Joan Higginbotham didn’t set out to become the third African-American woman to fly in space. But then, her professional life has never really been what she expected.
Her interest in engineering began at an early age and continued when she was an undergraduate student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Interning at IBM, she had planned to continue with the company but, when she graduated in1987, the company wasn’t looking to hire engineers.
Seeking a new direction, she was approached by a NASA manager, who asked if she would be interested in working on the space shuttles. She jumped at the opportunity.
“I was very happy working on the electrical system of the shuttles, launching astronauts into space and making sure they came back home safely,” said Higginbotham, who now lives in Charlotte. “At the time I really did not have an aspiration to become an astronaut.”
Then Jay Honeycutt, the director of Shuttle Management and Operations at the Kennedy Space Center, told Higginbotham that she would make a great astronaut. At his urging, she applied for the highly-selective program and was accepted in 1996.
“There’s a lot of learning initially,” she said. “You have to learn to operate the shuttle, fly supersonic jets, and scuba dive. The first year is just learning, learning, learning.”
One of the biggest challenges for Higginbotham was learning to fly a jet because she had only one previous flying lesson.
Following exhaustive training, she was assigned as a mission specialist on a shuttle crew.
“I was elated,” she said. ”Many of my friends had already flown and I had helped launch 53 astronauts on earlier missions. I couldn’t wait to fly.”
Higginbotham launched into space on December 9, 2006, aboard the shuttle Discovery on STS-116 with the mission of delivering and installing a major component of the International Space Station. One of the few personal items she carried was a shirt that her late father had designed for a family reunion. “It was probably one of the most prized possessions I took up,” she said.
“I feel blessed to have been able to fly in space. For me, it was great way to represent my country,” Higginbotham said.
Despite this feeling, Higginbotham began considering how long she should remain at NASA, where the shuttle program would be ending in 2011.
“It just so happened that I received a job offer and a second flight assignment at the same time,” she said. “After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to give up the second flight and start my next career.”
She retired from NASA in 2007 with 20 years’ service and joined Marathon Oil, where she was drawn to their malaria eradication program in Equatorial Guinea, Africa. Reflecting on that experience and what she considered an “incredibly blessed life,” Higginbotham decided she wanted to help others.
She continues that commitment to helping improve other’s quality of life today as the director of community relations for Lowe’s Inc., the home-improvement corporation based in Mooresville.
In addition, Higginbotham serves on the Board of Trustees of N.C. Central University and is involved in multiple community organizations. She is most heavily involved with the Crown Jewels Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, an international service organization of professional women of color, because of its focus on services to youth and health and human services.
“I am a big proponent of living a healthy lifestyle and of making sure our youth grow up very well-educated,” Higginbotham said. “I believe this puts them on a good path to being successful in life.”
Higginbotham earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale and master’s degrees in Management Science and in Space Systems from the Florida Institute of Technology.
While her professional life hasn’t been what she expected, Higginbotham found that throughout her careers she has been able to meet new people and learn from them.
“One of the greatest rewards has been getting to meet people from all over the world, learning about their culture and being able to teach them about our culture,” she said.
Creditline: Madeline Reich