University of Minnesota Alumni Association


'I Wanted to be an Astronaut'

A pair of coincidences helped marry Michele Brekke's passions in volleyball and aerospace engineering.

Michele Brekke at a talk for CSE students, alumni, and faculty in 2019.
Inset: Brekke on the cover of the July/August 1987 issue of Minnesota magazine, which featured "40 Outstanding Alumni Under 40".

Before Title IX, women’s sports at collegiate levels had long been relegated to club and intramural competition. Athletic young women were left to fight for playing time on boys’ teams, through individual initiative, or in organizations like the YWCA.

This last avenue was the path Michele Brekke (B.A.E.M. ’75, M.S. ’77) was pursuing as a high school senior in Rochester, New York, in the early 1970s. She was a good volleyball player and loved the sport but had no great expectations for a future in the game. “I wanted to be an astronaut,” Brekke says.

A pair of coincidences helped marry those two passions. First, her Rochester volleyball coach took a job at the YWCA in St. Paul and suggested she come to Minnesota to play for him. Second, when Brekke told him her priority was to study aerospace engineering, he suggested she see if the U of M offered a degree in the subject. It did, and Brekke headed west.

Though the rigors of the aerospace program prevented her from signing onto the volleyball team immediately, she did join a very good U of M team as a junior. Playing regionally in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, the team qualified for the finals of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in a national volleyball tournament in Ohio in 1974. (The NCAA did not govern or sponsor women’s intercollegiate athletics at the time; the AIAW was its precursor).

There were no University funds to send the team to the tournament, so as they’d done through the season, the team used its own transportation to Ohio. The results were mediocre, but much of the team returned the following year, and the team was once again invited to the nationals, that year in Portland, Oregon. This time, Coach Linda Wells put her foot down. “I’m not letting you ladies drive over the Rockies in winter,” she told the team. After some finagling, enough money was found to fly the team to Oregon. “We were just blown away by that,” says Brekke.

Brekke became the first woman flight director at NASA until her retirement in 2014; she continues to work as a flight manager for Boeing in Houston.

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