The Women@NASA Spotlight is on…
Stephanie Stilson, Flow Director Lead for Discovery, NASA Kennedy Space Center
The Spotlight was born when Discovery met Enterprise at the National Air and Space Museum, a moment when Stephanie Stilson spoke and instantly inspired the project manager of Women@NASA. She was eloquent and charismatic, grabbing the audience’s attention which previously had been in their Twitter and Facebook accounts. She commanded respect without realizing she did which was certain within two minutes of her talk. Her professionalism was palpable, but moreover, her energy and selfless desire to share her knowledge was genuinely tangible. Within a moment, the audience was hooked to her. When asked to be part of the Women@NASA project, her reaction was gracious, enveloped by a thick blanket of humility. Stephanie embodies what Women@NASA wants to show to the next generation. She is a smart woman with a strong technical background and the innate ability to communicate with people.
We hope you enjoy the interview below with Stephanie, that you learn something you did not know, and that you take away a nugget of inspiration from this remarkable role model. To learn more about the Spotlight recognition, visit here.
What inspired you to work at NASA?
I was always interested in science and math, and more than that, I was good in those subjects. It was almost circuitous-I probably was good at them because I liked them! I remember being young and reading a magazine called Ranger Rick, which was meant to get kids interested in science and nature. The magazine had a punch out solar system that I strung across my bedroom ceiling using fishing line. In third grade, my father took my siblings and me to Kennedy Space Center (KSC), which was convenient since I grew up in South Florida. I can remember standing in the rocket garden when I said “I want to work for NASA.” It wasn’t just a dream to be an astronaut but pride in our nation, technology, and really, the coolness of it all.
As I reached high school, I became interested in computers, and in particular the hardware aspect of computers. That led me to study computer engineering and later electrical engineering. In college, I applied for a co-operative (co-op) education position at KSC but all of the allocated spots were filled up that semester. As luck would have it, an opening came up unexpectedly, and of course I took it! I was a sophomore in college, and this was surely my first real job. I had no idea what engineering meant, but a guidance counselor had told me once that I was good at math and science and thus should be an engineer. It was really co-oping that helped me learn what engineers did. I ended up spending three semesters in the Space Shuttle group, building schedule manifests out to the year 2020. I then moved to the Payloads group, which I was encouraged to do by mentors I had while co-oping.
Do you remember what it was like on your first day of work at NASA?
I remember feeling enamored with the thought of NASA. I was nervous being in the “real world” as a young sophomore in college. But, mostly, I was just excited and eager to learn as much as I could. Probably my biggest takeaway was that you can create your own job at NASA! I had the ability to pick and choose and guide myself through various opportunities.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your life?
I would say the biggest lesson I have learned is to be authentic in who you are, in the sense of being a leader and harnessing leadership skills. By that I mean, even if I see a colleague at dinner, I expect that he/she will largely be the same person as when we are at work together. To me, this is being authentic in who you are.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment was getting Discovery ready for the Return to Flight after Columbia. This was relatively early in my Shuttle career, and I was still learning the ropes and growing as a leader of my team. This was a great challenge under difficult circumstances. So when we launched that mission, and more so when we landed safely, I was proud to be part of the moment and of that team.
Another experience I will never forget is the last processing flow for Discovery which was STS-133. When Discovery landed, I was fortunate to greet the crew on the runway and was sincerely touched when every astronaut said “This vehicle flew flawlessly.” That was a proud moment! Their comments reinforced that we had done an outstanding job right up until the very end.
What was the most difficult moment of your career? What did you learn?
When I first hired on to NASA, Payloads and Shuttle were two of the largest organizations at KSC, and there was a healthy tension between organizations. Although I had spent some time as a co-op in Shuttle, I was never really entrenched in it. I essentially grew up professionally in Payloads. So when I made the decision to leave Payloads and go to Shuttle, I faced a difficult transition. It was challenging, with a brand new set of acronyms, procedures, day to day differences, and cultural changes. Most of the people working Shuttle had done so for their entire careers. As such, they were skeptical of me coming into a leadership position without having gone through the same experiences they had over the years. In fact, my direct counterpart was a contractor who had been at KSC since the Apollo days. He didn’t make things easy for me and it took several years for me to gain his respect. Eventually we were able to work well together and also become friends. Although I didn’t see it then, he helped mold me into who I am today, and I will always be grateful for that.
What did you do to gain his respect?
I accepted that he felt “I didn’t belong here because I hadn’t earned my stripes”, but at the same time, I didn’t give up because I had a job to do. Eventually I was able to convince him that we were in this together, and I wasn’t looking to take anything away from him. I admitted that I could never know the sheer amount of information about the Shuttle in the way he did.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did they teach you?
In my personal life, my paternal grandmother was the type of person who said “do whatever you want to do”. She was very confident in my abilities, telling me back then that I could be an engineer even if the field was male dominated. Outside of running a construction company, my father was a football coach. This allowed me to see him as the leader of two very different teams. Much of my style comes from what I learned from him. He has provided an abundance of support for me throughout my entire life.
Professionally, Mike Leinbach, who was the last Space Shuttle Launch Director, encouraged me to make that challenging transition to Shuttle. He planted the seed to what became a great career change. I was very happy in Payloads, but I believe we should all be open to new experiences and opportunities. As a leader, Mike impressed me with his ability to have a very stoic appearance such that one could not predict any turmoil on the inside even when evaluating critical launch situations. I always wanted to have such a poker face, but I definitely don’t! I tend to be emotional, wearing my feelings on my sleeve. I see advantages and disadvantages to both traits, but the trick is to know when to allow those emotions to show and when not to. Mike is very personable and friendly, but when it comes to getting the job done there is no one who takes what we do more seriously than Mike. I am fortunate to have had him as a role model in my career.
How has your career been different than what you’d imagined?
I never envisioned the opportunities in regards to community outreach and public speaking, which I enjoy doing. Sometimes, I get a little nervous, but I enjoy the adrenaline rush.
Did you have to overcome any gender barriers in your career?
To be honest, I did not feel any gender barriers in my STEM career, even though it is still male dominated. Fortunately NASA has many great female leaders, and I had several female supervisors in the early portion of my career. But, I recognize that we still have a long way to go.
In my personal time, I am part of a nationwide initiative called Vision 2020 working to ensure full equality for women. I have learned that fairness is not the case across all areas of our country. I am one of two state delegates from Florida, and it has been a rewarding effort for me.
What does your future hold?
I hope to obtain a detail assignment at Headquarters in the near term. I have wanted to take such an opportunity for a while, but I wasn’t ready to leave this great job. Now, it seems like the perfect transition point with Discovery’s retirement earlier this year, and a detail would help me broaden my Agency-level knowledge. My long term goal is to become SES-qualified and a take an advanced leadership role within NASA.
What one piece of advice would you like to pass on to the next generation?
I would say find what you like to do. If you like math and science and are interested in space, then NASA is a logical choice. But, if not, don’t force yourself to do something just because someone tells you to or you have a pre-conceived notion about your future. NASA needs so many backgrounds, such as writers, communications specialists, and linguists. Find a career you enjoy, and if you enjoy it, you will do well and then you can tie it into NASA!