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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Kavya Manyapu, Flight Crew Operations and Test Engineer – CST-100 Starliner Spacecraft, The Boeing Company

4 November, 2019

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Kavya Manyapu working on crew (astronaut) operations [Image credit: Boeing / Kavya Manyapu]

Dr. Kavya K. Manyapu is truly a Rocket Woman. At The Boeing Company, she is focused on developing the next generation human-rated spacecraft – the CST-100 Starliner. Starliner is scheduled to launch astronauts to the International Space Station over the coming year through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. As the Starliner Spacesuit Lead, Kavya designs and tests the distinctive launch and entry spacesuits to be worn by the Starliner’s crew and trains NASA astronauts assigned to fly onboard the Starliner spacecraft, including the trailblazing Sunita Williams.

Kavya’s keen interest and passion in spacesuit design has additionally led her to develop a key technology to repel lunar dust from spacesuits – the sharp abrasive lunar dust posed a significant hindrance during the Apollo program, damaging spacesuits and creating pressure leaks. Her self-cleaning material sample prototypes are currently being tested on a platform outside the International Space Station! This technology will be crucial as we work towards achieving NASA’s Artemis missions in the 2020s to return humans to the surface of the Moon.

Kavya also teaches the next generation of spacesuit designers and engineers as Adjunct Faculty at the University of North Dakota (UND), and has recently become a Mum. She recently told her alma mater MIT that her ultimate goal is to, “design the next-generation space suit to enhance human capabilities when we go back to the moon—and possibly wear it one day on a mission.”

Rocket Women were thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Kavya about her passion for human spaceflight and spacesuit design, what success means to her and how her family has helped to shape her career path.

What was the path to get to where you are now in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

My curiosity in space started when I was 3 years young. I was inspired by the stories my father narrated about Apollo astronauts, cosmonauts and the first Indian cosmonaut in space, while also patiently taking the time to answer every question I had about space and the cosmos. It was my parents’ encouragement to pursue something I am passionate about and to give my best to whatever path I chose that gave me the courage to step into this field. That’s where it started, as a child I was curious and wondered if there were sharks on the moon and whether I can one day explore this myself, and several years later I am living my dream today, working on one of humankind’s greatest endeavors. Working in the space industry makes me realize the immense possibilities of being a human.

It was my parents’ encouragement to pursue something I am passionate about and to give my best to whatever path I chose that gave me the courage to step into this field.

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing Starliner Spacesuit, to be worn by astronauts during launch and re-entry onboard the Starliner spacecraft [Image credit: Boeing Company / Kavya Manyapu]

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing Starliner spacesuit, to be worn by astronauts during launch, ascent and re-entry onboard the Starliner spacecraft [Image credit: Boeing Company / Kavya Manyapu]

It’s truly amazing to see your innovative spacesuit material being tested on the International Space Station! Congratulations! Could you tell us a bit more about the project and how you were inspired to develop the material?

I’ve always had a keen interest on spacesuits and a fascination for them. While I’ve been working on the next generation spacecraft at Boeing building the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, my interest in getting an advanced degree at the University of North Dakota opened an opportunity to deep dive in the area of spacesuits for long duration missions.

During the early days of my Ph.D. research, I had an opportunity to talk to Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean. It was during the same time I was reading papers on post flight investigations of Apollo spacesuits and hardware, particularly his suit being contaminated by lunar dust and the deleterious impacts of lunar dust faced by astronauts during the Apollo missions. Inspired by the conversation with him and my personal aspiration to make a small contribution towards space exploration led to the conception of the SPIcDER (pronounced “Spider”) Technology.

Inspired by the conversation with him [Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean] and my personal aspiration to make a small contribution towards space exploration led to the conception of the SPIcDER (pronounced “Spider”) Technology. SPIcDER (Spacesuit Integrated carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/ Removal system) was developed to overcome the challenges of dust contamination of spacesuits and other hardware deployed on the lunar surface, a capability particularly required if we want to go back to the moon for long duration missions. Inspired by super hero movies (watched a lot as a kid) specifically Spiderman and Batman (hence the name SPIcDER), the research led to developing the technology that repels and removes dust from spacesuits..

SPIcDER (Spacesuit Integrated carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/ Removal system) was developed to overcome the challenges of dust contamination of spacesuits and other hardware deployed on the lunar surface, a capability particularly required if we want to go back to the moon for long duration missions. Inspired by super hero movies (watched a lot as a kid) specifically Spiderman and Batman (hence the name SPIcDER), the research led to developing the technology that repels and removes dust from spacesuits (and other flexible materials) using Carbon Nanotube fibers that are embedded into suits and energized using a cleaning signal.

SPIcDER has been successfully tested in various environments here on earth including on a fully functioning spacesuit knee-joint. Early generation prototypes of this self-cleaning material are now being exposed to the space environment on the MISSE platform on the International Space Station. I am now working on pursing opportunities for follow-on experiments on ISS to further advance this technology.

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing commercial crew Starliner vehicle [Credit: Kavya Manyapu / Boeing]

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing commercial crew Starliner vehicle [Image credit: Kavya Manyapu / Boeing Company]

Growing up, I always thought a career path would be a straight road. You work hard, get good grades, get into a good university and land your dream job. Conversely, this journey so far has been nothing but exciting with its twists and turns, ups and downs and, failures and successes.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

Growing up, I always thought a career path would be a straight road. You work hard, get good grades, get into a good university and land your dream job. Conversely, this journey so far has been nothing but exciting with its twists and turns, ups and downs and, failures and successes. It’s been a learning expedition, giving a deeper experience of life, both inner and outer. I like it this way since I’ll have many stories to share with my kids, grandkids and the next generation!

What does success mean to you?
When I’m able to use myself to my full potential, regardless of the outcome, that’s what I call success. I don’t think I’ve reached that mark yet and still exploring this potential.

Kavya Manyapu, Starliner Spacesuit Lead, wearing the Boeing Starliner spacesuit [Image credit: Boeing/Kavya Manyapu]

Kavya Manyapu, Starliner Spacesuit Lead, wearing the Boeing Starliner spacesuit [Image credit: Boeing Company/Kavya Manyapu]

I was super thrilled and inspired when I first met my favorite astronaut Sunita Williams during my undergrad, that reinforced the notion that we can aspire and achieve to be anything we dream of! Now I get to work with her on my job!

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

Having positive role models will help us uncover our true potentials and when we see someone in a path that we aspire, it reinforces our aspiration and motivates us to strive to uncover our own talents. Role models for me started at home- my parents and grandma were my first role models. symbolizing hardwork, dedication and compassion.

With exposure to various cultures and people via workshops, extra-curricular activities and change of countries (grew up in India an moved to the US after high school), I realized that every person I met had some unique ability that has inspired me. In that sense, everyone that I came across have taught me something about personal and professional growth. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet several astronauts who have inspired me. Particularly, I was super thrilled and inspired when I first met my favorite astronaut Sunita Williams during my undergrad, that reinforced the notion that we can aspire and achieve to be anything we dream of! Now I get to work with her on my job!

My family has been the backbone of everything I am today.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

My family has been the backbone of everything I am today. Starting with patiently feeding a 3 year old’s curiosity, to encouraging me to pursue what I am passionate about, taking a big step in leaving their home country and moving to the US so I could pursue my dream of working in the space industry, and more importantly advising me that no matter what career path I choose, I should give my 100%. In my humble opinion empowerment starts at home, and they continue to support me today in both my personal and professional paths.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

The best advice I received as a 10 year old which I continue to follow – , no matter what it is you are doing, try to do your best and give it your 100%. I’m grateful for receiving this advice (and many other) from my parents. Don’t think I would do anything differently, otherwise I may probably not be doing the things I dreamt of as a 10-year-old that I get to do today.

Meet A Rocket Woman, The Rocket Women of Apollo

The Rocket Women of Apollo: JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, NASA

28 July, 2019

JoAnn Morgan,  Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]

JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]

Fifty years ago in July 1969, humanity took it’s first steps on the surface of another planetary body. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on 20th July 1969, a team of Rocket Women at NASA were breaking through the glass ceiling to support this historic accomplishment, achieving their own personal firsts for women globally and paving the way for women in science and engineering today.

Rocket Women are thrilled to be featuring the stories of these trailblazing women in a new series: The Rocket Women of Apollo, in collaboration with Megan Harrington.  On watching the 2019 Apollo 11 documentary, Megan was struck by seeing an image of a lone woman working in the firing room during an Apollo launch. This sparked an extensive research exercise which Megan reveals for Rocket Women here:

I finally got to watch the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary [1] and was curious who this was…

In the first three minutes of the documentary, she’s featured front and centre, focused on her work with the same steely-eyed gaze of her peers. It was my impression that there were no women in these types of roles back then (or so I thought). When I started the documentary, I was expecting to see high definition detail of similar scenes: lots of engineers in crisp white shirts with skinny black ties, and the daring astronauts getting to explore a new world. It’s a proud moment in history. But you usually don’t see women as supporting technical personnel in these historic scenes. And this documentary kicks things off featuring a woman sitting alongside (what appears to be) a large group of prominent technical personnel.

