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#TGW: The Sky's Not the Limit

Feb. 6, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

– Dr. Jan Davis does not want youngsters to think that the sky is the limit when it comes to following their dreams. That’s simply not high enough.

“The sky’s not the limit,” she said.

Davis, Class of 1975 and Georgia Tech’s first female graduate to be chosen as an astronaut by NASA, for whom she flew three missions on the Space Shuttle, joined President G.P. Peterson and First Lady Val Peterson as one of three guest coaches for the Yellow Jackets in their game Thursday night against No. 13/11 North Carolina.

It was part of Georgia Tech’s celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Davis also was honored in a halftime ceremony as part of the Women Out Front class of 2014, which recognized 10 women for their positive influence in the community.

While she admitted she had little to offer Coach MaChelle Joseph’s strategy-wise, during the game, Davis enjoyed meeting the team at its Thursday afternoon shootaround and giving a pre-game talk.

“I don’t know anything about coaching basketball, but I know a lot about doing things that are hard to do,” said the 59-year-old Cocoa Beach, Fla., native, who calls Huntsville, Ala., home. “Hopefully I said some words of inspiration to them. As I was a student here at Tech, I hope that meant a lot.”

It meant a lot to Joseph.

“It was really exciting for our program to have someone like Jan Davis, who is the first female astronaut from Georgia Tech, come by shooting practice and show that type of support for not only for Georgia Tech, but for our women’s basketball program,” she said. “It’s such a great example for our young student-athletes to see what a female has done and accomplished with a degree from Georgia Tech.”

Davis said she admires not only the current Yellow Jackets women’s basketball team but also the softball, women’s tennis, swimming and diving and volleyball teams — all of which were in attendance to meet fans for a pregame Q&A in the Callaway Club — for their ability to balance academic and athletic excellence.

“It’s amazing that we have women in sports at Georgia Tech at the varsity level with NCAA sports, because we didn’t have that when I was a student,” she recalled. “I was an athlete myself. My sport, though, was ice skating, which is not a team sport or a varsity sport.

“But I’m a strong believer in the things that being an athlete teaches you, especially for these young women who are students at Georgia Tech, too,” she continued. “That they’re able to do those things, I’m very proud of Georgia Tech for having these teams and how well they’re doing and how well the coaches are doing. I think that’s just fantastic for the university. We’ve really come a long way since the early `70s, when I was here.”

How far Davis came in that time is equally inspiring. After getting her degree from Tech she got another degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn in 1977. She’d later receive a master of science and doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1983 and ’85 from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

After working for Texaco, she got a job in 1979 with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, as an aerospace engineer. She would lead a group that was instrumental in developing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Becoming an astronaut was inspired in 1978, when Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut chosen to ride on the shuttle. That meant expanding her skill set.

“It was about that time I thought, `That would really be something I would like to aspire to,'” she said. “I was an engineer at NASA, working on the Hubble Space Telescope as a mechanical space engineer, structural engineer. I started doing things I thought might help, like becoming a pilot and becoming a scuba diver and getting more education, graduate school. So I did that.”

It also required perseverance.

“I just kept applying and the third time I made it,” she recalled. “The first time that I applied, there were like 5,000 people who applied, and they interviewed 120 people. I was happy just to be interviewed to make it to that 120,” she said. “That year I did not get selected. It just gave me motivation, the persistence, to keep going to get those degrees, finish my Ph.D. Do what I thought it would take to have a better chance the next time.”

The third time was a charm as in June, 1987, Davis was selected. She made her first flight on the shuttle in 1992 as a mission specialist, went again in the same capacity in 1994, then was the payload commander in 1997. She put in 673 hours in space in those three flights.

Davis retired from NASA in 2005 and is currently working with NASA contractor Jacobs Sverdrup Engineering, Science, and Technical Services.

Joseph believes that her team gained immeasurably just by spending time with Davis.

“Hearing her share her stories with our players about how many times she has been around the world and how many times she has been to space just gave them an example of how you can do anything if you set your mind to it,” said Joseph. “It’s a great compliment to our program to have the opportunity to interact with her.”

Davis hopes she inspired the Yellow Jackets on Thursday and for the rest of their lives the way that Ride inspired her, regardless of their arena of choice.

“I feel like I can maybe inspire them to think of what they can do that’s a dream of theirs,” she said. “Not necessarily being an astronaut, but whatever dream they have that they can do it. I hope that I said a few things tonight that might be motivational and make these young women athletes realize what a tremendous opportunity they have here and how bright their future is if you set goals and work hard to achieve them — even if it seems like a crazy dream.”

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