“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, the home of human spaceflight, stationed in Houston, Texas. We bring space right to you! On this podcast, you’ll learn from some of the brightest minds of America’s space agency as they discuss topics in engineering, science, technology and more. You’ll hear firsthand from astronauts what it’s like to launch atop a rocket, live in space and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. And you’ll listen in to the more human side of space as our guests tell stories of behind-the-scenes moments never heard before.
For Women’s History Month we brought in 4 women in leadership at the Johnson Space Center to share their stories of persevering through challenges and rising through the ranks. We speak with leaders of the International Space Station Program, Flight Operations, Engineering, and Human Health and Performance. This episode was recorded throughout March 2018.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, We Have a Podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 38: Stories of Her Strength. I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your cohost today along with Jenny Turner, International Space Station flight controller and the chair of the Women Excelling in Life and Leadership employee resource group, more commonly known as WELL here on site. Jenny, thanks for coming on.
Jenny Turner: Yeah, of course, thanks for having me.
Host:So, Jenny, tell us more about these employee resource groups and their purpose and the one you chair as well.
Jenny Turner: Yeah. So employee resource groups are here at JSC to help promote inclusion and innovation. So there’s nine total. They focus on the experiences of different racial backgrounds, age, human systems integration, veterans, the LGBT community, employees with disabilities, and caregivers, and gender for WELL in particular. So at JSC and everywhere, really, the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and skills that we bring to work every day are, really, I think, what makes us so competitive and successful. So we really want to work to highlight that aspect of our community and just provide that resource for people in those groups, as well as allies. So for WELL in particular we are focused on promoting and supporting women at JSC. We provide mentoring opportunities so that women in management and entering into mid-level employees can connect. We do some outreach with the committee — I’m sorry, the community, especially when it comes to girls and STEM. And we also have professional development luncheons with all sorts of topics that just also include personal development. Of course, being the women’s group, we do tackle some harder subjects that are sometimes uncomfortable. But our intent is always, you know, never to accuse but just to make aware and kind of provide that forum for issues that affect us and the ones we love.
Recently, especially with today’s climate, we’ve also worked with our employee assistance program counselors here to provide a safe space for discussion on harassment in the workplace and just provide resources for victims and witnesses. Overall, yeah, it’s just a great privilege we have to support the phenomenal women at the center.
Host:Yeah. You guys are doing great things around here. I love it. So let’s kick it off with today’s theme. What’s today’s podcast all about?
Jenny Turner: So it is — it’s just that, it’s this focus that helps us highlight the tenacity of women everywhere. As the National Women’s History Project site summarizes, honoring women who fight all forms of discrimination against women. So for WELL, we are doing a whole range of events or we have done. We have a couple of outreach events that we did. We did some with a first robotics group locally here with about 100 high school students and 13 women from NASA going out just to talk about our careers. We’ve also done a joint event with the fitness center on site to promote wellness. But our flagship event is actually the Wikipedia Editathon. So we initially got this idea from an article on a similar event at the University of Houston. So right now on Wikipedia there’s — only about 17% of biographies are women at all. So what we’re doing is collecting information and biographies of women at NASA and in STEM fields to create new pages or just update them with more information. That way we can just help contribute to the presence of inspiring stories that women everywhere can have easy access to and say, “Yes, my goals are possible and they’re there within reach.”
So we’re really excited about that. We’re getting a lot of good feedback and a lot of good entries. So it’s looking good.
Host:Exactly. And we’re going to expand on that in today’s episode. So Houston, We Have a Podcast is teaming up with WELL for Women’s History Month to tackle this theme. And we’ve wrangled four guests, all who are leaders here at the Johnson Space Center of different divisions across the center — International Space Station, flight operations, engineering, and then finally human health and performance. And we’ll get to hear their story of how they got to NASA, how they persevered and rose to a leadership role. So Jenny, who is the first guest on our list?
Jenny Turner: So first up is Dana Weigel. She’s from the International Space Station Vehicle Office. She’s the current manager. And she is also one of our executive sponsors for WELL. So she helps to give us advice and support all of our activities here at JSC.
Host:Great. Let’s right into it. Producer Alex, cue the music.
[ Music ]
Host: Dana, thank you so much for coming on the show today to sort of tell your story.
Host:All right. I wanted to start with just your childhood because becoming — for you coming to NASA was almost normal, right, since you live so close?
Dana Weigel:Yeah. I was a couple towns over. And, of course, we had family coming in from all across the United States. And what they wanted to do was go to NASA. And I remember telling my parents, “No, do I have to go again? We go there all the time. I’m always going to NASA.” I’ve got these pictures of me as a kid. Back in the day, by the way, you used to be able to come on site. So there wasn’t a Space Center Houston, you just came directly to NASA.
Host:Oh, there was no gates or anything?
Dana Weigel:Nope, completely open. You could wander around kind of whenever you wanted. But they did have this public area where they had this cardboard or a wooden spacesuit cutout. And so I’ve got these pictures through the years of me poking my head through this spacesuit. So I can’t say I grew up imagining that I’d ever work [Laughs] — work at NASA.
Host:Maybe it was more subtle. Maybe because you were here, it was just sort of ingrained in your childhood. Maybe this is something I want to do.
Dana Weigel:Maybe so. It was familiar for sure, I’ll say that.
Host:So then what got you — was it maybe coming here that you got interested in STEM? Or was it parental influence that got you interested in, like, a technologies, science, math — anything like that?
Dana Weigel:You know, both my parents are biochemists, and my grandfather was a chemical engineer. And he’s really the one what introduced me to engineering, talked to me about what it was. He was influential in starting early chapters of Society of Women Engineers, SWE. So he talked to me about that. And I thought, “Hey, this is something a female could do. I could go do this.” So I went off to go become a mechanical engineer. And then I was heading down a path to go design prosthetics. So I thought I’d be a mechanical engineer and then go be a doctor, and then go work in a clinic and do something related to designing legs or whatnot.
[ Laughter ]
Dana Weigel:After I graduated, I started taking night classes to finish all of the biologies and all the things I hadn’t had as an engineer that I would need to do the MCAT. And I met a biomedical engineer who worked at NASA. She worked in Mission Control and she talked about her job, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds pretty interesting.”
Host:Biomedical, Mission Control, yeah. Yeah.
Dana Weigel:So I decided, “You know, I got a few more years or maybe two more years, I think, of night classes I had to take to qualify for med school. Why don’t I see if I can work at NASA while I’m doing that?” So I applied and I became a contractor with Barrios Technology, working in Mission Operations Directorate is what it was called at the time. And ended up with a job doing extra-vehicular activity, EVA, the spacesuits, the same suits I poked my head through, you know, for years as a kid.
Host:Ah, coming full circle.
Dana Weigel:Yeah. And then I fell in love with it and decided, “Why am I trying to go be a physician? I’ll just stay here and be a flight controller and work for NASA.”
Host:Did you end up finishing those two years or did you say, “No, NASA’s for me”?
Dana Weigel:I finished the classes.
Dana Weigel:I did not take the MCAT. By then I was hooked.
Dana Weigel:Decided to stay, yeah.
Host:So what were you doing in space suits specifically? What were you working on?
Dana Weigel:In mission operations there were kind of two functions. One was being an instructor, so I would teach crew and teach other flight controllers about the spacesuit. And then I also worked in Mission Control and was very fortunate I got to work Shuttle missions, Hubble missions, and Space Station missions as an EVA flight control.
Host:Oh. So okay, when you heard flight controlling, sitting in Mission Control, that sounds pretty cool — that’s exactly what you pursued. You pursued sitting in Mission Control?
Dana Weigel:I did.
Dana Weigel:I did, and it was very cool.
Host:[Laughs] What sorts of challenges did you have to get before you can sit in the main room?
Dana Weigel:They’ve kind of got like a hierarchy. It’s interesting, it’s set up like a pyramid. There’s what’s called a back room. And there were folks there who were looking at very detailed procedures and schematics. And you go through a certification process, a lot of training, lot of certification, a lot of practice in simulations to get certified there. And then typically have two different back room positions that you have to conquer before you can try to sit in the front room, the big front room.
Host:What are those positions?
Dana Weigel:So for the EVA office, which is where I was, there was one that was focused on the suit — the spacesuit — on the systems-side focused. And then there was the what we call the test side, which is what you’re actually doing. So, like, for repairing the Hubble space telescope, understanding the tools, the requirements, what you have to do to change out boxes. So those were the two big pieces for the area I was in.
Host:And you, I guess, touched both then, right?
Dana Weigel:I did.
Host:All right. Did you actually get to work on some of the — I guess beyond the procedures, were you working on the hardware at all or was it mainly Mission Control-based?
Dana Weigel:That’s a good question. So I think one of unique things about the area I was in with EVA, because it’s such a — it requires such a physical skill to do the job, we did spend a lot of time a couple years before the mission doing development runs in the neutral buoyancy lab to help figure out what types of tools would be needed, what types of crew aides, for example, and then depending upon who we were doing the work with, station program or Hubble, you’d go work with providers to help design and help figure out what you needed for the mission.
Host:Okay. So you were doing a little bit of both. Did you get to actually suit up and go in the neutral buoyancy laboratory, anything cool like that?
Dana Weigel:I did.
Dana Weigel:I am height-challenged. So I’m actually on the smaller end of the scale. So many years ago they were entertaining having what they call an extra small hard upper torso and they needed test subjects. So I fit the bill. I have very short arms. So I did a large number of runs very early on, trying to help them figure out, you know, how you can optimize reach for the smaller end of the crew spectrum.
[ Laughter ]
Host:How did that work with the shorter arms?
Dana Weigel:It’s very frustrating.
Host:I can imagine.
Dana Weigel:Very frustrating.
Host:What was some of the more uncomfortable parts of it? Was it the chest area where you could, I guess, with shorter arms trying to reach in front of you? Or was it maybe the pressure that was causing maybe some strain on your fingers or something?
Dana Weigel:You know, it’s both. The reaching in front of you, getting two hands in front of you on a work site is difficult, but also the way the vehicle is built, there’s a certain handrail spacing that is designed in. And so in a lot of cases even just the reach from one place to another could be challenging.
[ Laughter ] Yes, you don’t want to let go. You don’t want to let go — that’s key.
Host:That’s right, that’s right. Well, you’re tethered, so you got that. But still, you definitely want to hang on with both hands. So then where did your path take you then? Is it — I know you became a flight director, but was it immediately there or were there some extra steps?
Dana Weigel:Let’s see, in 2004, I became a civil servant. So that was probably maybe eight or nine years I had done the job. And then a year after that, in 2005 I applied to be a flight director. And I was selected, I was the first specialist discipline that had ever been selected to become a flight director.
Host:So that means EVA then, right?
Dana Weigel:Yeah. I mean, historically the flight director office had pulled from disciplines or from what we call core disciplines, things like life support system or thermal, someone who’s there all the time, 24/7, tons of hours in Mission Control, tons of time. They understand the spacecraft. They interact with all the other major kind of infrastructure systems. Whereas a specialist is someone who comes in just for a certain activity, like robotics or EVA. You come in to prep the spacesuits, do you the space walk, and then you leave. So you have more limited time in Mission Control.
Host:Yeah. Okay. So they wanted someone to lead Mission Control who was sort of used to being there all the time and knew how things worked all the time?
Dana Weigel:It was the comfort zone. That’s just what had been done before. And so this, I think, in their mind was a little bit of gamble. There wasn’t as much direct opportunity to watch a specialist on console and see how they perform. You get many, many more opportunities with someone who’s there all the time.
Host:So how did you sell it? You being in a specialist discipline, how did you sell it like, “Yes, I’m the person you want to be in this flight director class”?
Dana Weigel:Yeah, that — that’s interesting. Because the interview, I thought it would kind of be a generic vanilla interview, but it was very customized to how am I going to compensate for coming in as a specialist? Every question was related to compensation for coming from EVA as a discipline and a specialist area. So we talked a lot about that. And, you know, anyone who can lead or has a certain set of capabilities, you can apply that in any number of different areas, right? So knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle, you know? Coming in with a certain set of knowledge, it will only get you so far, right? So what you’re really looking for is the rest of the adaptable skillset that someone else has.
Host:So how did you build those skillsets, then, over time, over your time as an EVA, the skillsets to show that you were a leader, that you could lead the flight control team?
Dana Weigel:I had a handful of unique opportunities. One was after the Columbia accident I became the overall lead for operations for trying to figure out how we’d repair the Shuttle’s thermal protective system. So I ended up with a pretty large team, maybe 15 or so people in my area. And we were working, of course, with engineering, and safety, and other directorates, too, trying to figure out how to solve that. So I was fortunate in that I was involved in, you know, something that was pretty complex and had more, you know, in-depth kind of leadership responsibilities.
Host:Yeah, I’m sure you sort of set that in the interviews, “No, I’m very used to leading teams for very important things like that.” So then once you were sitting in the seat, I’m sure it wasn’t just, “All right, now you’re accepted. Let’s lead the teams, please.” I’m sure you still had some struggles.
Dana Weigel:Yeah, I think the first year that I was in the office was a challenge for the management team. They didn’t know — they didn’t know if they should just assign me the normal things they would assign someone else who had a core kind of discipline background. So they did a number of odd things like customizing assignments and trying to keep it close to the EVA realm. It was actually quite frustrating. I was treated differently than the rest of my class of nine. We were a class of nine. So I actually thought at one point, “Should I quit? Should I leave? Are they not ready for this?” And then I thought, “Nah, I can do this job. And I want to do this job. I’m going to stay, I’m going to do it. I’ll show them.” I put my head down, okay, whatever assignments you want to give me, I’ll knock them out. I’ll do it, even though I thought it was odd how they were managing that. And then about a year into it, to my surprise, they gave me the largest assignment — the first big assignment, really, of the whole class and everything changed.
Host:Really? Wow. Okay. So you had to prove — basically putting your head down and saying, “Okay, sure, give me whatever you want. But whatever you give me, I’m going to own it.” And I guess that sort of showed. It showed that you could take on this large responsibility.
Host:What was the large responsibility out of curiosity?
Dana Weigel:Yeah. So I actually ended up being assigned to the first increment. So I think most people are familiar — at least who work Space Station — with what our increments are, but basically we’ve got a set of crew members who fly up on a Soyuz and come back on a Soyuz. And so we’ve got a period of time that is an increment. So I was assigned to lead the first increment and then also assigned to lead the first Shuttle assembly mission for my class.
Host:Wow, all right. [Laughs] Yeah. Very big task and very new, too. So how long were you a flight director, then?
Dana Weigel:I did that for about ten years total in the office. The last three years I was the deputy of that office.
Host:Oh, wow. All right. So flight directors leading more flight directors? [Laughs]
Dana Weigel:That’s something else, too.
Host:Yeah [Laughs] really. So then what made you want to — what opportunities came up next that you wanted to not be a flight director anymore or lead flight directors?
Dana Weigel:So this next change wasn’t really my choice necessarily.
Dana Weigel:During one of the space walks — it was EVA 23 — we had crew members Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano doing a space walk. And about an hour into the space walk, Luca started noticing that his — his com cap, which is kind a spandex cut-type cap that’s on his head felt a little moist, felt wet. And as the EVA went on, it started getting wetter and wetter. And it became apparent that he had water in his helmet. It’s pretty scary. Most of your contingency we’ve ever had on Space Station, the water ended up on the back of his head and worked its way across his eyes and over his nose.
Dana Weigel:And luckily, his mouth — he still could breathe. Could have drowned. He was very calm. And the actions he took saved his life. But after that major failure, the program manager at the time, Mike Suffredini, kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, I need you to go lead this investigation.”
Host:It was because you had the EVA background?
Dana Weigel:Because I had the background, but also he had worked with me on a number of other contingency situations in Mission Control.
Dana Weigel:And had had kind of seen me leading the teams.
Host:Knew you could do it?
Dana Weigel:He knew I could, I didn’t know I could.
[ Laughter ]
Host:All right. So then this was — I guess it took you away from this deputy role. And now you were leading this investigation, a failure investigation. What — so I’m guessing you had a lot of challenges there, too?
Dana Weigel:I did. When he first asked me to do it, I said, “Surely you have someone else who’s qualified to lead a failure investigation.” I come from operations. I don’t build fault trees. I don’t — I’ve never seen someone go all the way down to root cause in an investigation. And, you know, he made the point that what’s more important is having a strong leader, not having someone with the right knowledge, right?
Host:Because you surround yourself with people —
Dana Weigel:Yeah, that’s the point as a leader, right? It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you can draw out of people.
Dana Weigel: So I led that. It was about a year-long investigation. A lot of hard work, fantastic team. We’ve got a lot of expertise, not just here but at other centers that helped us out.
Dana Weigel: Learned a lot about errors we had made with water behavior on the ground versus on orbit.
Host:Hmm. Okay. And then so I guess that was your new job, then, for a whole year? And I guess you didn’t go back to flight directing then after that?
Dana Weigel:No, after that the program manager — we happened to have an opening in the Space Station program and he asked me to come in and lead one of the offices there, which is what I’m currently doing now.
Host:The vehicle office, right?
Host:So what do you do in the vehicle office?
Dana Weigel:So the vehicle office is responsible for building all the vehicle hardware, the system hardware, thermal systems, power systems. There’s a lot of building and maintaining that hardware. And then also payload facilities. So there are a lot of multiuser payload facilities that we have on the vehicle to do science club boxes, and combustion racks, fluid racks, a lot of other things. So we build and maintain that hardware.
Host:Okay. So basically the vehicle being the International Space Station, you just got to make sure the gas is going, it’s running?
Dana Weigel:Yes [Laughs]. Yes, that’s a nice, simplified way of saying. Well, one of the other really neat things we’re doing, though, with the vehicle, we are working on building the exploration-grade life support systems that could take us to Mars.
Dana Weigel:And it’s really important that we test those in microgravity and in a relevant environment. So you can’t really emulate that on the ground.
Host:Yeah, you got to make sure it’s working in this. Okay. So that’s on the International Space Station right now then?
Dana Weigel:We’re starting the build. In fact, the first piece of hardware should go up this summer. And we’ll continue adding over the next three or so years, three to four years. And then we’re hoping to test it for a few years and get ourselves in a much better position for having reliable life support systems that could take us on to Mars.
