Helen Vaccaro

When I was in elementary school I vividly remember watching the movie Apollo 13 and being so intrigued – I wanted to be one of those people in Mission Control solving technical problems for the astronauts! My mother affectionately reminds me that after that I continuously said I wanted to grow up to be “Houston we have a problem.” It didn’t even occur to me that they were all men in the movie; my mind was made up. I was 10 years old and at the time I wasn’t really a student that showed any special aptitude for math and science (which my parents can testify to!). Once my interest was piqued to the field though, my curiosity kept me diligently focused on how to get to Mission Control. I begin to take a real interest in science and math. I worked tirelessly to set goals that would get me to Mission Control! (Of course being born and raised in Houston was a definite plus) I even began to dabble in inventing and created the infamous Sand-o-matic in a town that gets snow every ten to twenty years. When I got to high school, I took my first physics course and that really clinched it. The engineering field was for me! The way the world works suddenly made so much sense – it was so enlightening. An amazing epiphany! It was settled, my goal from that day forward was to get into a great engineering program at an amazing university.

Once I had solidified my career goal, I began to refine exactly how I was going to accomplish it. A junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program began at my high school in my junior year and in its second year, my senior year, I was made deputy commander. It was then I realized that a military path into engineering would suit me just fine! However, after being medically disqualified from accepting an ROTC scholarship and having a military career, my career path dramatically changed. Now how was I going to get to NASA?

I altered my plan, still picked a great Aerospace Engineering program at an amazing university (Penn State!) and started working consistently with the Cooperative Education and Internship Office at that university to obtain a cooperative position at NASA.

I received a call one day the summer before my junior year of college that NASA Johnson Space Center had an opening for one more cooperative education student. I interviewed and was selected to start just a few weeks after the interview! On my first day as a cooperative education student my mentor took me into Mission Control. Apollo 13 flashed in my mind. I was in the Mission Control – it took me a couple days after that to pick my jaw up off the floor. Another thing that really impressed me on that first day was the concept of the NASA family. I hear about it all the time now but, from the first day on site at Johnson Space Center I felt the welcoming into the math and science NASA family. I completed three cooperative education tours during college. After graduating in 2007, I started fulltime as a Space Shuttle flight controller in the Propulsions System group. The dream-come- true moment of my career (so far!) was the day I received my first flight controller certification less than a year later. I was able to work on console in the Mission Control for 11 missions before the Shuttle Program ended. Seeing the last Orbiter touch down on the runway was probably the saddest moment of my career. I grew up watching the Shuttle launches and following the missions so it was difficult for me to say goodbye to such an amazing vehicle. While I understand that the program had to end so that we could make scientific and explorative strides in the solar system, it was still a difficult change and a sad time. After the Shuttle Program ended, I had the opportunity to work in different directorates at NASA and I am now working for the International Space Station Safety Panel in the Safety and Mission Assurance directorate. I couldn’t ask for a more interesting, challenging job.

In addition to my job responsibilities, one of the things I really enjoy doing is being a mentor to students in NASA’s educational outreach programs. Working with the possible scientists of the future is inspiring and fulfilling. Helping young people discover and explore their future helps me know I made the right career decision. I can share from experience that although your plans may changes, opportunities are available and you can do anything if you are willing to work hard.

I’m not exactly sure what that future may hold, but I know I am a NASA “lifer” – I am on an amazing journey. I look forward to each new challenge here at NASA. My life didn’t take the exact path I imagined but I achieved my dream career and I wouldn’t change a thing. So, don’t let anyone tell you there is only one dream and one way to reach it. Your dreams are as fresh and new as you are with each new opportunity!

Photo of Helen Vaccaro


Helen Vaccaro has worked in the Safety and Mission Assurance (S&MA) Directorate since 2012. She started her career at NASA Johnson Space Center as a cooperative education student in 2005. In 2007, after graduating with her degree in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State, she began full time work in the Space Shuttle Propulsion Systems flight controller group. She worked in Mission Control for all the remaining Shuttle flights until the end of the Shuttle Program. Prior to moving to her current position in S&MA, she participated in a rotational opportunity in the In-Situ Resource Utilization group and worked on various technology demonstrations, including designing and building a proton exchange membrane water electrolysis system for a simulated Mars mission. She loves volunteering for JSC’s education outreach programs. Over the years, she has mentored for the High School Aerospace Scholars, Community College Aerospace Scholars and the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. When work is done, she enjoys playing with her furry 13-year-old husky, Minka, jetting off to Colorado, climbing the earth’s incredible mountains, attending rock concerts and travelling the world with family and friends.