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Star Power

Sep/02/2023 / by Seema Kumar
Nagaraja

“It’s my job to make sure that they do that in the way of today’s technology and today’s priorities of the President of the United States as well as the administrator of NASA. I work to advise the chief scientist on what’s happening in the science and what it takes to get the astronauts to space and the science they do when they’re in space.”

In her role at NASA training astronauts, Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja has big dreams for herself and the future of space exploration.

Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja has had a lifelong dream: to be an astronaut and travel to space someday. Her dream is yet to come true, but Nagaraja is doing the next best thing as associate chief scientist for exploration and applied research at NASA. Nagaraja trains astronauts to fly space missions, including the U.S. Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, is a technical expert on spacecrafts, designs instruments to study planets, and advises the chief scientist on areas of exploration and science performed by humans in space. 

She is excited about the recent successful Chandrayaan-3 lunar South Pole landing. NASA released a statement saying “Congratulations, ISRO, on your successful landing, and congratulations to India on being the fourth country to successfully soft-land a space craft on the Moon. We are glad to be your partner on this mission!”

Official portrait of Mamta Patel Nagaraja, Wednesday, July 8, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Nagaraja says one of her favorite projects at NASA was working in mission control, where she was responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts and spacecrafts on a mission, operating from the very seats made famous by the words of Neil Armstrong and memorialized by Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13: “Houston, we have a problem.” She also has designed an instrument to study Venus, and worked on a US mission to the moon, bringing back key scientific data and insights, an effort that led her to a senior advisory and management role in the Chief Scientist office.

The daughter of immigrant parents with limited means from rural India, Nagaraja grew up in a small, predominantly white town in Texas, where she looked different from everyone else and was told she smelled funny (of curry). Born into a family with little formal education, young Nagaraja had a penchant for fixing broken things and an insatiable curiosity about the world, which led her to pursue higher education with a vengeance, all of which would take her far—as far as space exploration.

“My parents immigrated to this country, leaving behind two daughters in the care of my grandmother, because they didn’t have the means to take care of them. They worked in the assembly line of an electronics factory in California with a goal to save enough money to bring their daughters to the country. And then, they got pregnant. I became the first one in the family to be born in the U.S.,” says Nagaraja, whose sisters were reunited with the family soon after she was born. 

The family moved to Texas and purchased a motel, a common trend among many families who immigrated from the state of Gujarat. Growing up in small town Texas, Nagaraja was raised with traditional Indian values and strong ties to the culture through gatherings with other Indian families, which she says made for the “happiest upbringing and blending of two cultures.”

Her passion for science and engineering took hold when she began helping her parents fix broken things at the motel the family owned. “Money was tight when something would break, we had to fix it ourselves.” Two-year-old Nagaraja would follow her parents around figuring out the tools they needed and watch her mother be a builder who fixed things and put broken things back together.

Nagaraja soon helped her parents with “fixer uppers” peppering them always with annoying questions. “I would look up at night and wondered what was out there. It was a small town, and nobody from NASA came there. I didn’t really know what an engineer or a scientist was. Instead of being annoyed, my family joined me in the quest for knowledge,” says Nagaraja, resulting in family outings to understand the earth and explore the skies with a telescope. 

With the encouragement of teachers and through internships and student programs, she got a foot in the door to NASA as a student, and never left the organization and never lost the love for space.

Her “Aha moment” came when she finished building the International Space Station. “This was an endeavor of many countries across the whole world, and I worked the very last mission to finish the space station, and I turned on pieces of equipment here from Earth all the way out in space. And I was the young engineer that got to push the buttons and test out all that equipment out in space. And I think for me that was big formative time in life and in my career.”

She still hopes to continue her quest to be an astronaut herself and experience space firsthand and hopes that the younger generation of engineers and scientists will enjoy and learn from the work she did early in her career. “Now it’s my job to make sure that they do that in the way of today’s technology and today’s priorities of the President of the United States as well as the administrator of NASA. I work to advise the chief scientist on what’s happening in the science and what it takes to get the astronauts to space and the science they do when they’re in space.”

As a woman of color, Nagaraja says that early in her career and life she let discrimination and microaggressions roll off my back and ignore them. “But as I become older, I don’t have the patience for it anymore. And I think things have happened in our nation here, in the U.S. And across the world that have shifted my perspective. I’m just as tolerant of such behavior, and I’m more likely to speak up now. If I see somebody being mistreated for those kinds of reasons, then I am much more likely to say, hey, not cool. Let’s not do that. That’s not fair to that person.”

Seema

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