International Space Station director shares her journey as part of Engineers’ Week
Robyn Gatens has been shooting for the stars since she began her career at NASA 37 years ago.
To depict the breadth of NASA’s footprint to an audience of Virginia Tech students, Robyn Gatens, the first female director of the International Space Station, shared that any person under the age of 22 has not lived a single day without an American being in space. Since Nov. 2, 2000, the station has had an unbroken streak of human presence.
In collaboration with the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, the Student Engineers’ Council (SEC) hosted Gatens on the Blacksburg campus in February. At the group’s first-ever Engineers’ Week distinguished lecture, over 300 engineering students gathered in Haymarket Theatre to hear about Gatens' journey and ask questions, while alumni watched the presentation live online.
Gatens, who received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership and Exceptional Achievement Medal, serves as director of the International Space Station in the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters. She is also an agency senior expert for environmental control, life environmental control and life support systems, crew health, and performance systems.
“Robyn was the perfect guest to headline this annual celebration. Her presence on campus inspired us to keep ‘shooting for the stars’ in everything we do and helped heighten awareness of the work that the SEC does to support our fellow students. It was a distinct honor to be able to welcome such an impactful leader in our field to campus,” said computer science senior and SEC President Ryan Gniadek.
With the International Space Station in its third decade, NASA is now positioned to obtain results from the station’s technology and ongoing research to benefit life on Earth. More than 4,500 researchers from 111 countries and areas have conducted over 3,500 experiments in microgravity. From these experiments, NASA has shared discoveries of life-saving medical research and applications and climate change results with the world. In addition to the research happening inside the station, instruments attached to the station’s exterior track carbon dioxide levels, forest growth, and other factors on Earth.
The space station’s mission has helped facilitate deep space exploration, including the Artemis missions. The program, which aims to send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface, was named after Apollo’s twin sister and goddess of the moon.
“We're using the moon as a proving ground to learn about the technologies and how to accomplish the mission. Then, everything we learned from the Artemis missions on the moon will translate to our Mars mission,” Gatens said.
Among the thousands of science, engineering, and support roles at NASA and its commercial partners, Hokie engineers are leading the charge of the Artemis Program.
Beyond Artemis, Gatens shared how Virginia Tech aerospace engineering alumnus Charles Camarda '90 has had an impact in space. As a NASA astronaut, Camarda flew his first mission into space on board the Space Shuttle Discovery mission that docked with the International Space Station in 2005.
During Engineers' Week, an annual celebration of the impact engineers have on society, Gatens also met with over 30 Virginia Tech engineering students and faculty. The hourlong, ask-me-anything discussion flew by as the group asked nonstop questions. Gatens dove into topics such as:
- Using microgravity to recycle water in the space station
- Facilitating an array of research, including retinal implants that restore vision to patients with retinal degeneration
- Preparing for possible emergencies while in space
- Establishing policies for working with multiple countries
- Involving students with the International Space Station National Lab
“As an aerospace engineering student, the story of the International Space Station inspires me. It symbolizes hope and international collaboration – showing engineering students and the world what is possible when the sky is the limit,” said aerospace engineering junior and Engineers' Week Committee Chair Chenming Fan.
To illustrate how professionals can surpass the limits of their careers, Gatens shared with the students how she ended up at NASA headquarters. While she was working at the Marshall Space Flight Center, headquarters asked her to lay out a roadmap for evolving its life support systems to support future missions. She took the leap and agreed to the opportunity, in addition to maintaining her day job. This decision ultimately led to her promotion to the headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she continues to work today.
“Lesson learned, something that isn’t even part of your day job could lead to an incredible opportunity,” Gatens said.