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NASA Chat: What’s it Like Being a Woman Working at NASA
05.26.11
 
Janet PetroIn Firing Room 4 in the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Deputy Center Director Janet Petro monitors the countdown of space shuttle Endeavour in 2010.
Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Janet PetroDuring a Minority Student Education Forum in Summer 2010, Kennedy Space Center Deputy Director Janet Petro talks to hundreds of fifth- through 12th-grade students.
Image credit: NASA/Cory Huston

More Information
› Biography of Janet Petro
› Janet Petro's Women@NASA Profile→
› Chat Transcript

When NASA began in 1958, its staff was almost completely male. To this day, that perception continues to hold true. However, reality is very different today. The number of women working at NASA has grown since the agency's founding, with many making significant contributions to the nation's space program.

Janet Petro, the Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, was online for an hour-long live chat on May 26, 2011, at 1:00 p.m. EDT. In 1977, Petro was inducted into the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point as a member of only the second class that allowed women cadets. Since then she has been no stranger to making strides in typically male-dominated worlds.

NASA Explorer Schools invited K-12 educators and students across the nation to chat with Petro who will share her experiences at NASA, in the U.S. military and in the private sector. This discussion will encourage students, especially girls, to engage in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – studies and highlight how opportunities for women to advance have never been better. She will answer your questions about what it takes to become one of our next generation of explorers.

Petro has been in her current NASA position since 2007 and is responsible for helping the director manage the nation’s premiere launch site, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the thousands of workers who support it. Prior to that, she had engineering and management experience with a number of private sector aerospace and defense organizations.

This chat was part of a new effort called Women@NASA that showcases the many significant contributions that women are making at NASA. NASA hopes to encourage girls to study STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- courses for a bright future. More information about Women@NASA and the NASA Explorer Schools project is available at: http://women.nasa.gov and http://explorerschools.nasa.gov.

Chat Transcript

Jason (Moderator): We're getting ready here for today's chat. We'll be getting started in a few minutes. Thanks.

Jason (Moderator): Welcome to the “What’s it Like Being a Woman Working at NASA” Chatroom. We're chatting with the Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Janet Petro. She’s here today to chat about what it’s like to be a woman working at NASA. We’re also joined today by the NASA Explorer Schools and welcome you all to today’s chat. This is a moderated chat. To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we start answering your questions.

Jason (Moderator): We're working on answering the first few questions. To ask your own, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

Jason (Moderator): Ms. Petro is working on a great answer for the first question...trying to get this started on the right foot. Thanks for your patience.

Jason (Moderator): Do you have a question you've been waiting to ask? Go for it! To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

Jason (Moderator): Wow... Rosenbergerd... you're getting a really detailed answer to your first question. Standby...she's finishing off the answer right now. It'll be done here in a minute.... Thanks for standing by.

rosenbergerd: How will the Kennedy Space Center's role change after the last Space Shuttle mission? What will be the main focus for research?

Janet: We are very excited about our new role(s) at KSC after the last Space Shuttle mission. We have been assigned the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in addition to our Launch Services Program we currently have assigned. With the assignment of CCP, we will lead the Agency, along with Johnson Space Center, in helping our commercial partners to develop the next generation of spacecraft and space vehicles which will bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station. So, we will be at the forefront of this new class of vehicles to continue manned missions to the space station. With the LSP, we will continue to lead the acquisition of vehicles for our unmanned earth science, planetary, and other NASA missions from KSC. Additionally, from a research perspective we will continue many of the research projects we have had at KSC, and add new ones as they are assigned from NASA's new Office of Chief Technologist. This includes research in the In-situ Resource Utilization which helps NASA further develop technologies that allow man to explore our solar system.

rtphokie: What advice would you offer to girls who are either frustrated by STEM topics or afraid to pursue them because of what others might think?

Janet: STEM topics can be overwhelming at times, especially to girls who might be afraid to appear too 'smart' or to those who think they cannot do well at these topics. My advice is to try and find some common things within these topics that interest you. For example, my daughter says she hates science, but when I point out to her that she is very interested in animals - she is surprised to learn that this is a part of 'science.' Another example is engineering. Many girls don't know what that is - but if they learn is everything from building things, learning how things work - to maintianing a better environment - they get more interested. Likewise, math in and of itself is very daunting. I tell others that what makes math easy is practice, practice, practice. Once you learn a concept - just practice it until is becomes secondhand and then it will become easy. So, I say - just try to find what interests you and relate it to these topics.

