Irene Long, an accomplished NASA physician who broke barrier after barrier to become Kennedy Space Center’s first female chief medical officer, died earlier this month, leaving a legacy that continues to reverberate throughout the spaceport.
Long held several NASA medical roles before capping off her three-decade career in 2010 as KSC’s medical chief, an always-changing position that oversees the health of the center’s workforce through a broad swath of responsibilities. Her tenure also focused on biomedical research and emergency planning for space shuttle launches and landings, to name a few of the areas she oversaw.
She was 69 and lived in Merritt Island.
“Dr. Long was a trailblazer,” KSC Director Bob Cabana told FLORIDA TODAY. “What I remember very much about Dr. Long was her competence. She was an example to others, extremely competent, and good to work with.”
“What really was remarkable about her was the care she had for her team and everyone who worked at Kennedy Space Center. That’s what I remember most – her real desire to take care of the KSC team,” he said.
Long’s colleagues noted the hallmark traits of leadership she displayed: being invested in people, looking out for the team, acting as a protective barrier when necessary, and passing down lessons.
And that’s all despite the fact that she faced tougher challenges than most not only as a woman, but as a Black employee.
“First of all, I think she was a people person and she cared about people,” said David Tipton, KSC’s current medical chief. “She cared about the people who worked for her and she cared about the people who worked with her.”
These days, Tipton’s job as medical chief is mostly focused on keeping KSC healthy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But he carries on with lessons he learned from Long, such as making sure teams can get the work done and not get bogged down with unnecessary administrative tasks.
“Being a woman of color in a white male dominated field, she had to probably work harder than other people to get to the same place,” he said. “She was protective of her folks and she made sure they were treated fairly and equitably.”
“I guess from her experience in life, she made sure other folks got the same types of treatment that she would like to get,” he said.
And she had the power to do just that. The medical chief is part of the Senior Executive Service, a government classification for civil servants often equated to generals and admirals in the military.
Tipton recalled that Long was active with students, too, setting up diversity and residency programs over the years, some graduates of which still work in the medical office at KSC.
In her obituary, Long is remembered as a student who was able to combine her fascinations with space and biology into a full-blown career. She joined NASA in 1982 after earning her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and medical degree from Saint Louis University. She also received a master’s in aerospace medicine from Wright State University.
In a 1999 FLORIDA TODAY report noting her promotion to medical chief, Long said getting the job was a lifelong dream. With shuttles flying regularly, perhaps her next step, she said, was to establish the first medical clinic in space.
“When I made up my mind to do this, I had never realized there would be any obstacles. As a child, my parents instilled in me that whatever I wanted to do I could do,” she said.