NASA: How a childhood rocket science dream came true

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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.

One Monsoon Volunteering in Nepal

Blog 5 pixIf you read my blog you may have noticed, by my less than perfect English grammar,  that I am not a native speaker. Sometimes I still catch myself going the Spanglish way. Therefore, I find it ironic when I decided to spend the month of June 2013 in Nepal, teaching English. My rationale was that I had spent many years in an Anglophone country and that 10-year old Nepalese children wouldn’t be learning about 17th century Shakespeare. And so, I made peace with this dilemma.

Volunteering had been buzzing in my head for a while. When the time came to choose between beach bumming in Turkey by the Aegean Sea and a month of giving back, I chose the second. I wanted a challenge; do something that taught me about myself, the world, and those that inhabit it. The search began. Where to go? I had specific location criteria: 1) It had to be safe 2) One where I have never been and 3) A place where they needed help. An hour later I had found it! The ideal place, tucked in between India and China: Sarangkot, a village 2,000m above sea level with a population of 5,000 people.

A week later I was off to Kathmandu. After landing at the airport, I picked up my luggage and through the crowds, spotted a man holding a sign displaying my name. Relief #1: I had contacted a stranger across the world who actually existed. Next, I get in his 1980’s van hoping that he would drive me to where he’d promised. Relief # 2: The other incoming passengers were also volunteers from Canada and Australia.

After driving 4 hours through a windy, muddy and treacherous road up the mountains, I arrived to what would be my home for the next 4 weeks. I was introduced to my host family: mom, dad, 2 daughters, and 3 little boys. Our pink house was surrounded by jungle, cornfields, and a beautiful landscape of the rice paddies. It also had 2 rudimentary rooms, a shed where our ox slept, and a bathroom with a squatting toilette…my favorite…NOT! My family lived humbly but they seemed happy and healthy.

I shared the master bedroom with a girl from Pennsylvania who had already spent 2 months there. She never wore shoes to go to the toilette, and let the kids play with her very expensive Cannon camera. After a while she stopped showering. I wonder if I would ever reach the same level of assimilation.

Dinner time was an important event. We all gathered in the small kitchen, which had a coal stove and was lit by candlelight. The women sat in the floor while the men shared the table with us foreigners. Our meal consisted of white rice, corn, and Dahl. The latter became my basic source of nutrition. This was a soupy lentil and potato dish, which I ate for dinner, lunch and breakfast (once at home I didn’t have lentils for 6 months). Nepalese people call westerners ‘contaminated’ because we ate beef and it was unholy to eat a cow. Locals would have refused to share a meal with us. Thankfully, our host family tolerated our ‘contaminated’ kind.

The next day in class I was greeted with a ‘Namaste’ or ‘Namaskar’ by a swarm of uniformed children. Mind you, I have never taught anything to anyone in my life. They understood and wrote English fairly well but their pronunciation needed attention. Surprisingly, their level of of math and science was at par with western education. Yet, it was sad to think of the slim possibility of them becoming doctors or engineers one day.

The season was monsoon, the one time out of the year when the Everest peak hides behind the clouds. There was so much water falling off the sky. Everything was wet: my clothes, my luggage, my passport; nothing escaped the torrent rains.  On the upside, a damped June also meant rice planting time. I spent many hours under the sun, along my host mother, with water up to my knees, pulling rice weeds and replanting them over in the wet soil. Every 2 hours we took a break and ate, guess what, sticky sweet rice.

Conscious about sunburn, I applied my 70 spf sunscreen. The women all looked at me, grabbed the lotion from my hand, and started applying on their face. I tried to explain that it was for protection against UV rays. Confused, these heavily sun-kissed, brown, wrinkled women shrugged and laughed. It was marvelous to witness the cultural contrast regarding something as petty as sunscreen.

Chatting with my host mother, I learned that we were the same age. However, she had spent her whole life working in the rice fields, had given birth to 5 children, and had married at age 19. Really the only thing we shared was a birth year. Moments like this put things in perspective. Like, why would I ever complain about anything in my life?

