From an ordinary school girl to a daredevil astronaut, Afro-American national Joan Higginbotham has had an extraordinary journey. She now wants to use her expertise in working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration to motivate students to explore space and do their country proud.

Decorated with the prestigious NASA exceptional service medal, Joan actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches during her tenure at the Kennedy Space Center. Her spaceflight mission STS-116 duration was 12 days, 20 hours and 45 minutes.

“Even when I chose engineering as an academic degree to pursue, I had not even a vague idea of what I would do in life. Surely, I loved solving mathematical problems and enjoyed studying science but didn't know what to do after studying them. Although IBM, a spectacular company, offered me a job which was not meant for engineers. Secondly, my parents wanted me to foot my own bills. In 1987, NASA offered me a job to work on the shuttle. At that time I didn't know anything about space but learned everything on the job,” said this former NASA astronaut at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library here on Tuesday.

Joan's interest in exploring space developed when she saw the state-of-the-art space vehicle for the first time. “It was like going back to the good old days of Star Wars series on television. I was pretty sure that I would give a couple of years to be in the space vehicle.”

On December 9, 2006, Joan finally got that big opportunity she was eagerly waiting for when she got selected to travel in space. She flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 as a mission specialist.

Joan's primary task was to operate the Space Station Remote Manipulator System. “Before embarking on the challenging mission in which the space vehicle travels at 28,000 km per hour, I and other crew members went through a gruelling schedule. The training was done in about two years. Each member was trained for 3,500 hours. Training was necessary to tackle technical difficulties while travelling in space. We were taught different phases like ascent, descent and rendezvous. I was taught everything except how to brush my teeth and wear my contact lenses. On the second day it took me over 15 minutes to wear my contacts.”

Sharing her experience of flying with Sunita Williams, Joan describes her as an incredible person. “Sunita is a bubbly, vivacious woman and we share a wonderful congenial relationship… Besides Sunita there were crew members from other countries. I interacted with people from so many different places for the first time and it broadened my horizon. To become an astronaut you need to have sound academic qualifications and be good at inter-personal skills.”

Pointing out that the space shuttle follows a trajectory in which the path is programmed in a computer, Joan says this is necessary to avoid accidents. “While in the space shuttle I made doubly sure that I didn't do anything wrong that could invite criticisms later on. Floating in space is easy but floating gracefully is the key to being in space. Communication is through satellite. If my parents wanted to talk to me they would ring up the Mission Control that would send the message through a satellite.”