NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – “I remember my dad bringing home NASA stickers for me when I was a little kid and thinking they were the greatest thing in the world,” says Erin Easley, who is now a senior studying industrial engineering at Louisiana State University.
Stickers adorned Erin’s childhood schoolbooks – and other objects.
“Oh yeah, my sister and I would stick them on the furniture in our house, too,” she laughs, “and I’d give extras to kids in my class. I told them dad worked for NASA and had the coolest job.”
Erin’s father, Kelley Easley, was hired in 1983 to work in the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) – a NASA site on the outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana. NASA calls MAF its “rocket factory” and considers it the nation’s premiere site for manufacturing and assembling large-scale structures for the space program.
In its 60-year history, the facility has been integral in sending Apollo astronauts to the moon and powering the Space Shuttle missions that helped build the International Space Station. Today, Kelley and others at MAF are focused on spacecraft designed carry a new generation of astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars. They’ve also built the largest segment of the most powerful rocket in the history of spaceflight, the SLS, that will launch astronauts at the start of those missions.
“We get to do some pretty awesome stuff here,” Kelley says, “and who doesn’t want his daughter to think he’s the ‘cool dad?’ That’s an added benefit.”
Ready for launch
Kelley remembers bringing Erin to her first “Bring Your Child to Work Day” when she was 12 years old. MAF is large enough to hold 31 professional football stadiums and Kelley says he’ll never forget the look of awe on her face when she walked through the factory and stood in front of the 47-meter external rocket tanks – slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty.
“I remember, specifically, that she loved how people had to ride bicycles indoors to get around the facility,” he says. “She said anywhere that people got to ride a bicycle for work must be pretty great.”
Despite her childhood love for NASA, the first profession Erin remembers wanting to pursue was teaching.
“Kids love playing Mom and Dad,” she says, “and I really wanted to be a teacher like my mom.”
But signs emerged that Erin might follow in her dad’s engineering footsteps instead.
For example, Erin’s earliest memories include a love for puzzles. When she was five years old, Hurricane Katrina destroyed her family’s home. She, her dad and the rest of the family moved in with her grandfather, and Erin remembers her grandpa playing all sorts of puzzle games with her.
“I loved all his puzzles,” she says. “Especially the mental ones he did with me. When I got to high school and realized physics and calculus are a lot like mental puzzles, too, that’s when I decided engineering might be right for me.”
Erin’s interests were unique in her peer group, especially among her female friends. But it wasn’t until she began her engineering courses at LSU that she realized how unique.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports fewer than one in five American engineers are women. Erin says she was often the only female in her classes.
“It can be intimidating,” she admits. “Sometimes it feels like the guys don’t take me seriously, and I have to prove myself over and over.”
Erin refuses to be discouraged, though, and when a classmate mentioned a 10-week summer internship at the Michoud Assembly Facility, an opportunity her father also had mentioned, she decided to apply.
“She applied on her own,” Kelley says. “That’s one of the many things I admire about my daughter. She’s eager to try things without help. It was the same thing when she was learning to ride a bicycle or to roller skate. She never wanted my wife or me to tell her how to do something.”
When Erin was announced as one of only four interns accepted into the program, no one was prouder than her dad.
“I was so excited for her,” he remembers. “She got to work on real NASA projects with real implementation plans.”
During her 10 weeks at MAF, Erin worked on the replacement of a cooling tower and the rehabilitation of a storage building. She also had the opportunity to attend meetings, visit other NASA sites and interact with employees she had admired since she was a young girl.
Erin says one of the things that impressed her most, though, was how many incredible women she got to interact with at MAF.
“I was never the only female in any of my meetings,” she says. “NASA is full of talented women engineers, and that was so encouraging for me to see.”
Her internship ended last August, but Erin returned to MAF in December to watch the 65-meter SLS core stage depart the factory to be assembled with the remaining pieces of the rocket. While she’s still open to different career paths at this point in her life, she says working at NASA would be her dream job.
“This is the design for the rocket that will launch the first woman to the moon and the first humans to Mars,” she says, “and to watch how passionate everyone is about their work — I want to be part of a place where people are proud of what they do and excited to explore the unknown.”
Excitement about NASA’s mission is infectious, and often extends to strangers.
Kelley says if he goes to the grocery store while wearing a NASA shirt, he’s often stopped by another customer who wants to talk about NASA’s next big project, sometimes resulting in a 20-minute conversation.
“Everyone wants to do something that matters and everyone wants to feel pride in what they do,” he says. “It reminds me how fortunate I am, and I would love that same thing for my daughter.”
Erin says she’s treasured having a passion in common with her father. She remembers watching space movies with him when she was growing up and going for walks around the Michoud facility with him when she was an awestruck child, and again as an enterprising intern. She calls him when she sees a video about space that excites her, and when she learns something new in her engineering program.
Maybe one day they’ll walk across the vast floors of America’s rocket factory together again — this time as coworkers.
For now, Erin opens her computer to research next semester’s classes. Two NASA stickers decorate her laptop.
Source: Voice of America