[ Laughter ]
Host:Extremely important job. That’s really, really cool. So along this path that you’re talking about from maybe starting with, you know, space is there but it’s maybe I want to go into prosthetics, to eventually working your way up the management chain. And now leading groups, leading teams, doing things that you didn’t think you were going to do, leading failure investigation teams. What sort of traits did you have or maybe work on to get you to be able to do these things?
Dana Weigel:I mean, one thing for sure is being persistent. If you want to do something, don’t give up. Put your head down, keep working towards it. You know, I built my career on assignments that were not necessarily the most interesting or sexy assignments. It doesn’t matter what it is, if you do it well, people will recognize it. You know, a lot of times I took the harder jobs that people just didn’t want to touch because they didn’t look fun. And those can be some of your biggest successes. The bigger the challenge, the more you’re going to grow. If you want to grow as a leader, you’ve got to put yourself into positions where you don’t know everything, right? You’ve got to really stretch really far so that you have to rely on the team. You’ve got to kind of make that stretch from individual contributor to leading and being reliant on the team. I mean, that’s key. A leader is only as good as the team that’s following them.
Host:So it seems like you weren’t looking for — no, that’s not fun, I don’t really want to do that. It seems like you were almost seeking the challenge. You’re like, “Yeah, I want to do that. This is going to be hard, but that’s something that I want to do.”
Dana Weigel:If something’s broken and you can go fix it, you know, that — you’ll learn a ton. You’ll grow a lot from that.
Host:All right. I love this idea of persistence, of [Laughs] even if it’s hard, someone’s got to do it. And I think I can do it, I’m going to challenge myself and improve my skills to get me to that point. Very cool. Dana, thanks so much for coming on and telling your story and really inspiring this idea of persistence. So I appreciate you coming on.
Dana Weigel:Thank you very much.
[Spacey Sound Effect]
Host:Okay. That was Dana Weigel talking about her journey and her current role as a leader in the International Space Station program. So Jenny, who do we have next?
Jenny Turner: So next we have Ginger Kerrick. She’s from the Flight Operations Directorate. And she’s currently the chief of the flight integration division.
Host:Okay, through the worm hole we go.
[Spacey Sound Effect]
Host:Ginger, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today to talk about your story.
Ginger Kerrick:Thanks for having me.
Host:Of course. So I kind of wanted to start from the beginning, just kind of establish the baseline of how you first even got into, I guess, your interest NASA but just STEM in general — what was the inspiration there?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, sure. I used to check out books from the library every Friday. And I brought home one book when I was five years old called Astronomy and Astronauts. And I read that book cover to cover and proudly went into the living room and proclaimed to my parents that yea verily, I know what I needed to do for the rest of my life. And I absolutely needed to be an astronaut.
Host:Wow. So whatever course was going to take you there, that’s the one you were going to go with.
Host:Okay. So then you started pursuing physics, right?
Host:And that’s when you started going to — I guess it transitioned into university, right? So you started taking classes there?
Ginger Kerrick:Yes. Early on in childhood we didn’t have honors classes. And so my mom would meet with each one of my teachers and tell them that Ginger was special. So they would give me extra work and projects. And so that worked out well early on. And then eventually in high school got into honors classes, and then I zeroed in on I wanted to major in physics. So I started off at the University of El Paso in physics and then eventually transferred to Texas Tech.
Host:Okay. Did you — did you — was it this goal that you had in the back of your mind that really helped you kind of excel? Because you graduated in the second of your class in high school, right?
Ginger Kerrick:Yes, yes, by 1/1000 of a point, not that I carry that with me to this day.
[ Laughter ]
Yeah, it was the goal, but it was also my upbringing. My dad died when I was 11 years old and my mom explained to me that I was not going to be able to go to college unless I had scholarships. And so she explained the way to get scholarships was you do really well in sports or you do really well in school. And so I thought, “Well, okay, I need to go to college. So I better do really well in both.” So when I graduated, I had a lot of different academic scholarships to choose from and some athletic scholarships to choose from.
Host:Really? What did you play?
Host:Oh, all right.
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, I was voted El Paso’s Female Athlete of the Year for the city the year that I graduated, too. So I played basketball and volleyball, and I had offers in both to go play at different places.
Host:Okay. So what made you choose the academic route over the sports route?
Ginger Kerrick:Bigger scholarships and bigger schools.
Ginger Kerrick:So four-year schools that I knew I could get a reputable degree from that NASA would recognize.
Host:Okay. Oh, that’s right. Because the ultimate goal is this astronaut, right? So you were doing a lot of things to get to NASA particularly, right?
Ginger Kerrick:Yes. I actually wrote to them when I was 11.
Ginger Kerrick:And I asked what it took to get here. And they wrote me back, there’s a few — and they said, you know, stay in school, stay out of trouble, listen to your parents. And I had my little letter, so proud.
[ Laughter ]
Host:That’s very cool.
Host:Hey, that would inspire me, too, if I got a letter from NASA. Oh, NASA saying I need to stay in school? I will do that [Laughs]. So in school, what — how did that go? Did it just — going through physics classes and working your way to get to NASA?
Ginger Kerrick:Well, early on it was pretty easy, to be honest. I was at University of Texas El Paso. I was taking 22 hours a semester, and I had a 4.0. By then — and I was living at home — but then when I moved away, my first time away from home, I kind of, you know, got into a little bit of trouble because I stayed out too late, I hung out with my friends, I did things that my mom wouldn’t allow me to do when I was living at home. And I wound up with a fat 2.7 my first semester. So I remember calling NASA and asking if that was good enough for their co-op program.
Host:You called them back?
Ginger Kerrick:After they stopped laughing, they said, “Why don’t you call us back when you get it above a 3.0 and we’ll think about it.” And so I wound up losing one of my scholarships at Texas Tech and I had to get another part-time job. So I worked three part-time jobs for the remainder of my college years. But I got it back up to a 3.2, and that was good enough to qualify for NASA’s — it was a one-shot summer internship program. So that’s how I got my foot in the door.
Host:Wow, so this goal in the back of your mind was really driving you?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, absolutely.
Host:Yeah. I mean, that’s the only thing. Because to work three part-time jobs, plus have that school that you got to maintain and you got to get — you got to increase your GPA?
Host:All at the same time. That’s an insane amount of time. I’m sure your social life was pretty much —
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, it was suffering and I was hungry.
[ Laughter ] Because I couldn’t afford a lot of food.
Ginger Kerrick:So my mom would fly in every once in a while and take me to Sam’s. I’d be like, “Yay.”
Host:But it got you there, right? Then you ended up getting the summer internship at NASA?
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, yeah. So I got the summer internship here. And I remember working for this gentleman named Jose [inaudible] in the safety office. And I met him very first day, and I said, “Look, here’s the deal. This is a one-shot deal and I want that internship.” Back then it was called the co-op program, what is now known as the Pathways intern. I said, “I want a co-op position. And I don’t know how to get it. Do you have any ideas?” And he didn’t. And I said, “Look, how about this? I have friends that are working in other orgs. What if I finish my work for you and then I go help them on their projects? And then maybe their bosses will see me and maybe can I get their bosses to write me a letter of recommendation. So if I get multiple letters, maybe then at the end of the summer you can walk down to the co-op office with me and all these letters saying that I’ve done good work everywhere and get converted.” And he’s like, “Okay.” And so that’s what we did. Toward the end of the summer I was like, “Come on. We got to go.” So he went to the co-op office. I’m like, “Tell him Ginger did a really good job this summer.”
And I said yes, and not only him and these other individuals think that, too. And he says, “I think you should move her into the co-op program.” And they said okay.
Host:So what was so intriguing about the co-op program that you worked so hard to get there?
Ginger Kerrick:Because that was a promise. So the internship, I come work here, I go back to school, NASA doesn’t owe me anything. But if I got into the co-op program, then it’s a partnership. I work for NASA a semester, I go to school; I work for NASA a semester. And back then upon graduation, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job. More so than if I had just been a one-shot intern. So that was my way of making sure that I got into a recognized agreement with NASA.
Host:Okay. So you worked hard in the summer internship to short of get into this almost sealed deal.
Ginger Kerrick:More stable, yes.
Host:A sealed deal. And then you get hired on as a civil servant, too, right?
Ginger Kerrick:Yes — yeah, yeah.
Host:So you get to do a lot of different things as a civil servant, right? It seems like whenever you did get to NASA eventually, you moved around quite a bit?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, yeah. So when I first got back, when I first started, that was May of ’94. And I was hired by safety, reliability, and quality assurance, and I worked in the bolts testing laboratory and the calibration laboratory. And then after about a year doing that, I was converted to a materials research engineer where I just supervised the quality of some of the production that was going into the Space Shuttle and early on in the Space Station. And after a year of doing that, my boss knew that I wanted to be an astronaut. And so I went down and turned in my astronaut application. And Duane Ross suggested that I get out of the area that I was in and get some exposure to operations. And so Duane Ross introduced me to the concept of a rotational assignment in NASA where your organization will allow to go do some other job in a different organization for about a six-month period to get some exposure. So I convinced my boss, I said, “Hey, the guy that’s the selecting official for the astronauts said I should do this, that you should sign here.”
