“Success Always Leaves Footprints” is the Black History Month (BHM) 2017 theme; however, no matter the footwear, NASA Johnson Space Center team members have demonstrated for decades that the biggest determinant of success is what is, rather, on the inside.
JSC’s African-American Employee Resource Group (AAERG) used their culminating BHM event on Feb. 23 to highlight the accomplishments of prior and present JSC team members who have certainly left their footprints for current and future employees to follow. The group also took time to recognize Jewell Norsworthy, who was among the first African-American women to work at JSC when she was hired in 1963, with the AAERG Pioneer Award.
It’s a sobering reminder that oftentimes, many leaders and visionaries of an era can remain in the background—unknown and unacknowledged.
The critically acclaimed book and later movie, “Hidden Figures,” features the incredible and previously untold stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—brilliant African-American women at NASA who served as the brains behind one of the greatest stunning achievements in history. Despite operating behind the scenes, they made a profound impact on NASA, human space exploration and the pioneering spirit of a young country.
After honoring Norsworthy, the AAERG brought together their own distinguished panel to discuss how we, too, can make our mark. NASA astronauts have already left booted treads on moon—but there are other planetary targets ripe for human discovery. Equipped with some sage advice from these JSC experts, get ready to be a part of the next chapter.
Standing, from left: JSC Deputy Director Mark Geyer and Kai Harris with the AAERG recognize Jewell Norsworthy with the AAERG Pioneer Award. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford
A quick guide to leaving footprints
“Early in my career, it was all about proving myself and learning to do my own job,” said Ralph Anderson, who joined NASA in 1980 as a project engineer and later served in the center’s Inclusion and Innovation Office prior to retirement. He spoke of seeing the movie “Hidden Figures” and being stunned that he had gone his entire career not knowing that this trio of women had blazed a bright path long before him. “We have to tell our own story. No one’s going to tell it.”
From left, moderator Kiersten White and panelists Vanessa Wyche, Dr. Shirley Price, Vincent Watkins, Izella Dornell and Ralph Anderson. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford
One of the many pieces of advice, said in many different ways, was that you have to be your best advocate.
Izella Dornell, a 35-year NASA veteran who is now a senior executive partner with the Gartner Executive Programs Service Delivery team, spoke about the time she had been passed up for a position—one she had already been performing in an acting capacity—for someone else.
“I was just floored,” Dornell said. “I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Instead of stewing about it, she decided to go to the hiring manager for clarification on why she had not been selected.
“I learned a long time ago not to be confrontational,” Dornell said, “but to be tactful. [Don’t] be bashful in asking for feedback.”
Dornell surprised the hiring manager by simply asking what she could focus on to be competitive for the next selection process.
Dr. Shirley Price, meanwhile, had no natural inclination to work at JSC.
“To work for NASA was not one of my desires,” Price quipped. “I said, ‘NASA can go the moon for all I care.’ Well … guess who was here when they went to the moon?”
For Price, NASA represented taxpayer dollars that could be spent on more worthy humanitarian causes. Her mentor, however, challenged her to not dismiss the agency outright, saying, “Don’t you ever question anything until you know something about it.”
It was advice she followed.
Her first job at NASA was as a division secretary for 27 foreign physicists. She learned, among her other duties as assigned, to measure cosmic rays. Price, who spent most of her later years at JSC as an Equal Opportunity specialist, also has the distinction of receiving the Outstanding Federal Handicapped of the Year, USA Presidential Award in 1972 by then President Richard Nixon.
“I also learned that NASA had opportunities here that anyone can take advantage of,” Price said. “Regardless of what you want to do or where to go in life, never say no until you know
. I had no idea that this would be the place for me to stay.”
Vincent Watkins, whose 30 years at JSC reached a pinnacle in 2010 as the deputy director of the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate, heralds persistence as the main ingredient to his successful career.
“When I went from a GS-13 to -14, I applied to seven different positions,” Watkins said. “It took me seven times. Don’t take each of those struggles as ‘It’s the end of my career at NASA.’ You’ve got to be persistent about it.”
Vanessa Wyche is a NASA senior executive who currently serves as director of the Exploration Integration and Science Directorate at JSC, where she leads approximately 400 people. She said that in addition to persistence, one must also have a “willingness to volunteer. The work we do is very important. We give great inspiration. For me, [we must] continue to inspire.”
Wyche added that with NASA’s ambitious journey to Mars, it is this workforce, right now, that will make it happen. The JSC community is united in its priorities to maximize use of the International Space Station; enable success of the Commercial Crew Program; develop Orion for future missions; and build the foundation for human missions to Mars.
As easy as it is to be swept up in the agency’s ambitious plans, when it comes to your career, “you have to be patient in a smart way,” Anderson said. “The world will make a place if you know where you’re going.”
There are countless trailblazers at JSC, and many more hard acts to follow. But despite the challenges and inequities that you may encounter on your way up, you must persist.
“You want to do something that somebody will remember you for,” Price said. “You
make the difference.”
Houston Rockets honor NASA’s ‘Modern Figures’
On Feb. 27, our very own Houston Rockets paid tribute to six remarkable “Modern Figures” of today’s space program. They are:
- Dr. Jeanette Epps – astronaut, engineer and first African-American to serve as a crew member on the International Space Station (May 2018)
- Elizabeth Smith – lead aerospace systems engineer for the International Space Station
- Dr. Camille Alleyne – associate program scientist for the International Space Station
- Shirley Holland-Hunt – lead strategic partnership manager
- Danielle Johnson – aerospace engineer
- Nzingah Gross – lead budget analyst for the Space Technology Program
Watch the video honoring these accomplished women here.
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Jewell Norsworthy is honored by JSC Deputy Director Mark Geyer before the panel discussion. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford
Astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps. Image Credit: NASA
Elizabeth Smith, lead aerospace systems engineer for the International Space Station.
Dr. Camille Alleyne, associate program scientist for the space station. Image Credit: NASA
Shirley Holland-Hunt, lead strategic partnership manager.
Danielle Johnson, aerospace engineer.
Nzingah Gross, lead budget analyst for the Space Technology Program.
The audience listens in rapt attention to the panelists. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford