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Jewish American Heritage Month

For Jewish American Heritage Month, we celebrate the life of one Astronaut who stood out in a unique group of Astronauts.

How a Child Math Prodigy Became the First Jewish American in Space

Judith Resnik (April 5, 1949-January 28, 1986)

NASA’s 1978 astronaut class was special. There hadn’t been a new group of astronauts for ten years. The 35-person class of 1978 included the first African American and first Asian American astronauts and the first women astronauts. Among these women were Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space and Judith Resnik, the second American woman in space and the first Jewish American astronaut.

“When NASA announced that they were looking for astronauts who would be engineers and scientists on space shuttles, it was accidental that I heard about it, and I just took a chance and applied.”

Resnik was born to Jewish Russian immigrant parents in Akron, Ohio. A knack for math set her apart early. A perfect score on her math SAT test sent her to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon), where she graduated in electrical engineering.

She worked on missile and surface radar technology, and in biomedical and electrical engineering, before applying to be an astronaut. The year before being selected as an Astronaut candidate, she earned a doctorate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland.

Once at NASA, Resnik contributed to several projects, including astronaut training techniques, software development and the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), a mechanical arm that moved objects into place on, or away from, spacecraft. In 1984 she took her first spaceflight on the shuttle Discovery’s maiden flight, STS 41-D. There, she unfurled a 102-foot-long “solar sail.”

NASA’s Challenger Flight 51-L was Resnik’s second launch. Just over a minute into the flight, the shuttle exploded, killing all on board. Resnik was 36 years old.

Memorials to Resnik and her achievements include a Congressional Space Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously in 2004, a lunar crater named for her, and the Resnik Challenger Medal, awarded annually by the Society of Women Engineers to recognize women’s technical contributions, breakthroughs or engineering achievements in the space industry.

Watch a young, brilliant Resnick explain the operation of the RMS early in her NASA career.

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