When time came for college, my parents encouraged me to seek an education and career that were interesting to me, and not to pursue something just because it was popular or financially rewarding. My dad’s favorite saying was “Follow your heart and the bucks come later.” Given my propensity for all things aviation and my interests in math and science, aerospace engineering was a natural choice. I had always been the quiet kid in school, but once I was surrounded by fellow aspiring engineers in college, I discovered confidence to talk to others, learned to voice my opinions, and really embrace who I am.
The generation before mine remembers the moon landing. The transformative moment of my young life was the Challenger explosion. I still vividly recall the teacher rolling in the color TV on which we saw the first image of a beautiful blue sky intersected with seemingly haphazard and taunting white lines of smoke; and the absolute silence that enveloped the room. I knew I did not grasp the full magnitude of what just happened, but I knew that astronauts had died and the nation and the world were stunned. As a 9 year old, I wanted to know how NASA let this happen. It wasn’t until I was in college a decade later that I was able to wrap my head around O-rings and the limits of component testing. It was years, however, before I understood one of NASA’s biggest challenges – risk management.
In engineering, we have the tools to analyze something to 18 decimal places. We can develop and incorporate every conceivable safety feature, but it’s literally impossible to eliminate all risk in any activity, much less space exploration. We’ll never get off the ground if we take no risks. As Wilbur Wright once said, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.” To achieve its mission, NASA strives to perform the appropriate level of analyses and testing, and to incorporate all safety precautions and still get something done – all in an effort to manage the risk, whether it is technical, schedule, or budget. NASA’s missions are inherently risky; and, in this business, risk manifests itself in many ways. It can be as relatively insignificant as rerunning an analysis. At its worst, risk can be as catastrophic as loss of life, unique or expensive machines, or both. This risk, and the responsibility of identifying and mitigating the risk, is inherent in everything we do. I have yet to meet anyone at NASA who takes either risk or responsibility lightly.
At NASA Armstrong, we work with the very pilots and flight test engineers who trust their lives with our analyses and aircraft. As an aerodynamics engineer, I was actively mentored in my analysis, in the vital role of the project engineer in the safety review process, and in my responsibility to speak up. My mentors instilled in me the importance of taking the time to ask the right questions, and actively seeking opinions on my work. Later on, as a Project Chief Engineer, I listened to the people who brought their opinions to me and I sought out the people who weren’t knocking on my door, in an effort to chart a balanced path of acceptable risk and effective progress. I talked to many people who weren’t involved in my project, junior and senior alike, to get their feedback on our approach. Now, as a supervisor, it’s my responsibility to mentor the new engineers and remind everyone else of the importance of speaking up if they believe there’s a problem, and elevating that problem if they didn’t feel it was properly addressed. At Armstrong, we have a rule – anyone can stop any mission for any reason without retribution. It’s extremely important to realize you have the power to create a culture of speaking up without retribution, if you practice it yourself. My mentors taught me that, and I thank them every day for their efforts by being a mentor myself.
It is no secret that NASA is at a crossroads now. Some people argue that NASA’s mission isn’t necessary anymore; others believe we should continue doing what we’ve been doing. I won’t pretend to know the right answer, but I do know that NASA’s jobs are challenging and stimulating; and the people in its ranks are brilliant, accomplished, dedicated, and humble. I can’t imagine there’s nothing for us to do anymore. It’s been my experience that, at NASA, the work is its own reward. I am truly honored to be working in this capacity for the American people, and I don’t ever take NASA’s mission, my job, or its many responsibilities for granted. The way I look at it: I may have no idea where I’ll end up, but I’m sure looking forward to the ride.
For as long as she can remember, Jennifer Cole has been “hooked on anything that flew” – from the roaring A-10 Thunderbolts and A-4 Skyhawks to the thump-thump-thumping helicopters that flew over her home near Willow Grove Naval Air Station outside of Philadelphia, Penn., to the space vehicles of her professional life. As chief of the Aerodynamics and Propulsion Branch at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, Ms. Cole has been able to turn her childhood passion for flight into a career through her involvement with projects such as the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, the X-43A Hyper-X vehicle, and the Predator B crewless vehicle as well as Dryden’s F/A-18 jet fighter projects, including programs in autonomous formation flight and automated aerial refueling. Ms. Cole, when chief engineer of the Propulsion-Controlled Aircraft Recovery Project, also oversaw a study in which alternate forms of control were investigated for aircraft that had lost their primary flight control system – a project whose main focus was risk limitation, Ms. Cole’s second interest. Like other engineers, Ms. Cole is faced with a conundrum of sorts because while her chief concern is to enable the mission and mitigate risk due to the aerodynamics, as she writes, it is “literally impossible to eliminate all risk in any activity, much less space exploration”. For Ms. Cole is certain that “We’ll never get off the ground if we take no risks.” So, Ms. Cole today combines her passion for flight and pushing the envelope with her first NASA-centrist memory of the Challenger tragedy to mentor young engineers, as she was herself mentored, to ask the right questions, understand the risks involved, and ensure the safety of “the very pilots and flight test engineers who trust their lives and aircraft” to carry out NASA’s mission.