Women in STEM : Judy Sullivan

 In Blog, Technology, Women in STEM

Women in STEM Judy Sullivan

“Goodbye Judy” – Neil Armstrong said to Judy Sullivan on July 16, 1969,

from the suit lab before the Apollo 11 launch.

Early Life and Education

Judy Sullivan is a true pioneer of women in STEM. Judy was born in 1943 to Robert and Mary Shanaberger.  As a young girl, Sullivan was always interested in science. After graduating as valedictorian of her high school in Alabama.13  She attended Jacksonville State College in Alabama where she majored in biology and minored in chemistry and math.  She was inspired by John F. Kennedy after she heard his speech encouraging more scholars to study engineering, science, and math. See Footnote Below  She graduated in 1964, the second in her class at college, and started her career as a high-school math and science teacher in Cocoa Beach Florida.1  In the summer of 1966 she applied for a summer job at NASA.


In the 1960s only 17% of the staff at NASA were women and most of those women were secretaries.3 Of the 5,500 women NASA employed that year, more than 4,000 of them worked as secretaries, according to the agency.13  Her interviewer — a woman — told her, “They’ll give you every reason in the world why they can’t have a woman over there. They’ll even tell you there [are] no female bathrooms.”14  NASA took a chance and hired her because of her high test results.

Judy Sullivan was the first woman engineer hired by NASA for Spacecraft Operations in 1966. She supported spacecraft testing as the lead Biomedical Engineer. At the time, NASA used sensors to collect crucial data about respiration, body temperature, and heartbeat, both when astronauts were training and on their subsequent trips to space for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects.2 These sensors kept flight surgeons informed about the health of the astronauts during trips to space. Besides Apollo 11, she worked on four other missions: Apollo 10, Apollo 9, Apollo 8, and Gemini 12. In addition to Apollo 11, she was also lead biomedical engineer for Apollo 9.13

The Spaceport News from Kennedy Space Center dated November 23, 1966, remembered highlights from the Gemini Team Members: “With the recent completion of Gemini 12, a highly successful manned space flight program comes to an end. Many at KSC were closely involved. In retrospect, the Spaceport Inquirer asked several employees what was their most vivid memory of Project Gemini.” Judy Shanaberger (Sullivan), Bio-medical Section: “Gemini 12 was the most memorable for me because it carried the first scientific experiment on which I worked – the frog egg growth study.”9

As preparations were underway for Apollo 11 in mid-1969, the 26-year-old Sullivan was one of only 100 women, including 16 engineers, serving in top positions at the Florida spaceport.5 NASA biomedical engineer Judy Sullivan was one of the people who kept track of astronauts’ respiration, body temperature, and heartbeat through small sensors attached to their bodies.  Sullivan monitored the equipment and ensured that the information was provided to the proper sources.  She was the only woman in the suit lab who assisted the Apollo 11 astronauts, making sure their biomedical systems were working correctly.  It was there that Neil Armstrong said “Goodbye Judy” as he was walking out of the suit lab before the historic Apollo 11 launch. “Then he left for the moon. Hard to believe,” she said.12  He thanked all the engineers but only Judy by name.8

As a biomedical engineer, Sullivan was responsible for maintaining the medical telemetry devices worn by the astronauts and monitoring the telemetry from those instruments before and during the launch process.6 Sullivan would check the functioning of the medical telemetry instruments shortly after they were attached to the astronauts during the suit-up process.

Judy Sullivan NASA mission control

Judy Sullivan NASA mission control

She was the only woman in the room and wore a headset.4 “Men were careful not to use questionable language over the loop when they knew a woman was listening,” Sullivan recalled. “People asked me what it was like to work with all those men, but my college experience had prepared me. Few women were registered in math and science classes.”7 Later in the flight, responsibility for that telemetry was shifted to the Houston Center.6

Sullivan was quoted in a news story of the time as saying:

“The astronauts wear our sensors which are attached to their bodies during major spacecraft tests and during flight. These sensors monitor their heartbeat, take electrocardiograms, and monitor respiration rates and depths.  During spacecraft testing and live launches at KSC, a resident doctor and I, as biomed engineer, sit at the consoles and monitor the biomedical data coming from the spacecraft. The doctor evaluates the crewman’s physical condition, and I, the performance of the biomedical system.”6

At the time of the Apollo 11 mission, the media thought it was a big deal that Sullivan was working in a male-dominated field. And a glance at the headlines shows how times have changed.  “A Girl Engineer for NASA,” read one in Florida Today from July 8, 1969. “Lady Engineer Keeps Tabs on the Astronauts,” read another from the Miami Herald on June 29, 1969.13

