, working on a variety of experiments. In her short 37-year lifespan, she logged 144 hours and 57 minutes on orbit, worked toward two degrees in science, and pursued both her work and her hobbies (cooking and car racing) with equal intensity. 

Personal Life

Judith Resnik was briefly married to engineer Michael Oldak. They had no children, and both were engineering students when they met. They divorced in 1975. 

Memorial plaque
Memorial plaque at the Astrononaut Memorial wall in Florida. This Dignity Memorial bears the names of all who have died in space-related mishaps. Seth Buckley, CC BY-SA 3.0

Awards and Legacy

Judith A. Resnik was honored many times after her death. Schools are named for her, and there's a lunar crater on the far side of the Moon called Resnik. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers established an award in her name, given to people who make outstanding contributions to space engineering. At the Challenger Centers, a network of museums and centers named for the Challenger 7, she holds a place of interest and honor, particularly for female students. Each year, NASA honors lost astronauts at the Memorial Wall and space mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in Florida, including the Challenger Seven who died in the 1986 tragedy. 

Sources

  • Dunbar, Brian. “Memorial for Judith Resnik.” NASA, www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/memorial.html.
  • NASA, NASA, er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/resnik.htm.
  • NASA, NASA, history.nasa.gov/women.html.
  • “Remembering Judy Resnik.” Space Center Houston, 21 Jan. 2019, spacecenter.org/remembering-judy-resnik/.
  • Suleyman, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/judith-resnik.