Who is she? A writer from Vanity Fair, David Kamp, wondered the same thing, and he went to find out [2].

A glimpse of her is seen in this documentary, but that is only the beginning of her story…

Her name is JoAnn Morgan, and she was the only woman inside the control room for the historic Apollo 11 launch.

Who is she?

Her name is JoAnn Morgan, and she was the only woman inside the control room for the historic Apollo 11 launch. 

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].

At the time, JoAnn was a 28-year-old instrumentation controller and she was the first woman permitted to be inside the firing room during an Apollo launch. Today, this is what JoAnn is most known for. But her career at NASA spanned over 45 years, and she broke ceiling after ceiling for women involved with the space program.

In addition to being the first woman at NASA to win a Sloan Fellowship, she was the first woman division chief, the first woman senior executive at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the first woman associate director for KSC, the first woman director of Safety and Mission Assurance…and the list goes on. [3]

She was a trailblazer among trailblazers. 

And I knew nothing about her. So, I posted a thread on Twitter to highlight her role and share any neat facts I could find along the way [4]. Spoiler alert: there were a lot of interesting finds. It grew into a bigger thread than originally planned, and I had some great questions to chase down. This post stitches the story together, and shares additional insight thanks to several contributors. 

How did she get there? 

As a child, JoAnn (Hardin) was a self-described “precocious little kid.” She loved math, science and especially music – so much that she was convinced she would grow up to become a piano teacher. [3]

She skipped the first grade and read all the books in her Huntsville elementary school library. According to CNN, she preferred science experiments and reading Jules Verne over dolls, and her favorite gift was a chemistry set from her dad. [5][6]

“I liked astronomy and field trips to the planetarium, and I loved science fiction,” she recalled. “I always liked experimenting. In the fourth grade I got a chemistry set. I built bombs and blew them up on the patio.” [6]

Chemistry was her dad’s major in college. When he was in the military, he was in ordnance. So, bombs and rockets were commonplace to him. “I was sort of the ringleader of the kids in my neighborhood [who were] experimenting with things,” said JoAnn. One day she mixed some chemicals in a tin can and stuck it between two steps leading to her family’s patio. “The last thing I added was what made it combustible, and I knew it,” she says. “

It wasn’t supposed to go airborne, but bits and pieces did, and it wound up cracking the patio. Our housekeeper kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna be in trouble!’ But when my parents came home – and this was typical of my mother and father – they didn’t fuss at me. My dad said, ‘My goodness, how impressive! Look at that big ol’ crack in our patio!’ They never made me feel hesitant about trying things. Even when my sister and I tried cooking and it didn’t go well, they would always reward us for trying, and being adventurous and experimenting. They taught [us] to clean up [our] mess, but [we] didn’t get punished if there was collateral damage.” [7]

JoAnn’s father, Don Hardin, was a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and her mother, Laverne Hardin, was a statistician during the war [6]. Her dad later supported the US Army’s rocket program, which included a move to Titusville, Florida which happened when JoAnn was a junior in high school. [8]

With the new environment came rocket launches. She and her friends enjoyed watching the launches, but it wasn’t until the day that Explorer 1 had launched that JoAnn’s interest took a pivotal turn. [3]

Explorer 1 was the first satellite to launch from the United States (Jan 31, 1958), and it was instrumental in discovering (what is now known as) the Van Allen radiation belt. The Explorer 1 instrumentation reacted to (what appeared to be) radiation. Thus, Dr. James Van Allen theorized that charged particles were “trapped” in space by Earth’s magnetic field. [3]

It was this discovery that inspired JoAnn to be a part of the space program. [3]

Van Allen Radiation Belts [Credit: NASA]

Van Allen Radiation Belts [Credit: NASA]

She thought, “This is profound knowledge that concerns everyone on our planet.” She was attracted to the concept of new knowledge, and the opportunity for new knowledge. As if an awareness came over her, she realized that “this is going to change the world I live in. And I want to be a part of it.” [3] [9]

An opportunity surfaced for JoAnn when she went to the post office in Titusville. On one side of the door was an FBI’s Most Wanted poster, and on the other side was a small bulletin board that said “Government Jobs.”

On the board was an ad from the Army seeking two “Engineer Aides,” which would be available to two college students over the summer. “The best thing about that ad was that it said ‘students.’ It didn’t say ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.” So it didn’t cross JoAnn’s mind that she potentially couldn’t apply. So she did. [9]

With a strength in math and science, JoAnn was awarded the internship with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at the age of 17. From there, things moved pretty quickly: she graduated from high school on the weekend, went to work for the Army on Monday, and worked her first launch by Friday night. [3]

On her first launch, she got to use a device similar to a telescope to help track the vehicle and assess whether the rocket’s two stages separated properly. [7]

The program JoAnn was supporting was quickly rolled into a brand-new space exploration agency that was forged in response to Soviet advancements (hint: “beep, beep, beep”). The new agency was called the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’ (NASA), established in 1958. 

That year, JoAnn enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Florida, with a full academic scholarship. Ultimately, she chose to stay for only three years. “Their engineering program was five years,” she says, “and I didn’t want to be in school that long. I wanted to get out and go to work for NASA. Plus, my sister had transferred to Jacksonville State, and she wanted me to go with her. I stayed there long enough to get a math degree, and I was gone. I didn’t even go to graduation. I headed straight to Cape Canaveral!” [7]

As JoAnn worked in the summers for NASA, and during the school year chipped away at a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Jacksonville State University, her potential didn’t go unnoticed.

Dr. Kurt Debus (left) and Dr. Wernher von Braun (right). Credit: NASA.

Dr. Kurt Debus (left) and Dr. Wernher von Braun (right). Credit: NASA.

Dr. Wernher von Braun, chief architect of the Saturn V rocket, along with members of his team recognized the level at which Morgan could contribute to the human spaceflight program. [3]

Dr. Kurt Debus, the first director of KSC, looked at Morgan’s coursework and saw that she had experience writing technical papers, working with data systems, and building computer components (which were not as ubiquitous as they are today.) He provided Morgan with a pathway to certification. A couple of courses later, and JoAnn was certified as a ‘Measurement and Instrumentation Engineer’ and a ‘Data Systems Engineer,’ and she was employed as a Junior Engineer on their team. [3]

“It was just meant to be for me to be in the launching business,” she says. “I’ve got rocket fuel in my blood.” [3]

And from all appearances, that was the perfect summation. Morgan was a talented mathematician, a fantastic communicator and a bona fide engineer. [3]

What was her role in Apollo 11?

At the time of Apollo 11, JoAnn had recently advanced from junior-level controller to a senior-level [2], holding the title of ‘Chief Instrumentation Controller, KSC Technical Support’ [10]. In this position, she earned a seat in the firing room for launch.

Firing Room [Credit: NASA]

Launch Control Room [Credit: NASA]

The ‘firing room’ is another name for the launch control room, and it’s where all personnel were locked-in 20 minutes before liftoff. Why were they locked in? The intent was to eliminate distractions, and allow the team to focus their attention on the countdown. [11]

To get a sense of scale of the firing room, it seated 450 critical personnel, which included technicians, engineers, test conductors, and launch directors. [12]

JoAnn was seated in Area A, Row D, Position #15, here:

LCC Firing Room Positions [Credit NASA Alumni League Florida Chapter [10]]

LCC Firing Room Positions [Credit NASA Alumni League Florida Chapter [10]]

 As Chief Instrumentation Controller for KSC, JoAnn was primarily focused on the guidance computers at the Central Instrumentation Facility (CIF), but she was also responsible for the lightning-detection and fire-detection systems at the launchpad, the operational communications and TV systems, and monitoring the command carrier for any interference. [2]

“Interference” meaning a ship or submarine trying to get on the frequency that NASA was using to send commands to the vehicle. [2]

Wait, what? This happened? Oh, yeah, it happened…

“On Apollo 8, the Russians were offshore with a trawler and submarine,” said JoAnn told Vanity Fair in 2018. “They tried interfering with our transfer of command. They would try to block frequencies so we couldn’t give commands to the pad and the capsule. And it continued some on Apollo 9 and 10.” [2]

”What we had to do is put different antennas on and direct them differently so we could block them from interfering with our command process,” said Morgan. [2]
One of the things NASA had found during early Apollo missions was that when the astronauts would speak, their transmissions would cut out – not completely – but they were unexpectedly “garbled.” With the intricate communications system NASA had, there was no reason that should be happening. So the question was: what was causing it? Initially, they had no idea.