Shortly after the launch of Apollo 11, Sullivan represented NASA on the television game show, “To Tell the Truth.” A panel of celebrities tried to choose the “real” biomedical space engineer by asking job-related questions of a group of three women, all claiming to work for NASA. “Miniskirts were in fashion, so they shortened my hemline, and I wore ruffles. They were totally fooled,” Sullivan recalled. “I won $500 and had a great time seeing New York City.”7, 11

Marriage and Life After NASA

Judy Shanaberger met Marshall Sullivan while training for NASA in St. Louis Missouri.  They began dating and Marshall was transferred to Florida, where they were married in 1967.  After the Apollo 11 mission, Marshall was accepted to an MBA program at Cornell University.  The family moved to New York where Judy resumed teaching math and science. Judy also worked at Kraft Foods as a food technologist/quality control supervisor.10  Judy Sullivan acted in one commercial and one film. The film was about a soldier in Vietnam who finds a doctor’s diary. She decided not to pursue acting or modeling.

Women in STEM Judy Sullivan

Life after NASA

When asked her greatest professional achievement she said of teaching:

“I loved working with young people, and I hope that I touched and made a difference in some of their lives.   I have run into former students over the past few years as I came home often to support my parents through their final illnesses. Dee Gorey said that he told his classes through the years that I gave him a lifelong love of science. Seeing former students and hearing their comments made me feel so good about my teaching experience. I have such respect for teachers who go the distance, staying in that field their entire career.  Think of the number of lives they touch!  What a legacy!!!”10

When asked her greatest professional achievement she said of the Aerospace and food industries:

“My experience in aerospace and the food industry happened between 1965 and 1974, and at that time men held almost all management positions in those industries.   I suppose my accomplishments were in landing the jobs in male-dominated fields and performing them well enough to open doors for women across the country in those industries…At the time I held these positions I was very young and did not realize the significance of being the first woman to hold them.  I just tried to be myself at all times, do the job well and fit in with all “the guys”. I hope, in my own way, I contributed to qualified women getting an equal chance in these technical fields.”10

Judy Sullivan is still alive today and desires an increase of women going into STEM.4,5  Currently women at NASA make up only 34% of all employees.3 Women employed by NASA have increased since the 1960s but continues to lag other industries. Sullivan feels “blessed” to be part of history and is also passionate about encouraging young women today to pursue careers in the math and science industries.

Judy Sullivan said, “I really feel that is my contribution in life. I have pride in that. I’m so eager to encourage all young girls to take science and math — and to take chances.”13 “Be adventurous, don’t let anyone convince you, you can’t make your goals,” she said. “Talk to your guidance counselors and get to know your science teachers because they’re gonna make you believe in yourself.“8, 14



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Sullivan
  2. https://www.facebook.com/NASAHistoryOffice/photos/judy-sullivan-was-the-first-woman-engineer-hired-by-nasa-for-spaceflight-operati/3006441052740890/
  3. https://aerospaceamerica.aiaa.org/features/women-reflect-on-apollo/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsUzV1kEoQ8
  5. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/judy-sullivan
  6. Benedict, Joy (July 8, 1969). “A Girl Engineer for NASA”. Florida Today. p. 1D. Retrieved October 18, 2019.
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/pdf/319739main_mar20color.pdf
  8. https://www.ourdailyplanet.com/story/hero-of-the-week-judy-sullivan/
  9. https://digcollections.lib.fit.edu/files/original/7837e5f69e04ab64ddc9eabb3ea7840c.pdf Spaceport News November 23, 1966 Volume 5, Number 37.
  10. https://hobbydocbox.com/Investors_and_Patents/86269803-C-o-n-t-e-n-t-s-a-message-from-the-president.html Interview with Abby Knight. Gem of the Hills, Division of Institutional Advancement, Jacksonville State University. Volume 9, Number 2,
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/23/science/moon-landing-women-apollo-11.html
  12. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/giant-leap-womankind-nasa-engineer-reflects-historic-apollo-64367450
  13. https://www.mcall.com/news/local/mc-nws-lower-macungie-judy-sullivan-nasa-apollo-11-20190714-j4at5avdnfdyjju5tvtmdky7te-story.html
  14. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/giant-leap-womankind-nasa-engineer-reflects-historic-apollo-64367450



It is a real pleasure to be here this evening for the Annual Alumni Banquet of Loyola College. I was honored by your invitation to speak. I am astonished at the number of you who have turned out in this weather. (My observation is that Baltimore, like Washington, is a border city – which means that you attack northern snowfalls with southern efficiency.)

