HOUSTON – For more than two decades, Sharon McDougle was one of the last people seen by NASA astronauts before launch and one of the first people they saw after landing.
McDougle spent 22 years working as a NASA contractor, first with Boeing Aerospace and then United Space Alliance, in the agency’s space shuttle crew escape equipment department.
Her role suiting up astronauts in their orange escape suits before launch meant she was often pictured getting them ready for flight, but she says no one knew who she was or the history she was making as the only Black suit technician in the department at the time.
“I was hidden in plain sight. It’s like they look at the picture and I was invisible. Nobody ever asked who was that girl suiting up Dr. Mae,” McDougle recalled with a laugh.
In 1992, when Dr. Mae Jemison prepared to make history as the first Black woman to travel into space, McDougle was right by her side.
“I was just so thrilled when I found out a Black woman was going up,” she said.
McDougle was Jemison’s suit technician for the historic mission. A job she quickly claimed for herself as her boss was making assignments.
“I grabbed the marker and put my name right by Dr. Jemison’s name. I was like ‘I’m suiting her up. Y’all already know. Don’t play. I wanted to make sure she had the best care,” McDougle said.
As a Black woman, McDougle said she shared familiarity with Jemison, even though they hadn’t known each other long.
“She and I would talk like two girlfriends,” she said.
McDougle even helping Jemison with hairstyling before a pre-launch photo shoot.
“I got the curling iron and I bumped up the little piece, a little bitty piece of hair,” she recalled.
That special attention to detail was appreciated by Jemison in a photo she autographed for McDougle.
Jemison wrote: “It’s always wonderful to know there’s a person who has your best interest at heart. My sincerest thanks for keeping me safe. Definitely, the best I could’ve asked for. Besides we have too much fun together, do it, girl!”
McDougle got her start in aerospace when she joined the United States Air Force after high school.
“A little Black girl from Mississippi didn’t even know what she was going to do. My career chose me,” she said
After eight years suiting up fighter pilot crews, she got a call about a similar job with Boeing Aerospace that led her to NASA and the Johnson Space Center in 1990. McDougle remembers the weight of the job, making sure the orange escape suits all astronauts wear for launch and landing in case of an emergency were in perfect condition.
“When I trained people I said ‘treat it like your child is going to be wearing that suit, that equipment’ then you definitely make sure every screw is tight, every seal is lubed, everything’s put together right. You hope they never had to use it of course,” she said.
McDougle worked her way up from crew technician, to become the first female and first African American crew chief in 1994. She worked with astronauts during training at JSC and traveled with them for launches and landings at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. In 2004 she was promoted to a management position.
“I ended up with the best job! It was my identity, the girl who works at crew escape, the girl that works with the orange suits. It was amazing,” she said.
McDougle took a buyout in 2011 as the space shuttle program came to an end and now specializes in safety in the oil refinery industry.
She’s writing a children’s book, “Suit Up For Launch with Shay” and frequently gives school talks, hoping her aerospace career will inspire others.
You can contact McDougle on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SharonMcDougleHiddenFigure/ and learn more about her on her website https://smcdougle2.wixsite.com/sharoncaplesmcdougle