Using their tracking systems, they were able to identify Russian submarines in the area. It was International waters, so the US couldn’t keep them out of there. Given the space race, jamming NASA’s systems certainly would’ve been in Russia’s best interests. So, NASA had to take countermeasures: just before Apollo 11, NASA installed a gigantic surveillance dish on top of Kennedy Space Center’s tallest building to pinpoint the source of any foreign interference. [13] That did the trick, and Apollo 11 launch communications went smoothly. For more technical info on this topic, check out the ‘Apollo Experience Report’ on “S-Band System Signal Design and Analysis” (NASA TN D-6723) [14].

Going full circle, as Chief Instrumentation Controller for KSC, JoAnn helped monitor the command carrier for any foreign interference, which helped Apollo 11 launch without any communications interruptions.

LCC [Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA]

LCC [Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA]

How did others react to her?

While JoAnn was a talented engineer, it didn’t stop prejudice, especially in the sixties.

When she was hired to join the team, JoAnn found out later from colleagues that a meeting was called for everyone on the team…except her. [3]

The room filled and JoAnn’s supervisor, Jim White, explained to the team: [3]

“This is a young lady who wants to be an engineer. You’re to treat her like an engineer. But she’s not your buddy. You call her Ms. Hardin. You’re not to be familiar.”

“Well, can we ask her to make coffee?” someone asked.

“No,” White said. “You don’t ask an engineer to make coffee.”

White wanted to make it perfectly clear to the team: Morgan was a serious engineer, and her being a woman did nothing to affect that. [3]

However, this wasn’t how it always played out.

“I got obscene phone calls on my console a couple of times, and I would just report those to the communications people.” There was one time in particular, that she slammed the phone down after one of those calls. One of the TV operators noticed, from the station downstairs. So, he came up and asked, “Is something wrong?! The look on your face. Has there been a death in the family?” To which JoAnn replied “No, an obscene phone call.” But she never let herself feel like an object. “I was not going to be an object. I just had too much fearlessness in me to let that be any kind of deterrent,” JoAnn told CNN. [5]

Roy Tharpe sat next to Morgan in the firing room as the chief test support controller for Apollo 11. He said to CNN, “You could never pull anything over on her because she would take and cut you to pieces. She was extremely competent.” [5]

This came with practice though.

Even after being a regular in the firing room, JoAnn was being watched on camera by men from Florida to Texas. The firing room had a camera so mission personnel in remote locations could see launch control and follow along with activity. Before an Apollo 8 test, someone would call and bring some report to the data room (which was back behind the firing room).

So, JoAnn would have to get up, run and get the report, and then get back to her console. Eventually, one of the TV technicians called JoAnn and said, “Mrs. Morgan, I feel obliged to tell you this. When you get up and go out, there are some guys who call and ask me to zoom in on you as you walk out. And they say you sure have a good-looking rear end.” [7]

JoAnn thanked the TV technician and told him he needed to share that with his boss. “What if the media got hold of this?” She thought. “Or worse, what if my dad or husband found out? They would beat the tar out of them.” [7]

So, JoAnn started minimizing her time out of her chair. “All these things were just a nuisance. They didn’t enrage me. They just kept me from getting my work done, and I loved my work. I wanted to be 100 percent correct. I was so focused, that when these little twiddly things would come up, it would be like a crab pinching you – just something little to deal with. But I never let it deter me from my mission, which was working for NASA.” [7]

“The worst was, in the old blockhouses, there was no ladies’ restroom, so either the security guard had to clear the men’s room, or I had to walk, just like the ladies in Hidden Figures, to a different building to use the bathroom,” JoAnn told Vanity Fair. [2]

“You have to realize that everywhere I went – if I went to a procedure review, if I went to a post-test critique, almost every single part of my daily work – I’d be the only woman in the room.” [3]

“Sometimes during tests, the guard was just great,” Morgan said. He’d come over and say “You need a little break? I’ll police the men’s room.” The guys tried not to notice. “If I had to go, I had to go!” She said with a laugh to CNN. [5]

If you’re curious what the old blockhouse restrooms looked like, Julia Bergeron shared these photos on Twitter for reference [15]:

Also, if you don’t know what a “blockhouse” is: it’s a concrete-reinforced, domed building that protected personnel from a potential explosion (because they were typically located fairly close to the launchpad). During a launch, it could accommodate 130 people, as well as test and instrumentation equipment. Periscopes afforded views outside the windowless facility. [16]

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is erected on the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 in preparation for the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission. EFT-1 will be the first flight test of NASA's Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is erected on the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 in preparation for the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission. EFT-1 will be the first flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News

This is what the LC-34 blockhouse looked like on the inside:

A packed LC-34 Blockhouse, which included Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. Kurt Debus. Credit: NASA

A packed LC-34 Blockhouse, which included Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. Kurt Debus. Credit: NASA

It was in one of these blockhouses that JoAnn had one of her more striking interactions.

When JoAnn first started in Blockhouse 34, she came in to get test results from a Saturn IB rocket (which would later support Apollo 1). The acting test supervisor saw her come in, sit down, and go to plug in her headset. He came over and whacked her on the back saying, “We don’t have women working in here,” with a gruff look on his face. So she immediately called her director, Karl Sendler (who had ordered the test results in the first place). Sendler replied, “Oh, don’t listen to him! Plug in your headset and get those test results to me as soon as you can.” [3] [9]

The test director was apparently new to NASA from the Navy, didn’t know who JoAnn was, and was unaware that women supported these roles at NASA. [7]

In response to the treatment of Morgan, others came forward to make it known that JoAnn was accepted.

Rocco Petrone, who presided over the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle and operations, came over later that day and tapped Morgan on the shoulder and said “JoAnn, you are welcome here. Don’t worry about what anything anybody says.” [3] [9]

Rocco Petrone in the Launch Control Center (Apollo 9) Credit: NASA.

Rocco Petrone in the Launch Control Center (Apollo 9) Credit: NASA.

It did happen again though, in another blockhouse, and JoAnn was told, “We don’t have women working in here,” by another test supervisor. But JoAnn got to a point where she was “fearless” and she ignored it, sat down, and did what she was sent there to do: her job. [9]

She held her own with the guys, and JoAnn garnered the support of her peers. But that didn’t stop the media from giving her their opinion.

JoAnn tells Vanity Fair, “One time, we had finished prop load after Apollo 9 or 10, and NASA allowed the media in. They would go down each row. I’ll never forget, one of the rudest remarks I ever got was from one of the photographers. He said, “I wish you could let her go out and put on some lipstick. [2]

Despite the challenges, JoAnn soared passed it with a passion that overrode anything else – the lonely moments, the little bits of negative. “They were like a mosquito bite. You just swat it and push on.” [2]

JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]

JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]

While her support system was growing at work, there was always one person by her side from the beginning: her husband.

At work, JoAnn would get a variety of come-ons as she tells Vanity Fair, ranging from “Oh, can you go to coffee with me?” to “Oh, you never get to see your husband.” But JoAnn’s husband was a great support system. This was especially true in the timeframe between Apollo 8 and Apollo 13. Those five or six years were very intense for Morgan, working 12 to 16 hours a day. There were even times when JoAnn and her husband would basically pass on the street. [2]

That workload was relentless. And in 1967, while trying to help get the Apollo program off the ground, Morgan collapsed in an elevator at KSC. She was pregnant and began hemorrhaging. And as she prefers to say now, that’s the day she and Larry became “parents of an angel.” She miscarried. “I’m sure it was partly due to stress,” she says. “It was one of those pregnancies where I was working right up to the day I lost the baby. They got me to the hospital, but it was too late.” During the summer of 1969, she had worked twenty-eight straight days prior to the launch of Apollo 11. [7]

Her husband, Larry Van Morgan, was a high-school math and science teacher (and bandmaster), and his older sister was a laser physicist. He wasn’t afraid of smart women. And the science stuff didn’t baffle him because he’d been on an aircraft carrier in the Navy. “If I hadn’t had the right kind of husband, that I could come home to and vent and say, ‘Oh, this yahoo in the elevator said…,’ and he’d say, ‘You have to rise above that, JoAnn. You’re doing something important.’ He really encouraged and helped me through.” JoAnn interviewed by Vanity Fair in 2018. [2]

Were there any personal barriers she had to overcome?

