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EE in Space Exploration: An Interview with Alumna Kathy Laurini

AUTHOR: llestins

PUBLISHED: March 11, 2019

Written by Leslie Lestinsky

I have always tried to find positions where I was making a difference, liking the people I worked with and learning. When an assignment was not delivering these three things, I looked to make a change.” NDEE alumna Kathy Laurini shared with the department reflections about her 36-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), balancing career and family and of course, why Notre Dame will always hold a special place in her memory and life.

What made you decide to study electrical engineering?

To start with, I was always good at math and science and was intrigued by those disciplines. It was the late 1970’s, computers were just coming on to the scene. That movement in technology sparked my curiosity and got me interested in electrical engineering.  

What is something you picked up in your undergraduate experience that you still carry with you today?

Kathy Laurini '82
Kathy (fourth from left) with friends from Lyons Hall

The friendships, the love of reading and how it helps you relate to others. The women I was in Lyons Hall with became like sisters to me. We’re still friends to this day. Any time we see each other– which we will go long periods of time in between meetings– it's like time never passed. When I came to Notre Dame, I didn’t like to read. I learned to love reading because of the Notre Dame curriculum and my friends were reading the great classics, many being liberal arts majors. I realized the impact literature has on people’s lives and started to approach it from a different point of view. It wasn’t forced, but rather, intriguing and I wanted to have a better appreciation of it. I learned the complexity and the richness of human relationships through reading. I also became a better writer and communicator because of it, which is important in any profession. The path of the Notre Dame education prepared me for working with people, not just technology. 

How did you end up working in the space field?  

I went on a lot of company visits and a lot of interviews, but when NASA came in to the picture, I knew that's where I should be. I was part of the generation that watched man walk on the Moon, it certainly made an impression on me. My first job after graduation was working as a space shuttle flight controller. I was put in an office with four men that were counting the days to retirement. However, they had worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I was fascinated by that and they ended up becoming valuable mentors. Our team worked with the principle investigator and their teams, to prepare them for the space shuttle mission and operate their payloads during the mission.

After her first 5 years with NASA, something tragic and unexpected happened, the Challenger Space Shuttle accident. That caused Kathy to reevaluate her career and think more deeply about what it was she wanted to do. She was led to the design team for NASA’s International Space Station Program. Kathy became part of the team that set requirements for and guided operability and assembly of the space station.

During that time, she met her husband, who was an Italian engineer working for the European Space Agency (ESA) as a liaison to NASA. After the wedding, their family quickly grew. “I married a European, they often can't imagine anything less than a three or four-week honeymoon. When you go on a four-week honeymoon, chances are you're going to come home pregnant. I did.”, said Laurini.

Kathy’s young family of three soon grew to five during the ten years they were in Europe. Then an opportunity in Houston, Texas came up. She became deputy to an office that managed space station operation. During that time, Kathy worked in the control center to make sure the various teams of engineers got the support they needed, issues were resolved and stepped in to make tough decisions when they were outside the scope of what the team could handle. From there, she was offered the position of Deputy Director of Human Health and Performance at Johnson Space Center. Kathy worked on implementing a change in understanding and managing human health risks in regard to humans in space. Her 800-man team of doctors and researchers studied what happened to the human body in space. “It was very interesting working with doctors and researchers, especially with a ‘change’ agenda.”, said Laurini. “However, it ended up being very rewarding.”

Kathy at the Space Station
Kathy in Baikonur, Kazakhstan at launch pad.

 One of Kathy’s most significant contributions to NASA was creating the $150M, multi-center NASA Human Research Program. The objective of the program was to reduce and refocus NASA’s extensive space biology research and technology development portfolio on human health risk mitigation for space exploration. The program is addressing the challenges of sending humans back to the Moon and potentially Mars. “When you come in, you have a rough idea of changes that are needed and what the boss is looking for. I wanted to further understand what was working and get to know the people working on these important matters. By taking the time to do that, watching and observing, I built advocates.  When I came time to implement change, I had the support to do so.”, explained Laurini. “I learned a lot about dedication scientists and researchers have to their work. I saw the human side of human space exploration.”

Kathy had caught the “exploration bug”, and for the last 12 years has led NASA programs in human space exploration. She has provided technical direction in establishing policy, plans and programs, led efforts to maintain and expand international partnerships and contributed to NASA's strategy for development of low-Earth orbit and the Moon. Because of her time working in Europe and the international connections she made there, Kathy was able to lead the effort in engaging with other space agencies around the world, in order to collaborate on the common goal of getting humans in space for further exploration. 

Speaking to balancing career and family, what’s your advice for doing so?

Laurini Kids
Kathy's children:John, Elisa and Max.
If you would like to start a family and build a career, a supportive spouse is key. Choosing to go down that path with a partner that is truly a partner, someone that understands your career is important and wants to support your work but will also partner in running the household, will take you a long way. Also, keep work separate from home. Investing in a daycare situation that allows you to fully be present at work because you are confident that the children are well cared for, is well worth every penny. While you're at home, be at home, be a Mom. Don't be attached to your phone and email, be attached to your kids and spouse.

 

What was the biggest challenge or setback you experienced in your career and how did you bounce back from it?

Early in my career and marriage, I was assigned as the NASA liaison to the ESA. I found it extremely difficult to be a liaison. I was essentially responsible for nothing and had many bosses. My job was to go to meetings and report back to Houston.  If I found issues, others would work them. To me, this was really boring. I knew I had to do something to change the situation, so I looked for an opportunity to play a different role, while still in Europe. I proposed to Space Station management that I be given the responsibility for leading integration of a European built logistics vehicle under development which would dock to the Russian side of the Space Station. I argued that I could be more effective than a Houston-based engineer because I would be embedded with the ESA team and could travel to Russia much easier.  Management was concerned that I would not be connected enough to Houston and their priorities. I developed a plan to address their concern and it was accepted. I was given this responsibility and loved it. The message here is to recognize that you may be able to change a situation which you are not happy with by doing the work to find another opportunity and present it in terms which are favorable for your employer. I have always tried to find positions where I was making a difference, liking the people I worked with, and learning. When an assignment was not delivering these three things, I looked to make a change.

Kathy with physicist Sam Ting
Kathy with Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Sam Ting.
What predictions or dreams do you have for the future or space exploration?

We will go back to the Moon and then Mars. There is strong bipartisan support for going back to the Moon and there's still a lot we don't know about the Moon. I hope we get back there, and new technologies can be driven by that research. My dream is that the coming of age generations will be inspired to study math and science. I also hope the next generations will be researching to learn what we don’t already know about Mars so that we can explore it further and go there.

What advice do you have for senior students and women in electrical engineering?

There are a lot of interesting projects, programs and startups out there. Companies are seeking your expertise. Look around and make sure to find the right place for you. Consider the space field, it's a great time to be graduating if you're interested in space. It's not just for aerospace engineers. Some of my most respected colleagues were mechanical and electrical engineers. Engineering is all about problem solving and the space program has a lot of problems to solve.