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Coverage from the day space shuttle Challenger exploded: Resnik liked a job label with no frills

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You may remember Judith Resnik as an astronaut on the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Discovery, which blasted off on a six-day mission on Aug. 30, 1984, and put three satellites in space. Resnik took accolades for conducting solar-power experiments with a 102-foot solar sail that might one day power space stations.

Or maybe you remember all the silliness about her curly hair that went wild without gravity to tame it, or the fanfare about her being the second American woman to soar into space, or the fact that she was the first Jewish astronaut. Some Central Florida residents may remember meeting Resnik in 1981 when she kicked off Women's Awareness Week at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Resnik, though, didn't like being pigeonholed as a woman astronaut or a Jewish astronaut. She told her father, optometrist Marvin Resnik of Akron, Ohio, that she wanted to be considered ''just another astronaut, period.''

Resnik, 36, was aboard Challenger on Tuesday as a mission specialist. She was single, lived near Houston and had logged nearly 145 hours in space.

In Akron, her hometown, Resnik is remembered as ''quite a hero for young females,'' said Don Plusquellic, Akron's city council president. Plusquellic sat beside Resnik when the city held a gala Judy Resnik Day on Oct. 18, 1984. He brought home an autographed photo of Resnik for his 10-year- old daughter, a fan who had shown little interest in the space program until Resnik entered the limelight.

At Akron's Firestone High School, where Resnik graduated in 1966, math teacher Donald Nutter, in an interview with a local radio station, remembered her as an ''excellent science and math student, a delightful young lady.''

Resnik had no inkling that she wanted to become an astronaut until her late 20s. In 1970 she graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. She received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1977.

She researched the physiology of visual systems, the subject of her doctoral thesis, while at the neurophysiology laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Jeffery Barker, a colleague of Resnik's in the mid-1970s and now head of the laboratory, described her as ''competent, quick and talented. . . . Everyone knew that she was destined for stardom, in a sense, because she was so good when she was here working on her thesis.''

Resnik didn't earn her pilot's license -- her first step toward becoming an astronaut -- until she left the National Institutes of Health in 1977 and took a job as a senior systems engineer with Xerox Corp. in El Segundo, Calif. ''She never talked about doing anything like flying off into the air, let alone space. I was very surprised when I heard that she was applying to the space program,'' said Barker.

A poster at Xerox prompted Resnik to apply to NASA, and in 1978 the space agency accepted her into the program. Said Barker, ''I think she eclipsed all of her own expectations and made great contributions to the space program.''

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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