Emma Lehnhardt discusses her impressive career at NASA, the future of the agency, her initial love for astrophysics before transitioning to space policy and being mindful of her supportive relationship.
[Disclaimer: The following represents Emma’s personal opinion, not that of her employer NASA]
Q) You work at NASA as an Operations Research Analyst, and previously worked at The Tauri Group as a Technology Analyst. What was the path to get to where you are now? How did you get your job at NASA?
The path started when I was in college & grad school. In college I studied Politics & Astronomy and in grad school I went to George Washington (GW) University and studied space policy. When you do a job like space policy, a lot of people are aiming towards NASA and I thought that after graduation I would go straight to NASA, especially since as I had done an internship at NASA Headquarters in my last year as a grad student. But it’s really hard to get a job in the US Civil Service. So what happened was right as I was graduating I was going to the International Space University and I wanted to make sure I had a job lined up for when I got home. Nothing was happening with the applications that I was putting in with the government and I got a job offer just out of the blue on the spot, a fantastic opportunity with Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm. Booz Allen Hamilton, the government services company, worked a lot with the airforce, with DARPA and NASA. It was a really good first job for me.
I had wanted to go and work for NASA, but here I was consulting for them. I got to do some good projects for the applications division of the Earth Science part of the [NASA} Science Mission Directorate and also work for other government clients, but to be honest I had in my brain that I would always become a civil servant for NASA. It was just a long process to get there. So I worked at Booz Allen for about three years and then went to go and work for The Tauri Group, also aerospace consulting and contracting for NASA for another three years. During that entire time I was trying to get jobs at NASA, and it took that long to get the right match through the USA Jobs process and get hired.
So it was honestly a little bit of luck, but my work at The Tauri Group being an onsite support contractor helped tremendously. Because I got to spend two years doing basically the exact same job that I got to come into as a NASA Civil Servant.
One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.
Q) How did you choose to take politics & astronomy? Did you originally wanted to choose both and then figure out exactly which way to go?
That was a complicated decision. I grew up a complete space nerd. My parents’ dining room at home is their library. The table is right in the middle of all these books and they’re all classic science fiction. So growing up I loved space, loved science and got the opportunity to take geology and astronomy during my senior year at high school, which I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do. I loved astronomy and thought that I wanted to go into that at college and a career.
I noticed that one of the questions that you have on the [Rocket Women] website is about ‘What piece of advice would you give your 10 year old self?’. For me it would be don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t do math. I firmly believed that I could not do math, yet I really liked astronomy. I got to Calc 2 in college and it wasn’t going so well. Right about then I discovered this thing called the Space Policy Institute. I’d also been taking some politics and political history classes, loved those too. I figured that if my college would let me do a major in politics and a minor in astronomy, instead of a major of astronomy, that that would be a really good combo to set me up for space policy in grad school. And they let me do that and switch things around.
One of my astronomy professors in college sat me down and asked me what I thought a career in astronomy was. I think I had very romantic visions of Jodie Foster in Contact, and observatories and seeing the stars overhead at night. And my professor said, “No it’s by yourself with a computer, running simulations with a computer. It’s not this romantic vision that you have. So if you are not actually interested in this maybe you should think of something else.”
There are lots of different pathways to working for an organization like NASA. We need more STEM graduates, absolutely, and I want to encourage young women especially to pursue those fields, but we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it. One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.
Q) Can you tell me about when your interest in space grow when you were younger?
I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to figure out where it came from. I’m sure there must have been something younger than this. When I was in high school, my friends and I did not want to eat lunch in the cafeteria. So we used to go to the Astronomy Room, which was open and plastered wall-to-wall with images of Jupiter and Mars. And a big globe of the Moon. I found that really inspiring. My astronomy teacher when I took the class in my senior year of high school was Mr.Gallagher and I think about him a lot. Not only was it an astronomy class, we had star watching nights after school and we had a huge inflatable planetarium that we, the high school students, would take around to the elementary schools and do star shows for the elementary kids. We also went to the Space & Flight Museum in Seattle and I think they must have a Challenger Centre there. The astronomy class did a mock up Mars mission and I think I got to be the Mission Commander. All of that really just became such a firm foundation for everything afterwards.
I’m very fortunate that nobody ever said to me you can’t do X,Y and Z because you’re a girl.
Q) How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more need to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?
It’s very important to be able to visualize someone like you. I honestly can’t picture who it was that I idolized or looked up to as a role model when I was a very young girl. I’m pretty sure they were all fictional characters. One of my professors recently posted on Facebook asking for book recommendations for his young grandson who had just devoured the Harry Potter books and was looking for something next, I went back and looked at the Young Adult and SciFi books that I had read when I was in middle and high school and found to my astonishment that my mother had given me all these fantastic books that resonate with me to this day, I’ve just gone back and re-read some of them, that all happened to have independent, fearless, female main characters. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time but I do now! It’s really important to see characters like Rey in the Star Wars film. I also thought about Ridley from Alien. They’re awesome characters, not awesome female characters.
