Ride's Flight Paved Inspirational Path for Burnett
Josephine Burnett vividly recalls the maiden flight of NASA's first female astronaut.
She was watching on June 18, 1983, when mission specialist Sally K. Ride blasted through the glass ceiling and into orbit aboard space shuttle Challenger on the STS-7 mission.
"I remember it because I wanted it to be me," said Burnett, who today serves as director of International Space Station Ground Processing and Research at Kennedy Space Center.
Burnett grew up devoted to the idea of a career with the space program. At the age of 10, she wrote to NASA asking for advice on what she'd need to do to become an astronaut. The agency replied: become a test pilot or an aerospace engineer.
This was one of the reasons Ride's flight was so significant to Burnett. Unlike so many astronauts who'd come before, Ride was a physicist, not a military pilot.
Rather than take the military path without knowing whether she'd be able to amass enough flight hours to qualify, Burnett instead earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Florida. When she came to work for NASA in 1987, she saw immediately the benefits of the agency's dedication to recruiting diversity.
"NASA was already ahead of the game in terms of providing opportunities for everybody," said Burnett, who hired into a group evenly split between men and women.
"Once you get hired, it's what you make of it," she added. "Each individual, male or female, has their own individual challenges, barriers you have to break down in order to be who you are."
Burnett's career trajectory has taken her through several organizations at Kennedy, where she's supported the Spacelab modules, space shuttle payloads, International Space Station assembly, and now, the transition from assembly to station utilization in the post-shuttle era. Today, the station organization at Kennedy is focused on the processing and housing of most of the spare station hardware still on Earth, processing experiments that fly on the SpaceX Dragon capsules, and developing new flight hardware for plant research.
Despite the challenges of operating with a leaner team and smaller budget through a period of constant change, the entire team has pulled together to ensure success.
"We wouldn't be where we are today if not for the contributions made by every NASA employee, no matter what gender you are or what cultural background you have," Burnett said. She pointed out that the space station itself exemplifies the value of cooperation.
"Some of us take for granted the value of diversity," she said, "but without that balance, I don't think we could do those hard things we want to do."