Breaking Barriers: An Astronaut’s Inspiring & Winding Road to Space

10:45 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

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. 



Joan Higginbotham

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

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 and retired in 2007 after 20 years with NASA, joining Marathon Oil to manage their corporate social responsibility office.

Currently, she is the director of open innovation at Collins Aerospace, sourcing cutting-edge technologies to close current technology gaps and future technology needs. Previously, Higginbotham managed the relationships with governmental agencies and companies involved in human space exploration and served as director of corporate social responsibility. Prior to Collins Aerospace, 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. 


Leadership: Accessing Your Inner Superhero Powers

4:45 p.m. - 5:45 p.m.

There are a number of leadership styles and they are all effective and ineffective. Leadership is not a one size fits all quality. Rather, leadership is about adapting to situations and understanding what style is most needed for the context. Captain America is a strategist who understands the bigger picture and uses collaboration; Wonder Woman is action oriented and jumps in to help in a crisis; Black Panther honors tradition and hones it with technology; Black Widow doesn’t have the flashy super powers her peers do but she uses training and knowledge to face down a challenge. 

It is important to use tools (e.g. DiSC) to understand where your tendencies are and what you want to further develop. Understanding what the context needs is key – which of your inner superheroes should you channel? Reading the context takes experience, skill, knowledge – and time.

A great way to hone your skills is volunteering. Volunteerism in general, and with AAMFT specifically, requires a leadership growth and developmental process that accentuates your strengths and provides space for others to contribute. The process is very clear: research, ask good questions, understand the context, weigh options, then decide. Each step along the way could demand a different leadership style. In our session, we will work through a real-life example and spend some time discussing how to assess a situation and determine what approach is needed. 

Throughout our  time, leadership opportunities within AAMFT will be highlighted as well as the typical skills, knowledge and experience needed. You will leave our time knowing when and what to call on from your inner superhero skills.


Tracy Todd, PhD

Tracy has served as the CEO of AAMFT since 2012 and has been on staff since 2008. Previous to his time with AAMFT, he was in private practice for nearly 20 years in Denver, CO. He received his PhD in  marriage and family therapy from Iowa State University and his masters was from Texas Tech University.  Tracy is one of three recipients of the AAMFT Practice Award which he received in 2000.