When JoAnn started working at the Cape, she brought the independent spirit that her parents had encouraged, but also, the manners of a typical Southern girl in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She said, “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am,” spoke only when spoken to in the presence of grownups, and obeyed the old creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” [7]

That’s the one barrier of her upbringing that she had to overcome in the workplace. And she learned this very early on. [7]

During one of the first summers at the Cape, one of the missile tracking stations had been hit by lightning. JoAnn was tasked with assessing the damage, and determining the path of the lightning. One of the affected areas was a telephone pole outside of the equipment trailer, which had antennas and cables running up and down the pole. JoAnn had to go up the pole and trace the lightning right into the equipment, make an inventory of damaged hardware, and figure out how much it was going to cost to replace the burned or melted hardware. [7]

She did all of that, wrote up her report and gave it to her boss, Jim White. They took that to a meeting with eighteen or twenty people – one of them being a lightning expert that came down from Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville. [7]

“I never said a word during the meeting,” said JoAnn. [7]

Afterward, her boss was furious with JoAnn and said, “You’re the only person who saw it. Speak up!” [7]

JoAnn’s response was, “If they had asked me, I would’ve told them.” [7]

But nobody asked. JoAnn was still a teenager at the time, and – as she was taught – she politely waited to speak until spoken to. “I had to be taught by my boss to forget all that Southern training. He said, ‘When you’ve seen something with your own eyes, it’s your obligation to speak up. That’s your job.’” [7]

That lecture paid off when Morgan was assigned to Sendler’s instrumentation team.

Getting on console for Apollo 11 launch

Even though JoAnn worked all through the Mercury and Gemini programs, and supported all the Apollo launches as a junior controller, Morgan still wasn’t permitted in the firing room at liftoff. Up to this point, she would support the stressful pre-launch operations (like propellant load), and would be excused from the firing room prior to launch. Why? Because women weren’t permitted in the firing room once everyone was locked in. That is, not until Apollo 11. [2] [3] [9]

For Apollo 11, JoAnn’s supervisor spoke with KSC’s Director of Information Systems, Karl Sendler. He said, “I want to put JoAnn on console for liftoff. She’s my best communicator. I get clear information about how things are going. She’s also very disciplined.” Sendler agreed, and then paused, “But we’ve never had her locked in there.” Indeed, having JoAnn locked in the firing room as the only – and first – woman was breaking new ground. It was a change in tradition. So, Sendler ran the request up higher to the KSC Center Director, Dr. Kurt Debus, who approved without hesitation, JoAnn tells Vanity Fair. [2]

When Sendler called JoAnn into his office, he shared the good news: “You’re going to be on the console for Apollo 11!”

The fact that Karl Sendler “went to bat” for her was a pivotal moment for JoAnn in her career. But also, because it said to everyone else: “She’s one of us. She’s part of the team. And she gets to be here to enjoy this part of the countdown and launch.” [9]

An added bonus for JoAnn on Apollo 11 was the fact that JoAnn wouldn’t have to work the night shift (3pm to 3am). For the first time, she would get off work at 3 in the afternoon and spend time with her husband, who she rarely got to see. “I was just thrilled,” she says. “My life was coming together. I would get to be there for the launch, feel the shockwave hit, and then I [would be going] on vacation!” [3]

What were her highlights of Apollo 11?

“Sometimes I say to people, ‘Hey, my biggest decision was: What can I wear so that I don’t stand out like a sore thumb?’ I knew that there was still hostility from some men about having a woman be part of the launch team, but I had been there for years. I had gotten out of college in ’62.

So I wanted to be part of that team, and to blend in. I was a newlywed, and I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know what I should wear.’ And he said, ‘Well, you went to Florida, you’re a Florida Gator, you’ve got that great dress I bought you.’ It was a Lacoste with the little alligator on the chest. Of course, nobody noticed that tiny little gator, but it was a navy dress, and my husband had been in the navy. He always liked me in navy.” JoAnn Morgan tells Vanity Fair in 2018. [2]

JoAnn Morgan on-console [Credit: NASA]

JoAnn Morgan on-console [Credit: NASA]

Oh yeah, and remember the featured shot from the Apollo 11 documentary (below)?

JoAnn Morgan [Image Credit: Apollo 11 documentary (2019), NASA]

JoAnn Morgan [Image Credit: Apollo 11 documentary (2019), NASA]

JoAnn remembers that close-up. It was in a scheduling meeting for Apollo 11 and she vividly remembers that videographer being there. Why? Because cameras weren’t allowed in these meetings where controlled information was being discussed. For Apollo 11, an exception was made to let a camera in to document the historic events, but it was very controlled. And they most certainly weren’t supposed to do close-ups of anyone. So when this one got up close to JoAnn’s face, she said, “Oh boy, I rolled my eyes at him,” being singled out in the moment. [9]

To be the instrumentation controller in the launch room for the Apollo 11 liftoff was a big deal. For JoAnn, to be there for that pivotal point in history was ground-breaking: “It was very validating. It absolutely made my career.” [3]

Perhaps one of the best parts of being there for the Apollo 11 launch was finally being able to ‘feel’ the launch – the rumbling, the building shuddering, the windows rattling, and the shockwave. Up until then, Morgan had always been at a telemetry station, or a display room, or an upper antennae site for launch, and would have to hear from other people about what the launch felt like. For Apollo 11, JoAnn finally had the chance to experience that for herself. [3]

Did she get to see the launch?

In the space business, everyone is very disciplined and focused. If you’re supporting on console for launch, you couldn’t just stop, stand up, and watch the launch. JoAnn had to listen to 21 channels of information, plus monitoring a bunch of displays that the supervisors wanted up for the team to see. So she could feel the launch before seeing much of it. However, JoAnn did get a “peep” of the Saturn V launch from between the louvres on the firing room windows. But she certainly felt the launch; she had her elbow on the chair, and she felt the rumbling at her console. [9]

Apollo 11 mission launch from KSC on July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.

Apollo 11 mission launch from KSC on July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.

Morgan enjoyed the Apollo 11 launch from the firing room starting roughly 3 hours prior to countdown, and she stayed there all the way through translunar injection phase (which is the last critical event that launch control supported). In between these events were VIP guests coming in to give remarks, including Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon. This is when the below historic photo was taken, roughly an hour after launch. [2] [9]

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].

Note: it was pointed out that there are other women in the photo, along the wall in the back, but that’s because the picture was taken nearly an hour after the launch, by which point some back-room staff members were allowed in to hear the speakers. [2]

After the successful launch, JoAnn continued to be one of the busiest in the launch control room for the following two hours. While others started departing their consoles about thirty minutes after the launch, JoAnn had to get damage reports in (e.g., how the systems performed on the ground, how much time it would take to get ready for the next launch, etc.). JoAnn’s team was looking for any off-nominal conditions, like scorched cables that would need to be replaced, any lost communication boxes, or if a lightning antenna blew away.” [7]

After the successful launch, “Several people congratulated me and after launch, the test supervisor – who happened to be [the same one from] Blockhouse 34 – came down and gave me a cigar when he was handing out cigars,” shared JoAnn. [17]

She walked out [of the firing room] that day with Apollo Astronauts Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard, who were about to board a jet for the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. [7]

As for the Apollo 11 lunar landing, JoAnn’s job was considered complete.

Launch marks the beginning of the mission. But after the first couple of critical events that the launch team is devoted to (which includes launch through translunar injection), the Mission Control team in Houston takes over. [3]

So, JoAnn and her husband took a boat out to Longboat Key and watched the lunar landing on TV with champagne in hand. After watching the landing, her husband reached over and said, “Hon, you’re gonna be in the history books.” [2]

Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA

Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA

What came after Apollo 11?

After Apollo 11, JoAnn’s career blasted off.

JoAnn continued her success at Kennedy Space Center, and went on to complete a Master of Science in Management at Stanford in 1977 on a Sloan Fellowship. [3]

The Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “to provide support and recognition to early-career scientists and scholars,” and is one of the oldest programs of its kind in the US [18]. JoAnn was the first woman at NASA to win a Sloan Fellowship. [3]

When she returned to NASA two years later, she was promoted to Chief of the Computer Systems Division at KSC.

This was in the late seventies, when the agency was transitioning from using the old, giant computers to using many smaller computers. The change was supplemented with the fact that she was the first woman to have that role: “So, people were having to change and adapt to me and the new technology. So that was a lot to choke on for some people! A double whammy!” [3]

JoAnn Morgan working in the Computer Systems Division at KSC, Credit: NASA [3].

JoAnn Morgan working in the Computer Systems Division at KSC, Credit: NASA [3].

From there, Morgan excelled in many other roles, including Deputy of Expendable Launch Vehicles, Director of Payload Projects Management, and Director of Safety and Mission Assurance. [3]

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

She was one of the last two people who verified that the Space Shuttle was ready to launch. [3]

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

And she was the first woman at KSC to serve in an executive position (as Associate Director of KSC). [3]

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

But what excited JoAnn the most about her contributions was the same thing that inspired her to join the space program in the first place: the scientific discoveries. [3]

“My last mission was those two little plucky Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. That was a lot of fun – getting people to understand there’s a whole future out there, there’s a whole wealth of knowledge NASA can achieve.” [3]

JoAnn served as Director of External Relations and Business Development during her final years at KSC, with a brief stint in 2002 when she was appointed as acting Deputy Director of KSC for several months. [8]

JoAnn Morgan studies posters of space-related news stories in the mobile exhibition when she was the associate director for Advanced Development and Shuttle Upgrades at KSC. Credit: NASA [3].

