Yes, I Am a Rocket Scientist!

Updated MeI discovered astronomy when I was in fifth grade. It was the International Geophysical Year and I found it very exciting. I had a neighbor who had built a telescope and I would go to his house to look at the stars and planets. When I was 12, I got a Saturday job at the library and bought my own telescope.

I was raised by a single mother (my dad died when I was five) who always encouraged me in my interest in science. She had always loved math. In high school, I joined the astronomy club, but found I wasn’t really welcome. The only other girls were girlfriends of the guys. I majored in astronomy and math in college, but didn’t receive much encouragement from my professors.

My plan after graduation was to work a couple of years to earn money for grad school and then get my master’s and PhD. But things didn’t work out that way. As they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans. I found it difficult getting that first job after college. Sometimes when I would call about a position, the agent or recruiter would say in a surprised voice, “You mean you want it for yourself?” I was also told I couldn’t get a job as a programmer because I couldn’t lift the boxes of computer cards. Right! And one manager asked me if I didn’t have a husband or father to take care of me! That would be illegal today.

I finally got a job writing for a science magazine. They had planned to make a TV special on astronomy, which I would help write, but the special was never made. But my writing experience got me my first computer programming job. Most technical people are not known for good writing. After programming in the Defense industry for several years, I advanced to software engineer. I was fortunate to have a (male) mentor to help me make that transition. I wrote code for military simulators, including for rockets, and flight code for the FA/18 fighter jet.

Then I accepted a position at NASA as a flight systems engineer with a software specialty. This was the most exciting and fun job I ever had. I was software manager for the experimental scramjet, Hyper-X, which made the Guinness Book of World Records twice in one year. The first successful flight was Mach 7 and the second was Mach 10. Since then I have worked on satellite systems, including GPS.

I had planned to go into pure science and never expected to become an engineer. When I was in college I was often the only women in my astronomy, math and physics classes. There weren’t many women programmers when I started working either. Now there are many more women in programming and engineering, though still not enough. I have mentored women college students who are interested in technical fields for many years. I hope to see more young women entering science and engineering in the future.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do some because you are a girl. Don’t give up.

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  1. gretchen on July 15, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Wow Carole – sounds like you hit all of the stereotypes we are trying so hard to shed. Getting women into the sciences is such a hot topic these days. It’s great to see someone with your experience pushing to make that happen.

    Sounds like you’ve had some really cool jobs! Thanks for sharing them with us and showing us not only that women can do the job, but that it can be a fun and rewarding career as well. :)

  2. Brenda Bernstein on July 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Great story Carole! Funny, I went to the Bronx High School of Science and was split for a time between science and English. Thought I might be a marine biologist when I grew up. English clearly won out for me though!

    I so admire science-oriented women who have triumphed over societal biases. You go girl!

  3. Ivan-Earl Abaya on July 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    I love it Carole—you are a pioneer….:) hope all women will be encourage by your experience :)

  4. Susan on July 16, 2011 at 10:43 am

    You go, girl.

    I remember those sterotypes when I was growing up. The boys were encouraged if they were interested in science, the girls – not.

    When I majored in physics, the common reaction was – what are you going to do – teach?

    But when I got a masters (in physics) of the four of us – three were girls.

  5. nancy hearons on July 17, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Hi Carole,
    You are a brilliant, wonderful person besides being an outstanding, female rocket scientist!
    Keep up the great job!

  6. DKJ on July 18, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    This is a great testament to following your interest where ever it may lead. In college, it was not as extreme for me as there were a few other women in math and computer science but it was a very small group. Our society needs to keep encouraging ALL those who want to pursue science as it can be a very rewarding career path.

    Thanks for writing this article.

  7. peggy king on July 19, 2011 at 11:00 am

    And as an old neighbor I happen to know that you also like to dress up for all holidays and love cats. Both of these also rank as great accomplishments.

    You’re the best!!!

  8. Norman Nanstiel on July 22, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Hi Carole, nice article. Hey some of us men like having you women in the work place. I never understood why some men did’nt. I think our culture has improved quite abit though since the early eightys when i started working for continental. I worked with some mean people then. Even for a man you had to be tough and stand your ground. But thank the good Lord those people were weeded out! The culture at Work is so much better now then it was back then.

    Your Friend Norman

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