I really have enjoyed the last month or so sharing my journey as an engineer at NASA – JPL in Pasadena, California. One of the many things I love about JPL’s location is that we are in the middle of nature, in the hilly terrain, with beautiful views of the San Gabriel Mountains. I work in the Deep Space Network group, also known as DSN; and this is my building. It’s a nice start to the day seeing this view as I walk 7 minutes slightly uphill from my car to my office. Not to mention, it’s nice to get some brief exercise in too.
Parking my car on a Monday morning, I see this 4-legged family. Looks like they’ve been having their own party over the week-end. I’m sure they’re thinking “Oh no, the humans are back.” The number one driving rule on Lab is to always yield to animals. They have the right of way. After all, they were here way before JPL was founded here back in 1936.
Recently I had the pleasure of going to see Hidden Figures, the movie centering around Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, and other women of color who made significant contributions to NASA beginning over 50 years ago. As a woman of color with a mechanical engineering degree from Texas A&M University and having taught at NASA Kennedy Space Center, this phenomenal movie hit close to home for me.
I have been in the engineering field for nearly 22 years. After getting several years of real world experience, I have spent a portion of my career as an instructor, having taught hundreds of classes over the past decade. My customers are professionals: engineers, technicians, managers.
For me, the ultimate experience that solidified my knowledge and expertise occurred when I delivered five consecutive weeks of training at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Let’s do this!”
We covered more content than I had ever delivered in a 5-day class, because that is what they wanted. An average 5-day class for any other customer consisted of 25 lessons. The tailored class for NASA had 30 lessons. Cramming six days of materials into five days, we flew through it. And one of the weeks coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, so I had to cram six days of materials into four 10-hour days. That week was brutal.
At NASA, the classroom where I delivered the training had two bathrooms: one for the men, one for the women. During one week, I was the only woman teaching twelve men. So out of kindness, at the beginning of class in the morning, I told them, “Guys, you are more than welcome to use the women’s bathroom too since I am the only girl here.” Fast forwarding to the afternoon, I go into the bathroom, and notice one of the guys has left the toilet seat up. Of course, I am not touching the seat to put it back down. The last person to touch it was the person who lifted it and in this case, I knew where his hands had been. I am also thinking “Ok, so you can design the automation and controls systems of the freaking space shuttle, but you can’t remember to put down the toilet seat?! Really?!”
So, with a full bladder, I walk back out to the classroom and calmly sit down. I say in a friendly, yet restrained voice, “Guys, who was the last one to use the women’s bathroom?” Immediately, I see eyes shifting back and forth, as in “it wasn’t me.” I gently explained that someone had left the toilet seat up. Immediately, some of the guys go on the defense with their explanation of how it couldn’t be them. One guy, “I pee sitting down, so it wasn’t me.” A second guy, “Well, you can’t miss that way. That’s what I do too.” A third guy, “Well, I’m married and have daughters, so I’m trained already.” I had never heard so many different men peeing stories in my life. So, another one of the guys bravely stood up and said “It wasn’t me but I will take care of it.” So five minutes later, I walk into the bathroom and not only was the toilet seat down, but he had cleaned the entire bathroom and even used air freshener. Blushing, I thought “awe… I feel special.” And I made sure to thank him.
One of the fringe benefits that I enjoyed while delivering training at NASA included watching the space shuttle launch live and in person. I came back from break to an empty classroom. Where is everybody? They are outside getting ready to watch the launch. Watching the shuttle launch, I thought to myself “just like on television” until sixty seconds later when I felt the ground underneath me tremor. I felt like a kid: wow, too cool!
The days leading up to the launch were dreamlike, because we had the television on inside the classroom with live feed to the space shuttle cabin. The folks in class are looking at it differently because of their involvement in ensuring everything is technically sound. I hear them having conversations about what the astronauts are doing, calling them by their first names, talking as if they know the astronauts personally, because they do.
My mom retired from NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas after twenty years. She personally witnessed both shuttle disasters, watching from the NASA grounds. So for me delivering training at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a surreal experience.
Witnessing the experiences of the women in Hidden Figures as well as their contributions to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields inspired a profound emotional connection to all women who have succeeded in these industries before me. It is why I am starting this Institute, to help the women and girls who come behind me.
As I stand up, getting ready to head home from JPL, I see this beautiful view.
Breathtaking and surreal! Wow, what a RIDE!
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All the BEST to you!