JoAnn Morgan studies posters of space-related news stories in the mobile exhibition when she was the associate director for Advanced Development and Shuttle Upgrades at KSC. Credit: NASA [3].

Morgan mentored many women, and men, during her more than four decade long career at NASA.

One of JoAnn’s mentees was Dr. Phil Metzger (@DrPhiltill), who shared the following [19]:

“I can add one tiny thing JoAnn did in addition to the many gigantic things described in this thread: she was responsible for me getting a PhD and becoming a planetary scientist.

KSC offered a fellowship for engineers to get PhD’s, and I asked several managers for ideas on what I should propose as a research topic. Mike O’Neal was JoAnn’s deputy. They discussed ideas and suggested I propose to study how rocket exhaust blows soil during lunar landings. I thought that was the coolest idea anybody suggested, so I made that my proposal. JoAnn was on the selection committee, and she selected me for the fellowship.

I don’t know if she even remembers me, but I will always be grateful for her role in creating ‘doctor’ Phil.”

STS-112 Pilot Pamela Melroy (left) and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus (center) talk to Acting Deputy Director JoAnn Morgan (right) after the crew's return to KSC. Credit: NASA

STS-112 Pilot Pamela Melroy (left) and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus (center) talk to Acting Deputy Director JoAnn Morgan (right) after the crew’s return to KSC. Credit: NASA

JoAnn was a role model for many, including Charlie Blackwell-Thompson at KSC.

Fun fact: KSC’s Firing Room 1 is now led by Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first female launch director at KSC. And she is slated to lead countdown and launch for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1. [17]

The photo of Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and JoAnn Morgan below takes JoAnn’s journey full circle. 

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

In 1993, JoAnn was interviewed by the Sun Sentinel, and she shared her hopes for the future of spaceflight: [6]

“Twenty years from now, I know where I’d like us to be, but the political environment is very frightening. I think the space station will live up to the intent of what we originally planned, but the potential may not be realized because budget cuts will deprive us of some opportunities.

Twenty years from now, I’d like us to be on our way to Mars and colonizing the moon. In the next 30 to 50 years, there should be enough knowledge to start us on the path of migrating life out of our solar system, which has to happen eventually.”

We’re behind schedule, by JoAnn time. But there’s no denying the next couple of years will be exciting in the spaceflight world.

JoAnn retired in August 2003 with an incredible 45 years of service to NASA.

Her list of accolades and honors are immense, including a Presidential Honor as a Meritorious Executive, being inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, Exceptional Service Medals and Outstanding Leadership Medals from NASA, and much more. To this day, Morgan is still one of the most decorated women at KSC. [8]

Where is she now?

Retirement from NASA hasn’t stopped JoAnn from helping to pave a path for future generations.

JoAnn was appointed to be a state university trustee by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. While serving as a trustee, Morgan realized how important it was to encourage more women to pursue careers and college programs in STEM. She visits universities to advocate for women in engineering and encourage more opportunities, especially for engineering programs that need more diversity support. She sponsors scholarships at schools with low female enrollment in engineering programs, and has no plans of slowing down. [3] [17]

“Even though I’m almost 80 years old, I’m not giving up,” she says. [3]

Morgan encourages young people to stick with STEM careers even when they are hard work, because the rewards will be worth it in the end. [3]

JoAnn now splits her time between Florida and Montana, but that wasn’t always her plan. There was a time when she wanted to spend her golden years on Mars. “I thought they should have a geriatric program. If it happened 15 years ago, I would have been a volunteer,” she told CNN. [5]

When she watches the moon shine across the lake behind her Montana home, it’s hard not to smile when she thinks of all she’s accomplished. JoAnn Morgan told CNN, “I got to help put 12 people to walk on that moon. And I love telling everybody about it.” [5]

Conclusion

What started as a simple question from the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary turned into an incredible research adventure.

Thank you to everyone that helped track much of this information down, including David Kamp (Vanity Fair), Julia Bergeron (@julia_bergeron), Nina Diamond (Sun Sentinel), and many more. If there are any corrections or comments to add, please share.

Most importantly, to the trailblazer that helped pave the path for generations to come:

Thank you.

Feature written for Rocket Women by Megan Harrington

Works Cited

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8760684/
[2] https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/12/joann-morgan-nasa-apollo-11-interview
[3] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/the-story-of-joann-morgan
[4] https://twitter.com/megsylhydrazine/status/1133591034917662720
[5] https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/20/us/apollo-11-joann-morgan-only-woman-scn/index.html
[6] https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1993-11-14-9310270685-story.amp.html
[7] https://epdf.pub/apollo-moon-missions-the-unsung-heroes.html
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JoAnn_H._Morgan
[9] https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/turner-podcast-network/apollo-11-beyond-the-moon/e/61800572
[10] https://www.nalfl.com/?page_id=2523&cpage=1
[11] https://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/countdown/launch-team.html
[12] http://nalfl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PressReleaseApollo11FiringRoomPersonnel.pdf
[13] https://www.clarionledger.com/story/magnolia/2018/07/20/russia-and-nasa-soviets-tried-mess-up-moon-landing-apollo-11/803975002/
[14] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19720012253.pdf
[15] https://twitter.com/julia_bergeron/status/1134446533057949696
[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Canaveral_Air_Force_Station_Launch_Complex_34
[17] https://news.wjct.org/post/meet-joann-morgan-only-woman-apollo-11-firing-room
[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sloan_Research_Fellowship
[19] https://twitter.com/DrPhiltill/status/1134296220678180865?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1134296220678180865&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fthreadreaderapp.com%2Fthread%2F1133591034917662720.html%3Frefreshed%3D1563512052

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Natalie Panek, Mission Systems Engineer & Women in STEM Advocate

27 May, 2019

Natalie Panek [Image credit: Natalia Dolan]

Natalie Panek [Image credit: Natalia Dolan]

Natalie Panek is truly an inspiration. Along with being a trailblazing space engineer, Natalie is dedicated to inspire, empower and uplift young women in science & engineering. Natalie talked to Rocket Women about growing up in an environment that cultivated possibility, the importance of mentors to break down barriers, working on a Martian rover and her new documentary ‘Space To Explore‘!

What was the path to get to where you are now in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

My career in aerospace engineering launched from a dream to become an astronaut. I loved the idea of maybe one day travelling to space, exploring, and doing science alongside a really fantastic team. Watching a lot of science fiction –Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate with my mom when I was a kid – fueled this passion. I think my interest in science and engineering also sparked from a love for the outdoors.

Time outdoors fostered a curiosity and wonder for the world that has never gone away, which established a connection between science, tech, and engineering and how they can be used to positively shape the world.

I grew up in Alberta and spent a large portion of my childhood camping with my family. This time outdoors fostered a curiosity and wonder for the world that has never gone away, which established a connection between science, tech, and engineering and how they can be used to positively shape the world. And while I knew I wanted to be an astronaut, the path to becoming one was never all that clear. From some basic research, I knew that many astronauts are engineers. Despite not knowing much about engineering when I was younger, a physics teacher in high school encouraged me to pursue it.

The problem-solving aspect of engineering turned out to be a great fit and held my interest through both undergraduate and graduate studies. This path ultimately led me to the field of space robotics, in which I have been working for nearly the last decade. I actually had no experience with robotics before my job. There was a steep learning curve but with many great learning experiences from talented colleagues.

While I am not an astronaut today, I have worked on a ton of interesting projects as an aerospace engineer. The key takeaway here is that there are so many different opportunities to work in the aerospace industry that do not include becoming an astronaut (even though that would be really cool)!

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek

Congratulations on your new documentary Space To Explore. Can you tell me more about the documentary and what inspired it?

The documentary [Watch here] focuses on my story and my dream of one day travelling to space. And in telling this story, a reminder that it is OK to set big goals and have big dreams, yet not achieve them. The power of those big dreams lies in everything that is learned along the way, with opportunities to create positive change.

The documentary was borne out of an interview I did for Air Canada’s En Route magazine. The producer read my interview while flying home from vacation and she found the feature really inspiring. It took a few years for all of the pieces to fit together after she initially reached out, and then the film premiered as a finalist last year in the Banff Mountain Film Festival!

Who were your role models when you were growing up and how important are role models to young girls?

