Donna Leach

As a child, I didn’t think about or plan my life toward a career. As the oldest of five sisters and one brother growing up in a home challenged with poverty, alcoholism and violence, my earliest focus became survival. Because my stepfather was a chronic alcoholic, my mother would often work two or three different jobs to take care of us. Being the oldest meant I was responsible for taking care of my sisters and brother. At times, the responsibility was difficult. Our neighborhood was filled with dysfunctional families, with alcoholic, violent parents and kids left alone to raise themselves. Smoking, drinking and drugs were common and it was my job to keep everyone safe and in line.

In spite of our environment, I believe I was very blessed. I remember not having running water in our home, but I do not remember feeling poor. My mother was a daily example of strength, perseverance and responsibility. If she had $50 she could feed a family of eight on $30 and save $20. My stepfather, locked in his own world of desperation, convinced me that I was not cut out for his reckless way of life. He so often told me that I was the smartest person on Earth that when I entered college and found out that I really wasn’t the smartest person on Earth I was surprised!

I saw a way out of the chaos when I joined the Army at age 17. I left for basic training just after high school graduation, excited to start a new segment of my life. Ten years in the Army provided me with opportunities I had only dreamed of. I lived in Augsburg, Germany, for four years, supplementing my Army income by working evenings and weekends as a street musician. Living among the local community rather than on the Army base was a wonderful experience and forced me to quickly become fluent enough to converse with my neighbors! Next, I lived in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where I took up marathon training, earned a certification in Aerobic Exercise Instruction and won a spot on the Army Swim Team at Fort Huachuca. While in Arizona, I completed four marathons and taught aerobics in the evenings to supplement my Army pay. I also married and had my first son.

In 1985, after my husband graduated from college, I left the military and we moved to Huntsville, Alabama. For the first time in my life, I thought about a career. My husband was an engineer, as were most of our neighbors, so I thought I’d give it a try. By then I had three kids under the age of five and my husband worked in New Mexico several weeks each month, so I began taking classes one at a time. As my youngest child entered kindergarten in 1993, I began my career with NASA as a mechanical engineering cooperative education student at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The following year I graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and joined NASA full-time.

It was during my required Professional Intern Program rotation that I discovered and fell in love with environmental engineering. The rotation was scheduled to last 16 weeks, but within a few days I knew that was where I belonged. At the end of my rotation, my bosses got together and negotiated my permanent transfer. I was later told that my supervisor in environmental engineering gave up two promotion points to keep me and I will forever be grateful. During my PIP exit briefing, Sherman Jobe, director of Center Operations, told me that an average of five percent of working Americans loved their job and woke up wanting to go to work. He challenged me to become one of that elite group. I feel the challenge has been an easy one, for I have loved my job since the first day.

My earliest role as Marshall’s coordinator for the National Environmental Policy Act implementation for new programs allowed me to see the United States from an environmental prospective. Working with proposed experimental vehicle programs such as X-33, X-34 and X-37, I traveled to various proposed launch, landing and abort sites, assessing potential impacts to the environment, wildlife and communities. In addition to NEPA, I was assigned to manage Cultural and Natural Resources for Marshall, Michoud Assembly Facility and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Those jobs allowed me to experience some of the most fascinating aspects of my career. As Cultural Resource manager, I was responsible for Archaeology and Native American consultation at sites around the country. I was encouraged by my supervisor to research the customs and protocols of the tribes before I interacted with them and, because of that, was able to represent NASA well. I was also able to participate in large-scale surveys of archaeology, plants, wildlife and wetlands and present the results to many organizations and people that I may have otherwise never gotten the chance to interact with, like the Pentagon, the FAA, many state’s congressional leaders and many different tribal leaders.

Currently, I am coordinator of the Environmental Management System, Sustainability, and Regulatory Risk Analysis and Communication for the Marshall Center. I am responsible for leading and managing teams working on environmental conformance, sustainability and awareness of emerging regulatory changes and opportunities. In a way, I’ve come full circle from my childhood because it’s still my job to keep everyone safe and in conformance with the rules!

I am married and together my husband and I have six adult children and two grandchildren. My husband and I both play music several evenings a week in country, bluegrass and gospel bands at different senior centers around North Alabama and Tennessee. The seniors dance and get exercise and sometimes share wonderful stories about growing up in the early 1900s in North Alabama. It’s a wonderful blessing to have them in my life.

photo of Donna Leach


Donna Leach is lead engineer for sustainability, environmental management and emerging regulation at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In this role, she is responsible for helping NASA accomplish its mission without compromising our planet’s resources so that future generations can meet their needs. Previously, Donna served as Marshall’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) coordinator and Cultural Resource manager for the Marshall Center and Santa Susana Field Laboratory, responsible for preserving Marshall’s archeological and natural resources. During her NASA career, Donna’s awards and honors have included the Marshall Director’s Commendation Honor Award in 2007 and 2012, the Silver Snoopy Award in 2008 and a NASA Certificate of Achievement Honor Award in 2009. Donna has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering as well as a master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.