Each year in the United States, Veterans Day is celebrated on Nov. 11 to honor those who served in the United States Armed Forces. Celebrated worldwide, the date marks the end of World War I. Many patriotic women in STEM have served our country and used their skills to defend our nation’s interests, including Air Force veteran Sharon McDougle.
McDougle grew up in Moss Point, Mississippi. After high school, she enlisted with the U.S. Air Force in 1982. She was stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California, but traveled around the world on assignment to places like Greece, Japan, Korea and England. She served as an aerospace physiology specialist, working to train reconnaissance aircraft pilots for the SR-71 and U-2/TR-1 high-altitude surveillance aircraft. She also fitted crew members for pressure suits, harnesses and safety equipment. During her seven years of service, she was awarded several honors, including the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award and Airman of the Month.
In 1990, McDougle was honorably discharged from the Air Force. She accepted a position as a suit technician in Boeing’s Space Shuttle Crew Escape Equipment (CEE) Department, becoming the first African American and second woman in the CEE. After the Challenger Disaster in 1986, NASA was looking for pressure suits to better protect their astronauts. McDougle’s work with safety equipment for the Air Force made her an excellent addition to the team. The next year, she was assigned to mission STS-37 with the Space Shuttle Atlantis. In 1992, she suited up the great Dr. Mae Jemison for mission STS-47 aboard the Endeavor.
In 1994, McDougle was promoted, becoming the first woman and first African American crew chief in the CEE. She lead the first and only all-female suit tech crew for mission STS-78 on the Space Shuttle Columbia. She was assigned to around 20 missions in her 14 years as a suit tech. She broke yet another glass ceiling in 2004 by becoming the first woman and first African American CEE Manager. She held that position until the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011 and retired from the CEE in 2012.
McDougle served our country for nearly 30 years, dedicating seven years to the Air Force and 22 years to the Space Shuttle program. She was awarded NASA’s “Silver Snoopy” Award—
a small Snoopy-shaped pin that has flown in space—for her service. She was also awarded the Women of Color in Flight Award by Jemison herself. The next time you see an astronaut in an orange spacesuit, think of Sharon McDougle: the veteran who spent a lifetime keeping the Final Frontier’s explorers safe.
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Emily Larner (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.