Most of my role models growing up were fictional characters. I thought She-Ra was the coolest person ever – she was powerful and compassionate. I wanted to be just like Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1, or even versions of Luke Skywalker and Wesley Crusher. I wish I could have emailed astronauts or aerospace engineers and asked all my questions when I was younger. A few years ago, I realized I am in a great position to share my experiences. I created an online platform and spaces where young people could connect with me and ask any questions they might have about space, engineering, robotics, or anything related to Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM).

I wanted to be just like Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1, or even versions of Luke Skywalker and Wesley Crusher. I wish I could have emailed astronauts or aerospace engineers and asked all my questions when I was younger.

Natalie Panek participating in the International Space University's Space Studies Program (SSP09) course at NASA Ames Research Centre with fellow Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens! [Photo credit: Eric Dahlstrom]

Natalie Panek participating in the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP09) course at NASA Ames Research Centre with fellow featured Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens! [Photo credit: Eric Dahlstrom]

Not knowing what to pursue in university or not having anyone to speak with can be overwhelming. Role models and mentors breaks down barriers by connecting young people with those working in STEM fields. And role models open up so many career opportunities that young people might just not be aware of.

Role models and mentors breaks down barriers by connecting young people with those working in STEM fields. And role models open up so many career opportunities that young people might just not be aware of.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Honestly, I am not sure that my family knew how to support my dream of becoming an astronaut or a career in engineering. It was just so far from anything they had experience with. I would tell them my goals – for example, that I was going to learn how to fly a plane, drive a solar powered car across North America, or study aerospace engineering – and they never second guessed those conversations. It was almost like not saying anything made everything – even the biggest goals – seem both normal and achievable.

I grew up in an environment that cultivated possibility. And when failures happened or obstacles arose (which they often did), my parents encouraged moving on rather than dwelling, and were always available to help figure out what comes next.

I grew up in an environment that cultivated possibility. And when failures happened or obstacles arose (which they often did), my parents encouraged moving on rather than dwelling, and were always available to help figure out what comes next. While support and encouragement come in many forms, my family gave (gives) me the space and freedom to do what I need to do. This is so subtle, but impactful.

What are your favourite things about your workday?

I really love that I contribute to challenging engineering projects in a collaborative environment. I work with amazing teams on a daily basis to help design and build hardware that is going to explore space or go to another planet. But things do not always go according to plan when working on space projects. Every day presents something new and requires working with dynamic and creative co-workers to solve the challenges that pop up.

I really love that I contribute to challenging engineering projects in a collaborative environment. I work with amazing teams on a daily basis to help design and build hardware that is going to explore space or go to another planet.

I also really love testing and the opportunity to do hands-on work; to see our designs come to life in our clean rooms. Our engineering and robotic products need to operate in pretty extreme environments (imagine dust storms on Mars, driving through deep soil, climbing over rocks, and exposure to really cold or hot temperatures!). Designing and testing for these environments requires creativity and visualizing different ways of approaching and solving problems. It is very validating and what makes our work at MDA really exciting.

Our engineering and robotic products need to operate in pretty extreme environments (imagine dust storms on Mars, driving through deep soil, climbing over rocks, and exposure to really cold or hot temperatures!). Designing and testing for these environments requires creativity and visualizing different ways of approaching and solving problems.

Natalie Panek with Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Dr. Dave Williams [Photo Credit M. Northcott]

Natalie Panek with Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Dr. Dave Williams [Photo Credit M. Northcott]

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I have worked on so many fascinating projects at MDA over the last decade. These projects range from studying how hazardous lunar dust affects the mechanical and electronic hardware that might be used in a lunar rover or lunar habitat, using robotic arms to repair or de-orbit broken-down satellites instead of letting them become space junk, and building robotic space tools.

I am actually working on a rover that is going to explore another planet and that is just so cool!

But the most rewarding moment of my career so far has been working on a Mars rover for the last 4.5 years. We are building the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2020 rover. The chassis and locomotion system (or the mobility system) is the frame of the rover: its legs, its wheels, as well as its motors and sensors. All of this hardware enables the rover to deploy once on Mars, as well as drive around and steer to get to its locations for science operations. I am actually working on a rover that is going to explore another planet and that is just so cool!

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

Advice I would pass along is not to be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. I have been in a lot of scenarios where I was really nervous to take that first step, whether it was learning how to fly a plane or helping build a solar powered car, or even starting a job in robotics. I think this was because I did not want to be the person in the room who did not know anything.

Once you are in that room, you can help bring in more people whom look like you – others whom might also have been afraid to take that first step but would really, really be interested in science, engineering, technology, even robotics.

I was afraid that I did not have the skills to contribute. But if you can get over that initial fear and vulnerability, there is usually a great team surrounding you to help overcome those challenges and to help you build skills. And once you are in that room, you can help bring in more people whom look like you – others whom might also have been afraid to take that first step but would really, really be interested in science, engineering, technology, even robotics.

With respect to doing things differently, I do not think I would. I think about this question from time to time. For example, what if I had accepted my offer of admission to Stanford University to complete my masters in Aerospace Engineering, versus going to the University of Toronto. I think it is easy to worry about making a ‘wrong’ choice.

What really matters is whether opportunities to learn are always present and that you are surrounded by people whom lift you up. And if an opportunity or experience just does not feel right, there is no shame in making a change.

But I like the idea of having different options to consider, knowing that each option will take me down a different path, with different experiences, and meeting different people along the way. What really matters is whether opportunities to learn are always present and that you are surrounded by people whom lift you up. And if an opportunity or experience just does not feel right, there is no shame in making a change.

Watch the inspirational short film ‘Space To Explore’ featuring Rocket Women Natalie Panek and Beth Jens (Propulsion Engineer) here:

SPACE TO EXPLORE – Award Winning Short Film from Katherine DuBois on Vimeo.

The big dream of Mars.

Subtitles in English, Español, 中文, हिन्दी भाषा, русский язык, اللغة العربية

Media, Scholarships, Shop

Rocket Women Launches Apparel To Support Scholarship

8 December, 2018

For post Rocket women final apparel print smaller 181202-21 jpg

We’re thrilled to announce that Rocket Women have launched a line of apparel designs (for babies, kids and adults) featuring our brand new logo by the amazing Marka Design! Part of the proceeds from the apparel will go towards a scholarship for young women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Our t-shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, tote bags and more make fantastic holiday gifts, whilst helping to support the next generation.

If you love these designs as much as we do, you can purchase them at Red Bubble here.

[Update: We’re thrilled to announce that proceeds from Rocket Women apparel will support a scholarship to be provided to a woman of any nationality attending the International Space University‘s Space Studies Program (SSP)!)

Here are some of our designs!

Rocket Woman Hoodie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Woman Hoodie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women Patch Sweatshirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women Patch Sweatshirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Children's T-Shirt - Pink [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Children’s T-Shirt – Pink [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Onesie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Onesie [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women T-shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Rocket Women T-shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Future Rocket Woman Kids T-Shirt [Red Bubble/Marka Design]

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 4

21 September, 2017
Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

In a special four-part feature Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team. NASA’s Orbit1 team remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts safe onboard.

These amazing individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The fourth and last interview in the series, features Natalie Gogins, ‘CRONUS Operator Flight Controller’ at NASA’s Mission Control.

Natalie’s role in NASA’s Mission Control Center is to monitor and configure systems to ensure the astronauts onboard the International Space Station are safe, and the space station itself. She talked to Rocket Women about the challenges that she overcame to become an engineer, her experience of being in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey and sharing her love of space to inspire others!

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry? 

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth. In high school, I volunteered at aviation museums and took private pilot flight lessons. While researching potential college degrees, engineering drew me in. It required using creativity and knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. I chose a school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I started an Engineering Physics (which is a combination of Aeronautical Engineering and Space Physics) degree before I realized I wanted a major with more hands-on courses.

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth.

I switched to Mechanical Engineering with a Robotics focus and, of course, modeled an International Space Station (ISS) robot arm for a class project. During my time at Embry-Riddle, I had internships with NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and The Boeing Company in my home state of Washington. I also got to float in a microgravity simulating plane twice!

These internships and experiences helped me gain confidence in my ability to succeed in “the real world” and allowed me to make connections for my future position. Before starting my career, however, I wanted to get a Master’s degree, so I attended Purdue University as a graduate researcher. Although my thesis work was in the field of hydraulics, I never lost my passion for space, and gladly returned to Johnson Space Center as a more experienced engineer to become a flight controller.

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

What does your average day look like in your role?

My day-to-day tasks vary as a CRONUS (Communications, RF, Onboard Network Utilization Specialist) flight controller. On average, I spend 7 days a month supporting the real-time ISS mission (known as being “on console”) in Houston’s Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1). I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle is healthy, and the mission is accomplished. I also get to work with people in Alabama (USA), Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia.

I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle [International Space Station] is healthy, and the mission is accomplished.

