My father passed away when I was 12 years old, and although my Mother was always an encourager, she didn’t have a college education and wasn’t in the best position to offer college or career guidance to me throughout my middle and high school years. I hadn’t considered entering a technical field in college and didn’t have high school exposure to advanced math or science.
However, I was compelled toward a career in engineering after receiving a phone call from a gentleman in my church. This life-changing call came during my first year of college. He offered me the opportunity to serve as a summer co-op student with Martin Marietta, which at the time was a Marshall contractor. I served in this co-op role for two summers. My job with the company was to assist the chief engineer, who was working on the development of the external tank for NASA’s new Space Shuttle Program. This unique opportunity exposed me to a new world – the nation’s exciting space program and people who work in highly technical engineering fields.
I remained with Martin Marietta while continuing to study business at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. During this period, I began to realize that I could pursue a technical career. As I entered my third year of college, I decided to change my major to engineering and transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It was a challenge to enter the engineering field midway through college and without the higher level math and science foundation needed, but I was determined, as I now knew the career path God had in mind for me.
I graduated in 1983 and was hired by NASA as a Technical Analyst for the Hubble Space Telescope Program, where I helped prepare NASA’s first Great Observatory for delivery to space. This was a very exciting and major event, and I was proud to be a part of it. After my work on Hubble, I spent two year in Washington, D.C., working on the early stages of the International Space Station (ISS). I continued work on the ISS Program after returning to Marshall and eventually went on to lead business management offices and then overall management for various projects and programs at the Center. I have always been thankful for the opportunity to work on these and other incredible NASA projects and programs that have become an indelible part of our country’s history.
In December 2002, I was named Chief Operating Officer of the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC), which is a partnership between Marshall and the Alabama Space Science and Technology Alliance, a group of seven Alabama Universities and industry affiliates. The NSSTC helps foster cooperative research among government agencies, universities, and industry. In this role, I was responsible for the safety and the welfare of more than 420 people occupying the NSSTC facility and was exposed to the real institutional aspects of what it takes to underpin a successful research activity.
In August 2004, I was named Associate Director for Marshall. I continue to serve in this role today and find it extremely rewarding and challenging to lead and manage the center’s daily operations, help guide near- and long-term decisions, and oversee center resources, operational policies, and processes. This includes managing a workforce of more than 6,000 on-site employees and an infrastructure that includes 4.5 million ft2 of facilities/capabilities, ensuring they are aligned and equipped to support delivery of products and services needed by NASA and the nation.
I recently celebrated my 27th year with NASA, having worked throughout my career on some of the nation’s most important and exciting science and exploration initiatives. My time with NASA and Marshall has been extremely fulfilling. I have always been thankful to have the opportunity to work with the great men and women of our agency and to be able to serve our country through public service.
As you read my story today, there are two key thoughts I would like you to consider. First, think about how one man’s gesture made a life-changing difference in a young girl’s life. This man observed more capability and potential in me than I had observed in myself, and he opened a door that allowed me to consider new possibilities that I had never considered. All of us have the opportunity to do this for others. It doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of a job offer. Opportunity to shape someone’s life comes in many forms. Recognize the life-changing difference you can make in someone else’s life.
Second, know that you personally can achieve far more than you may have ever considered or dreamed for yourself. It is important to be open to new possibilities and not be hesitant in pursuing them. Hard work, determination, and perseverance will make your personal dreams and goals come true. Your life is a precious gift. Don’t be afraid to reach deep inside yourself and be all that you can be.
Robin Henderson’s life changed forever and for the better when, in her first year of college, a man offered her the opportunity to serve as a co-op student with Martin Marietta, then a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center contractor. It was this “unique opportunity” that exposed Ms. Henderson “to a new world … the nation’s exciting space program and people who work in highly technical engineering fields.” Within a year after this life-changing event, Ms. Henderson had changed her major to engineering and transferred from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she had been studying business, to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she began to study engineering. After receiving her BS in 1983, she was hired by NASA as a technical analyst for the Hubble Space Telescope Program, where she helped prepare NASA’s first Great Observatory for delivery to space – “a very exciting and major event, and [one of which she] was proud to be a part” – and thereafter worked in both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station Programs. Ms. Henderson received in 2006 the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives and was also honored by her alma mater as a Distinguished Engineering Fellow. None of this would have occurred, however, had not a man offered her an opportunity to serve as a Martin Marietta co-op – a door-opening experience that transformed her life, allowing her to consider new possibilities that, through “hard work, determination, and perseverance,” made her “personal dreams and goals come true.”