Commander Susan Kilrain wants young people to dare to dream Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan

Commander Susan Kilrain is an aerospace engineer, a former US Navy pilot and a NASA astronaut who has been into space twice.

Behind the titles, the achievements, the 3,000 hours of flying time as a fighter pilot and 498 hours of time in space, is a story of passion, ambition, determination and toil with origins in a young dream that held up to every demand and ‘obstacle’ on the way.

Susan is through with her space missions; she retired from the US Navy and NASA 17 years ago. These days, her mission is one of outreach to young people everywhere, telling them they must ‘dare to dream’ — a tagline printed on her business card.

She had the same message for students in Dubai when she took part in a five-day Space 2101 workshop, organized by Innoventures Education with Starlight Education and STEM Punks, during mid-term break at the Dubai International Academy Al Barsha.

It was her first visit to a city and even a region she had only seen from space, and never in person. ‘My main message to kids is that they can do anything, wherever they are, whoever they are,’ said Susan, in an exclusive interview with Friday on the sidelines of the sessions. ‘And to kids that come from less represented communities.

‘I grew up in a family with little income and terrible schools — [but] it just doesn’t matter. You just overcome your obstacles … That’s all they are: obstacles. They are not roadblocks.’

‘You can be anything you want to be’

Born in 1961 in Georgia, US, Susan always loved adventure — ‘jumping off things’ and the like. In school, she was equal parts nerd — being good at mathematics, prompting her to study harder — and equal parts athlete, loving sports. So as a teenager, when she told her father Dr Joseph Still, that she wanted to be an astronaut, he said: ‘That’d be great, you can be anything you want to be’.

It was just the impetus Susan needed. ‘Had he said, ‘girls can’t be astronauts’; or ‘there are no girl astronauts’, or ‘you’re not smart enough’ or whatever… I wouldn’t have done it,’ says Susan, who had few role models in the field to look up to.

Susan gives a thumbs-up as she is assisted into her launch/entry suit in the Operations and checkout Building at Kennedy Space Centre Image Credit: Nasa

While the Russians had sent the first woman into space in 1963 — Valentina Tereshkova — it would take another 20 years for the US to select Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

‘But nobody told me I couldn’t do it. That is huge,’ says Susan, who set her sights on becoming an aerospace engineer. ‘Along the way, enough [people] were supportive so that I could see there was a path to my goal at all times. Never did I feel like it wasn’t possible. Sometimes I had to be patient, but yes, I could always see a path.’

Things were pretty much falling into place. Finding her desk job as an engineer ‘boring’, Susan found appeal in someone’s suggestion that she join the military and become a test pilot as a prequel to space. ‘I was flying the F-14, when I got accepted by Nasa,’ she says.

While the more intrepid among us — Susan being a case in point — readily tread roads never taken, most of us benefit enormously from role models. May be not so much as to articulate a dream, as to show how it’s possible to achieve it within the milestones of humdrum life. For girls, ambition almost always bumps up against the pressures of having a family at some point, and the slightly more subtle expectations of society to accord with the feminine.

This is often cited as a reason girls go head-to-head with boys in STEM subjects all through primary, middle and senior school, but slowly drop out when it comes to committing lock, stock and barrel to science.

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Commander Susan in front of an F-14 Image Credit: US Navy

Susan, though a tomboy as a child who ‘liked dressing up and playing with Barbie dolls’, believes this mindset is changing, and that girls are finally buying wholeheartedly into the idea that in reality they can have everything, not all at once, but by setting priorities. ‘There’s a great picture floating around somewhere and it’s a young lady in a princess costume of some sort, but she is doing tomboy things … and that’s the perfect thing. You can do both. You can be girlie, and you can still do STEM. You can still fly in space or be a pilot. A lot of the women astronauts have children, and they are flying in space,’ she says.

First visit to Dubai

Irrespective of gender, Susan firmly believes that while ‘it’s great to have that goal, that dream, which might be pretty far out there, it’s important to enjoy the journey’.

Of her time behind a desk, she says: ‘I did not enjoy being an engineer much which is why I decided to become a pilot … . Yeah, I might have never flown in space, but it would have been fine. I really loved my time in the Navy flying jets.’

Dubai impressed Susan with its architecture, diverse nationalities living together and friendliness in what was her first visit to the city. Above all, she found students ‘so smart ... my goodness’.

She recounted a Geography lesson during the camp held at the Dubai International Academy (DIA) Al Barsha, in which she showed students pictures of earth from space. ‘The kids in the audience knew every [place] in the world. That’s very rare,’ she says.

My main message to kids is that they can do anything, wherever they are, whoever they are, says Susan Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Under her mentorship, as many as 2,299 students representing 108 nationalities, from five schools achieved a Guinness Book of World Record for ‘the world’s largest space exploration lesson across multiple venues’.