I know that those of you who braved the elements tonight did so – not to hear my address – but to join in paying tribute to an outstanding institution – Loyola College. We pay tribute, too, to the work of the Jesuits – not only in Baltimore, but all over this country and indeed all over the world. Their dedication to the spirit of education, and their remarkable achievements in such colleges as Loyola, are sources of inspiration and pride for us all.

But I would remind you that, more than 5,000 miles from here, another great university will open its classrooms in a few hours. From almost any point in the city citizens will point – with the same pride we share tonight – to the new 33 story tower of the University of Moscow.

Dedicated to the sciences, this gigantic structure contains nearly 2,000 laboratory rooms. Through its doors each day pass most of the University’s 23,000 students, 2,000 professors and 500 research scholars. The cost of that one tower building alone, in rubles, equals at least $150 million in American money – more than the entire physical plant of many of our leading universities.

The Myths of Our Intellectual Superiority

It is still difficult for many of us to believe that the Russians have a university better than any of our own. We have been assuming that our superior wealth would obtain a superior education for our children. But we have failed to devote more than a tiny fraction – at most 3% – of our national income for this purpose, as contrasted to the Soviets’ 10%. We have taken pride in our American inventive genius. But we have too often applied it to gadgets and luxuries, while the Soviets intensified their basic research. We have jeered at Russian claims of being first in a variety of fields, from radio to baseball. But we now realize that their traditions of scientific genius are as fully developed as our own. We have comfortably assumed that Marxist dogma and totalitarian repression would produce only stultified minds and ridiculous theories (such as Lysenko’s genetics). But tonight we are not laughing at the sputniks.

Even after the Communists demonstrated solid intellectual and scientific accomplishments, many Americans refused to recognize the reasons. It was easier to believe that these were all secrets stolen by Communist spies or extracted from captured German scientists. (Under this theory, we could have launched a satellite first if the Democratic Administration had only used carbon paper!) But our real regret is not that the Russians stole these secrets from us, but that we were unable to steal them from the Russians.

There are still others who are convinced that every Russian achievement is simply a crude imitation of our own. But the truth of the matter is that in many areas we are seeking to imitate the Russians. A year ago an American firm asked the Soviets for the right to manufacture a Russian-developed turbo-drill – it could dig oil wells through hard rock ten times as fast as any American drill. Our scientists admire the Soviet sputniks. Our aeronautical engineers envy their intercontinental jet bombers. Our atomic physicists were impressed by their atomic reactors – producing 5,000 kilowatts of commercial electric power – in operation nearly four years ago.

In short, we have badly deceived ourselves about Russian intellectual achievements. We have been complacent about our own supposed monopoly of know-how. We have been mistaken about their supposed ignorance. And we have completely failed to understand the crucial importance of intellectual achievements in the race for security and survival.

Education and the Cold War

I do not know whether the Battle of Waterloo was actually won on the playing-fields of Eton. But I do know that the struggle in which we are now engaged will be won or lost in the classrooms of America. The development and maintenance of a modern defensive force is directly related to the scientific talent available. We already know of our lag in satellites, in missiles, in jet engines and rocket fuels, in detection systems and other scientific essentials. Less well known is the fact that an estimated 9% of our tactical bombers have been kept out of service for lack of sufficient technical personnel. Others have simply not been produced. Production of a jet airplane requires 80 times the engineering manpower required for a fighter plane in 1940. Take another example: AEC Commissioner Libby says our greatest single deterrent to nuclear progress is a shortage of trained technicians. We are producing each year about one fourth as many atomic reactor technicians as we need. The opening of the space age, as Mr. Eisenhower has observed, dramatized deficiencies in our science education that have been with us for many years – though unfortunately it was Baltimore’s Eisenhower (Milton), and not his brother in Washington, who made that statement.

Our lag in educational achievements is also costly in terms of scientific weapons. We are competing for international prestige and goodwill. Alexander Nesmeyanov, Chairman of the Soviet Academy of Science, has promised “great efforts … to beat the United States on all scientific fronts.” While we rush to devote our efforts to matching their space satellite, they may score other major breakthroughs. We may hear about a Soviet cyclotron bigger than any in the free world. We may see a Communist atomic-powered ice breaker, or merchant vessel, or airplane. At the Brussels World’s Fair, we may even be surpassed in such American specialties as electronic computers and automation for mass production. Or the Soviets may next gain world-wide prestige through some stunning success in biology, meteorology or oceanography.