Jason (Moderator): Another great and detailed answer coming up here in a just a minute to a question by JohnDoe. Thanks for your patience...

Jason (Moderator): Do you have a question you've been waiting to ask? Go for it! To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as Ms. Petro works to answer your questions.

JohnDoe: What exactly is your job?

Janet: As Deputy Director of KSC, I basically help the Center Director to run Kennedy Space Center. We have about 10,000 employees, 140, 000 acres, and is basically like a city - everything from mowing grass to launching Shuttles. We currently help NASA with several major missions including launch services for unmanned vehicles., launch and landing operations for the Space Shuttle, processing the payloads for the International Space Station, planning for Commercial Crew, and providing ground processing services for future missions. It is very interesting and diverse job - and I'm truly grateful for the opportunity.

NATASHA: HY MY NAME IS NATASHA

Janet: Hi! Thanks for joining us today!

Jason (Moderator): We've got a great question from some girl scouts being answered right now. We'll have another detailed answer for you in a minute... Thanks for your patience...

rtphokie: I'm speaking to a group of 200 Girls Scouts in a week and have a couple of questions. What was you biggest barrier as a women rising through the ranks of NASA and how did you overcome it? Were you a Girl Scout or do you know of any former Girls Scouts at KSC or NASA?

Janet: I was a Girl Scout until I went into 7th Grade! My favorite part was going camping, BTW! I will ask around both at KSC and here within NASA, but I'm sure, like me there were lots and lots of former Girl Scouts here at NASA.

NATASHA: YOU ANSWER MY QUESTIONS SO LATE WHY?

Jason: Ms. Petro is typing her detailed answers to the questions. She's trying to pack each one with as much information as possible. Thanks for your patience.

Janet: continuing on with my answer.....I joined NASA 4 years ago - I held positions within the military and with private companies. I haven't found alot of big barriers to rising up, but I would say that sometimes people don't believe women can do a certain job. And then, you have to just get in there and show them you can do it. Its like you have to prove it to them.

Ted234: Janet, what was your career aspiration when you were a child?

Janet: I think I always wanted to be associated with the space industry because I grew up on the Space Coast of Florida and my father worked at KSC. I think being an engineer was something I strived to do.

rtphokie: wonderful, thanks for doing this

Janet: You are so welcome! I enjoy talking to others about my career path.

Jason (Moderator): Ms. Petro is working to answer your great questions. Keep them coming! To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

sciencemel: What is the ratio of man to women and do you feel this challenges you to be better than your counterparts?

Janet: I'm not sure I have ever thought about ratio of men to women where I work, but as I reflect now on it most of my career choices have had me where men outnumber women significantly. I don't know if that challenged me to work harder or not - but I think it made me more comfortable in a lot of ways. For example, if I sit in meetings and I'm the only woman, I don't think about it at all. Its just the way it is.

Jason (Moderator): Learn about careers available at NASA by visiting http://nasajobs.nasa.gov/

jnorton14: Petra, what is your education background?

Janet: I graduated from West Point in 1981 with an Engineering degree, and then got my Master of Science in Business Administration from Boston University (mostly while I was in the military). I've also taken a number of leadership and other training courses throughout my career.....

Jason (Moderator): For more information and great stories about women at NASA, visit http://women.nasa.gov

Jason (Moderator): Ms. Petro is working to answer your great questions. Keep them coming! To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

sciencemel: Having chosen to pursue a career in defense and NASA you have had to make personal choices between family and career. How difficult did you find weighing those choices? Do other female colleages balance home and work? Do you advice for women pursuing careers in the sciences who are currently weighing those choices?

Janet: I think that the whole work/life balance thing is a very difficult thing - no matter what. I find it very difficult and usually list this as the most challenging thing to do in both my personal and professional life. My personality is such that I don't think I ever do well enough in either - work or family. For myself, and perhaps for others, I would advise to get enough of a support system around you so that you are comfortable with your family situation no matter what crises are going on at work. So, you aren't dealing with emergencies every day, and can focus on work when you need to. Then, when you get time off - leave your work there! No blackberries to distract. Just get away - it will be there when you get back. It is tough to do, but I think the next generation has that down better than we do.

sciencemel: Given the ending of the shuttle program, how many years off is the predicted next manned mission?

Janet: We hope it will be as soon as possible so we can get a US spacecraft to take our astronaunts back and forth the the Space Station. I hope it will be within the next 5-6 years.