And so he let me go off, and I went to the Mission Operations Directorate as an instructor for the Space Station life support systems.
Host:Oh, wow. Okay. So, [Laughs] again, not only NASA — we should go back on this — not only NASA was the goal but astronaut. Astronaut is part of this picture. And it has to do with when you were a kid saying, “This is what I want to do.”
Host:So eventually what other paths did you get? Did you get to start applying to be an astronaut?
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, well, that was the story that that I was telling you there. So I —
Ginger Kerrick:In order to be — to apply to be an astronaut, you need a master’s degree and one year of technical experience.
Ginger Kerrick:So when I hired on at NASA in ’94 — in May of ’94 — by May of ’95 I had my one-year and I filled out that app. And it just so happened they were having a selection that year. So when he told me to change jobs to get some different experience, I went ahead and did that. And I think I was 26 years old. And I thought, “All right, I’m going to get the coolest rejection letter ever on NASA letterhead to go with my one that I got when I was 11.” But it didn’t what that way. So I got a call right around, you know, October, November I guess from Duane and he said, “Hey, we received 3,000 applications this year and we are choosing to interview 120. And you are one of the 120.”
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, that was my thought exactly. So, you know, I just about lost my mind. So I was ready. Because back then the interviews were one week long. So the actual roundtable talk part of the interview was only an hour. But they had physical tests, psychological tests, and the medical tests that you had to go through for the whole week. But I was ready to rock those out. And I wound up getting — my interview was scheduled in December of 1995.
Host:Okay. And then what happened?
Ginger Kerrick:Well, during the interview they did a scan of my lower abdomen with an ultrasound, saw something, asked me to come back in for an X-ray, saw something and asked me to come back in for a CT scan. And on the CT scan was clear that there were six white dots on one side and seven white dots on another. I had kidney stones. And I’d never passed one. So I didn’t even know that I had them. But what I did know is that year NASA was instituting a new medical disqualification that if your body showed the capacity to form a single stone, that is lifetime disqualification from consideration as an astronaut.
Host:Wow. So just the medical — you know, you had the qualifications, but this medical thing stopped it in its tracks. Wow. So then what happened? I’m sure you were devastated?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, I was. Yeah, I was dead inside. I don’t remember the last day of that interview week. I remember being at home crying all day Saturday, all day Sunday. I didn’t go to work Monday, and I was contemplating quitting NASA altogether. And Duane Ross called me Monday afternoon and he’s like, “Hey, I heard you weren’t at work today.” I’m like, “Man, that whole big brother thing really does — he doesn’t even work in my building. How does he know?” They know everything But so he called me and I said, “No, I couldn’t bring myself to go to work.” And he says, “How are you?” And I lost it. I’m like, “How do you think I am? My life is over.” And so it’s just this horrible response that was coming out of my mouth. And I — like, I took a step back and I heard myself and I thought, “Golly, what a wuss. That is not me.” When I was 11, I mentioned my dad died. I watched him die right in front of me.
Ginger Kerrick:And so I’m thinking, “Okay, this little 11-year-old girl that watched her die right in front of her and picked herself up and managed to get to where she is today is now going to be defeated by a few kidney stones?” I’m like, “Oh, no, I’m not having that.” So we hung up the phone. And I’m like, “All right, this is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. I will acknowledge that. But like when my dad died, there’s nothing I can do about it.” And I did ask. I’m like, “Hey, my mom has two perfectly good kidneys. We can swap these bad boys out and pretend.” Yeah, and they’re like, “No, you weirdo.” So I just said there’s absolutely nothing I can do. So I have to get past this. And at the time I was teaching astronauts. And I thought, “Wow, this is a cool job.” So maybe — maybe I am 26 years old and I don’t know everything. And maybe there are other job opportunities here that are going to be equally as rewarding or more rewarding than I ever imagined.
But to get myself out of that bed, I said, “All right, I’m going to go to work and I’m going to say that I can’t go into space. But as an instructor for the astronauts I can teach the astronauts a little something.” So in an indirect way a little part of me would be going up with each one of those. Okay. Yeah, I can sell that to myself. And I said I sell it to myself because I woke up every morning crying and wanting to quit. So I’d sell myself this story and I would go to work. Then I’d start having a little bit of fun. And then I’m like, “Oh wait, I’m supposed to be depressed. I can’t have fun.” But as the days went on or weeks went on, I didn’t have to sell that story to myself anymore. And I really started enjoying it and being open to new opportunities. And it was after that mental mind shift that all kind of crazy opportunities came — you know, were offered to me here at NASA.
Host:Unbelievable. Because the history, you know, your whole goal was defined by this astronaut thing. So understanding that, you kind of have to redefine where can I find meaning? And then you kind of described this process, that there are other places that I can find meaning in NASA and make a contribution — a good contribution — to human space flight. And that’s where you — you know, some of the stuff you did, like, what was the — you were the first non-astronaut CAPCOM?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, yeah. So that was kind of crazy.
Ginger Kerrick:So right after, you know, these interviews, about a year later I was assigned to the Expedition 1 crew. So the first crew that would fly onboard the International Space Station. And I was assigned as a Russian training integration instructor was the title, but big picture is they were getting the majority of their training in Russia, about 70% and about 30% in the US. And because I was assigned directly to them, I went wherever they went. So if they were in the service module as it was being constructed in the plant at — in the facility in Moscow, I was in the service module with them. If they were in Florida as the laboratory module was being constructed, I was in the laboratory module with them. Every class that they took, I was there. So in a weird way I got my astronaut training. And so I did that for four years. And then after they flew and I came back here and moved back to the US — I was really living in Russia for the majority of those four years — I talked to Randy Stone, who was head of the missions operations directorate at the time.
And I’m like, “I have a very unique skillset now and I want to be able to contribute. Where do you think would be the best spot for me? I’m looking at existing jobs and it doesn’t seem like it maximizes it.” And so I kind of leaned back in his chair and he’s like, “Well, have you ever thought about being a CAPCOM?” You know, short for capsule communicator, the people that talk to the crew. I’m like, “Well, those are always astronauts. And so hello, I can’t be an astronaut.” And he says, “Well, do you know why they’ve always been astronauts?” And I had no. And he says, “Well, the people in space always wanted to talk to somebody on the ground that had flown in that vehicle, that had — knew, you know, the tasks that they were assigned inside and out, understood the way the ground team were supposed to operate.” He’s like, “Look what would you have been doing for the last four years. Have there been any other astronauts there with you that know the vehicle? This is the first crew that’s flown.” He says, “So there isn’t anybody like that. But you have a leg up on that.” And I thought well, okay. Sow called the chief of the astronaut office.
And they’re like, “Oh yeah, Ginger, sure. Yeah. We’ll give it a try.” So he’s like, “All right, if you don’t screw this up, maybe other people can do it, too.” And I’m like, “Copy, don’t screw it up.” And so my first day I remember being so nervous because the flight director on console that day was Norm Knight. And he’s now — he was chief of the flight director office. And he looked exactly like Gene Kranz with the haircut and everything. And he was pretty scary. And he was, like, “What are you doing in here?” I thought, “Oh my goodness.” But I won him over that day with both the familiarity I had with the crew. And there was — I think we had a Freon leak in the Russian air-conditioner that week. And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, here’s a copy of the air-conditioner, and here’s what it looks like, and he’s where it’s leaking. And all the Freon could leak out and it’s still safe for the crew because it would be below these limits.” And he’s like, “Who are you?” But it was great. And I loved that job. I love that job so much. And I would never have thought that I could do that.
Host:Wow. So now you’re in this leadership role, talk about the transition from this operational role to now you’re starting to be a part of the leadership of flight operations?
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah. So four years as a CAPCOM, I sat next to the flight director. And I thought, “Huh, they’re in charge. I could be in charge.” And people — that’s about as much thought as went into it. And people were telling me, “No, you can’t be a flight director because no CAPCOM has ever been a flight director.” And I’m like, “Well, heck, you know.”
Host:No astronaut has ever been a CAPCOM.
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, no astronaut’s ever been a CAPCOM. So I’m going to roll the dice. So I applied and I got selected as a flight director in 2005. So, the leader of Mission Control. And the ironic thing in being selected in that position is if I’d have been picked as an astronaut, I would have been one of over 550 people to fly in space because that’s how many we’ve had fly in space so far. But to date, there’s only been 92 flight directors in the history of NASA. And at the time I was number 60. So I had actually joined a more elite leadership team than I had envisioned for myself. But I loved working that position. I was also the first female Hispanic flight director ever selected.
Ginger Kerrick:And I loved being in charge. I loved having that responsibility of the lives of the crew, the integrity of the spacecraft, and execution of the mission. I loved having that on my shoulders. And did I that for eight years. And I worked both Space Station and Shuttle. And I could have done that job forever. But my boss came in and pretended to ask me a question, but it was really a reassignment in disguise. And he asked me to join his management team with the Mission Operations Directorate, initially managing the budget, the people. So budget of roughly $200 million and about 1,100 people that contributed to the International Space Station success in the Mission Operations Directorate.
