The Tools for the Challenges Ahead
NASA is launching two astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil from the first commercial SpaceX vehicle on Wednesday, May 27th at 4:33 p.m edt. This launch is momentous for our country’s relationship to space exploration, especially because the United States has been relying on other countries to get U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station since NASA’s space shuttle missions ended in 2011.
And, when it happens, Girl Scout alum Kathryn Lueders will be right in the middle of the action, serving as the program lead for the commercial crew.
We caught up with Kathryn a few weeks ago to ask how she prepared for a career that involves events like today’s; events she couldn’t even have dreamed of when she was studying engineering in the 90s.
Her philosophy? You make sure you have the right skills, which she thinks of as “tools in my toolbox,” to help solve the unimaginable problems of the future.
“We never stop needing tools,” she explains. “We never stop needing to solve problems.”
Kathryn first remembers adding these relevant tools to her toolbox as a Girl Scout.
“I was a Girl Scout for two or three years in elementary school in Tokyo,” she says, adding that it was there, as a Brownie, that she first learned the importance of teamwork.
Read on for her tips about how to make sure you have the right tools to solve the unforeseeable problems of the future.
1. Don’t be intimidated by what you see as your own weaknesses.
“I’m not going to tell you that math isn’t hard, but there is value in learning these things. I knew someone who became a chemical engineer, and he had to take organic chemistry three times,” Kathryn says, explaining that this kind of perseverance is key to success. “He didn’t give up! There are people who aren’t natural runners who still get up in the morning and run five miles a day. And, for me, understanding fluid mechanics is not my strength. I’m also not, in a lot of ways, a natural designer. But engineering has given me the ability to solve problems.”
2. Let go of the fear of failure.
“I think sometimes women are afraid to fail,” she explains. “I do think having women [participating] in sports [as girls] . . . is important. Because when you fail and pull [yourself] up . . . that’s huge. If you fail and back off, maybe that’s not the right decision.”
3. Focus on the basics.
Sure, you’ll have calculators and computers to assist you in calculations, for example, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to understand the math, she stresses.
“The reason you [learn] calculus is to understand the tools you’re going to [need to] do work,” she explains, adding, “We use graphing calculators, but I have the basics to know how those tools work.
4. Don’t expect success to be easy.
Kathryn thinks many people look at those in covetable jobs and imagine that getting there, and doing the work once they are there, didn’t involve any challenges.
“Don’t assume that the people you see succeeding find the problems they’re solving easily,” Kathryn advises.
5. Believe in yourself.
“My dad is a Lutheran minister and had six girls in his family. Growing up, my dad was not telling us ‘you can grow up and be an engineer’,” she explains, adding that he encouraged his daughters to consider nursing, teaching, or secretarial work.
“Those are all great jobs to have, but heading off to college, I didn’t [feel confident that] I could do [them]. I did well in high school, but I was your classic example of somebody feeling like they weren’t smart enough.”
Kathryn did get a degree — a Bachelor of Business Administration in finance from the University of New Mexico — and then got married and had two kids. But she always remembered being intrigued by the work that her college roommate had done as a mechanical engineering major.
“After I had two kids, I went back to college and got my engineering degree,” she says. This was a logistically complicated goal—she lived in a small town in New Mexico and had to drive two and a half hours each way to get to class.
It’s that same work ethic and dedication that has guided her throughout her career.
“We are going to continue to figure out [which] tools we need to help solve the challenges for the nation and the world for the next few years,” she predicts, especially when it comes to COVID-19 issues that will need to be solved. “And the girls growing up today will have their own challenges that they’ll need to face later.”
Kathryn shares that she hopes that girls watch the historic rocket launch and that, someday, we see another Girl Scout fly in this new era of human spaceflight.