Jessy_Matar: Hey !! i want to ask a few questions but i want to start with today's subject!! what's like being a women working at NASA?

Janet: I love being a part of the NASA family. This is truly an organization that cares about the people who work within it.

Janet: continuing my answer....

Janet: I feel very accepted at NASA for the most part. I think NASA values input from its workers.

alien: are you planning to visit the space one day?

Janet: I would love to go to space someday! I'm hoping in my lifetime that commercial spaceflight will be available to everyone who would like to go.

dylangirl: If you had the opportunity yourself to travel on the Space Shuttle or any new vehicle, would you take that opportunity?

Jason: See above for the answer for this.

Jessy_Matar: hey janet is it too hard for someone ordinary to become like you?

Janet: Believe me, I am VERY ordinary. I eat, sleep, have kids, mortgages - just like everyone else. I have my strengths - and my weaknesses that I work at everyday. I believe you can do whatever you want - if you are willing to work at. Even when you don't want to, or you want to quit.

Jason (Moderator): Do you have a question you've been waiting to ask? Go for it! To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

20tauri: Did you have any female mentors to help you get where you are today?

Janet: I really wish I had more women mentors, but there have been a few. In my first assignment in the military, there was a maintenance officer running my helicopter unit that was a woman. She was highly respected - and I learned a great deal from her. But, I mostly had male ones - simply because there wasn't alot of women in the same professions I was at that time.

FredSchwark: Janet, I'm a '01 USMA grad and interested in what compentancies / qualities that NASA requires of its Directors. Thanks.

Janet: The NASA organization is a government Agency - and is looking for innovative leaders to help run the Agency. The qualities are the same ones you would have learned at the Academy - what it takes to be a good leader. It also helps to have an understanding of NASA as an agency, and the space community in general.

Daniela: Hello Mrs Petro...........I am a latina with a master in Public Health and i want to get experience in Epidemiologic studies at the NASA....what are the chances de get hired and where do i apply.?...what is the best way to start?

Janet: I'm not sure I understand what Epidemiologic studies are :-), but maybe you could check NASA's website and find some information on if the Agency is doing studies in that area. Most of the Government is hired through a website called USAJobs, so you might check and see if there are any jobs in that field.

NATASHA: I ALSO WANT TO BE AN ASTRONAUT SO, WHAT IS THE POLICY OF NASA ABOUT INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS?

Janet: There are a lot of international astronauts that come from many countries around the world. I'm not sure of NASA's specific policy, but there is information on NASA's website on how to apply to be an astronaut.

Jason (Moderator): To learn about federal jobs that are available, including at NASA, visit http://usajobs.gov/

Sara: Are you ever intimidated as a woman in NASA/ STEM?

Janet: I work with such talented and smart people at NASA its hard not to feel intimidated many times! But, recognize that everyone has a talent, and a contribution, and comes from a different background. So, we all contribute in some way to NASA.

Jason (Moderator): To apply for the Astronaut Corps -- visit http://astronauts.nasa.gov/ and learn more about how to apply to be an astronaut and about the selection process.

Columbia93: Can you get my son and I onto the Press site for the launch of STS-135? I'm just kidding. Well sort of anyway !! :-)

Janet: I'd love to host everyone at KSC for the last launch, but its just not possible! There are safety reasons for having only a certain number on the launch site. But, there are great viewing areas up and down the coast outside of KSC that are really superb. People tell me that they saw perfectly the last launch from as far south as Vero Beach and north as Daytona Beach.

Daniela: how do you handle negative remarks or obtacles put by other peple?.......do you think women should choose to be just professionals or just mothers .......one or the other?...........can you excel at both ?

Janet: I think you need to use judgment here. Sometimes, you let the remark go - sometimes you have to call them on it. It takes some judgment to know when to do which one, because you want to nip it in the bud, but not overreact to everything. As far as obstacles, nothing worth doing is easy. So, if its an obstacle - and you really want what's on the other side - figure out how to get around that obstacle.

Jason (Moderator): Time is flying here...we've got several good questions that Ms. Petro is working on answering right now. We've got about 10 minutes left in today's chat and we'd like to make sure everyone has an opportunity to ask your questions...To submit your own question, please type it in the box at the bottom of the window and click the 'Ask' button on the right side of the box. Thanks for your patience as we answer your questions.

Janet: I believe everyone makes their own choice about whether they want to be a career person or a mother or both. I chose both - and am very fulfilled by my choice. But everyone has a right to THEIR choice - and it's the RIGHT choice for them.

