Joan Higginbotham

Retired NASA Astronaut, Rocket Scientist, 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 retired NASA astronaut, Joan Higginbotham is a trailblazing electrical engineer, who in December 2006, flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery to become the third African American woman to travel into space. On the nearly 13-day mission, the seven-member crew continued construction of the International Space Station (ISS), embarking on four space walks with Higginbotham operating the station’s robotic arm. 

Exclusively represented by Leading Authorities speakers bureau, Higginbotham utilizes the International Space Station as the backdrop for sharing insights and lessons learned during her 20-year distinguished career with NASA, while inspiring and captivating audiences with her personal journey of breaking barriers to boldly go where few have gone: space. In doing so, she highlights the keys to succeeding in her missions – including seizing opportunities, being prepared, perseverance, working with diverse teams, and thriving in demanding, high-stakes environments – as well as how these tactics can be applied to any endeavor.

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 and was assigned 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, retiring in 2007 after 20 years with NASA, joining Marathon Oil to manage their corporate social responsibility office and the Bioko Island Malaria Control Program in Equatorial Guinea, Africa.

Higginbotham has had a storied career, serving as director of open innovation at Collins Aerospace, sourcing cutting-edge technologies to close current technology gaps and meet future technology needs. Prior to that role, Higginbotham managed the relationships with governmental agencies and public and private companies involved in human space exploration and also served as director of corporate social responsibility. Preceding her time at Collins Aerospace, she held multiple director positions at Lowe’s Companies, Inc., leading their community relations, supplier diversity, and global sourcing efforts. In April 2022, she stepped out on faith, resigned from corporate America, and launched her own aerospace consulting firm, Joan Higginbotham Ad Astra LLC.

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. Captivating audiences by taking them aboard her STS-116 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS), she reveals how preparation, passion, and perseverance were key to her successful voyage into space and how the lessons she learned during this journey blur the lines between Earth and space. 

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. Since retiring as a NASA astronaut, Joan Higginbotham has been actively involved in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space. 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 Lowe’s to directing CSR at Collins Aerospace (formerly 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 draws from her experiences as part of the integrated crews (also known at the “mini United Nations” crew) that carried out space mission STS-116 and the space station crew to lead a paradigm-shifting session that illustrates the power of a diverse team working together to accomplish a shared goal. She further explores how the overview effect, a cognitive shift in awareness after seeing Earth from space, enabled her to break through one of the biggest diversity, equity, and inclusion barriers of all ... accepting people for who they are. 

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