Fri, 03/01/2019

Wearing her NASA uniform, retired astronaut Cady Coleman begins her talk not with space, but with UMass Amherst. She holds up a postcard that Commonwealth Honors College created for the event, with a picture of her conducting an experiment in space. “Students can look at this photo and take comfort,” she jokes, “because I had those kind of stressful days here at UMass too and, eventually, amazing things happen.”

During her time at NASA, Coleman went on two shuttle missions. She conducted numerous science experiments, looking to see how phenomena, such as how combustion and water itself changes in space in comparison to on Earth. “We were seeing new things in a different light,” Coleman says. “We were using a different lens, a different way to look.”

In addition to these experiments, Coleman was the lead mission specialist for deploying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory — a family of telescopes that look at the different colors in the universe, such as the X-rays emitted after a supernova bursts.

Coleman wanted attendees to know not only about the amazing science she got to witness, but also the poignant social lessons she learned while in space.

When NASA puts together a crew, they don’t carefully choose astronauts they think will get along. NASA assumes that all of the astronauts are able to work it out in order to get the mission done. Because of this, Coleman worked with people from all over the world, such as Russian cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, who had different perspectives and different cultural norms than she did.

“Part of making a team is being brave and being open. Brave enough to say, ‘I do this, and it might be useful to you,’ and open enough, so when somebody says that, or you see someone not saying that, you ask and listen to what they bring to the table.”

Micah Hsi, a freshman communication major, said it was fascinating how Coleman talked about “getting to know [the other astronauts]. It’s a dynamic you don’t really see a lot about. There’s not much about the work it takes to make it work.”

As another example of teamwork, Coleman brings up her husband, who is a glass artist. Some of his work includes glass planets. Though he is not part of the STEM field, Coleman considers him and other artists like him an important part of the team. “He creates the vision I explore.”

Coleman ended her talk with two slides, both containing a photograph of her and her crew aboard the International Space Station. In the first slide, Coleman is upside down in the photograph. It’s not as easy to spot her. “You can tell that’s me because I have the biggest hair,” she jokes. In the following slide, the photograph flips. This time, with Coleman right-side up, and your eyes go straight to her face.

“There’s a lot you can tell if you change your perspective,” Coleman says, driving her point home. “The way you look something, the lens you use, is going to give you a different story about it. It’s easy to miss things if you look in the same direction all the time.”

At the conclusion of her lecture, Coleman held a question and answer with the audience, and spoke to inquiries about everything from the Big Bang to height requirements for astronauts.

Coleman’s message resonated with the audience. “It was a really well done event,” Aashish Kumar, a computer science major, said. “She answered questions in a very understandable way. Coleman really boiled down complex ideas into really simple ones so that every person in the audience could understand.”

“I was excited [coming out of the event] because I never heard a talk from an astronaut, and I’m an astronomy major, so it was interesting to hear her perspective on it,” said Kierstyn Lau, a student from Mount Holyoke College.

See event photos on our Facebook page.

2019 Williamson Lecture: Astronaut Cady Coleman