Most volunteers arrived to Nepal with hopes of changing a child’s life. The truth is that 1-2 months was not enough to make a real impact, especially given the high turnover. I saw this fact affected some people more than others. To me, this experience allowed me to take a break from reality, reflect upon my present, and open my mind to the many possibilities aside from the big corporate world. It was then that the idea of pursuing an MBA (and my own entrepreneurial wishes) was born. Surrounded by the Himalayas, facing the ever-present Everest, foolishly I thought I was there to drive change in others, when in fact the real change occurred within me.

Part II: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops

 

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My first time in a helicopter, I was in a state of shock. I was scheduled to take the 1-hr ride from the Den Helder airport, off the Dutch coast, along with eight, 200lb, tattooed, bearded men (aka traveling buddies). As I donned my bright yellow survival suit (supposed to keep me alive for a whole 10mins once we hit the 32°F North Sea water), I had flashbacks of the crash simulator. Strapped inside a chopper-like structure, our would-be crew is immersed in a pool of cold water, and flipped over repeatedly. I push the side window out to egress but nothing happens.  Divers swim around us as a safety caution. The water gets into my eyes and I lose one of my contact lenses. Ironically, I’m not worried about drowning or my blurry vision, but about being the girl who messes up the exercise and needs rescue!

I can think of so many times when I tried to dodge the ‘girl’ stereotype. It became my karma, mission, and duty. When taking my technical exams, the biggest fear was not failing but measuring up to my male colleagues. I felt as if I had to prove that I was equally smart and competent as them. Today, regardless of my degrees and accomplishments, I always go into ‘prove-myself-auto-mode’ at the start of a new challenge, either by pure habit or plain paranoia.

Back at the ‘heli-airport’, I put on my emergency oxygen supply. I am about to board, when I notice people staring at me. They don’t even try to pretend not to. Yes, I was not the average, 200lb, bearded, tattooed, female (those didn’t really exist). Actually, it was because I was a woman doing what it has been traditionally a man’s job. Still today, I don’t get used to the staring. Seriously, it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before. 😉

We take off, in a high-knot wind, through the dense, cloudy skies, and I’m wondering ‘how on earth does this guy see where we are going?’ We were in the middle of the deserted North Sea, held in the air by nothing but a spinning helix, a pilot, and a dashboard full of gauges. Again, I thought WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?? After 20 minutes expecting a nauseous, bumpy ride, my anxiety quiets down. The entire experience turns out to be smoother than a 6-hr flight from Heathrow to JFK (if you have ever queued up for UK security you would understand me). Another 35 minutes go by, and out of nowhere, there it was, a hard-to-miss giant metal skeleton, shining right at us. “Lady and gentlemen we have arrived to our destination, the K80 platform”.

Offshore, the captain was a white-bearded man with long-hair, an earring, jeans and a t-shirt. He was the epitome of a seadog, a pirate. Yet, he was in charge of running the show. I was not sure if this comforted me or worried me.  Boy, was I far away from the executive Den Haag headquarters. At sea, time goes by somewhat differently. It is like being in a cruise ship except I am the only female on-board. The all-Russian staff spoiled us as they cleaned our quarters everyday and did our laundry. The chef fed us potatoes, gravy and French fries at night, and home-baked cakes during the day. Once again, disconnected from civilization, the only get-away was to go outside and stare at the endless sea.

With more helicopter flights under my belt, the offshore routine became normal. Being part of the Southern North Sea Operations team made my all-time list of top things (up there with husky sledding in the North Pole). Een gezellige ervaring, zeker wel! I wish that this enthusiasm would have carried through after I changed roles. However, with time, the bottom line of ‘returning value to our shareholders’ was no longer mantra enough. Mission-less and passion-less, I was saturated with corporate standards & procedures (a slashed oil barrel price from $120 to $40 did not help the situation either). This all led me to close the fossil-fuel chapter of my life. Most importantly, my gut kept telling me that there were amazing things awaiting for me elsewhere. And you should always listen to your gut over anything else.

Part I: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops

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If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be flying in helicopters out to sea as part of my everyday job, I would’ve laughed and call you crazy. Today, I must apologize for my would-have-been impolite attitude. It took only one phone call for me to leave my astronaut childhood dream (and space career) to join the supposedly ‘anti-polar bear’ oil industry.

The way I remember Shell is with appreciation and slight nostalgia. Not only I signed up for a company but an expat lifestyle, in which people befriended, dated, married, and worked  in the same circle. On one hand, I formed some of my strongest lifelong bonds then. On the other, this may also have been the reason why I left. I lived in a sort of snow globe, watching the outside world through a concave glass.

