Apollo 17 soared into the dark sky just past midnight in December 1972. It would be the final lunar journey for the Apollo program.
Katherine Suri ’66 stood just three miles away from the launch pad, watching the liftoff with a sense of pride, knowing that her work had played a significant role in the success of the mission.
“We were out there in the field, watching the Apollo sitting there with the lights on it. Then the countdown reached zero and flames burst out from the bottom rockets; the ground began to shake and you could feel the roar in your chest,” Suri said. “The rocket’s glare lit up the ground around the ship. Then it began to lift into the night sky, rising slowly at first, steadily, then faster and higher. The first booster rockets flew off, then the second stage. By this time it was pretty high up in the sky and small, and then it disappeared from sight.”
Suri worked at NASA for 16 years as a neurobiologist in the Life Sciences Division. One of her first projects was science project manager for the principal investigator on Apollo 17’s BIOCORE Experiment.
Suri’s role was to study damage to the central nervous system of pocket mice that had been caused by cosmic rays. At the time, in the early 70s, NASA was planning a manned trip to Mars, and scientists at the space agency had concerns about possible damage that cosmic rays in space could do to the central nervous system of astronauts during a three- to four-year flight to Mars and back.
As an aerospace technologist, Suri ran numerous experiments on the pocket mice and tracked data, without the aid of a computer, for more than 3,000 mice from other experiments being conducted by about 25 scientists around the U.S.
“With the money spent on putting such a project on a space ship, you wring every bit of science out of it you can,” Suri said. “Thus, the joke was that we studied everything about those mice but the squeak.”
NASA ended the Apollo program after the 17 mission, and focused its efforts on the Skylab space station. The change ended Suri’s research with mice and began her work with motion sickness in cats, which led her to develop a cat motion sickness rating scale.
Unlike the confined and cramped Apollo flight capsule, astronauts had plenty of room to move about the space station. Having more space led to a number of astronauts becoming ill for a week or more during missions, leaving the space travelers unable to perform their duties. “The symptoms were essentially that of motion sickness,” Suri said. “If you have a 10-day to three-week flight and your astronaut is out of commission for a week, there is a significant financial impact on achieving the flight objectives.”
Suri’s work played an important role in U.S. space exploration, which helped boost the morale of Americans cheering on the work of NASA scientists who sought to journey where no man had journeyed before while competing to win the space race against the Soviet Union.
“I was very lucky to have landed at NASA as I had the privilege of working with very motivated people on very exciting, cutting edge science,” Suri said. “It was a time when NASA had succeeded in landing men on the moon and the nation held us in high esteem. Each area I worked was important to space exploration.”
Suri later worked as a lab manager in the Life Sciences Flight Projects Office, where she helped coordinate experiments with investigators, astronauts and equipment in the space shuttle program. Her team had to ensure that equipment on the shuttle worked properly at all times, through the multiple G-forces of the vertical take off, the weightlessness of space and during the shuttle horizontal landing. In addition, the equipment had to be simple to operate and not emit any poisonous gasses into the shuttle atmosphere.
“When we were getting close to the actual flight, many of us were putting in 10- and 12-hour days,” she said. “The excitement was palpable. It was thrilling to work with intelligent, focused, hard working people. We had clear goals and objectives, and I think the majority of us felt very privileged to be part of the exciting work going on at the time.”
During her NASA career, Suri was a part of countless accomplishments and successes, but she was also a witness in 1986 when all seven crew members aboard Challenger perished as the shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight. “I was there when the Challenger exploded on takeoff,” she said. “I can hardly tell you how all of us were affected. We knew most of those astronauts, and they were all very fine people. I think a little of each of us died with them.”
Suri retired from NASA in 1986 to stay at home with her children. “I came to the conclusion that they needed a full-time mom more than I needed an exciting career,” she said.
Her career at NASA began four years after she graduated from RU, where, she says, she “first received grounding in science and the scientific method and later a boost into graduate school.”
Shortly before going to work at NASA, Suri earned a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University. She never dreamed of working for NASA. “Actually, I saw myself as a cross between Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall gallivanting around Africa, studying insects,” she said. But she went to work for the space agency when her friend’s father was looking for someone to work on the pocket mouse project. “I really lucked out,” Suri said.
Her luck and, more importantly, her background and education in science led to an exciting career that launched in the classrooms at Radford and stretched to the deep, dark reaches of outer space.