But prestige alone is not at stake. The millions of uncommitted peoples who hold the key to the future live in the so-called underdeveloped areas. Their greatest need is not arms or propaganda or treaties. They need technicians and technical assistance. They want “know-how” and they want results. Russia’s skilled technicians, Premier Bulganin told the Communist Party Congress, are its “gold reserve.” Those technical experts are graduating by the millions under the current five-year plan, as many as the last two five-year plans combined. The Kremlin, which pays for their education, can send them anywhere in the world upon graduation. While we in the United States are unable to produce enough engineers and scientists to meet our own needs, Soviet technicians are pouring into the Middle East, Africa, Asia and even Latin America.

“We shall see,” Mr. Khrushchev told Southeast Asia during his 1956 tour, “we shall see who has more engineers, the United States or the Soviet Union.” In Burma, as in India, Khrushchev and Bulganin offered to build and staff a technological institute in Rangoon “as a gift to the people of Burma from the people of the Soviet Union.”

Students from all of these areas are thronging to the University of Moscow and other excellent Russian institutions. We can hardly expect them to return home as dedicated missionaries for Western ideals. And Russian science may score an even more spectacular success if it devises and exports new ways of irrigating the desert, of exploiting the ocean bed, harnessing jungle rivers, or conquering the plagues afflicting these peoples for centuries.

Finally, our competition in education also affects our competition in the economic cold war – in the race for industrial supremacy – in countering the Soviet trade offensive. “A nation,” Vannevar Bush said, “which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade.” In this country, even our dependence on others is limited by our lack of foreign language specialists. Up to one million scientific articles are published every year in languages other than English. Recently several American industrial laboratories spent five years and over $200,000 conducting studies of the design of electrical circuits. When they finished they discovered that this work had been done and described in a Soviet journal before their own studies had even started.

In Russia, on the other hand, John Gunther reports that there are more than 41 thousand teachers of English. The Russian ten-year curriculum includes six years of foreign language, from the fifth grade on – and English is the most popular choice.

It should be clear, in short, that victory – in the words of Sir David Eccles, President of the British Board of Trade – “will go to the people with the best system of education – both in the sciences and humanities.”

Education in the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

Who has the best system of education today – the U.S. or the U.S.S.R.? Who will achieve this victory? Why are the Russians scoring now? Direct comparisons are difficult and in many ways meaningless. But let us at least be aware of what we are facing.

American students who finish high school complete 12 years of instruction – comparable Russian students receive only 10 years. But in those 10 years they receive more hours of instruction than American students receive in 12. They attend classes 6 days a week, 10 months a year. They do not enjoy the long summer vacations originated in our system in response to the needs of an agricultural society.

They have approximately 17 pupils per teacher, we have 27. Aside from some choice in the selection of foreign languages, they have no elective subjects. The 10-year curriculum includes – on a compulsory basis – 5 years of physics, 5 years of biology, 4 years of chemistry, 1 year of astronomy and 10 years of mathematics up to trigonometry and elementary calculus. Few, if any, 12-year curricula in America cover as much.

Atomic Energy Chairman Strauss has stated: “I can learn of no public high school in our country where a student obtains so thorough a preparation in sciences and mathematics, even if he seeks it – even if he should be a potential Einstein, Edison, Fermi or Bell.” Only a small fraction of our high school graduates have had even one year of chemistry. An even smaller proportion have had one year of physics. In fact, more than half of our high schools do not teach any physics at all. In the last year for which statistics are available, we produced only 125 new physics teachers – although we have at least 28,000 high schools.

Our lag in mathematics is even more shocking. A Russian child, I understand, learns how to use a slide-rule in the fifth grade. Their schools last year produced roughly 1½ million graduates with a thorough training in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry and elementary calculus. But we graduated less than 100,000 students with any background in advanced mathematics at all: One reason, perhaps, was revealed by the Education Testing Service. A survey of 211 prospective elementary school teachers found that 150 of them had always hated arithmetic. A large proportion of our high schools offer no classes in advanced mathematics or even geometry whatsoever. In the words of Admiral Rickover: “It is time we face up to the fact that few American students at age 21 or 22 know as much after a 4-year college course as most European secondary school graduates know at age 18 or 19.”

