When I was nine years old, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred. It was this single event in history that inspired me to want to be an astronaut. I became a very driven girl who could not learn enough about the space program. I wrote letters to all of the NASA centers asking for any information they could send me, and I watched the mailbox religiously for packages from NASA with fact sheets and photos.
From that moment on, our family vacations always incorporated a visit to the nearest NASA facility en route to our final destination. In my search for more information, I decided my best path to becoming an astronaut was to become a pilot, and thus began my love of airplanes.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I was fortunate to be close to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in at Oshkosh. Every year, my parents would take me to the fly-in so I could not only see the NASA exhibit but also see all the cool aircraft that would fly in for the event. From kit planes to War Birds to high performance military aircraft, I loved them all.
Still inspired by the Challenger disaster, I decided that I would, some day, like to be able to fix or prevent problems like those caused in the Challenger disaster. I realized that I needed to focus on engineering as a very realistic path toward working at NASA. I decided to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
While in college, I participated in any activity that I could that had a tie to NASA. Ultimately, it was through our chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that I learned about a summer program called the NASA Academy. It was this program that brought me out to the Dryden Flight Research Center to work as a student engineer and also learn about the agency as a whole. Delighted to have worked at an aeronautics center, located at Edwards Air Force Base so rich in aviation history, I decided to return, following graduation, to the structures branch.
I have now been a NASA aerospace engineer for 14 years and am thrilled that somebody actually pays me to learn and work in the flight test community every day. What is more exciting than starting out as a junior engineer working on the SR-71 airplane, F-18 Active Aeroelastic Wing, F-15 flight test program and the X-38 astronaut crew return prototype?
Working in the structures group, I had the opportunity to work on the F-15 Intelligent Flight Controls System project for which I designed the ground test to calibrate several sensors throughout the entire aircraft that, for flight, would provide real-time data to ensure the research being flown would not overload the aircraft. It was during this program that I had the opportunity to fly in an F-18 jet to learn more about the inflight maneuvers that were flown to collect the data needed to calibrate the sensors for which I was responsible.
Shortly after completing the F-15 flight test program, I moved on to work on the flight test of the Launch Abort System for the Orion program. A Flight Test Article was designed to test the Launch Abort System, which is designed to pull the crew module, with astronauts inside, away from any sort of disaster that may happen with the rocket during the launch sequence. As a lead engineer for one of our flight test articles, I was able to oversee all aspects of the program and work with all of the disciplines to ensure a safe and successful flight test.
I was never so proud than the day we successfully launched the Pad Abort 1 Flight Test Article on May 6, 2010. That day, I felt as though I had realized my childhood dream. After the launch, we recognized as a team that if there had been astronauts on the PA-1 crew module that day, they would have been safe.
Again, I was reminded of the Challenger disaster, the crew onboard, and of my dream. I am thrilled to have contributed to the design of a system that is meant to save the lives of our astronauts.
Today, I am the X-48C Project Manager and oversee the flight tests of this one-of-a-kind Blended Wing Body aircraft. As my career progresses, one thing always remains the same. I am doing what I set out to do as a child and enjoy working on all types of different aircraft.
If I were to give one piece of advice to a young girl, it would be to follow your dreams, whatever they may be. If there is something that you are passionate about, do not let anyone tell you it is a crazy dream. If you put your mind to it and work hard, you can achieve your goals.
At a very young age, Heather became a very driven girl. Inspired by the Challenger disaster in 1986, she has turned her childhood dream to work for NASA into a reality. As a college student looking for her opportunity to work for NASA, Maliska participated in an internship at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. Being able to witness flight test first hand as well as focus on leadership opportunities within NASA was more than enough to convince Ms. Maliska she was at the right place. Ultimately it was this experience at Dryden that opened the door for her at NASA. After Ms. Maliska received her Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999, she began her career at NASA Dryden as an aerospace engineer. Ms. Maliska worked in the Aerostructures group contributing to several projects including the X-38 astronaut crew return vehicle, Aerostructures Test Wing, and the F-18 Active Aeroelastic Wing. Striving for a challenge as a junior engineer, her first lead engineer position came in 2002 when she became the lead structures engineer on the F-15 Intelligent Flight Control System project. When given the opportunity to work on the spaceflight side of NASA, Ms. Maliska jumped at the challenge and became the lead systems integration engineer for both Ascent Abort-1 and 2 tests for the Orion Abort Flight Test Project in 2006. Her primary responsibilities were to organize and lead activities for system integration and provide technical direction and guidance. In 2010, Ms. Maliska moved on to the Environmentally Responsible Aviation project as the airframe technology project engineer managing and ensuring technical excellence of the activities. Ms. Maliska currently serves as the NASA X-48C project manager, supervising the safe and successful flight test of the X-48C Blended Wing Body aircraft.