Kate McMurtry

I was never certain what I wanted to be when I grew up. I enjoyed science, had a desire to serve in the military, and wanted to go to college. I struggled with how to put my interests together. During my junior year, I found some direction. I took a multiple-aptitude test that measured developed abilities and helped predict future academic and occupational success in the military.

Afterward, the U.S. Air Force offered me an academic scholarship to attend college if I pursued a chemical engineering degree and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

This was the first time I had heard the term “engineering.” Growing up in a small, rural town in upstate New York, I was a world away from government or industry influences in science, technology or engineering. My high school curriculum lacked focus in these areas. The only technical influence I had received as a child was learning about NASA in a history class. After watching space shuttle launches and landings on television, I became excited, impressed and hooked on what NASA did.

However, it seemed out of reach for an average, small-town kid. Needless to say, I was hesitant about embarking down the path of engineering that I knew nothing about, but ultimately accepted since it was an opportunity to bridge all my interests.

During my college studies, I had stumbled upon a quote by renowned aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán, who put engineering into perspective for me. He said “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.” Engineers use the laws of science, physics and math to develop solutions or start new projects for the world around us. This explanation of what engineers do was certainly something I could get behind, and I found a renewed interest in my studies.

The ROTC program became an integral part of my college experience. The program prepared me to commission as an officer upon graduation while allowing me to have a traditional college experience. At my graduation in 2003, I received my Bachelor of Science in chemical and petroleum engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and became a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

The start of my military career was also the beginning of my introduction to aeronautics engineering and flight test, which involves the in-flight evaluation of a flight system, technology or atmospheric test of a spacecraft or launch vehicle. As a chemical engineer, I was assigned to a program that used a Boeing 747 as a test bed aircraft for a laser experiment. I quickly found I had a real desire to learn about aeronautics and flight test.

When my four-year active duty commitment was coming to a close, I was faced with a decision to re-enlist or separate from the service. I cherished my time in the Air Force. Not many things could prompt me to reconsider re-enlistment, but a job at NASA did.

At the time, I was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, then called Dryden, was located. Nearing my time to make a career decision, I heard Armstrong was hiring. One of the center’s missions is performing flight operations and flight test activities similar to what I had been doing in the Air Force. So, I applied for a position and was thrilled to have been selected. My start at NASA was a challenge, but a good one. It has and continues to push me to be a better engineer and leader. As the only chemical engineer in the branch I felt behind the knowledge curve in aeronautics compared to my peers. I also quickly realized that NASA is not hesitant in giving their young engineers a lot of responsibility. I was assigned to the research F-18 aircraft and found I had a lot to learn so I stuck my nose in flight manuals and technical books, and latched on to the crew chief, mechanics and avionics techs as they all graciously shared their years of corporate aircraft knowledge.

Since the beginning of my NASA career in 2008, I have had some of the most memorable and special experiences and remain extremely thankful to work at Armstrong. I have flown faster than the speed of sound in an F-18. As a shuttle recovery team member, I have touched the tires of Space Shuttles Discovery and Endeavour after returning to Earth. I have served as a mission controller for over 100 research missions. I have flown over the South Pole on the DC-8 aircraft. I have even met and shaken the hand of Neil A. Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon!

Several years ago, I made a career choice to move into management and am currently serving as the branch chief of operations engineering. A driving factor in my decision was the ability to serve the branch while being in a position to learn from a large group of intelligent and experienced people. I find that I continue to learn something new every day.

It has certainly been a journey, but by pursuing my interests, putting myself in new experiences, and working hard I have managed to find something I love. It reminds me of what a test pilot once said when asked, “What is it like being a test pilot?” His response was “It sure beats working for a living.” It is indeed a blessing to love what I do.

Photo of Kate McMurtry


Kate McMurtry is the branch chief of operations engineering at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. Selected as chief in 2014, McMurtry is responsible for planning, directing and coordinating the technical and administrative functions for the branch. The mission of the branch is to provide sound engineering to ensure airworthiness throughout planning, integration, and flight of unique systems and flight vehicles. Prior to her current position, McMurtry acted as the branch chief and deputy branch chief for two years. She joined NASA in 2008 as the lead operations engineer responsible for the airworthiness, research requirement development, hardware design, environmental testing, flight test planning, and mission control of the research for the agency’s F-18 research and support aircraft. McMurtry started her career in 2004 as a U. S. Air Force officer working developmental engineering at Edwards Air Force Base, California, for the Airborne Laser Program. She ended her military career as a captain and received numerous awards for her service. Although, McMurtry received her Bachelors of Science in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003, she found her true interest in aeronautics while working for both the Air Force and NASA. She received a Masters in Business Administration, in 2010, and obtained a Masters in Arts in Management and Leadership, in 2009, both degrees from Webster University. McMurtry is a certified private pilot, and a member of the Society of Flight Test Engineers, Ninety-Nines, and the Experimental Aircraft Association. Currently, she also supports presentations and career days at local Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools and is an active member of the NASA Armstrong Speaker’s Bureau.