Mission to Mars: The Role of the Senior Mission Manager is to Make Tough Calls

Sept. 28, 2022
Wanda Harding discusses her career progression, as well as the risks and rewards of being an engineer at NASA.

Behind the work of a former NASA engineer and rocket scientist is a childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist.

For Wanda Harding there are no regrets. “When I found out how many hours would be required to practice, I said, maybe not,” she recalled. “I had a high school teacher who taught computer science, mathematics/calculus, who said, ‘I think we might do well in engineering.’ I thought about it, and said, ‘Okay, well, maybe I’ll go ahead and pursue that. So, I did.”

Harding went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Hampton University in Virginia, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and worked as a project manager with a construction company before applying to NASA.

She said she has few misgivings about her career trajectory or the choice she has made to give back to the next generation. In this installment of a three-part interview series with Machine Design, Harding reflects on what was rewarding about her career and whether she has any regrets.

“What's rewarding in that work in general is being able to see something successfully accomplished,” she said.

On the challenging end, she said, the job came with the responsibility of making tough calls. “When it comes to our role with the launch services, we worked with ULA (United Launch Alliance), which actually fabricated the rocket and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), which was responsible for building the spacecraft,” Harding explained. “And so, our role bringing those two together and just ensuring mission success was not an easy task—because you’re going to another planet. There’s a certain level of risk that you accept, but then there are some things that you just know you have to approach and mitigate. And that’s where working with a diverse team of engineers comes into play.”

Harding points to the Rover’s thermal conditions requirement to illustrate her point: “We had the nuclear source on board, so there were some things that we had to do at the launch pad to make sure that we would sustain a critical environment. And, sizing the battery came into question. All of these things come into play. You’re having to make decisions. NASA is a government agency, and so we have to be prudent with our tax dollars that we’re spending. So, there are some decisions that you have to make on whether or not a delay is worth the investment, or whether there are any sacrifices that you need to make.”

View Part 1: A NASA Engineer-Turned-Teacher Celebrates 10 Years

View Part 3: What is This Retired NASA Engineer Doing Now?

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hub compiles our coverage of gender representation issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

Sponsored Recommendations

How BASF turns data into savings

May 7, 2024
BASF continuously monitors the health of 63 substation assets — with Schneider’s Service Bureau and EcoStruxure™ Asset Advisor. ►Learn More: https://www.schn...

Agile design thinking: A key to operation-level digital transformation acceleration

May 7, 2024
Digital transformation, aided by agile design thinking, can reduce obstacles to change. Learn about 3 steps that can guide success.

Can new digital medium voltage circuit breakers help facilities reduce their carbon footprint?

May 7, 2024
Find out how facility managers can easily monitor energy usage to create a sustainable, decarbonized environment using digital MV circuit breakers.

The Digital Thread: End-to-End Data-Driven Manufacturing

May 1, 2024
Creating a Digital Thread by harnessing end-to-end manufacturing data is providing unprecedented opportunities to create efficiencies in the world of manufacturing.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Machine Design, create an account today!