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Janet Petro

Personal Essay

As women, we have had to overcome certain inherent obstacles in our lives to get to where we are today. It is neither right, nor wrong – it’s just how it is. But, in the long run, I think it renders women as stronger and better contenders. At times, it seems as if the history of women is written with invisible ink. Even though some women may have been recognized in their own times, references to their achievements were frequently omitted from history textbooks, especially references to those women who enjoyed success in fields such as math and science. And these were textbooks circulating in the 1980s!

That is unfortunate, but much progress has been made since then. Now, when you search the Internet using the phrase “women’s+history,” you receive more than 93 million hits! We truly have come a long way, and with the establishment of entities such as the White House Council on Women and Girls, these excellent results will ensue.

My interest in the space program began at a very early age. In 1962, the same year that the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was established, my dad began working for the space program as part of Chrysler. At that time, my family relocated to Florida. Although I do not recall a lot of the specifics, I remember extremely well the overwhelming sense of awe and excitement I felt as my siblings and I watched the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rockets lift off from the beach.

Then, in July 1969, we, along with nearly all of America, gazed in amazement at our television as Neil Armstrong took those historic first steps on the moon. At that instant, I came to the realization that my father was a living, breathing, contributing factor to the enormous success of that program, and it instilled in me a tremendous sense of pride and had a profound impact on my life.

During my high school years, the nation’s military academies began allowing women to enroll. Even though the idea was somewhat daunting, I decided to apply. After all, I was an athlete and got fairly good grades. And I was also young…invincible…and, most importantly, immortal. With the encouragement of my parents, I went through the rigorous application process and was nominated and accepted into the Class of 1981.

So, at the ripe old age of 17, I began my leadership training at the most esteemed military institution in this country – the United States Military Academy at West Point. There was only one class of women ahead of mine, and there were many policies and practices still being implemented since women were now among the ranks. I learned quickly how to manage my time, keep myself motivated and, mostly, how to cooperate with my classmates so that we could graduate. Not only was being away from friends and family for the first time difficult, I was also faced with learning a whole new way of life. Because women were still in the spotlight at the academies, I felt a compelling need to succeed for a greater purpose. In 1981, I graduated from West Point with my Bachelor of Science in Engineering.

I then began my career in the United States Army, where I attended basic courses at Ft. Eustis in Virginia and helicopter training at Ft. Rucker in Alabama. For the majority of my time in the military, I flew helicopters, and I spent most of my obligatory time in the service in Germany. I genuinely enjoyed that time in my life – flying was a blast, and being able to experience Europe was truly a gift. At that time, Europe was still divided, and the Cold War was still a reality. This environment had a distinct impact on me as well.

After serving 5 years in the Army, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to be an engineer, like my dad. So, I pursued that path and subsequently held various engineering and management positions for several private industries, including Science Applications International Corporation, often referred to as SAIC, and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace.

Having worked in both large and small business environments, my background is comprehensive and diverse. My experience, coupled with being responsible for such a varied client base, provided me with a unique perspective to offer in my current position as Deputy Director at KSC. And I could not be more delighted to be in my current capacity. Along with the center director, I share in a host of exciting responsibilities that range from managing the Kennedy team to developing center policy to being involved in executing missions that transform the world.

It is challenging, but also rewarding, to play a substantial role in the future of NASA. I trace that sentiment all the way back to my dad and his contributions to the early exploration missions and subsequent development of the shuttle for the next phase of exploring beyond our planet. Because of the success of the Space Shuttle Program, we have created the greatest engineering feat of our time – the International Space Station – and it is the epitome of international cooperation.

If I had not been exposed to the opportunities and accomplishments of my early years and the inspiration of many people, including my father, I may not have the same story to tell today.And I, too, hope that I will serve as a source of inspiration for my two children and women across the world.


A photograph of Janet Petro

Janet Petro took an impressive step for womankind when, at the age of 17, she began leadership training at the highly esteemed United States Military Academy at West Point at a time when women had just begun to be accepted into the nation’s military academies. While attending West Point was a daunting prospect, Ms. Petro was prepared for the challenge, thanks to her own strength and tenacity backed by resounding encouragement from her parents. Ms. Petro’s success continues at NASA, where she shares responsibility with the center director in managing the Kennedy Space Center team of approximately 15,000 civil service and contractor employees, determining and implementing center policy, and managing and executing Kennedy missions and agency program responsibilities. Her prior career as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, serving in the aviation branch with assignments overseas in Germany, undoubtedly contributed to the discipline and integrity she brings to the agency. “If I had not been exposed to the opportunities and accomplishments of my early years and the inspiration of many people, including my father, I may not have the same story to tell today,” she said.She, too, plays a meaningful role in people’s life stories by being a source of inspiration for her children, and for women across the world. Ms. Petro holds a BS in engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, and an MS in business administration from Boston University’s Metropolitan College.