I grew up in a conservative Midwestern home that valued hard work and diligence. I was extremely lucky to have the influence of three strong women in my life – my mother, my grandmother and my great aunt. They raised me to truly believe I could do anything – whether it was sports, algebra or even being one of the few women, at the time, to enroll and graduate from engineering school. For them gender was never a consideration. You were simply supposed to work hard to achieve your goal.
In my home, there was never a question of whether I would go to college, but rather what would I study and where. Our family placed a very high value on education and the opportunities it enabled. Going to school was my ‘job’ and I was expected to do well at it.
Because I was good at math and the sciences, I was encouraged to try medicine or engineering. But I loved science fiction, and it was the idea of designing spacecraft for long-duration exploration that intrigued me. I set my sight on the “Mecca” of human spaceflight: NASA.
I had no idea attending Purdue University in Indiana, with its longtime history with NASA and Johnson Space Center, positioned me well. Purdue was prime recruiting territory for fledgling aerospace engineers. But to me, Purdue was just two hours from home and the state school for engineers – kids who wanted to be doctors went to Indiana University.
I took my job as a co-operative education student at Johnson Space Center not knowing much about the day-to-day work of an engineer. My education began immediately. Immersed with a group of “old” Apollo engineers, their experience and my youthful exuberance made for interesting, energetic and always educational interactions. They fueled my self-confidence and taught me the ropes of decision making when lives, and professional reputations, are at stake.
I used these skills to support all the human spaceflight programs, including the space shuttle orbiter, the International Space Station, the X-38 vehicle and now the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Program.
I joined NASA in the shadow of the 1985 space shuttle Challenger tragedy. I saw firsthand the dedication people felt to resolve what went wrong that day and to make sure it never happened again. From that point forward, the passion for what NASA strives to achieve_engineering excellence and integrity _ became the touchstone for everything I have done. I know these life lessons aren’t unique to NASA. But the ability to take these values, add a focus on teamwork and persistence, and you can see why NASA truly excels and continues to draw some of the best and brightest young people into the adventure of human spaceflight.
I relived those hard lessons in 2003 when space shuttle Columbia experienced a thermo structural failure during re-entry. This time it was even more personal to me. I had spent 15 years working on the space shuttle, and I was now in a position to provide leadership. Everything my Apollo colleagues had taught me, everything I had learned through diverse co-op tours, everything I had learned in graduate school came into play. It was as if I’d spent 15 years gathering the skills needed to contribute to the Columbia accident investigation. It shows you never know how your life experiences will work together to enable your opportunities in the future.
After the Columbia accident, I took a hiatus to have my daughter. She is now 8, and I confess that I still have difficulty striking a balance between work and home. It’s a constant struggle, but totally worth it. I wouldn’t want to have had to choose between my family and my career. I’ve been at NASA for 25 years. My career is a big part of my life…an important part of who I am.
When I returned to NASA, I joined the NASA Engineering and Center and then took my current job as Orion chief engineer. As chief engineer, I am amazed every day at the depth of technical talent in this agency and the contractor family. I’m also amazed at how much these folks need and value leadership. Leaders that can communicate, advocate and make clear decisions are worth their weight in gold. I find now I spend most of my career trying to learn to be a better leader – we have all kinds of folks who are there to provide the best technical options – so my job is to knock down barriers, help them prioritize, allow them to move forward. That’s a totally different skill, but equally important to our success as an agency and a nation.