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7 min read

Dr. Alinda Mashiku Makes Sure There Are No Fender Benders In Space

Dr. Alinda Mashiku, a Black woman, stands smiling against a tan wall. She is wearing a bright yellow sweater over a black and white shirt, a black scarf, and yellow earrings.
Dr. Alinda Mashiku
Courtesy of A. Mashiku

Name: Dr. Alinda Mashiku 
Title: Deputy Program Manager for Conjunction Assessment and Risk Analysis
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace Engineer
Organization: Code 595, Navigation and Mission Design Branch, Mission Engineering and Systems Analysis Division, Engineering and Technology Directorate

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

As the deputy program manager for the Conjunction Assessment and Risk Analysis (CARA) program, I am responsible for helping manage our team that is responsible for providing collision avoidance operational support to all NASA non-human spaceflight missions.

We have a team of operators at Goddard whom I help supervise along with a team of orbital safety analysts who are located at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. We coordinate with the NASA missions and inform them of any potential close approaches based on predicted ephemeris data and other information.

This also ensures that NASA maintains an active role in avoiding the proliferation of space debris caused by collisions or breakups and thus play a key role in keeping the space environment safe and continually available for operational use to perform the important scientific research and provide the services we need on Earth that affect our daily activities such as weather information, communications and navigation.

What we do in space affects everybody.

How did your father inspire you?

My parents are from Tanzania. They came to New York City, where I was born, to study. We all returned to Tanzania when I was about 5. My dad was an electrical engineering instructor and was a major influence in my studies. He died when I was 16.  He was a passionate educator and champion for both men and women in technical fields. His passion and dedication are what still drive me to this day. I went to school in Tanzania through high school and I am still fluent in Swahili.

I got a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering from The Ohio State University and then a master’s and Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue University.

In early 2013, I began working as a co-op at Goddard. When I graduated in late 2013, I joined the Navigation and Mission Design Branch where I have remained.

Dr. Mashiku stands on a large lunar footprint model in front of giant words that say "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." She is wearing a black dress, red blazer, black boots, and a white lanyard.
Dr. Mashiku at the 70th International Astronautic Congress.
Courtesy of A. Mashiku

What mission amazed you?

I initially worked on the OSIRIS-REx mission. I was in charge of designing the trajectories of the reconnaissance phase of the mission and tasked to analyze the feasibility of these trajectories within the science requirements and constraints. The reconnaissance phase is the phase of the mission in which we surveyed different sites to find the one most suitable for sample collection from the asteroid Bennu.

It was one of those times when what I learned in school and what I was able to design and create on a computer actually meshed. That is when I saw and experienced the beauty of physics. It’s pretty thrilling! These equations really work and do a great job physically modeling this universe that we are a part of. I think that’s pretty cool!

What are some of your outreach activities?

In 2018, I joined Goddard’s Women Engineers in Space and Technology (WEST) group. I am on the WEST leadership committee. We recently had speakers and panel discussions on various topics such as imposter syndrome, the secret thoughts of highly successful women, parental leave policies and also career advocacy on the benefits of involving both men and women as mentors and champions for career growth and endeavors.

I also love going to elementary and high schools to get the students excited about science and engineering. One time, I repurposed an activity to have the students work on a spacecraft mission design team. I asked them to design a spacecraft along with a specific mission goal in mind and assigned everyone a role. We had a project manager, a systems engineer and all the traditional NASA roles for a typical spacecraft mission design. The students had key decision points (KDPs) reviews and a demo at the end. All of this was achieved in three hours.

They learned that they had to use everything in their mental toolbox, and not just math. They learned how to apply logic, language, writing, communication and teamwork. The kids got very engaged and excited and were very proud of themselves and the final product. So was I.

What outreach have you done on your own in Africa?

Two of my college friends and I created a nonprofit foundation to run STEAM workshops in Tanzania, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. We focus on high schools for girls, one in each country so far. We typically have an activity every other month.

I remember as a high schooler in Tanzania, I went to an all-girls school for the gifted and talented. I’ve always wondered what some of them would have been able to achieve if they had the same opportunities that I have had.

Now I want to encourage girls that they do have the potential and show them how far and big they can dream. Our activities are meant to validate that they can be engineers, doctors, scientists, pilots or lawyers. It’s about giving them a platform to validate what they already possess inside.  

Dr. Mashiku sits on a sign with giant letters "IAC" and the words "70th International Astronaut Congress." She is wearing a black dress, red blazer, black boots, and a white lanyard. The background is a conference center.
Dr. Mashiku at the 70th International Astronautic Congress.
Courtesy of A. Mashiku

How do you teach young girls to dream to be all they can be?

You can talk and talk, but it is important to show them that they can own “it” and that they have what it takes to be whatever they want to be. If I go to a school and talk about my own accomplishments, some can be inspired but it can also be very easy to miss the mark and be perceived as someone with academic achievements that are too lofty to attain. I always share that I was not good at math until I was in seventh grade… and then I excelled from there on out.

So when you put them in a situation in which they can see themselves by giving them tangible activities to hold in their hands, then they are able to create a product or achieve an outcome, and, in doing so, they become empowered. This is why the mission design activities that we’ve done tied with assigned roles made them feel so important and made them believe that they could step into those roles in real life. It is a very powerful and important exercise: the ability to see yourself operate in a role that you may have once thought was not achievable.

What words of wisdom would you tell a young girl about going into a STEAM profession?

Do not be petrified when you feel like you do not know something you think you should know. It takes all of us time to learn. Once you learn, then you can be whatever you want to be.

Also, don’t be afraid of failure. It is in those moments when you fail that you build the muscles to push through the difficult challenges that you can and will face in your life and your career. You build resilience, so embrace the challenges head-on.

What is your “six-word memoir?” A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Fearless. Resilient. Kind. Inquisitive. Optimistic. Family.

Conversations With Goddard is a collection of question and answer profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month since May 2011 and are archived on the NASA Goddard homepage under the People tab.

By Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center