This Day in Jewish History / Female Astronaut Who Would Die in Shuttle Explosion Is Born

Judith Resnik was recruited with the help of 'Star Trek's' Lt. Uhura and would become the first American Jew in space.

NASA / Wikimedia Commons

April 5, 1949, is the birthdate of Judith Resnik, the electrical engineer-turned-NASA astronaut who was killed with five other crew members in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Resnik, who had already flown on a shuttle flight in 1984, was the first American Jew in space and the second American woman after Sally Ride. (The first Jew in space was the Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov, in 1969.)

Judith Arlene Resnik was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Her father, Marvin Resnik, was an optometrist with a thriving practice, and also a part-time cantor. Her mother, the former Sarah Polensky, was a former legal secretary. Both were Ukrainian-born immigrants to the United States. Her parents divorced when Judith was 17.

Judy attended Hebrew school at Akron’s Beth El Synagogue, where she also became a bat mitzvah, and attended Firestone High School, graduating in 1966. She was an accomplished student and the only girl on the school’s math team, who earned a perfect score of 800 on the math SAT. She also was a serious student of classical piano.

Resnik attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University), where she received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1970, and where she met Michael Oldak, a fellow engineering student whom she married (at Beth El) the year she graduated.

Missiles and neurophysiology

In the years before she earned her engineering doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1977, Resnik worked at RCA’s missile and surface radar division, and in the neurophysiology laboratory of the National Institutes of Health. That was also the year she saw a recruiting poster for NASA, which was looking to sign up women and members of minority groups.

To that end, NASA also hired Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who played Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek.” Nichols traveled the United States speaking to potential astronauts. One of those she met was Resnik. (Sally Ride was also recruited by Nichols, as was physicist Ronald McNair, a black astronaut who perished in the Challenger disaster.)

In January 1978, Resnik was one of six women accepted by NASA. Her career with the space agency included not only training but also engineering work developing both hardware and software.

Her first space flight took place in August 1984, the maiden flight of the shuttle Discovery. Her tasks included assisting in the launching of three satellites.

Popular on earth and in space

Resnik was popular both among her colleagues and among earthlings for the humor she displayed onboard (including allowing the TV camera to see the “I love Tom Selleck” sticker on her shuttle locker), and for her large mane of curly brown hair, which pointed out in all directions in a zero-gravity environment.

Flight STS-51-L was intended to last six days; Resnik was to assist in launching a small satellite called Spartan Halley, which was supposed to spend two days photographing Halley’s Comet as it approached the sun, before returning to the Challenger.

The launch was delayed several times because of a variety of technical problems, and also by the cold snap that week at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Takeoff eventually occurred on the morning of January 28, 1986. A mere 73 seconds into the flight, at an altitude of 14,000 meters, an explosion resulted in the death of everyone on board.

The investigations that inevitably followed turned up numerous deficiencies in both equipment and procedures, all of which could have contributed to the explosion. The most direct cause, however, was the loosening of the O-rings connecting two sections of one of the solid-fuel booster rockets that powered the shuttle.

It turned out that the O-rings became brittle and lost their resiliency in the cold. The faulty seals allowed liquid hydrogen to leak out, ignite and explode. It is believed that the six crew members lost consciousness almost immediately due to a loss of cabin pressure and died of oxygen deprivation well before the shuttle hit the earth.