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Coleman Visits Campus Ahead of Commencement

Coleman Visits Campus Ahead of Commencement

Northfield Mount Hermon recently welcomed retired NASA astronaut Cady Coleman P’02, ’19 to campus. Coleman, who will be the keynote speaker at this year’s NMH Commencement, spent the day on campus sharing her wisdom, advice, and many fascinating career experiences with the community. 

Astronaut cady coleman take a picture of students from the lecturn in the chapel

After an early breakfast with class leaders and advisors, Coleman embarked on a full day of activities that included visits to classes, lunch with students, and chats with faculty and Head of School Brian Hargrove.

At Monday Morning Meeting, Coleman shared that she had never stood at the chapel lectern. “I’ve been to many NMH functions. I’ve been out there,” she said, gesturing to students in the pews, “but I’ve never been in this place. …

“I speak at a lot of schools, but I’ve always wanted to come to speak to this audience,” she continued. “All educations are valuable, but NMH is special in that you learn to trust each other to work together.” 

Coleman spoke about “Space: The Longest Goodbye,” a new documentary film that she and her family participated in that focuses on the psychological preparation and real-time challenges astronauts face during their missions. Her message to students during this busy time of year reflected lessons learned in her professional life: “Sleep, be brave, and be open.”

Later, in an astronomy class, Coleman discussed some of the experiments she participated in during her nearly six months on the International Space Station. (Her time with NASA spanned 24 years.) She also discussed some of the challenges, including a lack of diversity in the field. “I grew my hair long before the last mission so that girls could recognize themselves when they saw me,” she said.

cady coleman gestures to a student and smiles in the chapel

Students were eager to ask questions: What were her biggest psychological challenges? Missing her family. How did she use the bathroom in space? Through a vacuum process. How did she sleep? In a sleeping bag that could be tethered to a fixed object.

“What would you say to someone who said space travel isn’t important?” asked Rafi Shalabi ’24.

"Well, I would say that so much of what happens in space travel actually does come right back down to earth — the research that we can do, just having new instruments for astronomy, new ways to measure. It's hard to do some of the experiments down here on the ground,” Coleman responded. By way of example, she pointed to work on growing plants that could live on Mars. “We are learning how to grow things in places where there's not good soil and there's not good light or water.”

In the afternoon, Coleman spoke with the cast of “Silent Sky,” NMH’s spring play, which is about groundbreaking 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Coleman first developed her public speaking skills performing in a dinner theater program initiated by her high school drama teacher. “I learned that I could do things I never thought I could do,” she said. “Sometimes, we just need to be on stage.” 

Cady coleman speaks to a group of theater students in a circle

Coleman also discussed a central theme in “Silent Sky”: the gender biases women often face in their careers. “When these situations come up, it probably has very little to do with you personally,” she said. “Unfortunately, you have to deal with it personally. You have to show up as you are and know that you are enough. That is actually a phrase that helps me a lot at work sometimes.” 

That resonated with Gillian Wiles ’25. “I admire your ability to prove people wrong,” Wiles said. “That's one thing I aspire to do, too.” 

Wiles also had a question. “What’s it like to be in space? That’s the coolest thing ever. You’ve literally been out of this world,” she said. 

“It’s magical,” Coleman said. “One of my colleagues said it best: ‘If I could bring my family with me, there's really no reason to come home.’” 

As Coleman said earlier in the day, in the astronomy class, “I always thought space would be somewhere else. And once I got to go live there, I didn't feel like not an Earthling. I still felt like this is home; it's just that home is bigger than we thought. And there's something about us that's just always going to want to go farther and see what else is out there. And that's an important human thing.”

“Space: The Longest Goodbye” will stream on PBS beginning May 8. 

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