My group works with the computers and audio, video, telemetry, and commanding equipment. One of the best parts about being CRONUS is getting to control our external cameras to capture all kinds of exciting things such as an astronaut on EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), hurricanes, experiments, or spacecraft.

Natalie's Fantastic College Graduation Cap

Natalie’s Fantastic College Graduation Cap

When I’m not on console, I’m back in the office. Right now I’m training to become an Instructor so I can teach CRONUS flight controllers and astronauts and run simulations. Simulations are critical for training as they give uncertified controllers the chance to practice responding to failures and dealing with problems they’ve never seen before. Things in real life never happen or fail in ways you expect, so you have to know how to think on your feet and make the best decision possible.

I’m also privileged to serve as our division’s Morale, Awards, Recognition, and Social (MARS) Team lead. This gives me specific opportunities to use my creativity and organizational skills. It can be easy to get discouraged in an environment where we always evaluate how something can be better next time, but learning and interacting as a team reminds us why we love working at NASA and why we can’t give up on being our best.

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

I was on a 7-day overnight shift throughout Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Texas. This set of shifts is already extremely challenging, but the hurricane made it seem like an unbelievably long week. Based on the weather reports, I wanted to pack everything I might need if I was stuck at NASA for the full 7 days, just in case the roads flooded. I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising. I brought lots of food and water and towels and blankets and drove to work early Friday morning.

I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising.

It didn’t seem like much of a storm until Sunday night. During our normal LOS (loss of signal) with the satellites, when flight controllers get up to use the restroom and grab food, we instead went down to the first floor to check on the parking lot. That night, the water rose to 6” or about 15 cm below my car. Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive it up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive my car up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

NASA's Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

NASA’s Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey?

As the hours and shifts went on, there were so many friends and co-workers with stories of water creeping in to their homes and vehicles. Harvey was forecasted to keep dumping rain on us for days to come. But, we all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We had cots set up in other flight control rooms and even some conference rooms. It almost felt like camping or being back in a college dorm. When the roads were drained enough later in the week, people brought us homemade bread and meals. One of my co-workers edited the Flight Operations patch in honor of our trying week. Instead of ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulty”, it says ad astra per aqua or aquam, “to the stars through water”.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever. And, when we were relaxing after shifts, it was wonderful to see all the people that donated their time and risked their lives to try and rescue others during the storm and then helped clean out flooded homes. Houston was just the place I lived, but now, it truly feels like home.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever.

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

From a personal perspective, Harvey gave me a tiny taste of what life as a first responder or as a soldier might be like (minus feeling like your own life is at risk). You’re away from family and worried about their well-being, yet the only thing you can do is focus on the task in front of you. It’s not like a movie scene with inspirational music and a montage that gets you through the difficult times in 2 min or less. Instead, you do as you were trained and focus on helping those around you.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site. I knew my husband and third floor apartment were safe and my eye mask and earplugs were helping me get enough sleep, so I continued on.

I will forever be thankful for the sacrifice of those around the world who take care of strangers even on the darkest of days, and I hope my minor sacrifice of working all my overnight shifts so someone else didn’t have to helped in some small way. My thoughts and prayers were with those out in the storm, scared and waiting for help.

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

The most rewarding moments in my young career are the times when I overcame a challenge or when I get to share my love for space with others.

Getting an engineering degree was not easy for me; it was the first time in my life that I had to persevere over several years. School had always felt easy to me until I started college. I used to start assignments early so I had enough time to ask the professor questions, go to tutoring, or push through it myself. When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

The other thing I love about my career is that I get to inspire other people. From talking to a 3rd grade class about space travel to volunteering at a career fair, I love to see the look on young faces when they find out I work at NASA. There are so many who want to know about life in space and what’s happening next. I hope that some of them get that same spark of passion for exploration that leads them to STEM fields and maybe even to space.

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

I’m thankful for where my path in life has taken me, but if I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

If I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

Being happy with who you are, or having the bravery to change something for the better, is what matters. It’s worth it to push yourself and fight for what you love, just know that the path toward an extraordinary life is not an easy one. You cannot recognize success without knowing failure.

Natalie’s flight control group also controls the International Space Station’s (ISS) external cameras, and recently supporting this Soyuz docking to the ISS, carrying three astronauts:

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 2

8 September, 2017

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA's Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA’s Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

In a special four-part feature, Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

These resilient individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The second interview in this series features Jessica Tramaglini. Jessica’s role is to manage the International Space Station’s Power and External Thermal Control or ‘SPARTAN’ in NASA’s Mission Control Center.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

We have such a diverse group of people who work in Mission Control in Houston who come from a variety of backgrounds. I personally attended college to study aerospace engineering, receiving a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University and then started working here. I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

What does your average day look like in your role?

One of the best parts about my role is that there is really no ‘average’ day. Each day brings new and exciting challenges, such as training new flight controllers, working with other groups to update procedures and flight rules, and of course, working console.

Our goal on-console [in Mission Control] was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle [International Space Station] working

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan  [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting
Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
[Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

Our goal on console was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle working, minimizing any complicated tasks that could be postponed. The amount of support we received from each other and from people outside checking in on us was amazing.

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from Mission Control in Houston during Hurricane Harvey?

Especially working the overnight shift where I had to try to sleep during the day, staying in touch with family to let them know I was safe, and keeping in touch with friends who were experiencing flooding was difficult. Once you sat down to console for your shift, you had to block all of that out and focus on the job.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

This experience has just reinforced what a special group of people I have the honor of working with. They are incredibly supportive, organized, and everyone steps up to help when they are able.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I really can’t pick one single moment, but watching flight controllers you have trained succeed, and working console for Soyuz undockings are extremely rewarding opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it. Goals can’t be achieved without taking a risk. You may stumble along the way, but learn from your experiences and keep your eye on the prize.

Media

Rocket Women Featured At The Bluedot Festival, Jodrell Bank, UK

16 July, 2017
Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

I’m excited to share that Rocket Women featured at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK last weekend! The festival is an amazing culmination of science, technology and music, with headliners including Orbital, Alt-J and the Pixies, alongside well-known science communicators including Helen Keen, Tim O’Brien, Chris Lintott, Angela Saini and Helen Czerski. The aim of the Bluedot Festival is to explore the ‘frontiers of human advancement, celebrate science and the exploration of the universe’, alongside exploring the ‘intersections of science, culture, art and technology’!

I had a fantastic day at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank talking about How To Be A Rocket Woman & sharing the stories of Rocket Women featured here, in addition to taking part in a Space Quiz later in the day with comedians Helen Keen & Steve Cross! I’m extremely grateful to everybody that came to listen to my talk. I’m excited to encourage the next generation to follow their dreams in STEM through Rocket Women & hopefully increase the number of young women especially, that choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) & space.

Why is this important? Well, in the UK, one in five schoolchildren would need to become engineers to fill the upcoming gap in engineering. This is coupled with the fact that female engineers in the UK only make up 9% of all engineering professionals! We need to empower young women to be Rocket Women & reverse this trend. Moreover, humanity is only going to reach 50% of its potential if we only have 50% of the workforce working on the world’s hardest engineering problems. Imagine what the world would look like if it reached 100% of its technological potential?

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting 'How To Be A Rocket Woman' at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting ‘How To Be A Rocket Woman’ at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She's a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She’s a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Justyna Barys, Young Graduate Trainee, European Space Agency (ESA)

1 May, 2017
Justyna Barys, a Young Graduate Trainee working in ESA’s technical centre, ESTEC (Credit: ESA/G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo/)

Justyna Barys, a Young Graduate Trainee working in ESA’s technical centre, ESTEC (Credit: ESA/G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo/)

Justyna Barys not only works at the European Space Agency (ESA) but was also recently selected to be featured on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Originally from Poland, and now based in the Netherlands, Justyna tells Rocket Women about her journey to the space industry.

RW: Congratulations on being selected as one of the 30 Under 30 on the Europe Industry List chosen by Forbes. Can you tell me about that experience and when you found out you’d been selected?

JB: Thank you very much. I felt very thrilled and excited when I found out about this nomination. I was nominated for the Forbes list 30 under 30 Europe 2017 in the Industry category. The journalist from Forbes found my professional profile on the LinkedIn website. The description of the research, which I’m currently conducting in the European Space Agency (ESA) MELiSSA project seemed very interesting to him. That’s how I was nominated. Then the jury in the Industry category decided to place my name on this special list.

RW: How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

JB: To be honest I had never been planning to work in the space industry. I was studying biotechnology and I was expecting to find interesting job after the university in this area of industry. Nevertheless I have been always interested in astronomy and space exploration. It has been always one of my biggest hobbies. When I found a position of Young Graduate Trainee in the European Space Agency in MELiSSA project I thought that it would be a perfect job for me, which includes my academic profile and personal interests. I was delighted when I got this job.

