Profiles in Leadership: Joan Higginbotham

June 10, 2019

Joan Higginbotham had a plan: After graduating college, she was going to work at IBM. But shortly before receiving her diploma, the company instituted a hiring freeze. However, Higginbotham’s academic work was exceptional, so she had other options, including a job offer from NASA.

Two weeks after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Higginbotham started working as a payload electrical engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A mere six months later, she was chosen to lead the orbiter experiments for the Space Shuttle Columbia. From there she held multiple positions of increasing responsibility, including managing payload bay reconfigurations for shuttle missions, serving as the Executive Staff Assistant to the Director of Shuttle Operations and Management and holding a technical lead government engineering position in the “Firing Room,” the location with all the computers and monitors for shuttle launches were managed on the ground. She worked a total of 53 shuttle launches over nine years at the Kennedy Space Center.

However, Higginbotham had bigger dreams. She wanted to go into space herself, but competition was fierce. To improve her credentials, she went back to school and got a masters degree in Management Science – all while still working fulltime for NASA – but was passed over. Undeterred, Higginbotham kept her job and earned a second masters, this time in Space Systems. That year NASA selected her as an astronaut candidate.

Higginbotham became the third African American woman to go into space and logged over 300 hours outside our planet as the mission specialist on the space shuttle Discovery. Though she is now retired from NASA, her exceptional intelligence, determination and leadership continue to inspire others to reach for the stars.

Joan Higginbotham is one of the leaders giving a speech during the convention’s General Session, which is taking place Sunday, June 23, at 3:30 – 5:15 p.m. in the Chatham Ballroom at the Savannah Convention Center. For more information, click here

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