Astronaut Rhea Seddon to Launch Address at TTU

When Rhea Seddon was a teenager and America's manned space flight program was in its infancy, she dreamed of someday becoming an astronaut. In 1977, more than decade later and well into her career as a surgeon, she was accepted into NASA's first class of astronaut candidates that included women.

Seddon, who has logged over 722 hours in space on three missions, will address students, faculty and the public as part of Women's History Month and the Stonecipher Symposium on Technology, Communication and Culture: "Exploring Space at Tennessee Tech." Her talk, which will be held at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 28, in Johnson Hall Auditorium and followed by a reception, will be on "Space Exploration and American Culture: An Astronaut's Perspective."

"I got caught up in the excitement of the space program in my early teens and thought that would be the most wonderful thing to be able to do," said Seddon, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., native who is now assistant chief medical officer of Vanderbilt University Medical Group. "But there weren't too many role models, they weren't taking women in the program, and I didn't want to go into the military and become a pilot. So I tucked it away and thought, 'More and more people are getting to go into space, so maybe I'll get to go too.'"

In 1978, during Seddon's astronaut candidates' year that included training and evaluation, she and her 30 classmates, five of whom were women, went through intensive physical and academic training. They met all of their heroes, including John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

They learned about the sciences that would be used on shuttle flights -- oceanography, astronomy, biology, and life, material and computer science -- and were trained in water survival, parachute use and scuba diving. They also learned how to pilot NASA jets, and about the space shuttle, which had not flown yet, and all its systems. In 1978, everyone in her class was accepted as an astronaut.

Seddon's NASA work included a wide variety of assignments. She first flew in 1985 as a mission specialist on Discovery. She also served as a mission specialist on Columbia Spacelab Life Sciences I in 1991 and as payload commander on Columbia Spacelab Life Sciences II in 1993.

Mission specialist astronauts, Seddon explained, are the non-pilots on the flight in charge of whatever the payload is on the mission. The two Columbia Spacelab Life Sciences I and II missions were devoted entirely to research, and she served as one of four on-board scientists in charge of doing the science of those missions. On the Spacelab Life Sciences II mission she was promoted to payload commander, the lead mission specialist, and was responsible for making sure all the science procedures went smoothly.

"We had to be both subjects and operators of the experiments," she explained, "so, we had to learn to perform them and to be a good subjects. A lot of the data was collected on us.

"Some of my assignments required a physician, but most did not," Seddon said. "Most of my assignments were learning processes for me. There's an awful lot that astronauts do that don't have anything to do with medicine, so these assignments were opportunities for me to learn about the areas I needed to understand."

Seddon's advice for young people who share her childhood dreams of space includes planning ahead. NASA requires astronaut candidates to have at least a bachelor's degree in science, math or engineering.

"It's very important, especially for those who go the non-pilot route, to get as much education and as good an education possible in a technical field," she said. "Selecting a field that they enjoy and will do well in and that has some applicability to the space program is also important. They also have to remain physically fit."

Seddon believes that having a diverse background is helpful to being accepted as an astronaut candidate. Her medical emphasis was in surgery, but she also had emergency medical experience and had done some work related to the effects of nutrition on surgery patients. This medical diversity in addition to having taken flying lessons for fun, she believes, appealed to NASA.

"Space is a new and untraveled frontier for people of earth," said Seddon. "I think there will be a great return on the investment, but it's not going to be quick or easy. Eventually we'll find there are many uses for space and for weightlessness, and in doing the exploration we gain a tremendous amount in our knowledge of technology."

Seddon has three children and is married to former astronaut, Robert L. Gibson, who also entered the astronaut candidacy program in 1977. She retired from NASA in 1997 and is now helping the Vanderbilt University Medical Group adopt many of the team-building and quality control procedures she learned as an astronaut.

Seddon's address is sponsored by Tech's Commission on the Status of Women, General Education Fund, Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources, Terry Martin Stonecipher Fund of the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering and Center for Manufacturing Research.

The Stonecipher Symposium will also host Daniel Goldin, NASA's administrator and other influential and controversial figures behind the U.S. space program. For more information about the Stonecipher Symposium call (931) 372-3507 or visit For more information about Women's History Month events, call (931) 372-3850. All events are free and open to the public.