Joan Higginbotham

Retired NASA Astronaut, Electrical Engineer, & Third African American Woman in Space

Speaker Joan Higginbotham
  • Third African American woman to travel into space
  • Distinguished 20-year career with NASA as a real life rocket-scientist and astronaut, logging more than 308 hours in space
  • Inspires audiences with her trailblazing journey into space and beyond, sharing how to tackle any endeavor like a NASA astronaut for success

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A former NASA astronaut, Joan Higginbotham is a trailblazing electrical engineer who, in December 2006, flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 to become the third African American woman to travel into space. Over the nearly 13-day mission, she joined the seven-member crew to continue construction of the International Space Station (ISS), embarking on four space walks and operating the station’s robotic arm.

Exclusively represented by Leading Authorities speakers bureau, Higginbotham inspires audiences with her personal journey of breaking barriers into space and beyond. Taking groups aboard the International Space Station and sharing her lessons-learned along the way, she highlights the keys to succeeding in her missions – including seizing opportunities, being prepared, perseverance, and never giving up – and how these tactics can be applied to any endeavor. Sharing captivating insights from her 20-year distinguished career with NASA, she offers groups a fresh, unique perspective on stress management, teamwork, driving diversity, and social impact, and provides actionable strategies to work through and thrive in demanding, high-stakes environments.

A real-life rocket scientist, Higginbotham began her career at NASA in 1987 as an aerospace technologist at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, where she worked her way through numerous promotions and actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches during her 9-year tenure. Selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1996, she reported to the Johnson Space Center, with various technical duties including testing modules of the ISS for operability, compatibility, and functionality prior to launch. Higginbotham has logged more than 308 hours in space and retired in 2007 after 20 years with NASA, joining Marathon Oil to manage their corporate social responsibility office.

Currently, she manages relationships with governmental agencies and companies involved in human space exploration at Collins Aerospace. Previously, Higginbotham served as director of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for UTC Aerospace Systems, focused on creating a stronger CSR identity that delivered social impact in key markets around the world. Prior to UTC Aerospace Systems, she held multiple director positions at Lowe’s Companies, Inc., leading their community relations, supplier diversity, and global sourcing efforts.

Widely recognized for her accomplishments, Higginbotham has been honored by President George W. Bush at the 81st White House Black History Month Celebration, featured in Alicia Keys’ Superwoman video, is the recipient of the National Space Medal, the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Award, and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and was named one of Savoy Magazine’s Top Influential Women in Corporate America and one of Essence Magazine’s Top 50 Women, among other accolades.

Born in Chicago, IL, Higginbotham received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIU-C), a Master of Science Degree in Management from the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), a Master of Science Degree in Space Systems from FIT, an Honorary Doctorate in Aerospace Science from SIU-C, and an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities from the University of New Orleans. 

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Speaker Video

An astronaut's inspiring and winding road to space | Joan Higginbotham | TEDxBermuda

Michael P Anderson Program: Astronaut Joan Higginbotham

Breaking Barriers: An Astronaut’s Inspiring & Winding Road to Space. Becoming an astronaut wasn’t always a dream for Joan Higginbotham – she wanted to pursue a career in electrical engineering. But when NASA called, she answered. After 9 years working as a NASA rocket scientist, Higginbotham was one of 6,000 people to apply and 122 to be interviewed for the astronaut program. But, ultimately was not chosen. Not a fan of taking “no” for an answer, she didn’t give up and went back to school to receive another graduate degree – becoming accepted as a NASA astronaut candidate in 1996. An inspiring story of the power of seizing opportunities, a strong work ethic, and never giving up, Higginbotham shares how she became the third-ever African American female in space. Taking audiences along her December 2006 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and using captivating, real-life examples from space, she shares how preparation, teamwork, seeking mentors, and perseverance were key to her success, and demonstrates how these lessons-learned can expand beyond the ISS and be applied to anyone’s circumstances.

Managing Stress in High-Stakes Environments. Retired NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham is no stranger to working in high-pressure environments. In this talk, she draws on her time working through demanding situations – not only in space, but also on the ground participating in 53 different space shuttle launches with her colleagues’ lives on the line – to offer a unique perspective on dealing with stress and challenges under pressure. Through preparation, hard work, bonding with your team, and not letting yourself feel defeated, Higginbotham will demonstrate to audiences how to power through any challenge and handle high-stakes operations like a NASA astronaut.

Down to Earth: Driving Corporate Social Responsibility & Social Impact. After retiring as a NASA astronaut, Joan Higginbotham has been actively involved in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space for more than a decade. From managing the Bioko Island Malaria Control Project at Marathon Oil and supporting communities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico through corporate contributions at Lowes to directing CSR at UTC Aerospace Systems, Higginbotham speaks from experience on how to create a stronger corporate social responsibility identity. She’ll provide the strategies she’s used to drive social impact across sectors, and share how audiences can do the same.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion from an Astronaut’s Perspective. The third African American woman to travel into space, Joan Higginbotham is known for breaking barriers in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Using her own space mission STS-116 as an example, comprised of seven members from different backgrounds and experiences, she demonstrates the power of diverse teams working together to accomplish one goal. Higginbotham will look at why expanding diversity is ultimately key to success for any project, explaining “If we can do it in this tin can, why can’t we do it down on Earth where there is so much more space?”

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