What are the facts on the college level? Russian college students receive on the average twice as many instruction hours as Americans. Their students are paid for going to school – their college education is furnished by the state – and their professors receive pay several times above that awarded most other occupations. As a result, Soviet enrollments in institutions of higher learning already exceed our own; and they are growing faster.

The Russians are graduating 10 times as many engineers as they did a generation ago – and at a rate 2½ times greater than the United States. They have enrolled and are graduating more scientists. Within five years, it is estimated, the Soviets will have three times as many scientists and engineers as we do. In addition, their technical institutions turn out tremendous numbers of engineering technicians. Though not full-fledged engineers, these technicians are invaluable in both the Soviet defense effort and foreign assistance program.

America, in short, as Edward Teller has so solemnly pointed out, has already lost the cold war of science. If we begin now, we may regain our position in the 1980’s or even the 1970’s. But the 1960’s are already lost.

Our Course of Action Today

What do we do to begin now? We can sit back and wait for the Russian system to collapse. We can hope that education will prove to be their undoing. We can believe that our system will prevail in the long run – because our side is right, or because we have more money, or because we have more brains.

On the other hand, we could compete with the Russians by imitating them. We could force students to go into science and engineering whether they wish it or not. We could draft scientists for governmental research. We could arbitrarily restrict the production of consumer goods while we develop new scientific weapons. We could pour unlimited money into special projects without regard to other needs. We could reserve our universities for only those whose talents we seek. We could impose upon our students a workload injurious to their health and personality. We could remove all elements of choice in our high schools and colleges, all influence of public opinion, all vestiges of academic freedom.

I do not say that either of these courses would be doomed to failure. We have followed the course of complacency up to now – and we have survived. The Communists have followed the course of control – and they have done well. But I cannot believe that anyone here tonight believes either course should be followed.

The answer lies rather with those qualities to which we pay tribute tonight. The Catholic Church possesses the longest tradition of scholarship of any institution in the modern world. Whenever learning was out of style in the rest of the world – whenever it was suppressed – whenever it was forgotten – it continued under the auspices of the Church. Consequently, we must look to citizens such as you for leadership in today’s education crisis. We must encourage other institutions to follow the example of Loyola – which has been re-orienting its program to meet the needs of this modern age.

There is no point in talking about a “crash” program in education. Sputnik did not create this crisis and a “crash” program will not solve it. The tragic inadequacies of American education have been with us too long to be ended within a few years by a sudden acceleration of scholarship, teacher training, testing and counseling.

The structure of American education must be painstakingly rebuilt from the bottom up – with more and better schools, more and better teachers from the primary grades on. The Federal government must be willing to put into the construction of new public schools each year for the next several years at least as much as the cost of one aircraft carrier.

But the emphasis must not be on quantity alone – we will not turn out 50 thousand scientists like we produced 50 thousand planes for World War II. Nor must we correct our deficiencies only in the areas of mathematics and science. We are colossally ignorant today about other countries, other languages, other cultures and religions. This is especially true in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Many students who can identify all the wives of Henry the Eighth are ignorant of the great sweep of history in this vital era. Courses in life adjustment, square dancing and cooking for men will not do the job.

We must reverse those trends that see only four out of five of our top students finishing high school – and only two out of the five going on to college. We cannot continue to pay our college faculties and school teachers less for improving the minds of our children than we pay plumbers and steam fitters for improving our homes.

Much of the responsibility rests with the Federal government – for the construction of new facilities on the school and college level, for the financing of new scholarships, teaching materials and the rest. But the basic responsibility rests with you as parents of our future leaders and as citizens of a democracy under fire. If you prefer more effective detergents or longer tail fins over sending technicians to Latin America, our scientists will be meeting your requests. If you agree with our former Secretary of Defense that in pure research “you don’t know what you are doing,” then our scientists will emphasize more practical gadgets. If you scoff at intellectuals, harass scientists and reward only athletic achievements, then the future is very dark indeed.

But if, on the other hand, you and I and all of us demand a better education for all – for politicians as well as scientists – for diplomats as well as engineers – for all citizens in all occupations – then we may face the future with hope and with confidence. Let us not despair but act.

Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past – let us accept our own responsibility for the future. In the words of the poet:

“Now has come the time for action,
Clear away all thought of faction,
Out from vacillating shame –
Every man no lie contain,
Let him answer to his name –
Call the roll.”

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 899, “Loyola College Annual Alumni Banquet, Baltimore, Maryland, 18 February 1958.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.


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