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From Flight Surgeon to Astronaut: Air Force Colonel (Dr.) Yvonne Cagle

  • Published
  • By Kevin Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
As a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, Col. Yvonne Darlene Cagle wanted to fly even higher and fast. She had always wanted to leave her footprints in moon dust, a dream held since seeing Neil Armstrong do it on July 20, 1969. Twenty-seven years after Armstrong’s historic steps, Cagle herself became an astronaut.

The New York-born Cagle had already racked up an impressive list of accomplishments before becoming an astronaut. After receiving her commission as an Air Force officer through San Francisco State University and earning her doctorate in medicine from the University of Washington, she graduated from Brooks Air Force Base’s School of Aerospace Medicine in 1988.   

Despite her satisfaction in rescuing and saving people in a variety of aeromedical missions, she continued to dream of space. In May of 1989, she volunteered to serve as the Air Force medical liaison officer for the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission to test the Magellan spacecraft, designed to map the surface of Venus.

As part of NASA’s Transatlantic Landing team, Cagle flew to Banjul, West Africa, standing by to provide emergency rescue and evacuation for the Atlantis’ crew. She later served on a NASA working group that traveled to Russia to establish international medical standards and procedures for astronauts. She also conducted health screenings for the 1995 Mir-18 space station mission, which researched the effects of weightlessness on the human body.

The next year she reported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, but not as a rescuer or health screener. NASA had selected her for the astronaut program. To help adjust to the new challenge, Cagle drew on inspirational black women pioneers like physicist Shirley Anne Jackson, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who created the United Negro College Fund, and astronomer Henrietta Swan Levitt, who discovered a way to measure distances between galaxies.

Cagle completed two years of astronaut training and evaluation, qualifying as a mission specialist. After earning her blue astronaut flight suit, she first served in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning branch before taking on a special assignment at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) in Mountain View, California. She also worked as the lead ARC Astronaut Science Liaison and Relationships Manager for Google and other Silicon Valley Programmatic Partnerships.  She helped preserve historic NASA space legacy data while, at the same time, improving NASA’s global mapping, sustainable energies, green initiatives, and disaster preparedness.

Cagle retired from the Air Force in 2009. Now, she is a family physician and a consulting professor at Stanford University’s department of cardiovascular medicine and its department of electrical engineering. She remains an astronaut, and serves as NASA’s lead scientist on the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program.

Although she never achieved her dream of reaching the moon, Cagle still became an inspiration for others to follow in her footsteps. In 2017, Cagle had the honor of escorting 98-year-old Katherine Johnson across the country and onto the stage of the 89th Academy Awards. Johnson, a pioneering black mathematician famous for computing the launch window and trajectory for Freedom-7, which made Alan Shepard the first American in space, had been portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. “I like to say I was the hidden figure behind the hidden figure,” said Cagle of escorting the icon.

From Air Force blue to NASA blue, all Americans can take pride in Cagle’s accomplishments.