As movie goers and critics are discussing the inspiring film “Hidden Figures,” based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly which chronicles “the
untold story of black women mathematicians who helped win the space race,” another group of equally- remarkable women are moving Kennedy Space Center (KSC) once again into the forefront of space exploration and utilization.
Though we have more and more come to expect women to fill corporate or upper management positions in business, academia and politics, rarely do we see such a constellation of women leaders as at Kennedy Space Center.
In our 2016 Women in Business issue, SpaceCoast and i4 Business magazines highlighted KSC Deputy Director Janet Petro. She was quick to point out the other women leaders that are guiding the historic launch and manufacturing facility at KSC into this new era of commercial space development. Interestingly, many of these remarkable women have spent the entirety of their careers at NASA.
Program Manager, Launch Services Program
The daughter of a Naval architect, Amanda Mitskevich’s natural penchant for math and science caused her to gravitate towards engineering. As a young girl, she chose Georgia Tech in Atlanta for college. The distance afforded her some separation, but still was only about a half-day’s drive home. “When I was at Tech, the industrial engineering classes really connected for me; there was more of an organizational management and business element to it, versus purely engineering disciplines like electrical engineering,” she said.
As she approached graduation not long after the Challenger disaster, an interview at NASA launched her career in the space industry. “The guy who interviewed me [from NASA], Mike Hill, had suspenders with palm trees and islands on them. I thought, ‘this is it!’” She was hired into the Space Shuttle program for logistics engineering, but later made the critical decision to move from human space flight to a path which eventually would lead her to become the Program Manager for the Launch Services Program.
“I did an internship with Roy Bridges, the center director, then moved to Launch Services which covers the unmanned NASA launches,” she explained. “It was a huge juncture in my career, because manned space flight is such a vital part of what NASA does. Our program was being consolidated from other centers to KSC and this program gave me the opportunity to interface with engineers at different locations, along with scientists and universities from around the country. There is uniqueness about each mission and each spacecraft, along with the teams involved, which really appealed to me. Plus, you see the results of probes we send out that are changing our understanding of the universe.”
Mitskevich explained that unmanned went commercial almost 25 years before manned space flight went commercial, a shift that means NASA no longer owns the vehicle, but instead buys the delivery service of the spacecraft. They are instrumental in ensuring its success, but this was – and continues to be – a huge shift at the center, as manned space flight moves in that direction.
“We are a rather small group, but we feel we are contributing on a monumental scale. Plus, we are out on the cutting edge of new discovery; that makes it exciting every day,” she said.
Director of Exploration Research and Technology Programs
“We have an executive staff meeting that is moderated either by the Director or the Deputy Director, and there are days when the women outnumber the men,” Josie Burnett shared. That is a far cry from her experience in 1987 when she graduated from the University of Florida in aerospace engineering, with only two women in the class of over one hundred men. However, in her entry role with the agency, the split was almost even. “NASAhas a very open environment,” she said.
Of her attraction to engineering, she attributes both to her mother’s insistence on academic excellence and the fact that her father was a self proclaimed space buff.
“I remember when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was only four years old,” she recalled, “But my father sat me down in front of the TV and said, ‘You need to watch this, this is a really big deal, the world is changing.’ I noticed how everyone else was reacting and I think something dawned in me. When I was ten, I wrote an essay on what I wanted to be and I chose being an astronaut.” Her eyesight kept her from piloting spacecraft, but not from being central to the ongoing success of manned space flight.
“At KSC, most of our roles are tied to transportation, launch vehicles,” Burnett explained. “The role we play is everything else, it is aligned with the missions; why do we fly in space, what are we trying to accomplish and how?” Burnett and her team are responsible for preparing scientific payloads for launch and for ensuring the necessary parts are on hand and can be quickly deployed for any needs of the International Space Station. In addition, the team facilitates the delivery of scientific experiments from around the world, and manages their own research projects for a variety of experiments.
If we are to continue our travel to the moon and beyond, the problems that must be overcome stagger the imagination; from finding and storing propellant made from ingredients found in space environments to space biology.
“We are developing the next generation of planetary pioneers. Our astronauts, like those crossing the Americas in earlier times, can take some supplies with them, but also had to live off the land. We can’t take enough to go to Mars and safely return, so we have to learn to make food, oxygen and fuel from the resources that are already there. That is the frontier we are working on right here,” she said.
Nancy P. Bray
Director, Spaceport Integration and Services
The daughter of a career Air Force pilot, Nancy Bray went to college at the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in industrial and systems engineering. Though she didn’t seriously consider a military career, the idea of working her whole career with one organization – especially a civil service organization – had a certain appeal to her. “I was somewhat taken aback at the idea of working for NASA initially, because I thought what they needed were rocket scientists, not system engineers, but I quickly learned differently,” she said.
She came to KSC in January of 1989 and went to Florida Tech to earn an MBA. “The MBA gave me a business perspective and now that NASA contracts for the majority of our work, that acumen has been very helpful, from contract management, to acquisition strategies and the financial side of the equation,” Bray said. “I don’t have a story of watching a launch and saying, ‘I want to work for NASA.’ It was when I came here that the dream hooked me and I have been passionate about the space program ever since.”
“It is the people and the mission that [have] kept me here,” she said. As an aside, Bray notes that KSC has been rated the best place to work in the federal government for the fifth year in a row by the Office of Personnel Management.
If you think of KSC as a metropolis, Bray could be its city manager. And a sprawling metropolis it is, with 900 facilities, 144,000 acres, three fire stations and medical, water-treatment and power transmission capabilities. Now that KSC has transitioned to a multi-user spaceport, opportunities, challenges and complexities are amplified.
And it’s up to Bray to help KSC’s newest commercial residents such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and others, integrate into their new surroundings. “At one time, the mission of the Shuttle Program pretty much ruled the center, now we have a number of entities each with their own mission priorities,” she said. Every day those priorities shift to some degree, and Bray is in the middle working to make sure everything is on schedule and successful.
Bray is also responsible for making sure this high tech ecosystem, which is planted in the middle of an equally vast, natural ecosystem, maintains that delicate balance. “The programs that NASA is famous for, from Apollo to the Shuttle, they come and go. What remains is this facility that adapts and supports each new evolution of our space endeavors, that is why I love this job. I get to be a part of facilitating each iteration of our space program.”