Kathryn Sullivan, acting head of the National Ocreanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Courtesy of NOAA.)

Don’t complain to Kathryn Sullivan about having to travel for work. As a former astronaut, Sullivan completed three shuttle missions, and in 1984 became the first American woman to walk in space.

These days, as the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, her concerns are a little more earthbound. But science remains the former oceanographer’s bailiwick.

She talks to the Loop about her secret talent and how government could be more like Google.

What’s one thing movies get wrong about astronauts?

More things than I can count. That we’re daredevils.

Which cabinet secretary would you most like to hang out with, and what would you do?

Secretary Jewell to tour our nation’s national parks and marine sanctuaries and to promote recreation.gov.

What’s your favorite non-work-related Web site/blog/app/magazine?

Alert Diver.

Fill in the blank: People would be surprised to know that I ______.

Paint like Dale Chihuly.

What’s your dream job?

Chief scientist.

What motivated you to go into public service?

To join a team that tackles great challenges and does work that shapes the future of our country.

Favorite TV show?

Oceans (BBC).

Which character from that show do you most identify with?

The hosts are all real scientists and explorers, so I identify with each of them.

What subject, other than your work, do you know the most about? Spaceflight.

What’s the best job you ever had?


Fill in the blank: I’m scared of _________.

Not having another dive trip on my calendar.

What’s one word you wish people would use to describe you?


You can draft one person in the private sector to come work for the federal government. Who would it be, and what would you have them do?

Eric Schmidt. Bring Google’s innovation and workforce management approaches to federal government.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Sullivan was the first American woman to walk on the moon. She was the first to walk in space. This version has been corrected.

Background Check is a Loop feature in which we grill various government types about their lives on and off the clock. Please send suggestions for future subjects to intheloop@washpost.com.