Q) When you’re having a stressful and bad day, what helps you get through it?
I’ve been trying a lot recently to remind myself where I am, which is in a job that I’ve always wanted to have, and that I’m very fortunate and I’m very proud of myself. Even when I’m having a rough day, everyone has a rough day, I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic team that I love seeing everyday. That’s very helpful. Starting to take yoga about 5 years ago was fantastic and learning to breathe deeply is probably the most important thing. Taking a breath, walking away and then all of a sudden everything feels better.
Having a husband that you can talk through everything with, even silly office drama also helps a lot. We’re very mindful of the partnership that we craft. I really like the word partner and how you think of each other. Theoretical physicist Mary K. Gaillard was recently asked, “What piece of advice do you have for young women?” She said, “Do What You Like. Find A Nice Partner.” And that was it. I read that sentence over and over again and yes that was it! I like to think of myself as Kris’ [Emma’s husband] career manager and he’s my career manager. Every step is discussed and analyzed over glasses of wine.
I got to a point when I was pretty unhappy in a previous job, when I was coming home every day crying and complaining. Kris listened and was supportive but also said, “I can’t help you in this situation. You need to say something to the people involved.” It took months, but I finally did. Now years later I think I’m much better at speaking truth to power and being honest with my bosses when something’s not right. Because you have to make your own happiness. It take a lot time to get there, especially if you’re not naturally contentious. If you don’t good things won’t happen if you don’t speak you’re mind.
Q) Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be difficult or different to your initial expectations?
Not getting to be a government employee right off the bat after grad school was certainly one of them, and the other was meeting Kris [Emma’s husband]. I went to ISU [International Space University] saying, I’m not going to be one of those girls, I’m not going to be an ISU couple. Now 7 years later we’ve just celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. It was unexpected for me, but more a major life upheaval for him having to move the United States. I’ve been in Washington DC now for 10 years and I’m so grateful that Kris was able to come down here, and that he’s had a rewarding career in the field that he wanted here. I think the next phase is going to be driven by his next decisions and that’s only fair. Because last time it was because of me here in Washington DC. It flips flops. People in our generation can have 2 or 3 entirely different careers in their lifetimes. They never know where things are going to go.
An interesting thing the other day when the Forbes 30 under 30 list came out. The website had some infographics where they asked ‘How do you define success?’ and 2% said ‘Wealth’. The majority said the equivalent of ‘Personal well-being’ and ‘Happiness’. I looked at that graphic and I thought that is the one thing I would show to people in my industry, at NASA, who come from a different generation and don’t understand this one. I think that would help them understand it to see that it’s a different way of looking at your life. Sometimes it takes you by surprise.
Another unexpected thing that happened to me was learning how much I like budgets. When I was in my first year in grad school, my professor heard that the Office of Management and Budget was going to have an internship for the summer. He said, ‘You’d be great for this, you should apply,’ and I think I might have rolled my eyes at him because I thought the Office of Management and Budget sounded like the most boring thing ever and do I really want to have my head stuck in an Excel page for all summer long? And I LOVED it and it’s what I love to do now still.
Senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.
Q) You work in Washington DC and we were talking about mentors earlier. Have mentors, both men and women, been influential in your career choices and path?
Absolutely. One of my favourite things to do now is go out to coffee with people and just talk about all of the options on the table. One of the surprising and best thing that I’ve discovered in the last two years as a civil servant is that you really have the opportunity to move around lot. I went on detail [at NASA’s Office of the Administrator] for 5 months, it seems like there’s always another option around the corner, something fantastic. I finally got over the nervousness of asking people for advice and help. People love talking about that. The thing I’ve discovered recently is that senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.
I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”
Q) Has NASA changed at all with the rise of the commercial space sector?
NASA really has changed. When I started in Washington DC the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program was still relatively new and hadn’t had a lot of successes yet, and there was a feeling within NASA, within the White House that this was a test. This was a brand new way of doing business, we’re not sure about these partners, let’s see how this goes. And now it is so ingrained as a way of doing business, that when we think about our next steps beyond the International Space Station we’re thinking about Public-Private-Partnerships and the Space Act Agreement Model, it’s not just a new and different acquisition mechanism, it’s a new way of thinking about how NASA can accomplish its mission.
We are at a bit of a critical juncture as an agency and over the past 5 months I had the opportunity to work at the Office of the Administrator. I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”. The idea that within ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time with looming huge massive numbers of retirements that the workforce would shift to become just an acquisition workforce is not the vision that we’re going towards, I don’t think. We just need to define our niches where our workforce will still be the technical leaders in the world, in these certain areas. So we will still be an R&D agency absolutely. Especially for the things that there is no business case for, yet. Planetary Exploration for example.