Former Astronaut Says Working Together Is All a Matter of Perspective at Opening Ceremony

ATS President Lynn Schnapp, MD, ATSF, welcomed International Conference participants at the Opening Ceremony on Saturday, May 14, with a message about how meaningful it is to be together again for the first time in three years.

Lynn M. Schnapp, MD, ATSF
Lynn M. Schnapp, MD, ATSF

“I think I speak for everyone in saying that this year is a bit different,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ve learned that we can do much more than we ever thought using digital technologies. But it really highlighted the need for human connections.”

Dr. Schnapp then introduced a personal friend and former NASA astronaut, Catherine Grace “Cady” Coleman, PhD. As the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Dr. Coleman, who is also a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, shared anecdotes from her time in space, including lessons in interpersonal relationships. She stressed the importance of perspective when working with others, especially in stressful and ground-breaking situations.

Our instinct, she said, is not to see the people who are not always aligned with our own thinking, but we need to.

“Going into a Zoom meeting, going into an office, going into a staff meeting and expecting that the same behavior and the same perspective and the same kind of ‘Oh that person started talking, I know what they’re going to say, and they never listen.’ That is not the way that you’re going to ever learn something different,” Dr. Coleman said. “You have to actually look at them differently. Ask them something different. It’s all about perspective.”

Catherine Grace “Cady” Coleman, PhD
Catherine Grace “Cady” Coleman, PhD

Dr. Coleman logged more than 180 days in space, including two space shuttle missions and a six-month expedition to the International Space Station, where she acted as the Lead Robotics and Lead Science officer. She reminisced about those experiences and discussed the power of both the individual and the team to change the future and to make once-incomprehensible feats a reality.

Her presentation included photos and video footage from inside the ISS of her and her fellow astronauts doing everything from conducting science experiments to performing everyday functions like eating and brushing their teeth.

 “Something that really came home to me when I first launched was that I always thought I would go from Earth to space and it would be someplace that was different, and it would be someplace that was far away,” Dr. Coleman said. “And it turns out that once you get to space, you still feel like the same person, it’s just that home is a little farther away.”

Her first mission to the ISS in 1995 was to understand how to do experiments in space. She and her fellow astronauts did about 30 experiments in biotechnology, combustion science, and the physics of fluids.

During her second space flight in 1999 on Shuttle Columbia, her mission was to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was designed to detect X-ray emissions from hot regions of the universe — black holes. Commander Eileen Collins was at the helm of Shuttle Columbia, making history as the first woman to lead a space shuttle flight.

Dr. Coleman recalled being amazed thinking about the scope of work and time the observatory took from conception to completion.

“It was fascinating to be part of it,” she said. “I mean, at that moment, it was 25 years earlier that the idea of the Chandra X-ray telescope happened from a group of people who knew that if you build it and you send it, we will know things we can never know.”

It was the largest object that had been put into space by humans until that point, Dr. Coleman noted.

She also showed a photo of herself blowing out candles on a cake to celebrate her 50th birthday the night before boarding Soyuz TMA-20 to join the Expedition 26 mission aboard the ISS in 2010.

The Soyuz TMA-20 was so small she compared her ride in it to being in the backseat of a Smart car with Russian cosmonauts Dmitri Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli. But the conditions didn’t bother her.

“I will say that is really one of the most treasured memories of my entire career — being just one of three people and realizing that it’s just a very special place to be,” she said.

Of course, studying their own bodies during and after the expeditions was part of each mission. Dr. Coleman came back with the same amount of bone as she left with on at least one of the missions, she noted, but there’s no doubt that all of their bodies had changed during the expeditions.

“Every time one of us has surgery and they take something out, everyone wants to see it — every specialist,” she said, laughing.

The Opening Ceremony also recognized the recipients of the 2022 Public Service Award, World Lung Health Award, Jo Rae Wright Award for Outstanding Science and the inaugural Philip Hopewell Prize.

Don’t Miss ATS 2024 Highlights: On Demand

Don’t forget that ATS 2024 Highlights: On Demand are available to all conference registrants! On Demand will give you access to the Opening Ceremony, Plenary Session, Keynote Series, Clinical Year in Review, Adult Clinical Core Curriculum, and so much more. The topics will cover ILD, asthma, health equity, and CF, to name just a few. On Demand content will be accessible to all ATS 2024 full conference and On Demand registrants until March 2025.