Arnold AFB captain is shooting for the stars

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  • By 200895
Thirteen-year-old Catercia (Cat) Isaac sat in front of the family television, captivated by the images of the Challenger's crew and then the spacecraft as it underwent the final countdown on the launch pad prior to its ill-fated final flight. It proved to be a watershed event for the young teen.

"For awhile I wanted to be a doctor and then all that changed in 1986 when Challenger happened," said the Air Force captain. "I remember sitting in front of the TV watching the events leading up to the launch. I realized that was what I want to do. So, I switched my entire mindset from medicine to science."

A coworker asked her why the experience had such a profound influence on her life, given the outcome of the final mission.

"It wasn't the outcome, it was the destination," explained Captain Isaac, the Air Force test manager for Arnold Engineering Development Center's (AEDC) space chamber simulation facilities. "Even through the tragedy and loss I saw the potential and what could be. It was the determination of those brave folks to make it into space that caught my interest in the first place.

"The fact that they lost their lives trying to live out a dream made it all the more real and special to me, to the point that I wanted to live that dream. No matter how dangerous it is, and if I lose my life in the process, it would be worth it because I was living out my dream, just like the Challenger astronauts."

Prior to the breakup of the spacecraft and deaths of the seven crew members, Challenger had successfully completed nine missions and broke new ground by carrying the first American woman, African-American and Canadian into space.

Captain Isaac said her decision to join the military was driven by her aspirations, but it also made sense considering both her parents had served in the Air Force.

Their influence did a lot to shape her life, including the family values she adopted, her love of reading, traveling and a deep appreciation for different cultures.

Traveling with her parents was an adventure, something she enjoyed and looked forward to from the time she was three until graduating from high school. Her parents' love of science fiction also "trickled down to me." She traces her love of history to her father's career as a historian.

As a teenager, she already knew college and a career as an Air Force officer were in her future.

Captain Isaac said her goal of becoming an astronaut and a growing fascination with science set the stage for college, but it took her in an unexpected direction.

"At first I wanted to do astrophysics or aeronautical engineering, but to get to that point you have to take physics," she said.

As it turned out, she enjoyed her classes so much she decided to go for an undergraduate degree in physics.

"I find science fascinating," she said. "I'm intrigued by what's involved when you think about gravity and the laws of motion. They're fascinating because you see them in everyday life. What makes the apple fall from the tree, or what keeps the earth rotating? Okay, I understand now. And then there is the history of it all. Who discovered what and so forth."

Captain Isaac reported for duty at AEDC late last August and she has enjoyed her work within chambers.

"I'm still learning and every facet of it is fascinating to me right now," she said, explaining a lull in testing is allowing her team to prepare for a busy schedule. "If everything comes together, I think chambers will be very busy next year. We're already starting to get folks in here. It has taken a while but we're now starting to get there."

Captain Isaac said her current assignment is significantly different than her previous job.

"This is a different working environment than my last assignment at Kirtland AFB.

There I could say that I built lasers," she said. "Here, I tell people that we test satellites and satellite components. People bring in their test articles, their satellites; their cameras or sensors, and we test them and make sure that they'll function properly in their intended environment.

When she isn't busy helping to prepare multi-million dollar ground testing facilities to test the next generation of satellites and sensors, Captain Isaac enjoys reading or planning her next trip abroad to Italy or Japan, a place she considers a second home.

She also loves to sing, especially gospel music, but only in a group setting.

"My parents are both singers, so, naturally they would always have me in the children's choir," she recalled. "They said I've been singing since I was three, in one form or another. I've always been involved in church choirs and later in school choirs. In high school, my senior year I was selected to go to an all-state choir, which is not easy to get into. That was in Colorado."

Traveling is more than just a chance to visit another country. She and her family still maintain close friendships with people they had met while living overseas.

"My parents and I are still in contact with several Japanese families that we were close to when we lived in Japan. It was from these families that I learned to have a deep appreciation for other cultures."

She also has visited China, Germany, Brazil, Thailand, Korea, France and Australia, but Japan is one of her favorite places and the location of her first duty station.

"I grew up there, that's home to me," she said. "As a scientist, it's doubtful I'll be stationed there again, so I try to go over on leave every two years."

She is excited about her future and is still working toward her goal to become an astronaut. Her advice to young people is straightforward.

"You can do anything, just don't let being a female or being a certain color stop you from doing anything," she said. "There are a lot of young girls I've talked to who are African American or Hispanic, they don't see outside of their little box. I tell them not to get stuck in one area, stuck in a stereotype - the sky's the limit. You can go anywhere and be anything."

Captain Isaac would also be the first to admit the road to one's dreams is not attained without sacrifices and hard work. But even through the struggle to get where she is, her eyes are forever focused on the stars.

"I've got the scientific background," she said. "Now I need to work on completing that master's degree in astrophysics like I wanted to, but had to put on hold for awhile. Once that happens, it will be on to the application process - I also have a couple of mentors who work at NASA, who've been giving me great advice."

Although she is focused on the future, Captain Isaac also knows about her past.

She has an ancestry that is rooted in history and diverse nationalities, including a genealogical lineage her family has traced back to former President Thomas Jefferson. One can only wonder what her great-grandmother (who was a Blackfoot Indian and a slave) say about the path her great-granddaughter has chosen to blaze.