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May 10, 2011 Vol. 4, Issue 3


NASA premiered a new storytelling forum for women and girls.

Busloads of elementary school girls, engineers, astronauts, and scientists arrived at NASA Headquarters on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, to participate in the launch of NASA’s Women@NASA website. The website, part of a White House initiative to inspire women and girls to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, is a storytelling venue that features 32 unique stories from women across NASA. The event was co-sponsored by NASA and the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Front page of the recently launched Women@NASA website.

Front page of the recently launched Women@NASA website.

“NASA is in a unique position to inspire girls and women to enter into these fields through its incredible mission,” said Rebecca Spyke Keiser, NASA associate deputy administrator for policy integration, who led the launch of the Women@NASA website. “We could have provided links and lines of information to different resources for women and girls,” she said about satisfying the White House initiative, “but what’s more inspiring than seeing the women themselves and hearing their stories?”

“We’ve been astronauts, scientists, engineers, program managers and, yes, bureaucrats,” she added, noting that a woman, Eilene Galloway, helped write the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which founded NASA in 1958. “This is really all about you today,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver to the packed audience of women and girls. “I owe so much to the generation that came before me,” she said. “That just makes me committed every day to do the same for you.”

Valerie Jarrett, chair for the White House Council on Women and Girls, challenged NASA to find new an inspiring ways to get women and girls interested in science. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support you going into these fields,” said Jarrett. “You all are so incredibly special. You are so gifted and so talented. We want you to pull for yourself, challenge yourself, and see what you can do to push yourself just a little bit further.”

The event closed with a presentation by NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, one of 53 women to travel into space. “These women have my respect,” she said, “and at the very least, they should have your full attention when you watch those videos.” After sharing a series of stunning images from her latest stay on the International Space Station, she shared the story of how she got to NASA.

All that you do influences what you become. You’ll never know what you’ll be down the road, and when and where those influences are going to come into play. My father was an electrician. I started going on job sites with him at a very young age. My mom needed a babysitter, so I think I was about two years old when I started to go to work with Dad. When I was five, he started his own commercial electrical contracting company, and when I was seven, I got my first paycheck. Back then, minimum wage was about five doughnuts from Winchell’s. I was 10 when I got my first tool belt. I was 15 when I wired up my first subpanel with relays, and I was 19 when my dad sent me on my first service call alone. I worked for my father on weekends, nights, and on every school break until I was 25 years old and my father retired his company.

It wasn’t the most glamorous life being an electrician. Every day was a long day, getting up at 3:00 am to beat the traffic, driving 70 to 100 miles sometimes just to get to a job site. You’d put in a hard, long day, and then you’d get back in the truck and merge with traffic to come home. When I was 16 and I started driving the work truck and picking up the guys, then I would sit into the L.A. traffic for 70 to 100 miles just to get to the job site.

I don’t know what a job site is like today, but back then there was rarely a Porta-Potty. And if there was, there was only one, it wasn’t marked for women, and it wasn’t very inviting. Most of the guys from the other trades knew who I was. I was known as JC’s daughter – TC. And they knew to leave me alone and just let me work for the most part. Sometimes I got a lot more attention than I wanted or I deserved, and it wasn’t always flattering, helpful, cordial, or even appropriate. I was worn out and filthy after every day on the job. Heading back to school at the end of the summer, I had pale skin, weathered hands, sliced fingers, broken nails, I had bruises all over from head to toe. Heading into class, I looked nothing like the other girls at school.

Construction is a tough business. The job is tiring, the hours are long, and good workers are hard to find. I was my father’s most loyal and reliable employee, and yet, when the minimum wage went from doughnuts to cash, I was usually the last one to get paid, if I got paid at all. I would have worked for my dad for free. I think all of you would too, right? It’s Mom and Dad. You love ’em. My dad didn’t make me work for him. He didn’t make me feel guilty. My sister didn’t work for him. He gave me a choice. You know what? I liked it. I liked working with tools. I discovered that I liked fixing things. I loved it when Dad came back from the supply house and he had a new tool. He’d say it was to make our life easier, but we knew it was just an excuse. He’d figure it out and then show me how to use it. We used to remodel retail stores and offices. It was the best thing ever to go in and demolish the place and then build it right back up. I loved crawling in ceilings, pulling the ladders, pulling the wire, making up the J boxes (junction boxes), bending the pipe, calculating the circuits, and eating the lunch that Mom packed.

Dad had this fantastic knack for solving problems, and whenever we got into a snag, he’d figure out a way to solve it. I watched my dad for a number of years. How he worked. How he used tools. How he approached problems. With all of those years of experience and everything my father had taught me, I had achieved journeyman status as an electrician. It was rather funny that when it became time for me to begin my undergraduate research in chemistry that the new professor on faculty actually recruited me to be in his group, not for my talents in chemistry, but for my simple skills in construction. I installed lights and outlets, designed circuit boards. I spent more time with a wrench in my hand assembling equipment than I ever did holding a beaker and mixing chemicals, which is not at all what I pictured my life in a researcher in a chemistry lab to be like. After all that, the lab was functional. I had a front row seat and my professor’s undivided attention as he taught me everything he could with the time I had left about how lasers were used to study molecules.

Since then, every step of the way [on] my path to becoming an astronaut, I found myself – and others – benefiting from the skills that I learned simply by doing something that I loved and was natural to me. I was completely clueless, though, to the impact that it would have on my life. Looking back on it, I think God was preparing me all along to live onboard the International Space Station where things often break, they get lost, and they don’t always work out the way that they were planned. And sometimes you’re one of the only people on board that can fix it. Like I said, you never know what’s down the road.


Visit the Women@NASA website.

Learn more about the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Read an interview with Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

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