‘Women want to be perfect candidates for anything before they will apply’

It was one of the worst disasters in space history that made Holly Ridings feel like she wanted to be an astronaut. Ridings, NASA’s first female chief flight director, watched the infamous launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger live on TV in her elementary school cafeteria in 1986. Just 73 seconds after launch, it exploded, killing all seven people on board.

“This is really my origin story now,” says Ridings, now 47. “I really wanted to go into space and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

Ridings spoke to him The Telegraph‘s Claire Cohen on her cheater Podcast which you can listen to using the audio player above. The series interviews a different woman in public each week and asks how she experiences imposter syndrome — feeling like she somehow doesn’t deserve the success she’s achieved.

After earning a mechanical engineering degree from Texas A&M, Ridings joined NASA in 1998 as an air traffic controller. She worked her way up the ranks, leading crews on the International Space Station and working on the launch of a private SpaceX spaceflight.

Along the way she married Michael Baine, a colleague at NASA, and they had a son. The family lives in Texas, near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In September 2018, she became NASA’s first woman to serve as Chief Flight Director, responsible for the organization’s human spaceflight. She has not traveled to space but directs missions from the ground.

She says seeing women working in space jobs is important for both boys and girls.

“That’s just as important [boys] I see strong women and realize that’s normal,” she says. “My son will say ‘My mom is the Chief Flight Director’ and people think that’s great and it’s totally normal for him.”

When Ridings joined NASA in 1998, women made up almost a third of the staff. Today, more than 20 years later, that number has risen to just over a third. Ridings says it’s a “really intriguing question” why there hasn’t been more progress, concluding it’s probably because women are less “rolling the dice and taking a risk” and applying for jobs .

“Women tend to be perfect candidates for everything before they apply,” she says. “They seem to have a little less confidence and [be] a little more concerned about being qualified.” After noticing this pattern, she says she often tells women to just try and apply for the job they want.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles for women to overcome when working for NASA. In 2019, the first all-female spacewalk was canceled because available space suits were too large and better suited to a male body. Ridings says this wasn’t “on purpose” but just worked out with the logistics. “It was an unfortunate thing that happened when we had two amazing female astronauts on board and we didn’t have everything ready for them to go out that day.”

To deal with the stress of starting, Ridings makes sure she gets enough sleep each night and tries not to be awake and “worried about all the things that could go wrong”. Her strategy is to ignore anything that is not part of the current core task and not to think about other tasks in her private life or to pay attention to the masses of information that are constantly pouring in. “You only have so much brain power,” she says.

She says it’s impossible to keep the stress of work in the office all the time, and sometimes when she’s feeling drained, her friends and family say, “You use your flight director voice, you know.”

To unwind, Ridings says she sometimes watches a space-themed movie with family or friends, which never feels like a bus driver’s vacation. The Martian, starring Matt Damon, is a favorite. “Matt Damon captured the ‘whatever it takes, I’ll solve this problem’ attitude,” she says. “That is dogged diligence.”

The next big thing for Ridings would be working on NASA getting a permanent hub on the moon, or what they call “surface operations.” “The goal is to go to the moon and stay there, not just go and then come back,” she says. This could be achieved in the not too distant future. “It’s not too far away, so I don’t know if you call it a dream,” she adds. “But it’s exciting to think about.”

But how does she feel about never going into space herself and always running operations from the ground? She says it’s “not frustrating at all,” and prides herself on building the strength of the ground team to keep people safe in space. “But if someone said, ‘Hey, Holly, here’s a free pass to the moon,’ I’d say, ‘By all means, let’s go.'”

Listen to the full interview with Holly Ridings on Claire Cohen’s Imposters Podcast for free using the player at the top of this article Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app ‘Women want to be perfect candidates for anything before they will apply’

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