'I Wanted to be an Astronaut'
A pair of coincidences helped marry Michele Brekke's passions in volleyball and aerospace engineering.
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.