Judith Resnik will forever be part of history as the second American female astronaut—and first Jewish American—to travel in space. But she was also part of tragedy, as one of the seven crewmembers to perish in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. Although her death was broadcast live around the world, her life was a story of talent and drive that propelled a girl from Ohio to achievements that were out of this world.
Resnik was born to two Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who had settled in Akron, Ohio. Her father Marvin worked as an optometrist and was also a part-time cantor, while her mother Sarah Polensky worked as a legal secretary and was a member of Hadassah and ORT. Judith Resnik was born in 1949, four years before her brother Charles. As a girl she was very close to her father, and the relationship lasted her lifetime. He gave her the nickname “katanah,” or “little one” in Hebrew, and taught her how to build machines, which launched an interest in engineering that would shape her life.
She was a bright and intellectually curious child. By kindergarten-age she could already read and solve simple mathematical problems, so she skipped kindergarten and entered the first grade. She attended Hebrew school and Firestone High School, where she was a star performer in math. Outside of school she was a fan of the Cleveland Indians baseball team and a talented pianist. Jewish culture was important to the Resnik family and to Judith, and she attended Sunday school where she was a serious student.
Although she was displaying the intellect and application that would send her into orbit, she didn’t have any ambition to be an astronaut as a child. “I don’t think we thought about women in space at that time,” Resnik’s childhood friend Barbara Roduner told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the wake of her death. Her former classmate remembered that “[Resnik] was very methodical. She knew where she was going. She knew how to get the things she wanted from life.”
When Resnik was 17, her parents divorced. It first appeared that she would live with her mother, but she transferred custody to her father in court. Not long after, he remarried Betty Roduner, her friend Barbara’s aunt. Resnik continued to excel at school and graduated as valedictorian of her High School class in 1966. She scored 800 on her math SAT and was accepted into what was then Carnegie Tech and is now Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There she joined Alpha Epsilon Phi, a Jewish sorority.
Resnik received a bachelor’s degree in engineering. At Carnegie-Mellon she also met a fellow engineering student named Michael Oldak, whom she married the same year she graduated. In 1971 the young couple moved to Washington, D.C, where Oldak went to Georgetown Law School and Resnik worked in a neurophysiology lab at the National Institutes of Health while pursuing graduate studies. As their careers diverged, so did their futures and Resnik and Oldak divorced in 1975, but the two remained friends. She was awarded her doctorate in electrical engineering with academic honors from the University of Maryland in 1977.
In the late 70s NASA was keen to recruit more women and minorities into the space program and Resnik decided to apply. She was in good company—about 8,000 others applied too. Meanwhile, after accepting a job with Xerox, Resnik moved to Los Angeles. There, after making it through the first rounds, she continued the arduous NASA recruitment process. In 1978, Resnik and five other women successfully completed the interviews and officially joined the space program. (One of the others accepted in the 1978 intake was Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983; 20 years earlier, in 1963, Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman in space.) Of the 8,000 applications, six women and 29 men were the only 35 to make the grade in 1978.
Resnik first went into space in summer of 1984, when she was a member of the shuttle Discovery. It was to be a six-day mission to deploy three satellites, but the shuttle ran into trouble before takeoff when a fuel valve malfunctioned and caused a fire. The fire was extinguished but the liftoff was delayed from June to August while they ensured that Discovery was safe. Eventually on August 30, 1984 the shuttle lifted off and Judith Resnik went into space.
Although she was proudly Jewish, when it was reported that she was the first Jewish American to go into space she was unimpressed. As she told her father, “I don’t want to be a Jewish astronaut, I just want to be an astronaut, period.” That she certainly was, and by all accounts she was an excellent one, too. Resnik’s specialization was in operating a remote-control arm that would manipulate objects at the shuttle’s exterior. She was also responsible for unfurling a solar sail from the shuttle, which was over 100 feet long. Once Discovery was in orbit, she reported back to ground control, “The Earth looks great.”
It wasn’t her only message of note. While in the air, Resnik flashed a sign that read: “Hi Dad.” Her father, a first-generation American, took immense pride in his daughter’s achievements. A picture of his daughter hung proudly in the reception area of his optometry office. For her second journey into space, on Challenger, he went to Florida to watch the launch in person.
Resnik had logged more than 144 hours in space by the time Challenger was due for liftoff. Challenger was the 25th shuttle launch in NASA’s history. It was notable for its seven-person crew’s diversity: in addition to Resnik, a Jewish woman, it included an African American an Asian American and the first schoolteacher to go into space.
It was atypically cold for Florida on the day of the launch, at 27 degrees Fahrenheit. This was one degree below the minimum temperature for takeoff, which was set because cold weather rendered the rocket boosters’ O-rings less resilient. Nevertheless the launch went ahead. Less than two minutes after takeoff, the Challenger shuttle burst into flames. Due to faulty O-ring seals, perhaps affected by the weather, hydrogen had leaked. In just 73 seconds the shuttle became one of the worst disasters in the history of the space program.
While her father looked on with horror and disbelief at the space center in Florida, Resnik’s mother missed the live broadcast at her home in Ohio. But after receiving a call from a friend, she turned on her television. There she saw a replay of the explosion. She was just one of millions of viewers across the world who saw the shocking images—but for her, of course, it was her daughter.
The images are unforgettable; the Challenger explosion was a tragedy that is etched on the memory of all those who saw it. Resnik’s memory lives on in all those that knew her, as well as many that didn’t, and so does her name. In fact Resnik’s name lives on, both on Earth and beyond, which is fitting, for the planet could not contain her. Today and forever a star, an asteroid, and craters on both Venus and the moon bear the name of Judith Resnik.