NASA People

Center Snapshot: Wendy Pennington
Wendy Pennington snapshot. Image above: Wendy Pennington has come full circle and is back with some of the people she worked with as a young fabricator. NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The note from her friend told a story that demanded to be checked out.

It seems that back in April, Wendy Pennington was in line in the NASA Langley cafeteria when she saw a man in front of her wearing a Glenn Research Center badge.

"I can't pass somebody without talking to them," said Pennington, a gregarious type who is a deputy project manager for the Orion/Abort flight test.

And so, why are you here? Who do you know at Glenn? Join us for lunch. The man – Pennington's friend called him "Frank" – did just that. The crowd at the table engaged in conversation, and "Frank" mentioned he was in the safety division at Glenn and was into airplanes. At lunch's end, Pennington proffered a business card and offered a tour the next day.

"Frank" held the card for a moment and smiled. It was familiar.

"He looked at Wendy and told her he had carried her card for eight years because eight years ago she did exactly the same thing," Doree Fitzhugh wrote. "Any time NASA Langley was mentioned, he was able to tell them what a great place Langley is, how great the people are and how great he was treated."

And so?

Yes, it happened.

"I talk to everybody," said Pennington. "That's why I like to travel, to go all over the place. When I travel, whether it's for work or on vacation, I carry NASA stickers and cards with me, even pins if I have them. I give them out as I go."

Then, if asked – and she often is – Pennington will talk about what she does at Langley and why she likes it.

It all started about 28 years ago, when a recent high school graduate who was good at design and working with her hands showed up at machine shop in the Fabrication Division, going to school at Thomas Nelson Community College as part of an apprenticeship that included running machines to help turn out flight test articles.

"I got a lot of attention," she remembered. "I was the only female (in the shop) at that time. I like attention."

And now?

"I feel like I've gone full circle," Pennington said. "I'm back with the people I started with, and they remember me."

In the interim, she earned a degree in engineering at Old Dominion University. It seemed like the thing to do.

"The whole environment here pushed me," she said. "Everyone is so intellectual, and there are so many opportunities. People you work with are inspiring.

"As a machinist or technician, you work day to day with seasoned technicians, engineers and researchers. You get mentors."

It took her 10 years to earn that degree from the time she finished high school. "When I graduated, I already had a lot of experience behind me," Pennington said.

She has more now. Pennington worked her way through various jobs at Langley until she connected with the Exploration program in 2006. She came to her current job from one working with Ares I-X, which is being used in testing NASA's next space vehicle.

Now she works with Orion, which will sit atop Ares I and is scheduled to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015 and the moon in 2020.

"I want to be part of that," she said. "I mean, I know I am right now, in some way. It's exciting to be part of the next generation of space flight."

Along the way, she has learned from NASA's earlier generation, the Apollo engineers and technicians and astronauts.

"They're very inspiring," Pennington said. "You kind of stand in awe of them. They were such pioneers, so brave. We have more tools now, and we benefit from their experience."

Away from NASA, she works three days a week as a jazzercise instructor, gaining satisfaction both in fitness and in watching women decades younger labor to keep up with her.

Pennington also plays golf, skis and tries to persuade her 16-year-old son, an aspiring film-maker, that he should aspire to engineering. She, husband David and son Colin travel to the Rocky Mountains most year for a ski trip.

The key word there is travel. Pennington loves it and leaves a trail of NASA paraphernalia wherever she goes.

"When I came back from Orlando, I was in one of the shops picking up gifts," she remembered. "A fellow working there had his badge on and all kinds of pins (on a lanyard). So I pulled out one of my NASA pins and gave it to him. It was a special exploration project pin, and he thought it was the neatest thing.

"So I made a friend right there in the airport."

And that makes the story of the Glenn employee who held onto her card for eight years all that much more believable.