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Judith Resnik leaves lasting legacy

1/27/2011 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Jan. 28 marks 25th anniversary of Challenger explosion

Judith Resnik, a mission specialist on the Challenger Space Shuttle, had logged nearly 145 hours in space, and was only the second American woman in space with the Discovery Space Shuttle mission in August 1984.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Coverage of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion included this front-page photo in the Feb. 4, 1986, West Side Leader. It shows the flag at Firestone High School lowered to half-mast in honor of those killed, including alumna Judith Resnik, an astronaut on the Challenger.
File photo
WEST AKRON — The family of Judith Resnik doesn’t want to remember her only for her role as one of seven astronauts who died in the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, which happened 25 years ago this week.

Instead, they like to focus on her triumph as she became the second American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Discovery in August 1984, according to her cousin, Helene Norin, of West Akron.

“The whole family went down for that mission,” Norin said. “Then it was rescheduled because of technical delays. Everyone went home, but [my son] Mark and I were among those who went back for the rescheduled liftoff. That’s the memory we focus on.”

“There was so much pride and excitement,” said Mark Norin, also of West Akron.

In 2003, the Firestone High School grounds became the site of an Ohio Historical Marker honoring astronaut Judith Resnik, a member of the Class of 1966.
Photo: Kathleen Folkerth
West Akron resident Mark Norin, the son of Judith Resnik’s first cousin Helene Norin, spoke at the Judith Resnik Community Learning Center ribbon-cutting Dec. 16, 2006.
Photo: Krista Galloway
Resnik, who was a mission specialist on that flight, logged nearly 145 hours in space, according to her biography from NASA. That experience changed the West Akron native, said Helene Norin, who recalled going to see Resnik speak to a capacity crowd at Tangier after her achievement.

“She was really a very private person,” said Helene Norin, whose father was the brother of Resnik’s father, Marvin. “There was a private persona and a professional one. As private as she was, after the Discovery mission she really became such a really good public speaker.”

Resnik was born and raised in Akron and attended Fairlawn Elementary, Litchfield Middle and Firestone High schools, graduating in the Class of 1966.

Helene Norin said her cousin was bright and interested in the sciences. The large extended Resnik family has always placed a great deal of emphasis on academic achievement, she said, and Resnik was no exception.

“She had wonderful potential in piano,” Helene Norin said. “I loved to hear her play. But science is what really drew her.”

Resnik received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. In her professional career, she worked for RCA beginning in 1971 as a design engineer, which included doing some engineering support for NASA sounding rocket and telemetry systems programs. From 1974 to 1977 she was a biomedical engineer and staff fellow in the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. She worked for about a year as a senior systems engineer in product development with Xerox before being selected by NASA in 1978.

Helene Norin said that around that time, NASA began accepting women into its program, and Resnik saw that as a great opportunity.

“When she heard NASA was looking to incorporate female astronauts, immediately it just grabbed her,” she said. “She worked hard for that.”

Helene Norin said since so many of the family members were involved with Resnik’s first shuttle trip, when the time came for her to be on the Challenger it wasn’t on the top of everyone’s mind.

Norin, an audiologist, was with a patient in her Medina office when the launch took place on Jan. 28, 1986. Her brother called her from California to tell her about the explosion that followed the launch.

“He said, ‘Helene, you’d better sit down,’” she remembered. At that moment, her husband and receptionist from her Akron office came in to bring her home because they knew she wouldn’t be able to make the drive herself.

“It was just shocking,” she said. “Part of the shock was Judy was confident. She always said NASA had ‘redundant’ safety features built in. They never thought that anything could go wrong. They had so many checks and rechecks.”

Mark Norin was a freshman at Ohio University. He thought the launch was scheduled for later in the day, so he was surprised when he was leaving his dorm for a class and saw residents gathered around the TV set following the explosion.

“I was just crushed,” he said. “I had a cousin also there, so I went to find him and found out his parents were already on their way to pick us up and take us back to Akron.”

As the nation mourned the loss of Resnik, 36, and her fellow astronauts, which included the famed “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe, plans were made to celebrate her life here. A public memorial service took place at Firestone High School on Feb. 3.

“My uncle, who was so brave through all of this, spoke there,” Helene Norin said. She added there was also a service held at Temple Israel in West Akron.

According to an article on the Firestone service in the Feb. 4, 1986, West Side Leader, Resnik’s framed photo was the first placed in the school’s commons area on the Wall of Fame. Current Firestone Principal Larry Petry said there are now 10 alumni on the wall. He said the library at Firestone also was named in honor of Resnik.

The school honors her memory annually on or around Jan. 28 with remarks from science teacher Christine Milcetich and a moment of silence. In 2003, the school grounds became the site of an Ohio Historical Marker honoring Resnik.

In 2004, as Akron Public Schools officials began planning for a new Fairlawn Elementary School building, the district’s Board of Education voted to name the rebuilt school after Resnik. The Judith A. Resnik Community Learning Center opened in 2006.

The Norin family said they are pleased to see that Resnik is being remembered through the schools and a scholarship offered through the district.

“Most of this focused on the academic aspect of her life,” Helene Norin said. “And that’s her legacy, to inspire students.”

“It’s great that the city embraced her really as their daughter,” said Mark Norin. “For the people who grew up with her, they’re really happy that Akron is remembering her in this great way.” 

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