Host:Do you think it’s a place that maybe you not necessarily envisioned your ending up but you’re happy in?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, each job is, like, the coolest job ever. Every time I get a new job, I’m like, “All right, all right, nothing could be better. Oh, wait, okay, now I have a new job. And this actually is better than the last job.” So that job was awesome. The flight director — the CAPCOM was awesome, flight director was awesome. And then I did this other management job for four years and that was awesome. And then a year and a half ago, my boss again — I should get nervous when he comes around — asked me to start up a brand new division in the Flight Operations Directorate, which we hadn’t stood up a new division in a number of years. But with us returning to launching and landing vehicles from US soil, we realized we were a little bit behind the power curve in ensuring that everything we needed to ensure the safety of the crew members associated with those tenacities was in place. So we formed a brand new division from scratch. He wanted it up and running in 45 days. And I got it up and running in 45 days. And we’re about a year and a half old now. And now this is the coolest position ever [Laughs]. Because I get to manage 160 of the brightest minds.
I have — I’m responsible for operation safety of all these brand new vehicles that they’re building, the training on the vehicles, the hardware inspections, the software testing. And I just — I love it.
Host:Wow. I just — I really appreciate the fact that despite setbacks and despite not meeting these original goals that you set for yourself earlier in your life, you can still find meaning and you can still contribute in a big way that makes you happy.
Ginger Kerrick:Yeah, I think a lot of people just fall into the pit of despair.
Ginger Kerrick:And while it’s fine to spend a few days in there, mourning the loss of a dream you had, you need to pick yourself back out of that. Because there are — you know, we don’t always they everything. There are other things that we have not considered that could bring us great joy. And I am a living example of that.
Host:[Laughs] Well, I wanted to end. So the theme of this episode is Nevertheless She Persisted. And it has to do with this idea that maybe there are setbacks, maybe there are obstacles along the way. Do you have a piece of advice that you want to give maybe to women trying to do exactly what you were doing, maybe achieve a goal and trying to push through despite many setbacks? Some kind of piece advice that we can walk away with?
Ginger Kerrick:Oh, sure. You know, for each case that you’re confronted with, ask yourself if there is something under your control that you can do. So, like, with the examples that I had with my dad dying, no. With the kidney stones, no. But there were other encounters that I had, you know, a teacher who told me that little girls shouldn’t study science when I was 13. And I could have just said, “Oh, okay,” and just withdrawn from the class instead of, you know, “What is your problem, dude? I love science.” And so there are times in your life. So you just need to ask yourself that question. And if there is do, do it and get creative. Sometimes there won’t be a process for it, like, there wasn’t a process for how I could turn my summer internship into a permanent co-op position but invent one. And if you’re passionate enough about what you want to do, you will find that. But if you find yourself in a case where there is nothing you can do, allow yourself that time to mourn that loss. That is human nature. That is normal.
But don’t get stuck there. So whether it’s asking for help from friends or family, pick yourself back up and dust yourself off and look around and see if there is something else out there for you.
Host:Wow. Your passion for what you do is extremely inspiring. Thank you so much for coming on today.
Ginger Kerrick:Thank you very much.
[Spacey Sound Effects]
Host:And that was Ginger Kerrick talking about her journey to her current role as the leader in — as one of the leaders, actually, in Flight Operations. So Jenny, who do we have next?
Host: So up next we have Julie Kramer White. She is the deputy director of engineering for all of Johnson Space Center.
Host:Okay getting a little dizzy flying through these wormholes. But let’s do it anyway. Producer Alex, bring us through.
[Spacey Sound Effects]
Host:Julie, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today to talk about your story and kind of how you are now one of the leaders in engineering, right?
Julie Kramer White: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Host:Fantastic. I kind of want us to start with your inspiration for getting into this field, STEM. You said that you didn’t really have a lot of, I guess, engineering influencers, but you ended up in engineering.
Julie Kramer White: Right, yeah. I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up in Indiana, didn’t have any engineers in my family but sort of a product of a 1970s push to put — match up women who had aptitudes in science and math to STEM-type fields. And of course we didn’t call it that then, but that’s essentially what it was. And so I was very good at math and definitely had a mechanical aptitude. And the teachers saw that, and they started saying things to me like, “Gee, you ought to go into medicine or you ought to go into engineering.” This thing engineering that I didn’t really know too much about what it was. Medicine didn’t really interest me, too glory. So I decided to start to understand more about engineering. Luckily, growing up in Indiana, Purdue was a local school for me, it was a local option. So in-state tuition, couple hours from home, you know, mom would do my laundry on the weekends. So I wound up pursuing an engineering degree at Purdue kind of not really knowing what that really meant in terms of connection to NASA.
But I knew really early from high school that if I was going to go into engineering, I wasn’t just going to go into engineering, I wanted to go work at NASA. Shuttle was starting, you know, in the 80s, and so I saw Shuttle program start up. And I thought, “Wow, what a great way to do engineering would be to work at NASA.” So that’s what I had decided when I was in high school, what I wanted to do.
Host:So I guess it was watching some of the shuttle launches, and were you, I guess, a Trekkie at that point?
Julie Kramer White: I was, I was definitely a Trekkie. I was really hard-core, old-school Star Trek. Not this new stuff. You know, the old-school Star Trek. Scotty, big fan, you know, James Doohan fan club. Yeah, I was that nerdy. And so, yeah, I was a big Star Trek fan.
Host:Cool. So I guess these sequence of events, this influence in the Shuttle mission, and the Trekkie-ness, and then going to Purdue, which ultimately had a great NASA connection, kind of let you to, I guess — when did you start thinking, “Okay, now is the time to apply to NASA”?
Julie Kramer White: Yeah, it did. It sort of stumbled in actually. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit now in retrospect, but kind of growing up in Indiana I really didn’t appreciate the connection that Purdue had to NASA. I mean, obviously I went to Purdue, I studied in Grissom Hall. That probably should have clued me in, you know, given the first man that walked on the moon was from Purdue. You know, those things, those connections I probably should have made. But I really didn’t go at it that way. I mean, I wound up at Purdue through a combination of circumstances. Really glad I did. Wound up in the co-op program because when I started expressing to my professors an interest in working at NASA, they said, “Hey, you got to check out this co-op thing. You’ll love it,” right? So you go off and you work some, and then you get school work. And so I wound up hiring in — at Purdue you do five co-op terms. So I hired in as a freshman. And so came here as a co-op literally having had only three semesters of college, basically my first couple classes in calculus and my first class in physics, and they sent me to NASA.
Host:Okay, now build a spaceship.
Julie Kramer White: Yeah, so build a spaceship. So that certainly led to its own combination of interesting circumstances. But when they assigned me to my first assignment — and it was a lot of old Apollo engineers that worked in the group that I was in. And one of my favorite stories is the first office they assigned me to, it was three Apollo guys. And one of them, his favorite thing to do to co-ops — I know now — is to drop a bunch of differential equation books on their desk and tell them this is what they need to know to work at NASA. Now, of course, I’ve had two classes in calculus, so it was horrible, horrible, horrible. I went home and I cried. I did cry. I went home and called my mom. It was just awful. Now, you know, so — now it’s fine, but it was a little bit shocking at first.
Host:Yeah, that will definitely make your eyes go wide. You’re like, “Oh, man, I’m so not ready.”
Julie Kramer White: I’m so not ready. I am so not ready for this. Right? So a lot of it was just not being intimidated really. And I think I look back on a lot of my experiences early on in NASA — and I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about them — but that was a lot of it was just not being intimidated, right? You couldn’t be intimidated, you could never let somebody’s rank or their age or things kind of throw you off point. You had to stick with it so.
Host:Did you have a mentor that sort of helped you along or was it like this was like an internal decision, like, “I’m not going to let this bother me”?
Julie Kramer White: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely had several mentors, but probably my biggest early career mentor was a guy name Stan Weiss. He was a structural engineer, he worked Apollo, he had worked the lander, and then had come into the early shuttle Orbiter program and was in Orbiter, subsystem manager in primary structure, which was what I would eventually become. I was his protege. I was told that I was number six, and that he’d been through five and so far they’ve all kind of cried and gone home. So I was sort of the, you know — I was the sixth one.
Host:He didn’t tell you that on day one, did he?
Julie Kramer White: Couldn’t make a match. No, they told me that afterwards. They told me afterwards that it was a good thing that I had finally stuck because he was getting close to retirement and they couldn’t find a good match. But I stayed with him for a couple years until he retired. Showed me the ropes you know, introduced me to all his connections, sort of a ready-made network, which is hugely important. I think one of the things we struggle with today with how lean the budgets are and how lean the staffing profiles are, it’s hard to double up in a lot of these areas and put people in the kind of relationship that I had with Stan. But it’s so fundamental because, I mean, basically when he retired, I inherited his network, right? So I started with a 52-year-old man’s network at the age of 25.
Julie Kramer White: So it was a pretty amazing step in terms of breadth of ability to talk to people and get information and influence decision-making. I really kind of picked up where he left off rather than having to start fresh on my own. So when I do a lot of my discussions with young folks, I talked to them, people say, “Hey, your mentors are important, developing these networks are important.” You can’t even imagine at 25 how important that is because it gives you just a massive, massive leg up in terms of your ability to solve problems and gather information and perspectives.
