I am the deputy managerof the Science and Technology Chief Engineers office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. I consider myself lucky to have the privilege of working on so many exciting space projects and programs. It is amazing to look at the technology that I work on each day — especially compared to my life growing up on a rural farm in North Alabama.
I don’t ever remember thinking I was poor while growing up. We always had plenty of food that we raised on the farm, and everyone in that rural area seemed to be in a similar situation. I was always taught that you work hard regardless of what your job is. Growing up with seven siblings, I worked on the farm — picking cotton, milking cows and cleaning out chicken houses. My first real job was at a chicken processing plant and I was glad to get it. Later, I worked at a cotton mill and washed dishes at a nursing home to put myself through junior college. All jobs, no manner how menial, are important. They provide a sense of accomplishment if you do the work to the best of your ability.
Overcoming adversity and contributing to society were ingrained in me at an early age. I remember the stories of my great, great grandmother, a Cherokee Indian who is listed on the “Trail of Tears.” She was not relocated with her tribe because she was married to a white man. Did my grandmother ever dream of what would become of her descendents? Did she ever look up at the sky and wonder at what she saw?
You never know where life will take you. You just have to keep taking steps each day — even if sometimes they’re baby steps or backward steps. Perseverance is one key to reaching your goals. The saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is so true.
I was told by college professors that I should be at home, taking care of my family, instead of being in engineering school — but I took that as a challenge to make the best grades I could possibly make, and I graduated college with honors. Early in my NASA career, I was told all the reasons why women would not be good managers. I took that, too, as a challenge to rise above the expectations of others, and I have succeeded throughout my career.
Learning doesn’t stop when you get out of college; you’ve only just begun. I have worked in a lot of different areas at NASA and learned a lot from each group. One of my first jobs was in systems analysis, writing requirements and verifications. Then I spent five years working in a test area in the X-Ray Calibration Facility, testing the Chandra X-ray Observatory in a huge vacuum chamber prior to its successful launch to orbit in 1999. I learned about vacuum systems, writing test procedures, handling control systems and performing exhaustive tests. I’ve been a deputy project manager and a chief engineer, working every aspect of a project from initial concept and design to fabrication, systems testing and launch.
I firmly believe we learn as much from our failures as from our successes. Every failure is a huge opportunity to learn something. One exciting project I helped lead never made it to launch due to external issues beyond our control — but I learned so much during that project! I look back on it now as a training ground for everything else in my career.
I like to find new challenges and learn new things outside of work as well. I have many fun and challenging hobbies, such as making and designing quilts, baskets, drawn thread samplers and beaded purses.
My grandmother didn’t know what would happen to her descendants. Neither do I. But I know I should work hard, keep learning and asking questions, and above all never give up on life. This is my contribution to NASA and to society.
Judy Ballance grew up on a rural farm in northern Alabama, and like most kids around her, she never dreamed that she would work for NASA. Her only childhood experiences related to NASA were watching the moon landings on TV and looking at an exhibit of moon rocks that came to her school. She recalls lining up with everyone else to stare in wonder at the moon rocks. As a young girl, she picked cotton for the neighbor’s farm and worked at a chicken processing plant. Even though her parents never finished high school, they always stressed the importance of an education. They taught Ms. Ballance that she was one who could accomplish anything in life if she worked hard. And diligence came easily with such encouragement. She worked all through junior college at a nursing home washing dishes and earned a medical laboratory technician degree, graduating with Summa Cum Laude honors. She then moved to Huntsville, Ala. to work at a hospital, and after she married, Ms. Ballance decided it was time to go back to school. Ms. Ballance decided to major in engineering and became a cooperative education student for the army missile lab at Redstone Arsenal. She graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1985 with Magna Cum Laude honors and ended up at NASA in 1985. She is currently the Deputy of the Science and Technology Chief Engineers office at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. During her career, she has received numerous awards at NASA including a Patent Award, an Exceptional Service Medal, and an Exceptional Achievement Medal. However, she is most proud of working hard and always striving to live up to her commitments. Ms. Ballance’s roots in rural Alabama may have made her path to NASA more challenging, but it certainly didn’t stop her.