Center Snapshot: Chris Belcastro
Image above: Chris Belcastro is active in outreach, seeking out high school students who could some day become engineers. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Jim Hodges
Chris Belcastro still finds it difficult to use "I."
"We lived together," she said of identical twin sister Celeste. "We bounced ideas off of each other daily, and we were very cognizant of what we were doing and collaborated on a number of things."
When she accepted the Peninsula Engineers Council Engineer of the Year Award on Saturday night, Chris did so on behalf of herself and Celeste, who passed away two years ago because of cancer.
It was more than fair. "Not everything, but much of what we contributed here at NASA was a joint contribution," she said.
They pursued careers as engineers together after they learned what engineering involved. It was somewhat difficult to learn about engineering in their youth.
"Back in 1969, during the moon landing of Apollo 11, Celeste and I were totally in awe of that," Chris said. "They told us on the news how to set your camera to take pictures of the moon landing off the TV. We didn't know anything about cameras.
"We got a camera of our father's. We had somebody set it up for us, and followed the instructions and we got some very good pictures off the TV."
Those pictures and the memories made it difficult to comprehend engineering in their youth.
"The entire time, and I'll never forget it actually, when you saw mission control, it was all white men sitting in there," Belcastro said. "I'm not being critical, but it never entered our minds, either of us, that we could take part, we could grow up and study engineering and become members of the NASA team."
It's a reason that she is active in outreach. A week after delivering a speech on her specialty, controls as a part of aircraft safety, to engineers in Stockholm, she spoke about engineering as a career to high school students in the Reid Conference Center.
After doing everything together for 18 years, the twins were at loose ends after high school, and were being pressured by peers to pursue different identities through different careers. Chris looked into being an electrical engineer technician through apprentice schools at NASA Langley and Newport News Shipbuilding, largely because the twins played electric guitars and were into the technology of music.
A counselor at Thomas Nelson Community College evaluated her high school transcript, saw her success in math and science classes and prodded her to pursue a career in engineering.
Celeste was at Old Dominion University, studying science with a plan to follow in their father's footsteps as a pharmacist.
"At some point I said to her, 'this is the perfect career,' " Chris said. "If you are interested, go in it. Don't live your life trying to satisfy everyone else. Please yourself."
They went to engineering school at Old Dominion together.
"We got in sync with our classes, and from there on, we took the same classes," Chris said. "We both graduated on the same day. We both got hired at two different branches here. We both entered duty the same day, took our oaths together."
They started down different paths at Langley, but then those paths converged.
"We collaborated with each other," Chris said. "Her work in aviation safety was complementary to mine. My work was in mitigation of adverse conditions. Hers was in detection of problems. So we were on dual sides of the problem."
They shared a home in Hampton, shared the same interest in opera. "We were involved in the same hobbies, had the same interests, the same friends," Chris said. "We did everything together."
Including, two years ago, suffer endometrial cancer.
"She made me get an examination," Chris said, tearing, which is something she does easily, several times a day. "I was in Stage 1. She was in Stage 4."
Chris took off work for six months to stay with her sister.
"We were together for 52 years," she said. "We thought we were entering the happiest chapter of our lives."
Chris Belcastro has left the house in Hampton, trying to escape the memories of those six months. She lives in Toano now and is still putting her life back together.
"We had season tickets to the Virginia Opera," Chris said. "I still buy two tickets. We went with a friend of ours. Now I take an additional friend to use Celeste's seat."
She is pondering a return to a gospel choir in Hampton, where the twins sang together. It's also hard for Chris to pick up her guitar without remembering how it blended with Celeste's bass. And she is working, reaching out to bring young women into engineering, trying to make airplanes safer.
"It's still difficult," she said of her day-to-day life now. "I want to continue things we both started. I try to live for both of us now. It's always with me."