Annabelle Boak and Violet Dempsey, Student Journalists, met with Sarah Gillis for this interview on November 14, 2022, at the CU Aerospace Engineering Building. Sarah and her crew are set to launch and orbit the earth for five days sometime in spring 2023. Learn more about the mission here: POLARIS DAWN.
Annabelle Boak, 8th grade student at Shining Mountain Waldorf School (SMWS), 0:03
I’m so honored to be here. And just before the interview, I was thinking that the phrase “the sky’s the limit” doesn’t really apply anymore to you. And I’m just so honored to be talking to you.
Sarah Gillis, SMWS Class of 2012, Current Lead Engineer and Astronaut for SpaceX, 0:17
It’s absolutely wonderful to be here. I’m so glad that you were able to come out.
First, how are you feeling about this mission?
Sarah Gillis 0:25
Super excited, frankly. We definitely have a ways to go; we still are going through training and we have a lot of work ahead of us. But it’s been just really an incredible experience to work with this crew and work with the team on this whole journey.
How do you think your experience as a Shining Mountain Waldorf School student led you to your path?
Sarah Gillis 0:59
I feel like one of the really important things that you get out of a Waldorf education is curiosity—curiosity to go and learn and explore what’s out there in the world. I fell into engineering and a path that I don’t think I would have anticipated, but having an arts background where you’re bringing creativity and imagination into problem solving, there’s a really incredible synergy between those. So I think between the ability to learn, and the curiosity to [use] imagination to solve problems, somehow, this is where it brought me.
If we were to talk to 10 year old Sarah, what would you said she wanted to do when she grew up?
Sarah Gillis 1:53
I think at 10 years old, I wanted to join the circus. I think that was right around the age when we were doing a lot of aerial and juggling and all sorts of circus arts activities. And I think at that age, that is probably what I would have said.
Sounds familiar! What’s the most impactful advice you’ve ever received, whether it was when you were 10 year old Sarah wanting to join the circus, or recently?
Sarah Gillis 2:30
I think there’s lots of incredible advice, the one that comes to mind just because it happened this last weekend was, ‘if you ever want to change yourself or learn more about yourself, change your environment.’ And so just like taking yourself out of a situation and putting yourself in a totally new situation affords this amazing opportunity to discover new and different sides of yourself and find different interests and different passions that you might never knew you had otherwise. So just changing your environment and that that’s a very good and healthy thing to do.
And speaking of different facets of a person, I’ve heard you might have played violin at some point. So was that a career you were hoping to pursue?
Sarah Gillis 3:18
You know, I grew up entirely surrounded by music. My mother was a violin teacher and she started all of us when I was about this big and could barely hold a crackerjack box shaped violin. But it’s been a part of who I was the entire time. I can’t say that I ever really thought I would pursue a career in music. I think my mom would have loved it if I had, but I think more importantly, it has just become really ingrained in who I am and allowed me to see the world in a specific way. I think this is a really good example of, even if you are in the arts, it doesn’t mean you’re limited to the arts; you can do science, you can be both, and you’re actually more whole as a person if you can see both sides of that and experience both of them.
What was your favorite subject at school?
Sarah Gillis 4:18
I think it changed over the years. For many years, it was probably handwork and getting to create stuff handwork, woodwork, even like blacksmithing; classes where you get to create stuff with your hands. And then probably in high school was more on the math side, which is probably what led me into engineering ultimately. But I think they’re related in lots of ways.
Well, since your lovely colleagues are there, do you have a special bond with them, knowing that you’re going to share some incredible experiences with them?
Sarah Gillis 4:52
I love my crew. I think they’re fantastic. I don’t think I could have picked a better crew if I had a real say in the matter. But I couldn’t have picked better so we’re going through all sorts of crazy shenanigans together and I think this is going to be a life changing experience, but I’m really appreciative that I get to go through it with them.
What were your majors in college?
Sarah Gillis 5:23
We’re here at CU today, and I came to CU to study aerospace engineering. I started actually undefined within general engineering and then eventually chose to go into aerospace. At CU though, I also did a minor in dance and I don’t think I finished it. I’m pretty sure I got through all the hands-on classes and then I stopped taking all the academic and just lecture based classes. So I don’t think I fully finished it, but it was a great balance to engineering overall to just have something super creative and then something super intellectual.
It’s so inspiring to hear all these things because I’m interested in writing. I’m also interested in math and engineering and being a Waldorf child, also art.
Sarah Gillis 6:11
Yeah, and you can do all those things.
How does your family feel about you going into space?
Sarah Gillis 6:20
I think overwhelmingly mostly just incredibly excited. It’s certainly not a question or a statement you expect to hear I’d say, but they’re really supportive, and I just think that this whole process is going to change all of us.
In that same vein, who is your biggest role model or your hero?
Sarah Gillis 6:49
I probably would have to say my grandmothers. I think both of them were women well before their time and just incredibly strong people that have helped me see how to be in this world and how to face anything that comes at you. So that’s probably my grandmothers.
All of my peers and teachers at Shining Mountain Waldorf School are so proud to hear that one of us is going to space, so do you have any message for them?
Sarah Gillis 7:20
I think specifically for the teachers is just a thank you for investing in each student that comes through. I would not be who I am without the teachers that I had along the way and allowing them to, frankly, help me grow and become the person that I am; and I know at Shining Mountain and at many schools, teachers are very, very influential in how a person grows and their perspectives on the world. And I could not have asked for a more supportive and just more wonderful group of individuals who helped raise me. So thank you.
Thank you. This was amazing. Finally, your spacecraft is named “Dragon.” What is the significance of the dragon to you?
Sarah Gillis 8:23 [not shown in video]
It’s funny, I used to think it stood for something like ‘adversity that you needed to overcome.’ Now, I think it is also this amazing source of strength. And maybe that’s because I get to fly in the Dragon spacecraft and it’s this amazing creation. But yeah, [the significance of the dragon for me] has changed over time.
Interview with Sarah Gillis, November 14, 2022, CU Aerospace Engineering Building, between Annabelle Boak, current 8th grade student at Shining Mountain Waldorf School (SMWS), and Sarah Gillis, SMWS Class of 2012, Current Lead Engineer and Astronaut for SpaceX. Video production by Violet Dempsey, current SMWS High School student and independent filmmaker, and Jack Dempsey.
[Transcription of interview by Joshua Berman 11/30/22]