RW: Did you need any specific education or training in order to qualify for your current role? If so, what was it?  

JB: No, I didn’t need any additional courses. The knowledge, which I gained during my studies was sufficient for my position. Nevertheless in the beginning I had to get acquainted with overall knowledge about MELiSSA project and space industry.

I recall a quote from Carl Sagan’s book ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which was very influential: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

RW: Who were your role models when you were growing up?  How important are role models to young girls?

JB: In my opinion it is extremely important. I remember when I was eight, I watched the film “Contact” with my father. I can now say that this movie changed my life. I was only eight and of course in the beginning I didn’t understand everything from the movie, but enough to inspiring me to become a scientist. The movie is based on a novel of Carl Sagan with the same title and it’s about a SETI scientist who is looking for extraterrestrial life. In this movie I found role models of women in the science world. Furthermore, the movie shows that a way to achieve success is not always easy and how important is not to give up, be strong and in spite of all always follow your dreams.

As I mention I was eight when I saw this movie first time. From time to time I like to watch it again to remember how my fascination about being a scientist began. I also have to admit that my father had a huge influence on my interest of science and astronomy. When I was a child I spent many hours with him watching science-fiction films and documentaries about space. I recall a quote from Carl Sagan’s book “Pale Blue Dot”, which was very influential: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

RW: What’s your favourite book? 

JB: My favorite book is actually Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”. As I mention before when I was young I got fascinated with “Contact” film. A few years later I started to read books by Carl Sagan about space exploration, the role of the human in the universe and his visions about human future in space. ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is the book which I liked the most. I think that description of the Voyager missions are for me the most interesting part.

In the beginning of my scientific way I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe that girl like me could do something really important. Now I know that was wrong.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? What would you change? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently? 

JB: Never give up on your dreams.

Following your dreams is not an easy task. On the way to achieve a success you will encounter plenty of failures. Actually it is a hard job. But for sure worth the effort. After all the feeling that with your actions you can change the world – it’s priceless.

To be honest I think that I wouldn’t change any of my decisions. The only one thing which I would change it would be my attitude. In the beginning of my scientific way I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe that a girl like me could do something really important. Now I know that was wrong.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Eloise Matheson, Telerobotic Engineer, European Space Agency (ESA)

24 November, 2016
Eloise with ESA's INTERACT robot, operated by astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The Telerobotics and Haptics team aims to validate advanced robotic control developed for future exploration programmes.

Eloise with ESA’s INTERACT robot, operated by astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The Telerobotics and Haptics team aims to validate advanced robotic control developed for future exploration programmes.

Eloise Matheson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in space. Her passion has culminated in her being based at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a Telerobotic Engineer! She recently shared her story with Rocket Women.

On her path to get to where she is now:

I started working at ESA as a British Young Graduate Trainee in September 2014. This program is aimed at providing experience to recent graduates, allowing them to gain an understanding of the European and international space arena. I was placed in the Telerobotics and Haptics Lab at ESA under the Mechatronics and Automation Section. It’s a really wonderful lab of around 10 dedicated and passionate people. When my traineeship finished a year later, I was lucky to stay on as a contractor which is how I am here today. Working at ESA was always a goal of mine. Having previous industrial experience and a strong academic record helped to achieve this.

On the qualifications she needed to gain to become a Telerobotic Engineer:

By education I’m a Mechatronics Engineer. I completed a combined Bachelor’s degree in Mechatronic (Space) Engineering/Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, Australia in 2010. After 18 months of working and travelling, I started a 2 years European Master of Advanced Robotics (EMARO), an Erasmus Mundus program, which finished in 2014. In this program I studied for one year at Warsaw University of Technology, Poland, and my final year at Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France. It was a fantastic program where I learnt not only technical skills, but also had the unique opportunity to experience different cultures and make friends from all around the world.

My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments.

On her favourite things about her job:

My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments under the international METERON project. METERON aims to test telerobotic technology through a series of experiments from the ISS to robotic labs across the world. For us, the latest of these was INTERACT, an experiment where the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogenson controlled our rover on the ground from the ISS to localise and find a taskboard, before driving there and performing a peg-in-hole task with force feedback. It sounds easy to put a peg in a hole, but it is much harder when you are hundreds of kilometers away, controlling a robotic manipulator over a communications link with a nominal delay of 800ms and the peg tolerance to the hole is measured in micrometers! The experiment was a success, and proved that our control strategies, visual interfaces, haptic feedback and master and slave devices were able to complete useful tasks over a space-to-ground link. It was a very exciting, challenging and rewarding project for us. What I physically do each day changes – ranging from mechanical integration of parts, to testing of electrical circuits, to coding for embedded systems and documenting manuals and other procedures.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be.

On how her interest in space grew:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be. The notion of exploring what is beyond our world, of discovering where humanity came from and furthering the boundaries of known knowledge is, I believe, an entrenched human trait that everyone shares. Working in space helps us to achieve this one little bit at a time.

On whether there was anything unexpected about her career journey that was different to her initial expectations:

To be honest, I’m not sure I had initial expectations of what my career journey would be, except that I knew I wanted to work in space. I’m always planning what could happen in the future, but really, the future is impossible to plan in such detail! In hindsight, the steps that pushed me to be on the path I am now were all fortuitous. Of course it took, and continues to take, a lot of hard work, but I truly believe it’s important to be open to opportunities and make the best of every situation as it comes your way. Perhaps my only expectation is to one day experience what it is to look at the Earth from the outside of it…I fully expect this to be a difficult, but incredibly rewarding, path.

As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it.

On how important are role models to young girls:

I think role models, of either gender, are very important to young girls, so that they can see the myriad of options that exist from working in STEM. As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it. One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world. Just as inspirational was my undergraduate thesis supervisor – he said that if the motivation for a choice was to continue learning about the world, then it was the right choice. Of course having opportunities to meet and interact with women and men working in STEM that are supportive and encouraging of girls working in STEM is vital.

One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world.

On if she had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self:

When I was 10, I think my main goals in life were to be an astronaut OR a parking police officer OR a dermatologist – to me these were all incredibly exciting jobs. As I grew older I found I was good at maths and science, but I equally enjoyed English and music. After high school, I wanted to study science – believing it to be a good path to astronaut-hood, and falling into engineering happened almost by a lucky mistake (it’s a long story involving a potential move to a new city, a high school romance and last minute choices). My advice to my 10 year old self, or any 10 year old, is to listen to your instincts about your choices and know that your interests and dreams will change and that’s ok. It’s also ok to not know what you want to do…but if you don’t know, studying engineering is an awesome option as it probably gives you more choices for career paths after finishing than any other degree.

Don’t think you can’t succeed on a certain career path simply because you don’t tick all the boxes at that point. I failed my first programming course in C at university – I had never coded before at high school. In hindsight I would have changed when I started seeing computers as a tool rather than a box playing music and accessing the internet, but at that time of my life I didn’t know what coding was. Now I see it as a language, and a fairly universal one at that. I finished high school in 2005 – I think there is a huge difference between the online learning facilities that exist for children now compared to then, as well as a shift in educational curriculums putting more emphasis on technical skills. Would I have done things differently? I don’t think so. I’m very happy where I am now. I’m excited what the future holds. Probably the advice my 10 year old self would tell me today is not give up dreaming, not give up on optimism and maintain the strong belief that everything is possible with enough motivation and drive.

Inspirational women, Media

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

26 January, 2016

Vinita Marwaha Madill Featured In Fast Company's Piece On Women In Space

Vinita Marwaha Madill Featured In Fast Company’s Piece On Women In Space – Seen here on-console supporting International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Cologne, Germany [Fast Company]

I’m excited to share that Rocket Women and myself were featured in Fast Company’s recent article “Women In Space Seek More Women In Space“.

The Fast Company piece details:

Prominent women in STEM are ensuring their stories are part of the narrative about space careers—with the explicit goal of attracting more.

Vinita Marwaha Madill, a consultant in space engineering and STEM outreach and the founder of Rocket Women, a website focused on women and space, likewise wants to encourage more women to enter the field. Madill’s career has included stints as an Engineering Manager leading the Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineering Team in Canada, and as an International Space Station operations engineer at the German Aerospace Center, among other things.

On Rocket Women, she posts interviews with women around the world in STEM fields, especially space-related, as well as advice to encourage girls to become involved in STEM.

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

“Watching Helen Sharman’s Soyuz launch on BBC News at a young age, and knowing that there had been a British female astronaut, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger,” Madill says. “I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human space flight. And eventually I did. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut, and maybe there could be again. It was possible. Through featuring advice and stories of women in STEM, I want Rocket Women to give other girls and women that same realization.”

Other women featured include Natalie Panek, Mission Systems Engineer at MDA (Canada) and Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (USA).

Read the full article here