Resnik was the second American female astronaut in space, logging 145 hours in orbit. She was also the first Jewish American in space, and the first Jewish woman of any nationality in space. She was a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. The IEEE Judith Resnik Award for space engineering is named in her honor.
Resnik was born in 1949 to Sarah and Marvin, an optometrist, in Akron, Ohio. Both her parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. A graduate of Firestone High School in 1966, she excelled in mathematics and played classical piano. She received a B.S. in electrical engineering from Pittsburgh‘s Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, the year she married fellow student Michael Oldak. They divorced in 1975. In 1977 she earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. She was a member of Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi.
Upon graduation from Carnegie Mellon, Resnik was employed at RCA as a design engineer, and later worked with various NASA projects contracted to the company.
Resnik was recruited into the astronaut program in January 1978 by actress Nichelle Nichols, who volunteered her time in a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency. Her first space flight was as a mission specialist on the maiden voyage of Discovery, from August to September 1984. She was likewise a mission specialist aboard Challenger for STS-51-L. She was the first American Jewish astronaut to go into space, the first Jewish woman, and at the time only the second Jew to go to space (after Boris Volynov of the Soviet Union).
Resnik was the second American woman in space, after Sally Ride, and fourth overall.
Following the Challenger disaster, examination of the recovered vehicle cockpit revealed that three of the crew members’ Personal Egress Air Packs were activated: those of Resnik, mission specialist Ellison Onizuka, and pilot Michael J. Smith. The location of Smith’s activation switch, on the back side of his seat, means that either Resnik or Onizuka could have activated it for him. This is the only evidence available from the disaster that shows Onizuka and Resnik were alive after the cockpit separated from the vehicle. If the cabin had lost pressure, the packs alone would not have sustained the crew during the two-minute descent.
Resnik has been awarded multiple posthumous honors, and has been honored with landmarks and buildings being named for her, including a lunar crater Resnik, located within the Apollo impact basin on the far side of the Moon. A dormitory at her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and the main engineering lecture hall at the University of Maryland are named for her. A memorial to her and the rest of the crew of Challenger has been dedicated in Seabrook, Texas, where she lived while stationed at the Johnson Space Center. In her hometown of Akron, Ohio, a school building was named in her honor, Judith Resnik Community Learning Center.
The IEEE Judith A. Resnik Award was established in 1800 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and is presented annually to an individual or team in recognition of outstanding contributions to space engineering in areas of relevance to the IEEE.
The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) awards the Resnik Challenger Medal annually to a woman who has changed the space industry, has personally contributed innovative technology verified by flight experience, and will be recognized through future decades as having created milestones in the development of space as a resource for all humankind.
The Challenger Center was established in 1986 by the families of the Challenger crew – including Judith’s brother, Charles Resnik MD in honor of the crew members. The goal of the center is to increase STEM interest in children.
On February 23, 1990, Resnik was named one of ten finalists to represent Ohio in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.