The students were delighted. ‘It was very insightful,’ said DIA student Nilavvu Senthil Nathan Kayal, who isn’t sure if the job she is aspiring towards exists yet. ‘I want to be an astro-architect. What if a person were to go live on Mars … like what would they live in?’

Fellow school mate Ayesha Aldaboos feels she doesn’t have the guts to go into space. ‘That’s so scary for me,’ she says.

Another student Neil Thakkar believes the workshop gave him ‘a really good insight into what it’s like to become a professional in the space industry’.

Ayden Biorn is inspired to become an astronaut now that he knows first-hand the conditions in space. ‘I might actually want to become an astronaut,’ he says. ‘It’s really cool to see somebody who’s been to space, explaining what it’s like up there.’

Her impact

Susan is married to US Navy Vice-Admiral Colin J. Kilrain. The couple have four children — the youngest 16 and oldest 23.

They haven’t as yet talked about going into space. However, Susan’s 23-year-old daughter has been accepted into the Navy to fly airplanes. Her children supply Susan with all the adrenalin rush, she needs today. ‘They are bigger adrenalin junkies than I was. I have to take them to jump off cliffs, that are 30 metres high, parachuting out of airplanes. So, me watching them is enough adrenalin now for me.’

Commander Susan
Commander Susan and crew members of the Columbia Space Shuttle Image Credit: Nasa

Susan loves photography and travelling. ‘And I love this,’ she says of her outreach activities. ‘I feel like I’m doing some good and kind of giving back. I mean, what’s the point of it all, if you’re not now encouraging other kids to go out and do what they want to do.’

Does she feel the impact of her work is slow in coming?

‘Oh no. Not too long ago, I was in Australia and this 12-year-old girl gave me a letter at the end of the event … she was so inspired and wrote that she’s saving up her money to go to space camp. That’s what it’s all about.’


Susan Kilrain flew twice into space. Both times it was on the Columbia space shuttle, ‘the exact same space shuttle’ that exploded in 2003 killing its crew of 7. Three of them were from Susan’s class, among them Kalpana Chawla the first woman of Indian origin to fly into space, and a beacon of hope to many in her native India.

‘Kalpana Chawla was in my astronaut class. Wonderful, wonderful lady,’ says Susan, who remembers her as a good friend. ‘Kalpana was definitely a special woman. We called her K.C. by the way… K.C. for Kalpana Chawla. We were pretty close friends … I wouldn’t say best friends … but we were very close though.

‘And I loved talking with her about her culture … we talked a lot about being a vegetarian. When you are flying in space that makes a big difference — what types of food can be flown for you… and how to get all the nutrients you need with the available space food. I really really enjoyed talking with her; she was sweet and quiet and just a wonderful, wonderful lady.’


Commander Susan Kilrain spent over 400 hours in space over 2 missions roughly 3 months apart. She recalled her first moments piloting the space shuttle alongside the senior pilot and mission-in-charge.

‘Looking down at Earth from space the first time … it’s like every dream come true,’ says Susan. ‘Even though you’ve seen pictures of Earth from space, it’s not the same as being in space and looking at Earth. It was very rewarding.’

In that awe-inspiring moment, Susan recalls being tickled by a funny thought.

‘By the time we were able to get out of our seats and move around, we were actually flying back over the Kennedy Space Centre,’ she says. It was an hour and a half past the time of launch from NASA’s spaceport in Florida.

‘I was thinking: ‘I bet the crowd of people that came to see the launch was still trying to get out of the traffic! We had flown all the way around the world… and they had probably barely driven 2 km,’ says Susan laughing.

Much is now known about life in space. The feeling of weightlessness, the hair floating around, astronauts gliding within their shuttle. Is there more?

‘You don’t have a shower. Brushing your teeth is different. Floating and eating your food is different,’ Susan recounts. ‘I’d say the thing that’s most different is sleeping. Because you are floating when you sleep.’

Given scenarios where excitement is certainly up to max, Susan found re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the most ‘exciting’ and the ‘one thing you can’t train for’.

She recalls her first experience of the moment of re-entry. ‘I looked down and I thought ‘gosh, I must be at 2Gs!’ I felt very heavy, my helmet was very heavy on my head. I looked down at the G-metre and I was at .2Gs, just 2/10ths of a G. I thought ‘WOW! Boy am I going to be heavy when I actually get to 1G or 2G or 3Gs!’’ The impact of weight is in addition to the dizziness astronauts experience. ‘When you are in space, your vestibular system that helps you keep your balance, has had nothing to calibrate on, so it doesn’t know what’s up and what’s down, ‘ Susan explained. Now all of a sudden it kicks in, making every slight movement of the head result in spells of dizziness. ‘So, you’re trying to not move your head, which weighs a lot… and are trying to land this multi-million-dollar aircraft on the runway!’