I got this space shuttle necklace when I was 15 years old. It was the spring of my freshman year of high school and I was visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the first time. I’ve worn this necklace for major space events in my life ever since. I’ve worn it on launch days, both the ones I’ve worked from Mission Control and the ones I’ve watched over the years from my dorm room, and my office, and in person. I’ve worn it for my certification simulations as a flight controller trainee. I wore it to my interview to become a “front-room” flight controller. I’ve worn it for rendezvous day on both of the missions I supported as Lead Rendezvous Officer.
I’m wearing it today, the day the space shuttle launched for the last time and the day I walked into Mission Control to begin my final mission as a space shuttle flight controller.
Unlike a lot of my friends and coworkers, I wasn’t space-crazy as a child. Yes, I had that “spaceship that lands on Earth” t-shirt. Yes, I spent many hours looking at constellations with my dad. And yes, I was watching from my second-grade classroom when Challenger exploded, and I remember the confusion and the sadness of that day. But I wanted to be a teacher, or an architect, or a Disney animator, or a musician. It wasn’t until high school that I decided to be an engineer and became focused on working for NASA.
It’s funny how life works out. In 9th grade, my physics teacher offered extra credit to any student who wrote a paper for a contest sponsored by NASA and the National Science Teacher’s Association; the prompt was to design and propose an experiment that could be done on Mars. The mere mention of “extra credit” was all it took for a geeky student like me. I wrote the paper, and I ended up winning a trip to KSC to present it to some real NASA engineers. It was 1993. Along with the other student finalists, I got an up-close view of NASA for the first time. We saw Endeavour on the launch pad, getting ready for the flight that would repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
I entered that contest in 10th grade and 11th grade as well, even without the lure of extra credit. I won another trip to KSC and then a trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston. I saw Mission Control for the first time with only the faintest idea that I might be sitting at one of those consoles years later. When I started to think about graduating high school and going to college, I slowly realized that NASA was something people did as a regular job. NASA was something that I could do.
As a high school senior, I remember my homeroom teacher asking me what I wanted to study in college, and what I wanted to do. He was just a random teacher at my high school, and didn’t know me at all outside of the fact that I spent 20 minutes in his classroom each day. “I want to study aerospace engineering and then be an astronaut.” He laughed at me, because he didn’t know that I was serious.
It occurs to me only now that I pursued a career in the space program more aggressively than I’ve chased after almost anything else in my life. I applied to a couple other colleges but quickly targeted Georgia Tech, which had both an excellent aerospace department and an excellent cooperative education program. As a high school senior, I sent letters to the JSC coop office. They wrote back and told me to contact them once I was at Tech. I found other GT students who cooped at JSC and emailed them. I asked them for any and every bit of advice they could give about how to become a coop.
I got my job at NASA in 1997 as a 19-year-old who had finished her freshman year of college just days before. Despite my efforts, it still took a bit of luck. NASA didn’t come to Tech to do coop interviews that year, and my coop advisor told me that getting a job at JSC wasn’t going to be possible. I sent more letters anyway, along with my resume, but never heard anything. I didn’t know what to do. JSC was the only place I wanted to work.
As I was packing up my dorm room to go home for the summer, I got a phone call from Houston. They wanted to interview me for a coop job. We spoke for a few minutes but he had to hang up briefly to take care of something else. I ran into the hallway and freaked out with a friend from next door until the phone rang again. By the end of the day, I had a coop job at JSC. I was so excited. I later learned that the only reason I’d gotten an interview was that two extra coop spots opened up, and there was no time to go back to any colleges for another round of interviews. My resume happened to be sitting on the coop coordinator’s desk.
It pays to be persistent.
The space shuttle has been flying into orbit for 30 of my 33 years, and it has been an integral part of my daily life since I got that job as a wide-eyed 19-year-old. I’ve had several different jobs at NASA now and while each has been rewarding in its own way, there is nothing quite like working on the space shuttle. I am proud to have played a small part in the success of the space shuttle program, and thankful to have had the opportunity. It is something I will never forget.
So thank you space shuttle. And thank you NASA. You’ve helped make my life an excellent adventure so far.