Jason (Moderator): To learn about viewing areas for watching Space Shuttle Launches at Kennedy Space Center, see: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/view/view_shuttle.html

Daniela: Janet....how do you take when a male tries to belittle you or make your ideas look bad?....have you encounter this?.............jelousy is part of our professional careers ....what advice do you give to woman to improve their self steem?

Janet: I do encounter this - and find it to be so small-minded. I also choose to believe that what goes around comes around, so I tend to let things roll off my back unless the remark is intended to be grossly disrespectful.

Janet: I also recommend that you come prepared with facts to back up your position. And patience. It takes alot to listen - really listen patiently to another point of view, but its worth it. When its your turn, unemotionally respond with a factual basis for your position.

Jason (Moderator): We've got time for just a few more questions....

fae: Knowing what you know now, what do you wish you had known as a young woman just starting out in her career?

Janet: I wish that as a young woman I had the opportunities I have now. I wish that I would have known that the possibilities are really much more open than you think. We tend to limit ourselves to what we know in the current world; what I learned was that the world and the environment we live in changes dramatically. For example, as a young military pilot I had to use maps and a compass (literally) to find my way. Today - GPS makes navigation really easy. I couldn't have imagined that in my day of flying. I used a sliderule for my first year in college. So, never, EVER limit your thinking to what is currently the state of art, the way we do things. It will mostly certainly change - so the most important thing is - can you change? How will you change? Will you adapt to the change? That would put you far ahead of your peers - and something I wished I had known much earlier in my career.

Daniela: what have you learn from men that women can use as a tool to improve?????.........

Janet: Men (this is a gross generality) tend to let go of things more quickly - maybe not be as petty on somethings. So, I would say if we can learn to let go of the small things more easily, we could focus on the bigger issues and have a bigger impact.

Sara: West Point must have been killer! Do you have any advice for those of us interested in attending an Academy? On a different note, do you have any regrets?

Janet: No regrets at all for attending USMA. Made me a better person - more organized and much more disciplined. If you want to go, do it! Make sure you have good grades, have a leadership role in some club or at your school, do some sport, and get some good recommendations. Go for it!

Urui: Hi. I'm a 30 years old woman and I'm considering to get a Computer Science and Electronics Engineering Degree. And I want to work in something related with that degree. I don't think it's too late for me but I would like read your opinion. So, It's too late for me? Thanks.

Janet: I don't believe it's ever too late to learn - we should always be evolving and learning as the world is constantly changing. I went back to school for different things that interested me in my 40's.....I found going back to a campus was very invigorating and refreshing and energizing! I don't think anyone should be stagnant, you can always learn new stuff.

Jason (Moderator): Ms. Petro is really excited about the questions here...so she's staying a little bit longer to answer a few more questions...thanks for your patience...

Zoe: What sort of tasks does your job entail? What do you love most about your job?

Janet: What I love most about my job is being able to interact with different people in all sorts of different environments. I'll get to talk to students one day about what we do at KSC, and the next see a launch! Or educate a group of community folks about what the next thing in space transportation is and that afternoon talk to a Program about their next milestone. Its the variety and the people that I love.

ageekmom: It's not a question, but a public thank you to Kennedy Space Center & NASA in general for opening its doors through public open houses, Internet chats like this one & NASA Tweetup events at KSC, JSC, Goddard, JPL, NASA HQ & elsewhere. It really helps to expose people to NASA who might not otherwise get to experience it up close.

Janet: You are welcome! And we are always looking for more ways to improve how we communicate with the public. Thanks for listening.

foreversakshi: do u really have to be a genius to be in nasa

Janet: Nope - if you mean do you have to be super smart. We have lots of folks who do lots of things at NASA.

Daniela: what are the qualities of men that you admire the most?...

Janet: I think the qualities I admire most, in both men and women, include integrity, selflessness, courage of convictions, confidence, humility, and sincerity.

Janet: Thanks alot for joining us today! I really enjoyed answering your questions, and want to wish you all the very best in your future. Keep tuned to NASA - as we are going to out-educate, out-build, and out-innovate!!!

Jason (Moderator): Unfortunately, our time is up today. A big thanks to Ms. Petro for the great answers to everyone's questions. We appreciate your taking time out of your day to sit down with us. Our chat is over! Thanks for participating. A transcript will be available within the next few business days. To learn more about Women@NASA, visit http://women.nasa.gov. Thanks for joining us!!