Meet some of NASA's Finest Engineers (they are moms too!)

NASA Engineer working on Mars Curiosity (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

If you only watch the news you might think that the astronauts are the only members of the NASA manned space program, but you would be wrong. I’m guessing that since you are reading this blog you are aware that there is a lot of science and engineering that goes on behind the scenes in the space program, but you might not understand just how many different disciplines are involved.

In recognition of National Engineering Week, I’d like to showcase just a few of the female engineers (and moms) behind the scenes of the space flight program at NASA. These three women are just a fraction of the thousands of engineers behind NASA space flight.

Elaine Flowers Duncan – Systems Engineering

In 2001, Elaine Flowers Duncan as the project manager for the Spacelab Pallet in the Flight Projects Directorate, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. (Photo Courtesy NASA)

Having grown up in Huntsville, AL, Elaine was no stranger to Marshall Space Flight Center when she was deciding what to do with her future. Elaine graduated from Alabama State university with a B.S. in mathematics and computer science and continued on to receive her masters degree in systems engineering from Howard University. Her NASA career started in 1980 when she served as a systems engineer designing computer simulators used to train astronauts in the Payload Crew Training Complex on the Spacelab Program. Years later, in 1986, she served as the lead engineer on the space station program. Having become quite the expert on payload engineering, she served at NASA headquarters from 1988-89 defining payload operations and utilization requirements for the International Space Station program. She returned to MSFC and spent several years working to redesign payload bay pallets designed for the Spacelab program to be reused as inexpensive transport for International Space Station(ISS) parts. Her team was responsible for the safe delivery of the sensitive airlock system currently on the ISS.

In 2008 when she was chosen to participate in the NASA Administrator’s Fellowship Program. The NAFP program allows selected engineers to work for up to two years at a minority university as a professor or researcher, in order to promote and enhance STEM related higher education. As part of this program Elaine served as the technical assistant to the  Alabama A&M University – College of Engineering and Technology’s Dean. She developed curriculum, taught a course on Project Life Cycle Engineering, and developed a graduate engineering retention program. She spent a rotation with the Department of Army’s Aviation Engineering Directorate (AED) supporting NASA’s efforts to provide collaborative research with the Department of Defense, she focused on helping to make the Army’s cargo helicopter more airworthy.

Elaine Flowers Duncan is currently serving as a Technical Assistant/ Lead Systems Engineer in the Marshall Space Flight Center Engineering Directorate, Mission Operations Laboratory where she supports the design and development of the new Space Launch System (SLS) Program. She lives with her husband and two children.

Michelle Munk – Aerospace Engineer

Michelle Munk of NASA's Engineering Directorate Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Michelle grew up watching shuttle launches with her family. She started her NASA career as a co-op student intern at Johnson Space Center while she was attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A “Co-Op” intern students are jointly enrolled in an undergraduate program and employed as an intern by a NASA facility, allowing them to experience hands-on application of their courses of study. Michelle graduated from Virginia Tech in 1991 with a bachelors in Aerospace Engineering.

Shortly after graduating, Michelle accepted a full-time position at Johnson Space Center to continue her co-op work, mostly in the area of aerocapture. Aerocapture is the technique of using a celestial body’s natural atmosphere as drag to slow the velocity of a space craft. Over the next 11 years, Michelle became the aerocapture expert at Johnson Space center. After 11 years at the Johnson Center, Munk took a position with a sister organization at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. At Langley she served as coordinator of the aeroassist working group of the vehicle analysis branch; a branch conducts systems and performance analysis for robotic missions.

In 2001, the aeroassist program became part of the In-Space Propulsion Program, implemented by the Marshall Center’s Advanced Space Transportation Program for NASA’s Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C. She spent 2002 at Marshall Space Flight Center as a lead systems engineer for the aerocapture project. Since her return to Langley, she has been working as a deputy project manager for the science payload of the Mars Science Lab Curiosity Rover that launched in late 2011. The lab will test aerocapture techniques by measuring pressure and temperature as the MSL lands on the surface of the red planet. Her hope is to eventually implement aerocapture on a manned mission to another celestial body.

Michelle currently lives in Hampton, VA with her husband and daughter.

Susan Spencer – Mechanical Engineering

Susan Spencer Credit: NASA/Angela Storey

Growing up watching the Apollo lunar landings, Susan dreamed of space., she would build models of the lunar landers that she watched. When she was young and in school she recalls writing an essay explaining what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer has always been, work for NASA. In 1983, she received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Christian Brothers University in Memphis.

Susan began her career at NASA in 1989 and has worked on such projects as studying future space transportation systems, lunar telescopes, and scientific spacecraft. In 2001 she joined Marshall Space Flight Center’s Flight Project Office and served as the lead systems engineer for the first flight of the Lightweight Multi-purpose Experiment Support Structure Carrier. The Lightweight Multi-Purpose Experiment Support Structure Carrier made it possible to carry more science experiments in the shuttle and quickly deliver spare parts to the International Space Station.

In 2003, she spent a year as deputy project manager for the technology flight demonstrations for Marshall’s Space Transportation Directorate. From 2004-2008 she helped manage several projects in Marshall’s Science & Mission Systems Office, including the NASA Orbital Express Project. Her teams demonstrated the first on-orbit U.S. automated rendezvous and docking.

In 2010, she received one of the most prestigious awards in NASA, the Silver Snoopy. This award is chosen and presented by the current astronaut corp for outstanding performance contributing to flight safety and mission success.

Susan lives in Madison, AL with her husband and two children.


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