Growing up, my parents made it clear that education was valued and my brother, sister and I would all be going to college. I thought I would become a writer or a commercial artist. Unfortunately, I was orphaned at age 16. Believing I’d never afford college and needing to support myself, I graduated from high school a year early and began working as a waitress. A couple of years later I learned that financial aid for college was available. I gave up the commercial artist idea when I realized I didn’t like creating on command. I’d tried writing a book but it seemed like a chancy way to make a living when I needed to support myself now. I decided I could use the social and retail skills I had learned waitressing to open a small clothing store. I enrolled in Dyke College seeking a Bachelor Degree in Business Administration with a management major.
The summer before my junior year I learned about my school’s co-op program and applied. One of the places they worked with was NASA. Having grown up in the age of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo the thought of working at NASA was exciting but my school believed that NASA would only accept secretarial co-ops. I asked them to see whether NASA would accept a management major and the answer was positive. I started at the Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in January of 1979 as a management aide in the Technical Services Coordination Office.
At that time there were very few women on the technical side of the Center who were not secretaries. They were all civil servants and held the rank of their supervisor, similar to military wives. The Directorate Secretary always invited me to their functions so I wouldn’t feel left out. At the same time, the men I worked with and encountered were welcoming and accepting of my being the first woman in that job. There were a few awkward moments as they struggled to know when treating me like ‘one of the guys’ might not be appropriate. Those moments were always unintentional and short-lived.
The co-op program required me to alternate between school terms and work terms. Needing to be able to support myself year-round I signed up for another co-op program with a local steel company. I worked full time and went to school full time for two years, alternating between NASA and the steel company.
Graduating with high honors, I was offered a job by each. I had given up the idea of the clothing store but had trouble deciding between the two offers. The steel company job would pay a little better but I like working at NASA a little better. I chose NASA and began working in the Equipment and Supply Division, being responsible for the repair, inventory and loan of various office machines.
In October of 1980 I moved to the Procurement Division as a contract specialist, entering their one-year training program. I moved steadily up my career ladder as I did increasingly complex contracting and in 1990 reached the journeyman level, the highest available at that time. I am still a contract specialist in the Procurement Division. Much has changed during my career. When I started there was little technology in the office environment. No computers, calculators were new, no scanners, even faxing capability was a big deal. Cameras were not digital and social networking took place in person. Not only technology but the procurement regulations changed with increasing speed and regularity. Women and minorities entered the NASA workforce in large numbers and moved into all levels of management.
Over the years I have enjoyed the ability to help others and to be creative in doing so. I have helped my technical counterparts obtain the supplies and services they required while navigating the applicable laws and regulations. I’ve mentored many contract specialists, providing some career guidance and on-the-job training. I’ve served on various committees and boards such as the Women’s Advisory Board. And, since most of my adult life has been spent working at NASA, I learned to juggle my career and home life. Once in a while the two would intersect. That allowed me to introduce my NASA Center to the local Girl Scout Councils, and vice versa.
A few procurement memories stand out. Once I awarded a contract on the same day that I first received the purchase request. This was done before we had computers in the office, when documents had to be written out by hand, typed by a secretary, mailed via the Post Office, etc. Doing all of that in one day required the coordination and efforts of several people but it was fun. Later, President Carter signed an agreement with Leonid Brezhnev stating that the Telemedicine Spacebridge would be in place by a certain date. There was no way to meet that date and comply with some of the procurement regulations so I kept holding up my copy of their signed document and soldiered on, meeting the required deadline.
Much more recently, I received a phone call from a contract specialist with the Department of Homeland Security. She had seen a solicitation I’d posted on-line and said it was the best solicitation she’d ever seen. She and asked if I would mind if she copied my document to buy similar services. I gave her an electronic copy to work with, along with some of the lessons learned.
After I leave NASA I will do something creative again, probably involving travel and photography.
I’d like to be remembered at NASA as someone who helped others, whether with their work or their career, and who helped the Glenn Research Center achieve its mission.
Finally, if I had one piece of advice to pass on to the next generation it would be to find work you enjoy. You will be doing it for a long time.
Creativity and a sense of adventure have benefitted Michelle Mader throughout her lifetime. Growing up in Cleveland, OH she loved to read, draw, and write poetry and stories. Travelling around the country with friends she discovered the love of exploring new places. That sense of adventure brought her to the NASA Lewis Research Center as a co-op student while pursuing a management degree. She soon settled in the Procurement Division where she put her creativity to work meeting the needs of others at the Center. Believing she worked to live rather than lived to work she expected to spend her career at NASA. The stability of a Government career which is now in its 34th year enabled her to raise her family and pursue outside interests such as Girl Scouting, travel, photography and scrapbooking. Those 34 years have also allowed her to stretch and grow at work as she adapted to changing technology, changing regulations, and increasingly complex contracting needs. Ms. Mader is a journeyman contract specialist who still hopes to move into management before her time at NASA comes to an end.