Women at NASA: What it's like to work at the organization today

Women have been an essential part of our space program over the years, their contributions having led to many of the achievements we’ve made in space exploration. However, their roles have often gone without being acknowledged or recognized. As we’ve discussed here before, there are unfortunately quite a few women you’ve probably never heard of who played important roles in NASA.

Luckily, times have changed. While women are continuing the legacy of those that came before them and making a difference at NASA in numerous departments, they are no longer going unrecognized for their work. Their accomplishments make the news, and their careers and important work they perform are celebrated daily on websites like Women@NASA and Women@JPL. It’s clear we still owe much of our success in the space program to the many talented women working at NASA.

To highlight the continued contributions of women in this field and offer a look at what it’s like to work at NASA now, I reached out to three women currently working there to ask them about everything from their careers to the women at NASA who inspired them to what they would say to the younger generations interested in following in their footsteps!  

Wanda Peters

 

Wanda Peters’ interest in science and space began as a child, when the moon landing interrupted the cartoons she was watching.

“My mom was like ‘Watch this. It’s historical’ and it was fascinating because the moon is so far up in the sky I was wondering ‘How did they get there?'” Peters told Blastr. “I was curious about that, and then my father was a Trekkie, a Star Trek fan, so I watched all the Star Trek movies [and the program]. I’ve been fascinated with space for a long time.”

Peters is now an associate director in the Flight Projects Directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center. When Peters first started working at NASA, she said there were very few women engineers.

“I remember going on travel one time and someone mistook me as a technician and not one of the aerospace engineers. It was basically a sign of the times back then,” she said.

In her current role over the course of a day Peters could be addressing a number of areas involving the missions being managed at Goddard. These can range from discussing issues on projects such as technical design problems to discussing tests coming up for a mission to discussing decisions to be made for the next phase in the life cycle of a mission. She could be discussing budgets, if there’s enough money to cover what a mission needs to do, and how well the funds they have been allocated are being spent. Peters could also be working on schedules to see if they are meeting milestones, exceeding expectations by meeting them early, or if there are issues with things they need to procure.

“The other aspect of my job, which is a very large part at this time, is strategic planning. I’m looking at the workforce. I talk with the different organizations within the directorate to make sure they are getting the support that they need and they also understand the initiatives and procedures we are directing down to them,” Peters said. “It’s interacting with people on a daily basis to make sure they have the resources that they need in order to get their job done. I advocate for all of the different organizations that are under our direction.”

One of the women at NASA who inspired Peters in her own career is Grace Miller, a coatings engineer. Peters said Miller told her stories of how when she would go to different launch sites to work she had to walk through men’s changing rooms in order to get access. It was the only way to get access because they didn’t have women doing those kinds of jobs at that time. Peters called her “a pioneer working in a very male dominated area” who “showed a quiet strength.”

“She was very knowledgeable. She worked hard. She did her job and her work spoke for itself. She was very detailed in how she did her work. What all of that taught me is to be the best I could possibly be. To work hard [and] through my hard work, my expertise, and my technical knowledge I would be recognized,” Peters said. “Were there some ups and downs? Yes, that’s with any situation. But what I can say is I‘ve been very fortunate and blessed at NASA. My work has been recognized. I’ve achieved a lot and that’s due to a lot of the unsung heroes, women in STEM, that went before me. They paved the path for me and I think I’ve paved the path for others, but I give credit to all those who went before me.”

For any kids, especially young girls, who are interested in pursuing a similar STEM path and potentially working at NASA, Peters has some advice. She would first tell them to believe in themselves and believe that they are capable with “all that it takes in order for you to achieve.”

“So when you walk into the job site, you have as much credibility as anyone else. As long as you have that confidence, that goes a long way,” she said. “The second thing is to learn as much as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to try different things. When you make mistakes, and all of us will, learn from it. Take it as an opportunity to grow and develop. Don’t allow it to derail you. Learn from it.”

Peters would also advise them to speak up, not be afraid to voice their opinion, respect others’ comments, and get a mentor. Peters herself has several different types of mentors.

“You really need someone to be a sounding board for you, to give you advice, or to even talk to when there are situations that you’re trying to navigate to help you process it and hear different perspectives,” she explained. “Most of all at the end of the day, just remember you can do whatever you set your mind to if you work hard and you keep trying. You can achieve.”

 

Sarah Noble

“Dr. Sarah Noble stands in front of a high-powered electron microscope, one of the tools that she uses to unlock the mysteries of the small piece of the moon that sits in her hand.”

From a very young age, Sarah Noble was a space nerd. She told Blastr she was around 10 when she decided she wanted to be an astronaut. In college she became an aerospace engineering major “because it was the one major that had space in the title.”

“Then I quickly realized I was not an engineer. I was a scientist at heart,” she said. “I stumbled into geology and then sort of found my way back to space from there to become a planetary geologist.”

