Seunghee Lee

When my parents told me about the decision to immigrate to America, I was not happy. I was 17 years old and didn’t want to leave all my friends in South Korea and was afraid of moving to a foreign country that spoke a different language. Although English is taught in South Korean schools, it was limited to reading and writing simple sentences with no speaking lessons.

We decided to move to Chicago to be near my uncle and his family. As my uncle helped us settle in, he told us that America is a land of opportunity, and success comes with hard work. At that time, I didn’t pay attention to his words, as I was just too overwhelmed. When I enrolled in a nearby public school, Amundsen High School, I couldn’t even say simple things like “Hi” and naturally felt awkward around everyone. I studied hard, as I couldn’t understand my teachers’ lessons, and received all A’s at the end of first year. After graduating from high school, I worked with my parents to open a small hamburger shop and attended a city community college to continue learning English. My parents didn’t believe girls needed a college education, as it wasn’t a norm in South Korea at that time, and asked me to keep working with them even though I expressed my desire to pursue a college degree.

After a few years, when I decided to attend a university away from home, fortunately I was able to obtain a student loan and part time job at the university campus to fulfill my dream of a college education. At the new student orientation of Southern Illinois University, I met with an advisor to determine my major. My first choice was computer science, and I began taking computer-programming classes. After a year of spending many hours in the computer lab, I realized that was not what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I discussed changing my major with the advisor, and he suggested an engineering major after learning that I liked mathematics and had good grades. Initially I showed hesitation because of my perception of engineering being a “man’s occupation,” and the advisor assured me that he knew of a few women engineers working amongst men successfully. Once I began taking engineering classes, I found myself enjoying them, especially application of logic in problem solving.

Right before college graduation, my friend, who was working at Lockheed Aerospace, asked for my resume to circulate within her department. Then a few weeks later I attended an on-campus recruiting event for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I was offered a job after an interview. It was sheer fortune, as I never dreamed of working at NASA because I thought NASA hired only super smart people, and I didn’t consider myself that smart.

At the Kennedy Space Center, I learned and thrived under encouragement of senior engineers and guidance of management leadership. The most memorable quote from my mentor is, “If you and I always agree, one of us is not needed here.” He challenged me with questions and taught me to not assume, and to ask questions.

As a project manager at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, now the Armstrong Flight Research Center, in Edwards, California, I learned that relationship building is the foundation of teamwork. To this day, I am deeply grateful to all of my Apex and X-34 team members who accomplished the goals by working tirelessly and overcoming many obstacles, including my flaws. My next personal and professional growth came from supervisory work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The relationship building as a supervisor was much more difficult and completely in different context compared to my project manager experience. I realized that single most important factor that mattered is my attitude and behavior in caring about work itself and the people who do the work. Caring means doing the best you could which means you are being excellent.

At NASA, we constantly strive to attain excellence. This culture of doing your best at work reminds me to apply the same principle at home and community. This is why I love working at NASA because not only do I get to explore the unknowns of Earth and universe as a team member, I am challenged to personally explore many unknown dimensions of myself.

Photo of Seunghee Lee

Biography

Seunghee Lee was born in South Korea, immigrating to America during her junior year in high school. After graduating from Amundsen High School in Chicago, she earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In 1987, Lee began an engineering career as the Orbiter Hypergolic Systems Engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Her career path evolved from systems engineer to project engineer supporting the Space Shuttle Program. In 1996, Lee transferred to the Dryden Flight Research Center, now the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, to be near her family and pursue career development in aeronautics. There, as the Apex Project manager, she led the project team in designing and building the remotely piloted, high-altitude atmospheric research glider. With its completion, Lee was assigned as project manager for planning and implementing the X-34 Test Flight Program. Lee became convinced that the Huntsville area was an ideal environment for raising school-age children, so she transferred to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as the lead for Program Integration in the Space Launch Initiatives Program Office. Selected as an office manager from 2003 to 2008, Lee was responsible for supervising civil service engineers and directing support contractors performing Marshall facilities operation, maintenance, and master planning. In 2008, she left her supervisory career to work in technical leadership as the Lunar Lander Systems Requirements and Technology risk manager in the Constellation Program. Based on prior supervisory experience, she was detailed in Human Capital for one year as supervisor education program specialist. During the year detail, she created and conducted employee career advancement workshops and served as an instructor at new supervisors’ orientation training. Currently, Lee works as the program senior integration engineer in the Space Launch System Program Chief Safety Mission Assurance Office. Additionally, as the Marshall range safety representative, she supports flight safety system development and provides range safety guidance to small rocket or unmanned aerial system flight programs at Marshall and at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.