An artist concept of the Space Launch System (SLS), the project Elaine Duncan works on, in flight. According to NASA, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars.

An artist concept of the Space Launch System (SLS), the project Elaine Duncan works on, in flight. According to NASA, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. NASA / MSFC

Shooting for Space, to Make Life Better on Earth

Elaine Flowers Duncan, an engineer at NASA, talks about what drew her to rocket science.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, was created in 1958 as a federal agency focused on exploring the science and technology for space and flight travel. Since then, the agency has landed on the moon, helped launch multiple space stations, and sent four rovers to Mars.

Elaine Flowers Duncan has been working for NASA for over three decades. Duncan is an aerospace flight-systems engineer and operations-engineering branch chief for the Space Launch System (SLS) at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The SLS, which NASA calls “the world’s most powerful rocket, [that] will launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.” I spoke with Duncan about what drew her to space exploration, how she came to be an engineer at NASA, and what it’s like to be a minority woman in a STEM field. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: What you do at NASA and how did you get into it?

Elaine Duncan: I am the manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center within the engineering directorate. I've been with Marshall for over 36 years. I started here back in 1980, right out of graduate school after receiving my degree in urban systems engineering, working on the Spacelab Program. I've also worked the Shuttle Program and in the International Space Station, which is on board now in the Earth's orbit. Now, I'm just trying to get this new vehicle built so we can go beyond the Earth's orbit and on to asteroids and to Mars.

Presently, I'm serving as a branch chief supervisor where I'm supporting the space launch system program—known as the SLS—which replaces space vehicles and the retired space shuttles. In my branch, I am providing systems engineering and integration function, which is  all the operations concepts for the design, development, and integration of the vehicles that will be used at the Kennedy Space Center, where they actually assemble and launch the SLS.

Lam: Have you always been passionate about space exploration?

Duncan: I've always been passionate about the space program, but I grew up back in the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama—the Deep South. My interest was really in urban community development, transportation, and communication—the things that get services to us, that makes us understand what is going on around us. And at an early age, I recognized that my interests have always been in the connectedness of the world, the universe itself.

I was drawn to space exploration because I realized it’s about these technologies that not only help us learn about the universe, but also find out if there is someone out there like us. It also provides technologies and innovations that we need to understand and improve life here on Earth.

Space was the answer, but I knew that there had to be some way to get us more connected. I’m also interested in bringing us together here on Earth. I grew up out in rural America, where it was really dark. I didn't have an interest in astronomy, but I always wondered about what other civilizations or groups of people were out there, and whether [they] somehow get along better than we do. I’m interested in how technology can get rid of the artificial barriers that separate us. That's what space exploration is about.

Lam: How did you come to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center?

Duncan: I went to graduate school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and I thought I would work for a state or even a federal transportation agency, or the Department of Energy because they paid for my advanced studies. And at that time, in 1980, Marshall was in need of systems engineers, and they also didn't have many minorities. I'm a double minority, I'm a female and I'm also African American.

I applied, and they interviewed me. The processes that I had used for urban systems development are the same processes that we use on the space program. The rest is history. They hired me to do simulations of the environment in lieu of orbit. I worked at the first space lab mission on orbit where I sat on the consuls working with the researchers to get their commands and controls up to the low-Earth orbit.

It was an indirect route, still doing what I wanted to do in terms of enabling technology for transportation, bridges, highways, and communications systems. I thought I’d be doing that on earth, but I had the opportunities to really impact some of the research at NASA.

Lam: Are you excited for the movie Hidden Figures next year?

Duncan: The one about the mathematicians at NASA? Yes, I'm very excited about it for some selfish reasons, because I'm a mathematician undergraduate. I'm excited about it because there are so many untold stories about the contributions that African Americans made to the space program, a lot of the unrecorded history that we're not aware of. It shows that a female and an African American, as a human calculator, and that's something I can relate to because I was always called a human calculator. I can't wait; it hits home personally.

Lam: What’s a typical day like for you?

Duncan: I've been here over 36 years, and I've had all kind of positions. I'm now in a management position where I'm leading an organization of civil service and contractors. I'm no longer doing hands-on [work] where I'm actually building simulations or working on consoles, but the group I manage consists of mostly system engineers influencing the design of the SLS. I'm coaching and mentoring a group to achieve the objective of providing systems engineering and integration support to get the next launch vehicles ready for the first flight of the space launch system.

I love the personable side of it because one of the hardest components of systems engineering is the human element. The technical side, as engineers, we all got our opinions on how we do it but we can get it. Now I get to the thinking. I like giving guidance, especially to the younger engineers. I like the diversity of it: We all have different backgrounds, not only in the schools, but we bring different backgrounds of our cultures. I like that human element part of it now because I get to understand different ways of implementing a technical solution.

Lam: In your view, what are some of the issues the space sector is facing right now? How has the sector changed in the course of your career?

Duncan: The biggest thing that I see is that NASA, being a federal agency, has to compete for resources. We live in a political environment, an environment where sometimes engineering and politics don't mix. Annually, I have trouble getting the budget that I need. The other thing that's most concerning now is the STEM workforce, workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the U.S. That workforce is not readily available.

The generation that we're in now, it's that instant gratification. They think that STEM is hard, and they think that by being pro-football players, or rappers, entertainers, actors, and models—that they can acquire those professions faster than they can a STEM career. We're also struggling with an aging workforce, and to continue to be number one in space exploration we have to have workers to sustain it. It's difficult with this number of STEM graduates. NASA has a lot of pathway programs, but a lot of students are just not interested in space, unlike some of the other countries.

Lam: How does your work at NASA relate to your personal identity?

Duncan: Working here at NASA is a lot of my identity, but it doesn't define me as a whole person. It helps me achieve some personal objectives that I have, such as encouraging STEM. When I was growing up, I did not have a lot of role models to tell me that I should go into that area because I liked technical things. The programs that we have here support my identity and the things that I'm passionate about. It has always been about outreach, and NASA supports me doing that.

My goal is uplifting someone else—these are the things that will sustain the human race. Space exploration provides us with the technology to help us do things: to get us out of ignorance, out of poverty, to get capital going to make sure we're all still have life.

Lam: Has your work at NASA changed your views of American society?

Duncan: I wouldn't say that it has changed my views, as really confirmed a lot of the beliefs I have had. There's a perception that we're all different, and that there's a lot of separation. Being with NASA, working in the political environment and technical environment, I remember that we have to set methods of bringing down artificial barriers to show that we are here as one. There's connectedness within all of us, and we have to have a purpose. It's all about community development. NASA has made Earth larger, extending beyond the boundaries that we set for ourselves.

Lam: Do you feel like we've gotten better at or worse at breaking down those barriers?

Duncan: I think we go back and forth. Right now, the violence happening in the United States shows that the barriers are dynamic and fluctuate. It’s not at a steady state. Once you think you've made progress, we take a few steps back. I am optimistic that we'll get there, although it seems like we won’t. I think now that we understand the value of diversity; we understand that it's going to take the utilization of everyone. No matter what your background is, or what your beliefs are, in order to get below Earth's orbit, we have to have that diverse set of ideas.

This interview is a part of an ongoing project on work and identity in America. You may find other pieces here, including interviews with a funeral director, a butcher, and an Amtrak conductor.