When I was 13 years old my mother gave me an encyclopedia of the solar system. Out of the 285 pages, the one picture that stuck with me was of planet Saturn and its colorful rings. This was the preamble to what would become my passion for Space and rocket science. Who would have imagined that the dream of a teenage girl from Bogota would materialize into a 10-year long journey and make the impossible possible?
It all started with my family migrating from Colombia to the US. I learned English, overcame the culture shock, studied lots and earned a bachelor degree. And like a good bumper sticker would say, my hard work eventually paid off. I landed a job at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center my senior year of college. I was ecstatic and equally terrified. What if it was all just a dream (literally) and I would suddenly wake up?
That Monday morning, I did not hit the snooze button. I drove from Orlando to Cape Cañaveral on State Highway 528, with the sun rising and the Atlantic water following me on either side. At the entrance of the space center, a man in military gear greeted me with a smile and a big scary gun. They checked my green security badge, signaling my ‘legal alien’ status. No, I was not ET’s second cousin but rather a permanent resident who had not yet become a citizen. I needed to be escorted into location.
Once inside, I felt like a kid in a candy store, except instead of lollipops, there was liquid rocket fuel stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building and a rocket with a satellite payload on the launch pad awaiting T minus 0.
Once I reached my desk, I was introduced to the person who would be my manager for the next 1.5 years. His name was Ken Lathrop and at the time I didn’t know the influence that he would have on me. Ken pushed this young Latina to take leadership of her first project, supervising 1 engineer and 4 technicians. Intimidated by my surroundings, I shyly took on the assigned task. Apparently, he had seen something in me that I didn’t. I worked on the thermal protection system for the space shuttle (the black belly), which shielded against high temperatures during re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere.
That same week, Ken came running inside in panic. Turns out, that during Florida wetland summers, alligators tend to hang out on top of people’s cars. And so, one had chosen to chill out that afternoon on the roof of Ken’s 2003 Chevy Cavalier. I tried to hold my laugh, but it was inevitable. The perks of working in Cape Cañaveral.
I loved working in inspections checking flight critical electrical wiring. I crawled inside one of the space shuttle’s wings and play handy astronaut. I wrote my name on the airlock that connected the cockpit with the fuselage, so at least my signature would make it up one day.
However, my most truly favorite time was meeting the astronauts, who so bravely would sit over all that rocket fuel, and travel miles away into the Milky Way. Besides being brilliant, they were friendly, charismatic, and handsome. I guess if I were to orbit around the Earth for months or hang in micro gravity inside the International Space Station, I’d better have companions that were easy to get along and also nice to look at.
If I would’ve been more self-aware of my Spanish accent and demographics, I would’ve run direction opposite from the space center. There were zero to none female rocket scientists; let alone any born and raised in South America. The status quo was an older, local, male workforce. I stood out como mosco en leche (‘like a fly in milk’).
Weird enough, I never felt discriminated, singled out or ignored for being different. I tended to live in my own aerospace bubble, oblivious to a lot of things. But I would like to think that my co-workers respected me and saw me as an equal. Together we worked towards the mission, which created a sense of community and blinded biases.
My experience at NASA taught me about believing in one’s dreams regardless of how crazy they may sound. You need grit and courage. Now, whenever I lack self-confidence, I go back to those early days. I finally learned to own my achievement, and be proud of it, rather than leave it hidden in the past. I wish I could pass on all of my experiences and lessons learned to the new generations struggling with the same insecurity; fearing their own diversity. This blog is my best attempt at doing that. If I can move one person closer to pursuing their most daunting dreams, I’d say mission accomplished.