Host:But you had to put the work in as a co-op, too. You had to have the drive, I guess, to follow your mentor and say, “Yes, these are relationships that I want to maintain even while he’s still here.” And then look how it turned out, now he’s retiring and you have this network of people.
Julie Kramer White: You bet. And by the time he retired, I probably had about a — probably almost a decade of works across the various organization. I was mostly in structural mechanics division, but I have spent time in the machine shops and I had spent time in all the branches of ES. So I had worked all different aspects of the product line that our structural mechanic division supports, so I had done thermal and I had done materials and failure analysis, I had done loads and dynamics, I’d done stress, I’d done mechanical design and test. So I’d done all those things and then spent, you know, again, several years with him before he retired. You kind of have to have — you have to have the domain knowledge first.
Julie Kramer White: Right? And then be able to have the network to apply that domain knowledge, right?
Julie Kramer White: Right, so —
Host:So how do these — how do these elements sort of come together to really test your knowledge in order to eventually move up the ladder?
Julie Kramer White: Right. So there have been a couple sort of seminal events in my career. Once I had worked my way up through instruction mechanics division and was ready to start working out broader, I sort of joke that all failures are ultimately structures and materials related other than software. So — and so as a structures and material guy with a background and a failure analysis background, I did a lot of cross-division work. I worked with our power and propulsion group in engine failures. I worked with our mechanical systems folks in mechanism failures. And so I got a chance to kind of branch out and apply some of these things mostly on Orbiter.
Julie Kramer White: But on the Shuttle Orbiter. But then eventually in 2003 I was in the vehicle engineering office, and 2003 is when we had the Columbia accident. And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time as sort of — it’s odd to attribute that sort of saying to something that’s such a tragedy for the NASA family. But for me professionally I was able to bring together my background in structures because I’d grown up with the Orbiters. I knew each one sort of intimately from a structures perspective. I could have told you by looking at the primary structure which Orbiter you were talking about and the history about that particular vehicle.
Julie Kramer White: So I had a very strong background in the primary structure, specifically in the wings, which were one of my areas of the vehicle. I had a failure analysis background. I had a materials background. I’d done a lot of accident investigation-type work. So I was familiar with a lot of the technique and just sort of happened to be in the right place at the time. Columbia happened, I came home to JSC and was sent immediately into the field to go do debris recovery. Because of my background with the primary structure, I was able to work with the USA and the Boeing representatives to gather together the key debris to be sent on to Barksdale and then down to Kennedy for the investigation. Then I returned to JSC and happened to be in the mission management team meetings related to Columbia and found that as people were trying to describe what was going on with Columbia, they just didn’t really have a very good knowledge of what was happening at KSC and didn’t have any knowledge of the debris.
So they would describe scenarios that basically were physically impossible because the debris existed and was on the grid — what we called the grid, where we laid out the debris down at KSC. So through the process of those meetings where I was able to describe to them why scenarios were not valid because of the physical evidence that was available to us, management recognized there was this missing link between what was going on at KSC and what was going on at JSC. And so I was sent to KSC to help make that linkage.
Julie Kramer White: And eventually became the lead for the failure analysis side of the debris reconstruction. So I had a team of greybeards, old NASA and Rockwell guys that worked with me to synthesize thousands of failure analysis reports that were coming in from the failure analysis team, from the materials engineers, and the labs all across the agency, and then some academic labs outside the agency — to bring that data in, synthesize it, and then corroborate theories about what had happened or did not happen based on the physical evidence. So we were that linkage for the MMT and then ultimately for the [inaudible] to help interpret what was going on with the debris. So it’s just to me it’s always amazing when I look at that scenario, I would have never thought as I established my professional career, and worked in primary structure, and had an interest in failure analysis, and had an interest in accident investigation, and had this MMP background, and just happened to be the wing guy/gal, right, that when this thing happened and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to say, “Hey, I have a skillset that’s kind of unique — a unique combination of these things, and I can really help you move forward what you need to do in the investigation.”
And management just basically plucked me up and put me down at KSC and said, “Okay, help us figure out what happened.”
Host:Yeah. That’s fantastic. All this work that you’re putting into building yourself and kind of moving along in your professional career leads to this movement where they need exactly you. Because you have that background knowledge and you have the connection that they’re missing. That’s fantastic. That must have opened up a bunch of doors and led to where you are right now.
Julie Kramer White: Yeah, absolutely. I did wind up shortly after Columbia taking a brief break because I had my daughter. I happened to be pregnant during the Columbia investigation as well, which —
Julie Kramer White: — I kept to myself because I didn’t think they’d be real keen [Laughs] — real keen on knowing that. So I did just kind of keep that one to myself. But showed back up at JSC seven months pregnant, which was kind of interesting for my boss. But anyway, then I took a leave of absence. But while I was on this leave of absence, I got a call that basically said, “Hey, as a byproduct of the Columbia investigation, we’re standing up this thing called the NASA Engineering Safety Center where our goal is to be able to bring together these technical experts to offer sort of hired gun expertise into programs, not just manned space flight but all of NASA’s high value programs and to offer a resource to the engineering teams and the programs that support those projects and be able to bring more resources and more engineering support.” And so I went and did that. And I was there loads and dynamics what they call a TDT, sort of their lead in that discipline, technical discipline area.
Built up a team at that time, helped stand up the NESC and built this team across the ten centers. Because the intent was that the teams would draw upon the best expertise from all ten centers. So I had to basically go cold call, you know? I had very good relationships with Marshall Space Flight Center based on previous experience and very good connections at Kennedy, the manned space flight centers. But I had virtually no exposure to the robotic centers or to the satellite centers, research and development. I did have a pretty good relationship with Langley because growing up in structures here at JSC we have a very sort of tight relationship with Langley. So those were good. But I mean, basically cold calling six other centers, going, “Hey, I’m this new guy at the NESC. And can I get some resources to go work these things?” And we built up these teams and then started taking these teams of people and really forging them into a team that has sort of common objectives and to be able to bring sort of the best attributes of each center.
Because each center approaches things culturally and technically just a little bit different just based on well, hey, this is a human space flight center, this is a robotics center, this is a satellite or more of a research and development — kind of how they grow up, they approach problems a little bit differently. So you’re trying to harness sort of the best of all those ways of looking at things to get a better answer. But it causes some interesting conflicts, too, because the centers do think differently. So we worked our way through that whole process to sort of build these functioning — highly functioning teams. And that was a great experience. I did that for about three years. And then that wound up providing the next opportunity was as Orion was being formulated — it wasn’t Orion at the time, it was CEV was being formulated — the administrator at the time, Mike Griffin, had a very specific objective of it being supported by ten centers — all ten centers, which required key leaders that had experience at all ten centers. And so NESC became one of the places where they looked for potential people to put into leadership positions.
And when they were looking for the chief engineer, I’m absolutely 100% convinced — you know, I never asked Mike if this was the case, but I’m absolutely 100% convinced that if I had not had the experience with all ten centers, I would never have gotten the Orion chief engineer job. Because even though I had a lot of the good technical background pieces of it, he really needed somebody who could make a collaborative environment with ten centers work since the engineering was being drawn from matrix at all the different centers.
Host:Seems like you’re working so hard towards — I guess, going back to this point of kind of improving your career. And then all of a sudden there just comes this need for you, for specifically you and your background. Like, you’re working with all ten centers. Hey, we need someone with an engineering background that has worked with all ten centers — here you are. So how much do you think of it —
Julie Kramer White: Hey, I’m here. I could do that. Could I have that job? Yeah.
Host:So how much do you think of it as persistence and hard work versus right place, right time?
Julie Kramer White: Sure, sure. Well, I think it’s a little bit of both, right?
Julie Kramer White: Because you can always be at the right place at the right time, but if you don’t have the qualifications, right, you’re never the right choice, right? So first and foremost, absolutely what has to come is the qualifications, the engineering background or for whatever it is you’re trying to be able to do. And then, you know, so that’s where I think more the persistence part of it comes in. And sometimes it’s really difficult because it’s not like if you’d asked me at year number seven in my career, “Well, what exactly are you developing yourself towards, right?” To me, I was just taking one step right after the other, trying to do more challenging things, trying to broaden my own skills and sort of naturally with those, taking on each of those challenges, and persisting through different challenges, you sort of built this portfolio of experience that you could never really have anticipated, “Wow, okay, I’m going to show up at this point on the timeline and I’m going to be just the right person that can fill the need.” But I think it does happen that way more often than people think.
If you really prepare yourself, you know, that it tends to happen that way.
Host:So if you had to leave our listeners with just a piece of advice to sort of get to whatever goal that you’re trying to do. It sounds like this was — it was a goal to just try to advance your career, I guess, would be the ultimate goal. What was the thing that was driving you along that way?
Julie Kramer White: Right. So I think, you know, every — I think every — well, I won’t say every engineer. I think a lot of engineers enter the engineering field sort of seeing a chief engineer function as sort of a pinnacle of that career. It’s sort of recognized as wow, this is what I would like to be when I grow up. You know, some people aspire to program management, some people aspire to flight directors or astronauts. But sort of in the engineering field you kind of look at that job and you go, “Wow, if you’re a chief engineer, somebody thinks you must know a lot about engineering, and a lot about systems engineering, and a lot about dealing with teams,” which were all things I was interested in and had sort of worked on my career. So I was kind of climbing towards that — climbing towards that end goal. And so just in the process, it can take just a lot of persistence and sticking with it. It’s funny that you would say persistence because when I talk out in universities or even in grade schools, that’s probably the thing I talk most to students about.