Never before did I experience what it was professional satisfaction. I was a 20-something, Colombian girl, in a foreign country (The Netherlands), telling senior colleagues, mostly men, how to run our operations. I felt powerful, entitled, and strong. No wonder why I loved my job.  This would all prepare me for what it was yet to come: working 12 months, with 40 tough-looking, cowboy-like men, mostly non-English speaking, in a drilling rig, for 14 days and 14 nights. I lived, ate, and slept in a pre-fabricated, cargo-like container. Nevertheless, after working 12 hours (really 15-hours), the premises of my living conditions became of such low importance, that at the end of that very long shift, I was glad to have a place where to lay my head (I would finish with ‘at night’ but sometimes it was ‘in the afternoon’ or even ‘in the morning’).

I also abandoned the concept of a sleeping cycle. It was more like “ok now that it is 11pm at night, I’ll sleep until 1am, wake up and make my way up to the drilling floor to join the night crew.” There I was, no heels, no make-up, hair up in a bun, in greasy orange overalls, half awake, half sleep, watching this huge rotating steel machine make its way 6,000 m (18,000 ft) below the ground. We were standing over the biggest hydrocarbon reserve in Europe. At any time the high pressure could trigger a major gas leak, and worst yet, an explosion. Something movie-like but as real as many tragedies in the oil industry.

It was a Dutch winter in February, without snow but wind chills that painstakingly pierced through your skin like tiny sharp icicles. Indeed, it was an exciting time, out of the office setting. But there were those nights under the moon on the drilling floor that I questioned my existence.

If you are reading this, it means I survived my year of isolation. Aside from the hard work, my time-off was bliss. Even Jules Verne would have been envious. For an equivalent period of 180 days I went around the world: chilling by the beach in Lebanon, partying in Mykonos, wine tasting in Andalucía, and cuddling up by the fireplace with family in NYC. Oh! And there was that monsoon season volunteering in Nepal where the b-school idea originated.

At work, I met some of the brightest, most ambitious and adventurous people. They were from countries that I didn’t know existed such as Azerbaijan, Brunei and Gabon (can you name the continent and language of these nations?). Thursdays nights I met up with my 3 co-workers/partners in crime: an Iraqi, a Nigerian, and a French. I truly felt like a citizen of the world.

I am not going to lie, being in the oil & gas business was a lot of fun. Many did wonder if I felt guilty for working in a place that was controversial w.r.t. the environment. Initially, it didn’t feel this way. I was in awe at the gained self-confidence, cultural awareness, and professional acumen. Eventually though, my inner voice advocating for a sustainable future would speak louder and louder. But I will save the rest of the story for the second part of this blog.

The 1st year of my MBA: 10 months & $50K later

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As I fly to San Francisco for the summer I reflect back to this past year. On one hand, it feels as if only a month has gone by since I first sat on my desk next to 300 of my-newly-made friends. On the other hand, after all the emotional, intellectual, and physical ‘trauma’ (I mean this in the nicest of ways), it feels as if half a decade has gone by. It has been a true roller coaster ride; full of ups and downs, where my classmates and I held tight to the handrail, closing our eyes, and praying that if we survived we promise to never curse again (and that I would call my mom more often).  And yet, somehow, one does have the perception of coming out smarter.

Ten months ago, what started as a harmless idea, turned into my everyday reality. The thought of abandoning the 9 to 5 routine to immerse myself in textbooks was no longer platonic. There were those precious moments worth freezing in time. For instance, when I boxed another girl in the ring for charity surrounded by 100+ ‘bloodthirsty’ classmates (low-light or highlight?…hmmm). There were also moments better off tucked away in the past. Like when I dishearteningly stared at my finance midterm as ink bled red down the page. Even then, I discovered things that I didn’t know, I didn’t know and for that, I justified my Return On the-five-digit-soon-to-be-debt Investment. 

