When my second-grade teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said that I wanted to be the first female astronaut. Boys in the class quipped that girls couldn’t be astronauts, but my teacher replied that I could be whatever I wanted to be. At that moment, I decided that I would work hard and do what it would take to follow my dream of working for NASA, a dream I’d had for as long as I can remember.
Years later, I mentioned my love of fighter jets, like those in the Top Gun movie, to my freshman Algebra 2 teacher. She recommended that I consider becoming an aerospace engineer. From that point on, I was determined to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer. I knew the path I needed to follow, so I took math, science, and drafting classes that prepared me to attend an engineering college. Looking back, I was fortunate to have teachers, many of them female, who were strong in math and science and really pushed me to excel.
“If you don’t love aerospace engineering, you should change majors because the effort it’s going to take isn’t worth it if you don’t love it.” That was the pep talk Professor McElmurry gave my first aerospace engineering class at Texas A&M University, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Professor McElmurry, a retired air force flight test pilot, understood my love of aircraft and encouraged me to interview for a cooperative education opportunity with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. On my first day as a co-op, my mentor took me on a tour of the hangars. I’ll never forget getting to stand close enough to the SR-71s to touch them. I got to work with real engineers on real projects. It confirmed that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and that I loved the work at NASA Dryden.
After graduating, I went to work at NASA Dryden to work on high-performance aircraft like the F-15 and F/A-18. I was able to fulfill that dream the year after graduation as a flight controls engineer on the F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV). That was the first and last high-performance aircraft project I’ve been a part of. I have no regrets because I’ve been able to make contributions in areas that I never envisioned possible.
I’ve never been good at making a five-year plan because I couldn’t predict what door would open and where opportunities would lead. The opportunity that arose after the HARV project was the X-33 program, which involved a single-stage-to-orbit space-access technology demonstrator. After five years of blood, sweat and tears developing the integration test facility, the vehicle’s composite oxidizer tank ruptured during testing and the program was cancelled. It was heartbreaking, but in retrospect I realize how much I learned on the program and how that experience prepared me for my future challenges.
One of those challenges came when I became the flight controls lead for the second flight of the X-43 / Hyper-X project. I joined the team in 2002 after the first flight failure and was responsible for the flight controls system. Separation from the launch vehicle and controlled flight through the engine test through descent into the ocean was considered very risky. It was better than I imagined when the research vehicle separated from the launch vehicle at Mach 7, successfully performed the engine test and flew perfectly until it splashed into the Pacific Ocean. I was assigned as deputy chief engineer for the third X-43 flight, and despite a number of trials in preparation for the third vehicle’s flight, the Mach 10 flight was as successful as the second flight.
About a year after the final flight of X-43, I was offered the chance to be a member of the core team on the Orion Abort Flight Test Project. With X-43, we had successfully separated a vehicle from a rocket, and now we had to separate a rocket from a vehicle. It seemed like a natural fit. I was the Deputy Crew Module Lead through the Pad Abort 1 (PA-1) preliminary design review stage, then became the Deputy Systems Engineering Integration Team Lead through the remainder of the project. I was responsible for the management of the engineering and integration activities across the Pad Abort 1 team.
At 7 a.m. on May 6, 2010 in the New Mexico desert, the PA-1 flight test was successfully conducted. The flawless 135-second flight made the abort test look easy. In reality, PA-1 was a complex project that took five years of hard work and dedication to overcome countless challenges. I had thought the X-43 project was hard, but it paled in comparison to the Pad Abort Mission. It is rewarding to know that the Pad Abort 1 flight test contributed to the future of the manned space flight program and showed that this system would protect the crew by providing escape system from danger at the launch pad.
After Pad Abort 1, I was looking for a new and different experience. I took a year-long detail as a systems engineer at NASA Headquarters, supporting the Office of Chief Technologist. When that detail ended, another door opened and I took a follow-on detail as the acting deputy director for the Integrated Systems Research Program in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
One my favorite aspects of the projects I’ve worked on has been being a part of large, diverse, multi-disciplinary, multi-organizational (NASA and industry) teams. I have had the honor to work with and learned from some of the best managers, engineers and technicians within NASA and industry.
It can be a tough job, but when you love what you do, you push through the hard times. Experiencing the successes of X-43 and Pad Abort 1 projects makes all the hard work worthwhile. I’m not sure what the future holds but I know I’ll be working hard, doing what I love and trying to make contributions to the future of aerospace.
Catherine’s road to NASA began at an early age when she declared, in front of her classmates, that she wanted to be the first female astronaut. A young male student rebutted that girls could not become astronauts. Her teacher would have nothing of it, immediately looking at Ms. Bahm and ensuring she knew she could be whatever she wanted to be. And so began her path to NASA. Since 2005, Ms. Bahm served 5 years as the Deputy Project Manager for the Orion Abort Flight Test Project at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. She was also the Pad Abort 1 Deputy Systems Engineering Integration Team Lead. Her primary responsibilities included the technical coordination and system integration efforts across the diverse Orion Abort Flight Test Team for Pad Abort 1. Cathy also developed and led the Certificate of Flight Test Readiness process for PA-1. She has worked at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. since 1995 as a flight controls engineer. Ms. Bahm received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees aeronautical engineering from Texas A&M University in 1995 and 2001, respectively. In 2010, Cathy was stationed at NASA Headquarters supporting the Office of Chief Technologist in the Crosscutting Capability Demonstrations Division as part of a year-long detail. Her assignment included supporting the formulation and management of the Technology Demonstration Mission Program and the Flight Opportunities Program. Today, she remains at Headquarters and is currently the Acting Deputy Director for the Integrated Systems Research Program in the Aeronautics Mission Directorate. Ms Bahm notable recognitions include the NASA Space Flight Awareness Leadership Award, the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, and the NASA DFRC Peer Award for Supervisor/Manager/Leader in 2010.