Anna Fisher: Astronaut, Physician (and Rock Band Icon?)

Women Astronaut Candidates 1978 (from left: Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, not shown Kathryn Sullivan)
Women Astronaut Candidates 1978 (from left: Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, not shown Kathryn Sullivan)

Anna Fisher was another member of the NASA astronaut class of 1978, one of two female medical doctors selected in that group of thirty-five candidates (six of whom were women). She earned both a bachelor of science in chemistry and a medical degree at UCLA, specializing in emergency medicine, and she worked at a number of hospitals located in and around Los Angeles during the two years following her doctorate. Then, NASA came calling. (And even with her astronaut duties she later found time to earn a master of science degree in chemistry from UCLA in 1987).

Remarkably, she’s still on duty after 38 years, making her the longest serving active NASA astronaut.

Astronaut Fisher’s first and only space flight (STS-51A) was launched on November 8, 1984, on board Space Shuttle Discovery. It was to be an eventful one. A previous shuttle mission launched earlier that year (STS-41B) had deployed two telecommunications satellites: Westar 6 for Western Union and Palapa B2 for Indonesia.  But both satellites’ internal booster engines misfired and neither was able to reach their intended geosynchronous orbits.

So it was up to Anna Fisher and her crewmates on STS-51A to retrieve them. (And don’t ask about the Shuttle mission numbering system here, NASA got goofy with those for a while).

Anna Fisher on STS-51A
Anna Fisher on STS-51A

Discovery’s Commander Fred Hauck and Pilot David Walker performed a series of engine firings to allow them to match orbits and rendezvous with Palapa B2. Then Mission Specialists Joe Allen and Dale Gardner slipped into their pressure suits and made a couple of astonishing, and potentially hazardous, spacewalks.

They wore a special maneuvering device attached to their backpacks that allowed each astronaut to move around freely in space using small gaseous nitrogen jets to propel him. They were untethered, meaning if something went very wrong, there were no cables attaching them to the Shuttle – so they couldn’t be reeled back in.

Dale Gardner approaches Westar satellite STS-51A
Dale Gardner approaches Westar 6 satellite STS-51A

Joe Allan “flew” over to Palapa B2 and inserted a hand-held grappling device into the satellite’s engine nozzle. Dale Gardner attached himself to the extended end of the Remote Manipulator System arm, and while Anna Fisher maneuvered him into position using the RMS, Gardner grappled with the satellite, trying to pull it into the Shuttle payload bay. That didn’t work. So Joe Allen and Dale Gardner, with Anna Fisher controlling the RMS, manually wrestled the massive satellite into its cradle.  The capture of Palapa B2 took about two hours.

The three astronauts then retrieved Westar 6 using the same brute-force methods; fortunately, that went much more smoothly.  From that mission onward all spacewalking astronauts were procedurally tethered to the spacecraft while outside the spacecraft and wore a self-contained gas-propelled backpack to be used only for emergencies.

Anna Fisher was scheduled to make her second spaceflight in June 1986, but that mission was cancelled after the Challenger disaster in January.  She was then assigned a leadership role in the Astronaut Office, including serving as a member of the selection board for the astronaut class of 1987. She also represented the astronaut office during the development phase of the International Space Station.  Doctor Fisher took an eight year leave of absence (1988 to 1996) so she could raise the two daughters she had with her then-husband astronaut William Fisher.

After her return she continued to represent the astronauts in developing crew procedures and training for ISS, and in 1998 she was named Astronaut Office Deputy for Operations and Training for Space Station. She currently holds a management astronaut position focusing on the development of crew cockpit displays for NASA’s new Orion project.

Anna Fisher (photo UCLA)
Anna Fisher (photo UCLA)

During her 38 years (and counting) as a NASA astronaut, Anna Fisher has been directly engaged in three of NASA’s biggest human spaceflight programs: the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and the Orion Project.

As an odd aside, one photograph of Anna Fisher taken in the early 80s by a photographer named John Bryson has gone viral. It shows up repeatedly on multiple media sites, on stylized art for at least a half-dozen rock band posters, and even as the inspiration for a costume in a music video. I included this iconic image below, as it is a terrific photo! Google it and see for yourself how it still makes the rounds.

Anna Fisher (John Bryson image)
Anna Fisher (John Bryson image)

Copyright 2016 Dandelion Beach LLC Images: NASA, UCLA, John Bryson

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