I Wanted to Write a Biographical Piece About Judy Resnik. But the More Research I Did, the Less I Knew About Her
A 1986 Esquire article reveals idle gossip but very little about the pioneering woman astronaut.
Here’s what most people know about Dr. Judith A. Resnik, the second U.S. woman in space: she was killed during January 1986’s Challenger tragedy. And that’s it. During her lifetime, Resnik kept a remarkably low profile for a public figure; while the U.S. news media feted her predecessor in orbit, Sally Ride, as a new style hero for the 1980s, Resnik’s first 1984 spaceflight aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery garnered comparatively little attention. This was perhaps by design, as Resnik seemed to enjoy being a private citizen in a very public field.
But space enthusiasts knew she had something different: it was there in how her jet black, wild hair floated unfettered in the IMAX film The Dream Is Alive, and in the aviator sunglasses she sported while operating Discovery’s Canadarm. She had that badassery that colored our perceptions of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts: a professional at the top of her field with style for millions of miles. It’s no wonder that many little girls of the era — including me — were obsessed with her and the idea of becoming her. After seeing The Dream Is Alive, I begged my mother for a Resnik perm. (I must admit that Judy’s looked much better than mine.)
Even Christa McAuliffe, the world-famous “Teacher in Space” who perished alongside Resnik mere seconds after Challenger launched that frigid January morning, looked up to her. The recently published book The Burning Blue written by Kevin Cook quoted June Scobee, widow of Challenger’s commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, as saying, “They had a friendship, and in some ways Judy was a role model. Look at pictures from those days. Christa was trying to get her perm a little poofier. She wanted long, curly hair like Judy’s that would float when she was in space.”
So, when I decided to throw myself into a project to write a definitive biographical piece, I was hopeful I could put together something meaningful.
Instead, I quit at the very beginning. Here’s why.
The Enduring Resnik Enigma
I started my quest by ordering what I’ve heard to be the definitive account of Resnik’s 36 years: the December 1986 issue of Esquire magazine, which was feted as the “Americans at Work: A Special Year-end Edition.” The cover boasts articles about very of-its-time figures such as Steve Jobs, Debra Winger, and William Styron, among others. On page 188, there’s an article about the recently deceased Resnik, with the encouraging title “The Epic Flight of Judith Resnik.” However, my hopes were dashed when I saw the article’s subtitle: “An Investigative Obituary.” The piece’s authors were novelist Scott Spencer and Chris Spolar, a Washington Post reporter.
The article became problematic from nearly its first sentence. It attempts to define Resnik’s final actions through the lens of an ex-boyfriend, who somehow is the article’s protagonist (even though the article supposedly is about a pioneering woman). Among the article’s many issues:
· It seems to promote a rivalry with her estranged mother, Sarah, furthering the trope of “powerful women fighting with other women”;
· It reveals salacious and frankly unsubstantiated gossip about Resnik’s personal life;
· It promotes the trope that Resnik “transformed” herself to become an astronaut in a bid to escape from previous life trauma; and
· It promotes the theme that Resnik became an astronaut only to seek an identity and escape a turbulent past, which included a tumultuous relationship with her mother and a divorce.
While “The Epic Flight of Judith Resnik” isn’t poorly-researched (its authors did reach out to Resnik’s parents, her former husband, and of course the ex-boyfriend), the overriding theme of the article — that Resnik became an astronaut at the prodding of her ex-boyfriend and “in search of an identity” — seems offensive 35-plus years after the fact. The authors seem to miss what might have been the real reason Resnik decided to apply to the astronaut corps during the mid-1970s.
By that point, Resnik — whose academic credentials were spotless — had earned a newly-minted doctorate and was well on her way to moving up at Xerox, the company she worked at before being accepted to NASA in early 1978. NASA was likely the next realistic step for Resnik, as they encouraged an increasingly diverse group of engineers, pilots, and scientists to apply to their astronaut program. The fact that she consulted former astronaut Michael Collins — whom Resnik counted as a friend — before she applied kills the trope that her bid to become one of America’s Shuttle astronauts was merely the product of an identity crisis spurred by a trail of broken relationships.
Was it possible that Resnik may have been encouraged by a few friends and acquaintances to apply for NASA’s 1978 astronaut group? Of course. But the accomplishments that led to her getting the job and excelling at it were all hers.
Moreover, it’s ironic that the “investigative obituary” of Resnik’s all-too-short 36 years on Earth and in space was written predominately by a male author. It seems odd and frankly bizarre to me that a man would be called upon to define Resnik’s motivations, likes, dislikes, relationships, work ethic, and indeed the very fabric of her entire life.
There are two books that are written by men that seem to portray Resnik more accurately and reveal a more total picture of her career at NASA, if not her lifetime. The Burning Blue focused upon Resnik’s hypersonic career trajectory (and, more disturbingly, her manner of death). Astronaut Mike Mullane, who flew alongside Resnik on Discovery’s first spaceflight, wrote extensively about the duality of Resnik’s life (and death) in his autobiography, Riding Rockets; his portrayal of Resnik captures her beauty, intelligence, steely resolve, and sometimes, her vulnerability. The only thing we discover about Resnik in the Esquire article is that her ex-boyfriend sued NASA over the loss of a Dunhill cigarette lighter she carried in her personal preference kit aboard Challenger. You read that correctly: he didn’t sue NASA over his former girlfriend’s wrongful death, but because they lost his cigarette lighter somewhere in the Atlantic. What a guy. It’s telling that NASA’s astronaut corps provided no comments to the authors during the research and writing phases of “The Epic Flight of Judith Resnik.”
Biographical research is complex, and it was at this point that I decided maybe Resnik’s story should belong to one person: Resnik herself. Rhea Seddon, who was, along with Resnik, one of NASA’s first women astronauts, published her autobiography Go For Orbit: One of America’s First Women Astronauts Finds Her Space in 2016. A Winston Churchill quote prefaces it: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” I am just speculating here, but I believe that Seddon may have observed what authors did to Resnik and her other colleagues in various books, magazines, and newspaper articles, and decided to take firm control of her own narrative. (By the way, Seddon’s book is magnificent, and you should read it.)
I think it’s best to end this article with Resnik’s own words. The first Jewish woman in space, Resnik was an early champion of diversity in spaceflight. The woman may have slipped the surly bonds of Earth 36 years ago — as many years as she lived — but her words from 1979 make as much sense today as they did back then:
Astronauts don’t have to be either very feminine or very masculine women or very superhuman males, or any color or anything. It’s about people in space.
Featured Photo Credit: “Following the completion of their six-day mission in space, the six crew members of NASA’s 41-D mission mentioned that though a great deal of work was accomplished, there were ‘fun’ moments too. From all appearance this group shot was one of the lighter moments aboard the Discovery. Crew members are (counter-clockwise from center) Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., crew commander; Michael L. Coats, pilot; Steven A. Hawley and Judith A. Resnik, both mission specialists; Charles D. Walker, payload specialist; and Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, mission specialist.” NASA photo dated September 5, 1984.
Photo of Judy Resnik’s flight suit at Space Center Houston by the author, August 2021.
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