'Space exploration is hard. We make it look easy,' says longtime NASA director from Schaumburg
With her family having just moved to Schaumburg in the summer of 1969, 3½-year-old Cathy Larson watched the moon landing on a black-and-white television in the new family room.
"I remember my mom crying during the event, and me not understanding why she was upset. She tried to explain that this was something previously considered impossible," says the woman now known as Catherine Koerner. "My recollection was me thinking, 'Of course we can go to the moon. We can go anywhere we want to if we put our minds to it. This is America!' I still believe that to be true."
I n her more than 25 years at NASA, Koerner has played a role in sending astronauts where they are supposed to go.
Since 2016, Koerner has been director of the department that works on improving and maintaining crew health and performance while mitigating the risks associated with human spaceflight.
Before that, she spent 17 years working in Mission Control, seven of them as flight director for Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions.
"If you've seen the movie, 'Apollo 13,' it's the Gene Kranz character played by Ed Harris," Koerner says of her flight director job. "I just don't have a crew cut."
One of three daughters and two sons of former Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson and Nancy Larson, Koerner says her parents broke stereotypical gender lines to buy them all "tech toys" that spurred her interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
It wasn't until after she started her NASA career that Koerner found a photograph of her younger sister's childhood birthday party, where one of the presents was a Space Control Center toy.
Putting a man on the moon remains one of the greatest human accomplishments, says Koerner, who also thinks the International Space Station ranks alongside the Apollo missions.
"Space exploration is hard. We make it look easy," says Koerner, who adds that we aren't done.
"When we go back to the moon, this time to establish a more permanent presence, our technology will help us do more with less. We will have more automation, lighter-weight material, faster computing capability … and it will cost less than Apollo did when comparing current-year dollars," Koerner says.
"We are working to create an entire industry, much like the government did in the early days of aviation. We are essentially trying to create the ability for average folks to buy a ticket to ride into space on a commercial spacecraft and rocket, just like they would buy a ticket on their favorite airline to fly to, say, Texas."
From her perch in the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Koerner says the moon landing remains an influence for her and everyone from her generation.
"And yes, at one point I did want to be an astronaut," Koerner says. "However, after working at NASA for over 25 years, and learning more about what career astronauts experience, I'm content to keep my feet on the ground."