From the Air Force to NASA, she made sure astronauts were prepared for flight

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician
Photo credit (Photo courtesy of Sharon McDougle)

When you think of NASA, the first thing that comes to mind is probably astronauts, maybe Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. But, before sending men and women into space, there’s a lot of planning that goes into each mission—Sharon McDougle leads that team.

McDougle shared much of her childhood with her 11 siblings. Growing up in a small town in Mississippi meant her career and education choices seemed stifled. At age four, her father passed away from illness and at seven, her mother was killed in a car accident.

“I had to grow up really quick. I was used to being number nine. And now all of a sudden I had to grow up, learn how to cook, and clean, and take care of everyone. I was just waiting for the day to get out of there, to be honest,” she said.

When an Air Force recruiter came to her high school, a lightbulb went off.

“That’s my way out,” McDougle said.

She enlisted in 1982 and asked the recruiter for two things: to travel and be stationed in California. She got both.

As an aerospace physiology technician, McDougle worked with the SR-71 and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and two types of pressure chambers: altitude and hyperbaric.

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician

“It’s like in the movies when you see the crewmembers are inside this big box and they have their mask on and they take their mask off and they get hypoxic,” she said. “We let them see what it’s like when they lose their oxygen.”

Being stationed Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, Calif. also afforded her an extra duty, “suiting up” the nation’s astronauts.

After eight years with the Air Force, she left because of her concerns with career advancement. She spent six months looking for employment, even working at a department store without health benefits. Soon, a friend working for Boeing Aerospace Operations (now United Space Alliance), reached out to McDougle about a suit technician job opening at the company.

Within days, McDougle was again helping astronaut crews, donning their suits and strapping them into the space shuttle, a skill she already possessed thanks to her military service.

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician

For the next 14 years, she excelled as a suit technician, eventually becoming the first African American woman to lead her department as the manager of Crew Escape Equipment (CEE). She oversaw the process from taking on and off the suit, testing equipment, strapping astronauts in the space shuttle and preparing the crews after landing.

McDougle’s career led to her “suit up” notable individuals including Fred Gregory, the first African American commander of the space shuttle and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space.

Being assigned to Jemison wasn’t only historic but it also presented challenges because the orange suit she wore, the launch entry suit, wasn’t fitted for women.

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician

“She had to wear a larger size suit because we have the ‘curves and the swerves.’ You’re tiny up top, a little waist and hips, so she was putting on a man’s suit which is straight up and down,” McDougle said.

“She had to wear a larger suit to accommodate her hips but it was larger at the top so had to try and adjust as much we could.”

The orange suits used by flight crews are actually removable covers. Underneath, is material that must be fitted based on special measurements. 

Since bodies stretch in space, the material also has to effective in that environment. Suit technicians are in charge of keeping the suits up, inspecting them, and ensuring all its pieces -- like seals and ball bearings-- are in perfect working condition.

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician

Almost 30 years later, the issue of ill-fitting space suits for women still stands. The first would-be all-female spacewalk was scheduled in March of this year but because the suits didn’t fit the women astronauts properly, last-minute size adjustments were needed.

“I couldn’t believe they didn’t have a small enough suit by now. That’s ridiculous,” McDougle said.

Technology has changed over time and McDougle says she didn’t get to become a Spacesuit Team Manager, let alone the first African American woman to do so, by chance.

“99 percent of the time I’m the only one—period. I learned real quick that I need to speak up and speak with conviction and let them know that I’m in that room,” she said. “You really need to present yourself like you deserve to be there. Everything I got, I earned it.”

Sharon McDougle, Air Force veteran and NASA suit technician

Not once did supervisors question her work ethic or how quickly she rose through the company ranks.

The technician’s lab was created with windows, allowing visitors to observe the team at work during company tours. This is where she positioned herself—literally—for her career ascension.

“I always made sure I worked by the window so everyone could see that ‘Sharon is always working.’ The impression they would have is they always see me at that window at that table: working on a suit, working on a helmet, doing something.”

For 22 years, McDougle supported the space shuttle program until its close and she still credits the Air Force for allowing her to have what she calls, “the coolest job in the world.”

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