Cynthia Simmons

My fascination with space started early in life with sci-fi movies and TV shows like Star Trek. I dreamt of designing spaceships like the Starship Enterprise, and traveling to distant reaches of the universe spending my life exploring space.

I remember watching the first landing on the moon and the astronauts return to Earth, and being completely enthralled by the thought of traveling beyond Earth. I wondered how long it would be before we would have spaceships that would take us to all those planets I learned about in science class and from the Encyclopedia. And, I wanted to know how I could get a job doing that – working in space. Yet, somehow the connection between astronauts, landing on the moon and NASA was never made in the world where I lived, played and learned.

In those days, girls like me were encouraged to pursue homemaking skills to prepare for marriage and secretarial skills as ‘backup’ just in case marriage did not come along or did not work. I was a straight “A” student through to graduation from high school, but in those days, guidance counselors encouraged girls to look at teaching and nursing careers.

As an African-American girl, my questions on career choices for someone showing talent in math and science were left unanswered. I thought, perhaps a career as a writer to capture my imaginations of space travel. Or, perhaps an archeologist to uncover the technological mysteries of past civilizations. My mom, however, was insistent that her girls would have greater opportunities than were offered her. She told me, “With your mind, you have three choices – doctor, lawyer or engineer/scientist.” Of those three, I chose medicine thinking I could be like Dr. McCoy on some spaceship one day, but after prayer felt it was not the right path for me. So, it was engineer…you know, like Scotty on Star Trek. I figured that would be my path to space.

Armed with only my family’s volume of Encyclopedias and no internet, I knew that I had to go to college…and one that offered a degree in engineering. What was engineering? Who knows, but sounded exciting if it was what Scotty did. I had no idea there was a thing called NASA, let alone how to get there.

It wasn’t until I was attending school at the U.S Air Force Academy that I was exposed to educational and career fields that would lead to NASA. I majored in Biology and what is now Aerospace Engineering hoping to leverage this academic knowledge in a career focused on manned spaceflight travel. However, the specialty the Air Force had chosen for me as an officer was communications. Thankfully, during our senior year, the Air Force granted eyesight waivers to many of my classmates for pilot training, which then changed my assignment from communications to space. I felt the Lord had rescued me.

I graduated from the Academy in 1982 in the third class with women, and began working as a second Lieutenant in advanced satellite payload design for classified satellites. Although truly exciting and rewarding work that is highly important to the security of our nation, I was getting no closer to a life spent in space like Star Trek. I continued to dream of exploring space, and designing spaceships that would ‘take us there.’

During my time in the Air Force, I seized every opportunity to learn as much as possible about all aspects of satellite design and ‘flying’ in space thinking that one day I might get the chance to work with NASA. In 1986, I received an Honorable Discharge from the Air Force, and continued working on military satellites as a contractor. As time passed, I began to think my chance to work with NASA had gone by, and would never come around.

By 1994, my husband’s work brought us to the Washington D.C. area, which eventually gave me the chance to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland as a contractor. I was excited!

Then in 2010, I got a phone call telling me I had a job…at NASA Goddard! I would become a NASA employee at last after a lifetime dreaming of space! It was like being outside the gates of Disney World every day looking through binoculars watching the people having fun on the rides; when finally, someone gives me a pass to go inside, and ride myself!

Working at NASA is awesome! I feel most grateful to have the opportunity to work with advanced technologies for science instruments designed to explore and discover new things in space. What I like most is the diversity of missions and engineering work that you can get involved with right here all in one place. I also truly enjoy empowering team members to succeed at their job; creating the environment where they can have the confidence, dignity and respect needed to perform their work successfully. These experiences have given me many exhilarating moments that have filled my life with wonder and awe for which I feel truly blessed.

When I reflect upon the earlier years of my life and how I dreamt of space travel and exploration, I remember not knowing how to get there. Exposure and opportunity are as important as ability and capability. It is the reason I take every opportunity to give back, and share my NASA life with girls and boys of all ages and backgrounds exposing them to what’s possible and encouraging them to reach higher. If I can do it, surely they can…many will do it even better. And, if I could pass one thing onto those following behind my generation, it would be to let them know that ‘reaching the stars’ is not determined by where you start, but by what you do along the way. Find your strengths. Rely upon them to build your courage and confidence to improve where you feel weak. Nourish your soul. Rise to your true potential.

photo of Cynthia Simmons


Cynthia Simmons remembers her fascination with space started early in life watching TV shows like Star Trek. Watching the first moon landing gave her more reason to dream of designing spaceships like the Starship Enterprise. At night, she would look at the stars imagining herself traveling in space spending a lifetime exploring. Yet, she had no knowledge of NASA or any idea of how to ‘get there’ until she attended the U.S. Air Force Academy where she studied Biology and Aerospace Engineering. Upon graduation, she received a B.S. with a commission as second Lieutenant, and was assigned to work advanced technologies for classified satellite programs. She continued her career as a contractor working on military satellites after receiving an Honorable Discharge in 1986. By 1989, she took time out to become a ‘stay-at-home’ mom. Still dreaming of space, she resumed her engineering career in the commercial space industry, and went back to school to receive a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland. She began to think her career path would never take her to NASA until she got an opportunity to be a contractor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Then in 2010, she got a job as a NASA employee, and felt she had been granted the dream of a lifetime. Ms. Simmons is currently an Instrument Project Manager responsible for leading a team of engineers and technicians in the design, integration and test of science instruments where she thoroughly enjoys empowering others to succeed. During her time at Goddard, she has worked missions in the earth science, astrophysics, planetary and heliophysics Science Directorates.