I mean, I don’t consider myself the world’s best engineer. I mean, I’m a good engineer. I have a solid academic background. Purdue was great. I’ve got great life experience, but I have a ton of subject matter experts that worked with me on Orion and propped up every decision we made in Orion. I was never the best pyro guy, or the best structures guy, or the best engine guy, right? I had these a lot of really good experts, but I had great team skills, right, to be able to solicit from then, you know, the information they need, to be able to advocate for them. And so for me, to be a chief engineer was sort of to be able to exercise those aspects of the job, sort of the soft skills of the job. And so when I talk to people at the grade school, college level I say, “Hey, your fundamental expertise is absolutely important. That’s where you’ve got to start. But these other soft skills, right, the teamwork, the being able to work in teams, being able to communicate,” right? People talk in school about how important communication is, but it’s really no joke, right?
I think honestly the difference between people that wind up in leadership positions and people that wind up being subject matter experts, there are places for both. But when you’re the one that’s advocating for that broader team, you know, your communication skills are absolutely imperative. Because if you screw up on — there’s somebody else that’s feeding you all the right technical data, right? I mean, that’s their job is they’re feeding you the right lines. But if you screw it up in the delivery, right, it can really make a difference on how the decision is made. So I always felt like it was my job to make sure I could extract that data and synthesize it, right, and be able to provide it in a way that program managers could make decisions. So there’s just so many different aspects of the job and so much of it has to do with just flat-out persistence, right? Just flat-out you don’t give up, you just keep at it, and you keep at it, and you keep it, and you keep at it. And that’s sort of — in Orion that was always a buzzword, right? We’ve been at it for a while. I know, you know? So I — I mean, I was there for 11 and a half years actually, was recently moved up into the engineering directorate management.
So now I’m deputy director up in engineering. But I was in Orion for 11 years — that’s persistence right there [Laughs]. So but watched Orion go through really hard times, through a cancellation sort of [inaudible] quote unquote “cancellation” and then a resurrection as MPCV. And then through the flight test and getting ready now for the second flight test. So takes a lot of persistence to hang in with some of these long-term human space flight programs that can last decades. So yeah.
Host:Yeah, I can definitely sense your passion for it, though. And that’s much appreciated. It’s really inspiring to hear your story. So Julie, thank you so much for coming on —
Julie Kramer White: Great, my pleasure.
Host:— and just telling your story.
Julie Kramer White: Thank you.
[Spacey Sound Effect]
Host:And that was Julie Kramer White talking about her journey through her current role as a leader in engineering. So one more to go, Jenny. Who do we have as our last guest?
Jenny Turner: All right. Last but not least is Cathy Koerner. She’s the director of Human Health and Performance. And as a special shout out from WELL, she was our — one of our executive sponsors for the past two years. So we’re really excited to hear her story.
Host:Oh, very cool. All right. Let’s go to that talk with Cathy. Alex, let’s do the thing.
[Spacey Sound Effect]
Host:Cathy, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Cathy Koerner:Glad to be here.
Host:Let’s start from the very beginning, where does your story begin?
Cathy Koerner:So — goodness. So when I was in school, I was really good in science and math. And so my father strongly encouraged me to get into engineering. And so I went to the University of Illinois. I ended up an aeronautical and astronautical engineering degree. Did undergrad work. And then I had a professor who said, “Hey, you should consider grad school.” I did grad school, got a master’s degree. And somewhere along the way space became something that I was very interested in. And I got an opportunity to intern with a company to learn more about space stuff and to do some work for them. And eventually ended up working at JPL. I actually started my sort of — sort of NASA career because they’re a NASA center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California doing lunar Mars missions. Was there for a little while and then came here to the Johnson Space Center and was hired right away into Mission Operations. So what is now Flight Operations originally when I got here was called Mission Operations.
I did Shuttle flight control for many years. I was a propulsion expert — that’s my background. And then after spending several years doing that and working my way through certifications and working lots and lots and lots of Shuttle missions — over 50 of them, actually, in my career — I ended up with the privilege of becoming a flight director. I spent seven years as a flight director for both Space Shuttle and International Space Station, got my opportunity to do both of those when the Columbia accident happened. My portion of the investigation was completed as a Shuttle flight director. And I had the opportunity to train and become an ISS flight director. So I got to do that as well. So I have been here at the Johnson Space Center for over 25 years. Most of my background is in operations. I kind of worked my way up through missions operations organization and was on staff to the director. And then my husband became my boss. And they said, “How can we help you find a new job, Mrs. Koerner?”
[ Laughter ] Which actually was really great. And it’s one of the things that I like to encourage people about: If you get in a situation where you have to step out of your comfort zone because mission operations clearly was my comfort zone, take advantage of that and try something new and different. Which is what I did, I ended up going to the Space Station program office. And I worked in the Space Station program office for seven years in varying roles and having different responsibilities, most of them having to do with the International Space Station as a vehicle or with the visiting vehicles that approach the International Space Station. And then after doing that for a while, I was really traveling lot and I had some kids that were at an age where they were very active. And I thought, I don’t want to deal with this job where I have to travel every other week. I want to be more available to my children. And so I was looking for other opportunities. And someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, you should consider Human Health and Performance directorate.
They’re looking for a deputy director, maybe you should go there.” Which is, again, completely outside of my comfort zone because I don’t have any background in anything medical. And my perception of the organization was that it was strictly a medical organization. And I was wrong about that perception. The Human Health and Performance directorate does medical, but it also does human performance-related activities, which has an engineering flare to it. So I was fortunate enough to have been selected as the deputy and then a year later to be given the opportunity to be the director of the Human Health and Performance directorate.
Host:How about that? So I mean, if you were being considered as deputy directory for HHP, you, when you said you were in the International Space Station program kind of moving around, that’s when you started keep of moving up. Because obviously to be considered as a deputy director, you have to have some level of management experience.
Cathy Koerner:I did, yeah. I — when I went to the space station program, and actually, if you looked at it from an [inaudible] perspective, it actually looked like I took a couple steps backwards because I went from being on a director staff to being a deputy division chief, so to speak. So down several layers in the organization or in a different organization. But that really gave me the opportunity to rely on different skills, on my management skills and my leadership skills. It gave me an opportunity to go back and to be a supervisor and to help develop other people. And I really get a lot of joy out of doing that for people. I enjoy developing individuals, helping them reach their goals. I get tremendous joy from just seeing them be successful. And so the opportunities that I had in the Space Station program really set me up for being at a direct level and on senior staff here at the Johnson Space Center, mostly base it gave me both supervisory experience but also budget experience in dealing with the varying international players that we have now with the International Space Station.
And really, with anything we do in space exploration these days, it’s going to have to have international partnerships. So I really learned a lot in those years.
Host:Do you find that managing people is something that you just found you were kind of naturally good at? You just kind of got thrown into the world and you were like, “Huh, this is something that I really like.” Or was it something that maybe through your engineering experience you sort of maybe learned from mentors or developed those skills throughout that process?
Cathy Koerner:I think it was probably a little bit of both. I had some amazing mentors throughout my career who really told me in no uncertain terms that the limitations that I put on myself was really self-imposed, right? That I really could do things that were outside of my comfort zone, that I had skillsets that weren’t necessarily just technical. And that’s something when you grow up in a technical organization is really hard to see sometimes in yourself. And then I, you know, poured a lot into the people around me in learning from them, and that paid off when it came to trying to figure out what I liked and what resonated with me.
Host:It’s important to sort of go for things that you think are something that interests you, too, but also as this level of sort of developing your skills, I’m finding myself doing it right now. Because it’s so easy to kind of fall back and say, “I like this. This is my comfort zone. I’m very knowledgeable in this specific area. If I go outside, you know, it’s going to make me uncomfortable and I’m going to feel weird. And it’s not my thing.” So how do you push yourself?
Cathy Koerner:It’s actually harder for women than it is for men, actually. There’s studies that show that for a woman to apply for a position, for instance, they have to feel like they have 90% or more percent of the skills required to execute that position. Whereas men, if they are in the 20% to 30% range, they think, “Yeah, I could probably stretch and maybe do that.” And they’re more likely to actually apply for jobs than women are. And so one of the things I like to encourage women to do, especially the ones that I mentor, is to really try something new and different. You don’t know necessarily what your capabilities are outside of your comfort zone. None of us really have a good self-awareness when it comes to that. And you might find that doing something different actually helps you develop skills that you maybe don’t even have today.
Host:So that statistic, actually, is pretty reflective of a certain level of comfort. You said women typically won’t apply unless they have 90% of the skills. There’s a level of comfort with that.
Cathy Koerner:Right, you bet.
Host:This is something that I’m very familiar with that already — but it’s what do you have to do to sort of push yourself and say, “Hey, maybe I only have 30% of the skills but I think I should try this”?