Who would have thought that in business school they actually made you study? Many seek fortuitously that A++++. Many see it as a mere means to an end and do the bare minimum for a diploma. I sit in a mid-category: a medium/mean/mode of As & Bs (statistics dejavú). To my defense, picture a younger me arduously investing hours in calculus and physics to become an aerospace engineer. To my eyes, I already paid my ‘studying dues’. And thus, I leave the 100s out 100s and summa cum lades to those who partied through their former education years and seek redemption (you may hate me for a whole 45 sec if this applies to you). In any case, regardless of advanced degrees/job titles accomplished, at times I still felt measured, compared, praised, diminished, by a number on a piece of paper.

In terms of networking, grad school feels like the social olympics: exhilarating and yet exhausting. There are the consultants, the entrepreneurs, the non-profiteers, those that are desperately dying to enter investment banking and those that are desperately trying to leave investment banking. I juggled friendships, classes, club activities, while scouting jobs in between (all in that specific order). Turns out I suffered from FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out. As quoted in the Cambridge English Dictionary this is “the worried feeling that you may miss exciting events that other people are going to.” So it is indeed legit, stressful, and only acknowledged by a few.

Finally, why pursue a business degree? After 2 careers checked, 3 decades lived, 3 languages learned, and 3 continents crossed, I thought it was to become an entrepreneur. I intentionally moved from Amsterdam to Washington DC for an education, but somehow and with a splash of luck, I ended up on a plane direction Silicon Valley. I guess this is the real reason why I came back to school: to be unexpectedly presented with an unimaginable myriad of possibilities. Who knows what’ll happen next…

My Tech Internship: The-1001-expectations

image001So why in the world would I decide to start a blog? I always thought blogs were for those individuals who have managed to change history through their actions, discovered the cure to a rare disease or have won an olympic gold medal. I have done none of these three things (at least not yet!), but I figured it would be interesting to record the next chapter in my life, most importantly professionally, but also personally. 

The purpose of my words, arranged in a particular context, is to inspire women and men, who like me, have latent passions awaiting to come true. This could be living in another country, working in a high-tech ‘cool’ industry, or making a complete life switch to make a higher impact. The latter, as I discovered when reading Elon Musk’s biography, is the one that applies to me best. 

In a couple of days, I will start my summer internship at Tesla. I still think fate has played a trick on me and occasionally, I let a small giggle escape. Who would have thought that many months earlier, I would be telling the universe that I refuse to return to the corporate world unless it was to work for Tesla. This was at the time when I was just starting my MBA and was reflecting upon what I wanted out of life. After all, this was the whole point of quitting my job, moving across continents and becoming a student again. I was desperately looking for inspiration, creativity and a mission-driven career path (I must warn you, the idealist in me will start to show up). And then, that actual call from Tesla came about. So first moral of the story, if you really really really want something: ask the universe what it is that you want and the universe might just grant you your wish. I know it sounds like something from The Secret…but in my case the stars did align. 

Now, in all honesty, I have no idea what to expect about this amazing opportunity. Actually, I have yet to accept the fact that I have been chosen to join Elon’s vision. As Tesla overtakes GM as top car manufacturer w.r.t. valuation, it is positioned on the likes of Google and Facebook for pushing the envelope in terms of innovation and also for being the most enthralling places to work. The one mental picture I have in my head of the physical plant consists of red shiny robots putting together a chassis and a sleek auto body, all working in unison, out of a Terminator movie. My first day, as I walk into the Fremont plant someone will pass me a wrench and ask me to go fix the arm of one of the shiny robots. I’ll just convey obediently. 

And so, as I make my way though the lines of Harvard, MIT and Stanford recruits, I try to define what my role will be. As an engineer at heart, I cannot wait to see how these robots mechanically manage to operate smoothly, and how can a car function without a combustion engine. As a first year MBA, I want to understand how the named-after-Nikola-Tesla company does business differently on the daily basis with suppliers, customers, and managers. Is it more like “we are Tesla, we are cool and this is what we expected done…yesterday” or perhaps more like “Elon said we needed those 500,000 pre-ordered cars produced and delivered by the end of the summer, and that’s what we’ll do at all costs” or even “we have this magic machine that secretly makes whatever we thought out, and you have now become part of our tribe and are sworn to secrecy”. 

Will I love Tesla and Elon’s mission to change the world? Or instead, like an odd Lego piece, struggle to fit in? What if I am indeed sworn to secrecy and cannot share my excitement through my writing. Guess, I will have three full months to find this out.