Now working as a program scientist at NASA headquarters’ planetary science division, Noble said what she does daily can vary from editing press releases to reading proposals to launching a rocket to an asteroid or the moon.

“It’s hard to say what a normal day is. I do some research. I go down to Houston every once in awhile and look at moon rocks under a microscope, so I get little breaks and do that which is sort of very different than when I’m here at headquarters [where] most of my work is sitting at a computer and doing paperwork,” Noble explained.

Noble is also the deputy program scientist for Mars 2020. The mission will send a new lander to Mars and within the next year the public will be invited to become involved in the process of naming it.

“We’re not going to continue calling it Mars 2020 forever. It will get a name just like the Curiosity rover did and there’ll be a contest for that, probably for school age kids,” she said.

Like Peters, fellow women who have worked at NASA have also inspired Noble. In fact, she is also an artist and right now is working on a series of paintings featuring her favorite women in NASA history. One she just finished is of Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the only woman in mission control during Apollo 13. Noble recalls a picture of her in that room surrounded by men in white shirts and black ties looking comfortable in her place as she sits there fashionably dressed with her tousled blonde hair.

“In one sense she’s an alien in that room. She looks like she does not belong at all and yet the look on her face, her confidence, I think is just incredible that she clearly knew exactly where she belonged,” Noble said. “Then there’s one I’m currently starting right now of Margaret Hamilton, who was the person who wrote most of the software that landed the LM on the moon during Apollo. She actually coined the phrase software engineer. She was the first one because there was no word for what she was doing. One of the very first software engineers and again usually the only women in the room, but it never stopped her and she just powered through.”

Noble’s advice for girls considering entering the field and working at NASA one day is to follow their passion.

“Whether that’s science and engineering or whether it’s communications or art. Whatever it is, it turns out NASA has a place for everybody,” Noble told Blastr. “We have people here who are not just scientists and engineers. There are all kinds of people who work at NASA and we need all of them. I would say whatever you’re most passionate about is what you’re going to be most successful and happiest doing.”

 

Josephine Santiago-Bond

 

Josephine Santiago-Bond told Blastr in an email interview that she “started getting interested in science before [she] knew what science was.” As a child in the Philippines she went to work with her mother, an aquaculture researcher, in the summers. There she roamed her mother’s office and could look at on-going experiments.

“One day, she gave me a vial of phenolphthalein indicator, and I had a memorable time playing with acids and bases. I felt like a real scientist just like her,” Santiago-Bond said.

Her interest in space came later when she was getting her master’s degree. Her academic advisor asked her to perform experiments with him at Kennedy Space Center.

“After spending my second winter in South Dakota, I quickly agreed. A few days later, the space shuttle Columbia disaster happened. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know of the existence of space shuttles before the Columbia disaster,” she said. “I felt sad because of the lives we lost, and became somewhat obsessed with following the Columbia coverage on television. If any good can come out of such a disaster, I can say that event was the point at which I truly started getting interested about NASA and space.”

Recently Santiago-Bond transitioned from her role as a flight systems engineer at NASA to one where she supervises flight systems engineers.

“As a flight systems engineer, I was technically responsible for the multi-disciplinary development of payload instruments heading to the lunar south pole in the early 2020s as part of the Resource Prospector mission,” she said. “Most days were spent in the laboratory environment, working with scientists and engineers in finding ways to reduce risk to the mission.”

Now she supervises 18 flight systems engineers and makes sure they have everything they need to function as leaders of multi-disciplinary teams that are spread across the country.

One of the women who inspired Santiago-Bond is Christine Williams, former program manager for NASA’s Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program. Santiago-Bond told Blastr that Williams taught her it’s possible “to strategically align [her] personal needs with the goals of the organization to get mutually beneficial results.”

“She has emphasized the value of coaching, the need to pause and be inwardly reflective, develop new skills, and seek feedback in order to continually grow and manage change,” she said. “I believe she equipped me to prepare for key events that have led me to my current position.”

Santiago-Bond would tell kids interested in pursuing STEM careers to ask their parents to look for STEM programs in their communities as well as joining those offered in their schools. By doing both they can be exposed to a range of programs. Like Peters, she also recommends finding a mentor.

“A role model and mentor can help combat stereotypes you may have about STEM by simply communicating their enjoyment for their work, encouraging you to pursue a particular STEM field, and giving you an opportunity to see, hear, and learn about these careers,” she said. “Women@NASA features a diverse selection of inspiring women who work for NASA. Study hard, strive to get good grades, and apply for a NASA internship at any of our centers. Interning is the fastest way to experience the best place to work in the federal government, and to determine at an early age if it is the right place for you.”

You can learn about some of the other amazing women working at NASA on the Women@NASA website.

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