Women Simultaneously Lead Separate Engine Tests

Rosa Obregon and Nyla Trumbach, Test Operations Engineers, Stennis Space Center

Stennis Space Center is where the sparks fly, so to speak.  This is where NASA’s engine test stands are operated, from historical vehicles such as the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle to current stands for next generation vehicles such as NASA’s Space Launch System.

Women have led many engine firings, but August 16, 2012 was an exceptional day for females in science and engineering careers.  Two women led independent engine firings on the same day.   This may seem a trivial detail, but the significance is gargantuan.  In what was traditionally a male role, multiple women leading the tests exemplifies the future of these careers: gender neutrality.

These women have shared their stories with Women@NASA to inspire others to dream big, with colorful fireworks even! To the right, Rosa is in the top picture and Nyla is in the second picture.  The remaining photographs depict moments in their careers at Stennis Space Center.

1. What inspired you to work at NASA?

Rosa: My parents tell me I used to say when I was little that I wanted to work for NASA.  I had been fascinated with space but was not sure exactly what I would do as a career.  My dad noticed this interest and would set up the telescope during special moments when other planets were supposed to be visible.  I considered different options but decided on studying aerospace engineering at MIT.  When I went to a MAES (The Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists) conference my senior year in college, I received a scholarship during a luncheon.  NASA representatives from different centers congratulated me afterwards which then led to a chance to test rockets.  I could not say no to NASA.  How many people can say they push the start button?

Nyla: My grandfather worked at NASA supporting the Shuttle program for most of his career.  He and my grandmother moved all over the country, from California to Huntsville to Denver and finally to Cocoa Beach, FL.  As a child, our vacation destinations were always at my grandparents’ house.  I will never forget standing outside of their house in Cocoa Beach watching the Shuttle launch!  I can remember the windows rattling from the awesome power of the boosters and Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME)!  I never imagined that one day I would work on the SSME test program! 

2. What engine do you test and why is it important to NASA?

Rosa:  I test the AJ-26 engine, which is a modified NK-33 (Russian engine) by the company called Aerojet.  It is an oxidizer rich, staged combustion, liquid oxygen (LOX)/RP-1 engine (RP is a derivative of kerosene) with over 300,000 lbs of thrust.  Two AJ-26s make up the first stage on Orbital Sciences’ Antares launch vehicle.  Orbital Sciences is one of the commercial companies trying to develop a cargo ship that could service the International Space Station.  Orbital Sciences will launch their vehicle out of Wallops Flight Facility later this year.

Nyla: I test the J2X engine, which will be part of the first stage for NASA’s Space Shuttle replacement called the Space Launch System (SLS). It burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and it is intended for use on the Earth Departure Stage of the Block II SLS.  I support the J2X-PowerPack Assembly 2 (PPA2) program.  PPA2 is a subset of the total engine. Specifically, it is the engine minus the thrust chamber assembly.  Since powerpack is not a complete engine, we are able to push it to its limits to provide valuable data to the design team.

3. What was special about the engine tests on August 16, 2012?

Nyla: We have had females lead engine firings, but we have never had two female-led tests in the same day!  This was my very first time as test conductor, and about 19 minutes after hitting Auto Sequence Start for the J2X-PPA2 test, I heard another rumble.  It was the AJ-26 firing, and later I found out that Rosa was the AJ-26 test conductor.

4. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your life?

Rosa: Education is very important regardless of being purely academic or vocational.  One is constantly learning and should be open to it.  Do not take things for granted.  There are people less fortunate than us.

Nyla: If something intimidates you or seems scary, don’t run away.  Face it head on, knowing that when you make it through, you will have gained new experience and confidence to face the next challenge.  I have found that stepping outside of my comfort zone has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. 

5. What was the most difficult moment of your career? What did you learn?

Rosa: My most difficult moment happened after an unexpected early shutdown on a test.  I instinctively made sure all of the facility systems behaved as expected when commanded to shutdown and proceeded to take further actions as dictated by the scenario.  After the situation was controlled, I had time to think about my response to the situation.  I am my harshest critic, and that moment was very difficult.  I found myself not wanting to talk to anyone, and I feared my reaction to the situation was too slow.  At one point, I heard that some of my management had been through similar situations before and thus I was inducted into an exclusive club. That made me smile for a little bit!  I have learned that it is okay to think “what just happened?”  But the true test is bouncing back, learning lessons from the experience, and being able to perform in the hot seat again.  There is no simulator that can ever fully prepare you for that situation. The primary reason we test engines is to find potential weaknesses on the ground from where they can be learned and thus help improve safety for the crew and vehicle. 

Nyla: After my husband and I had our first child, I found it very difficult to return to work.  As much as I would love to be a stay-at-home mom for a while, I knew it was not possible for us financially. I love my work as a test engineer and consider myself privileged to have such an exciting job, but I love my family more.  So, I had to find a way to be the best mother I could be and continue to do my job to the best of my ability.  I discussed options with my company Lockheed Martin, but we were in the midst of a difficult contract change.  They really needed me to be at work to support the transition.   After only 6 weeks of maternity leave, I found myself back at work facing very stressful issues.  Management allowed me to have flexible work hours so that I could be home as much as possible. Since then, I have learned to balance my home and work life.  Being a test engineer has been very rewarding, but being a mother is the greatest job of all.

6. Who has been the biggest influence on your life, and what lessons did they teach you?

Rosa: My parents have been a very big influence in my life.  They taught me to be independent because of what happened to my grandmothers.  On my mom’s side, my grandfather was in an automobile accident where he could no longer work when my mom was in middle school.  Since my grandmother did not have skills for the work force, my aunts and uncles entered the work force to support the family and my mom followed as soon as she was old enough.  On my dad’s side, my grandfather worked in Chicago so my grandmother worked to make ends meet.  Life is about being prepared regardless of the situation.  Gender was not an issue with my father with his “girls can do anything” attitude.  I helped him replace a belt on one of the cars, build our new fence, work on the lawn, and other things. Family is very important to me! 

Nyla: It is very hard to choose just one person who has been the biggest influence on my life. I’ve been blessed with a large, caring family.  My mother has always been my biggest fan, telling me at a very young age that I could be whatever I wanted to be.  She stressed early on that getting an education was a must.  Neither of my parents went to college so it was a really big deal for me to go.  They were very proud!

7. Did you have to overcome any gender barriers in your career?

Rosa: I have not come across any issues with my male counterparts.  It is a team effort, and they want to see me excel and have always been available to answer my questions.  I can tell through personal protection equipment vendors that there are few females in my type of career.  Every month to every other month, there is a “shoe mobile” that stops onsite to sell the type of shoes required for the job such as steel-toe and for cryogenics.  During my first time shopping for such equipment, I was amazed at the amount of shoes the men had to chose from while I had only three options.  I waited a few years before getting another pair of steel toe shoes that actually fit and was surprised to see a larger female selection. I knew things were starting to change, albeit slowly! 

Nyla: I believe the only barriers I faced were those I imposed on myself.  At first, I expected gender barriers and because of that I lacked confidence.  But once I realized that most people didn’t care that I was female as long as I could do the work, I began to flourish. 

8. What one piece of advice would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Rosa: There will always be people who say something is impossible or that one should not do something.  At these times, it is important to not pay attention to these people if you know that your life will be better and you understand the consequences of your decision.

 
A picture of both engines firing simultaneously.

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