Cathy Koerner:Yeah, it’s really — it’s just that, it’s really you have to push yourself. You have to say, “You know what? It’s okay if I fail.” And that’s sometimes a hard thing, especially for we as women and as a mom, right? You never want to fail. You always want to do everything. You want to make sure your family is well taken of, your spouse is well taken care of, your household is taken care of, and oh by the way, work and all your employees are taken care of, right? It’s that sort of super mom mentality, right? But in truth, it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try something and learn from that because it’s really not a failure if you learn from the experience.
Host:Is it more accepting to think of that just based on, like, a retrospective view, to say, “You know what? I’ve failed so many times, looking back that actually helped me.” But maybe there’s a tip or something for how you approach okay, I might fail this, but I want to try. Any sort of personal tip?
Cathy Koerner:So all I can say is be persistent. I don’t know how else to say that. I will tell you, for instance, when I interviewed to be the deputy director of Human Health and Performance, I actually felt like I did a horrible interview. It came at a timeframe when I was in the middle of actually working a Russian rocket investigation. So my mind was distracted on doing other things and I kind of wedged this interview in the midst of other activities going on. And I told them, “Hey, I’m sorry I’m distracted, and here’s why I’m distracted. But I’m going to do my best to keep you on track with your interview schedule. So I’ll do this interview.” I had done so poorly in the interview that I actually prepared a speech, a conciliatory speech saying thank you so much for considering me for this opportunity. I would love some feedback. I had this whole speech. So when I was offered the job, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. Because I really didn’t think I had gotten the job. I didn’t think I had done well enough in the interview. So go back to say really, as an individual I’m probably my worst critic.
And sometimes that limits me. And I have to get over that. And having mentors who helped me to think that way, to think, “Get over that, you’re limiting yourself,” that has really helped push me out of my comfort zone and try things that I never would have tried before. Somebody with basically a propulsion background, a rocket scientist in charge of a health and medical organization is not typical. And the reason it’s not typical is because I was pushed and I pushed myself outside my comfort zone.
Host:It is — it’s got to be that persistence, right? Because even through the discomfort, through all of that, you just push anyway. And even though you’re, like, unsure and you’re uncomfortable, it’s through that pushing that you kind of get to where you want to be. And is it fair to say that this is where you want to be, that this was your goal?
Cathy Koerner:Absolutely love it. Absolutely I love it. And what I love about it is the people, right? The organization is a fantastic organization. We have a variety of work. And we — I like to tell people we put the human and human space flight, right? We’re the organization that makes sure that they are sustained, that they’re successful, and that their performance meets the requirements of the programs. And that’s exciting to me. That puts us right on the edge of everything that we do here at JSC and everything that we do at NASA. It’s exciting.
Host:Yeah. I love this theme of persistence, too. And just kind of pushing through. I wanted to go back to you gave, like, a nice snapshot of your biography in the beginning, but the first couple moments of your interest in STEM and the influence from your dad to get into it, but then also this inspiration to say, “Hey, space.” How did that happen? Was that push something that you wanted to do in the first place and maybe your dad helped you?
Cathy Koerner:So it was kind of — I grew up in the 1960’s, right, when space was really cool. I remember watching, you know, Apollo 11. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s really cool, but why is everybody so excited about this? Of course we can do something like this, we just have to put our minds to it, right?” And so all through my education I really — I was pushed more from a discipline standpoint to just excel and to do well. I never really knew that I could have a career in anything space-related. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, there’s not a space business anywhere close by [Laughs]. Right? And so for me, it was when I went to college, I actually started out in chemical engineering — that was my major. Because it was the hardest curriculum to get into at the University of Illinois and it was the easiest to transfer out of. And so I knew that it was something if I could get into that, I could do anything. And I did. But then after a while, it really didn’t interest me. I had a friend who was in aero, and they said, “Hey, come sit in some of our classes you and see what I think.
Maybe this would be something that interests you.” And it was only then that I really felt like, “Oh, I could actually do this for — like, this could be a career for me. I could be involved in space stuff and not be an astronaut, right?” That’s what everybody says, “Oh, I want to be an astronaut.” I really never wanted to be an astronaut [Laughs]. The idea of leaving planet Earth just didn’t — it was very intimating to me but the idea of being involved in that kind of an adventure was very exciting. And so it really wasn’t until I was in college that I knew that that was even a possibility for a career.
Host:So what kinds of challenges do you have in college? I’m sure being a woman in engineering, you had certain challenges you to go through.
Cathy Koerner:Yeah, especially — yeah, in that timeframe. I was only one of four women in my graduating class.
Host:Oh, wow. Oh, in the graduating class?
Cathy Koerner:For aero, the year that I graduated.
Cathy Koerner:Yeah. Because there just weren’t that many people going into aeronautical engineering at the time.
Host:Of a class of how many?
Cathy Koerner:Goodness, I don’t remember. I’m sorry.
Host:Is it a couple hundred or is it, like, tens?
Cathy Koerner:No, it’s in the hundreds.
Host:Oh, wow. Oh, four in — wow, okay.
Cathy Koerner:Yeah. So — but it never dawned on me that that was odd. I think because I was in — I had a lot of guy friends, I was in classrooms with lots of men — it never occurred to me that that was unique. In fact, early in my flight control career when I was a propulsion officer, there was a shift — a Shuttle handover. So a handover is when you’ve got two teams of flight controllers, one is handing over to the other team. And so two full teams of flight controllers during a Shuttle mission and someone pointed out to me that I was the only woman in the room. Which is very different than it is today. But at the time I was the only woman. And I thought, “So?” Because it didn’t dawn on me that that was unique, but somebody else saw that as unique. Because at the time, right, there weren’t that many women in engineering disciplines and there certainly weren’t that many women working in mission control. Since then, that’s changed dramatically. If you look at a flight control team now, it’s probably half women, which is fantastic. I love seeing that.
Host:[Laughs] So then how about your journey to become a flight controller? I’m sure that was pretty challenging, too, because it was so abnormal?
Cathy Koerner:Well, so when I came here to the Johnson Space Center, I was hired into a flight control position. So that — I don’t know that that was so much of a journey.
Cathy Koerner:But then becoming a flight director, again, was — at that level was I was somebody that — I enjoyed being a flight controller. In fact, I initially didn’t apply to be a flight director. And then Wayne Hale, actually, of all people suggested, “You should consider applying.” And I said, “Well, why?” He said, “Because you should consider applying.” He was one of those folks that kinds of pushed me outside my comfort zone. And I applied. And I was, like I said, fortunate to be selected in the class of 2000. Annette Hasbrook was the other woman who was selected. And when we were selected, there were only — prior to us being selected, there had only been three other women who had actually been flight directors in the history of the American Space Flight program.
Cathy Koerner:Yeah. Pretty amazing. So we felt very fortunate.
Host:Do you think it was that idea of persistence that really made Wayne Hale want to say, “You — you should be the person to apply,” or was it other characteristics that really stuck out?
Cathy Koerner:I suspect he saw some other things in me, too. He saw leadership qualities in me that maybe I didn’t recognize in myself. And he saw that I both had the technical discipline but also could lead and manage a team of various people. Because at the time I was actually a group lead. And so I had a number of people working for me. So he saw things in me I maybe didn’t see myself and still continues to this day to be a mentor of mine.
Host:All right. Well, look at where you are now. Now you’re director of an entire division. So that’s —
Cathy Koerner:Directorate but yeah.
Host:Yeah, directorate. That’s right. So awesome. Cathy, thank you so much for coming on and kind of sharing your story.
Cathy Koerner:Glad to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Host:Of course. Well, Jenny, that wraps up our guests for this episode. Thanks so much for helping to get these incredible women and leaders at NASA on the podcast today.
Jenny Turner: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having us and for teaming up with us to do this. Really excited to get these incredible role models out, even for myself personally. I know many women are at the center. So I’m glad that we can highlight some of those stories today.
Host:Definitely. Even talking to them it’s just, like, wow. It’s just, like, I love that idea of perseverance and this whole theme just coming together. So I’m glad we can team up for this. So usually at the end we do some places you can go to get more information about NASA. So I’ll just kind of start with the Johnson Space Center since WELL is a part of it, right? So NASA.gov/Johnson. You can learn everything that’s going on here. And then also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you can look for the NASA Johnson Space Center accounts. And then Jenny, you follow those accounts, right?
Jenny Turner: Of course, who wouldn’t?
Host:Okay, good. If you’re here, you have to follow this.
[ Laughter ]
Okay. But if you’re listening to this, you can use the #NASA on one of those accounts, whatever platform that is your favorite, to submit an idea or maybe a question for the podcast, and we’ll make sure to answer it on one of the future episodes. Just make sure it’s for Houston, We Have a Podcast because that’s how we find it. There are plenty of other podcasts out there, particularly NASA ones. NASA and Silicon Valley, our friends over at AMES, they’re doing some great stuff with Twitch TV, doing some live podcasts on TV. And then also you can check out NASA’s Gravity Assist hosted by Jim Green up at — Jim Green up at headquarters. So this podcast was recorded in March 2018. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Kelly Humphries, and Jessica Voss, and Kris Davis over at WELL, and, of course, to you, Jenny —
Jenny Turner: You’re welcome.
Host:— for coming on to help put this together. Thanks to all of our guests for coming on the show: Dana Weigel, Ginger Kerrick, Julie Kramer White, and Cathy Koerner. Happy Women’s History Month. We’ll be back next week.
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