Rocket Science and Beyond

NASA engineering manager Debbie Martinez speaks to Tufts students about STEM careers—and persevering
Debbie Martinez talks with students at a lunch at Tufts
“You have to persevere and don’t take no for an answer,” said Debbie Martinez. “Find a way.” Here, Martinez speaks with students as Professor Karen Panetta looks on. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 9, 2019

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Debbie Martínez was the only woman in her class at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the mid-1980s. Today she’s a high-level manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in charge of research activities that test high potential ideas.

Martínez shared her insights on working at NASA—and her own NASA career, now going on twenty-nine years—when she visited the Tufts School of Engineering recently. Her visit included a Women in STEM presentation in Alumnae Lounge organized by the School of Engineering and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as well as an informal lunch conversation with students at the School of Engineering.

Martínez officially works at the NASA Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project, but it can also be thought of as the “Shark Tank for aeronautics,” she told Tufts students. It comes up with feasibility studies based on ideas that are both “transformative and also convergent,” meaning they merge different disciplines. Originators defend their proposal in front of a panel “and sell it, just like Shark Tank,” she said. Sometimes the work wins funding, but if not, “failure is not a problem, in fact, it’s a good thing,” she said, as engineers know it’s often the first step on the long journey to success. 

Martínez has been an engineering project manager at NASA Langley Research Center since 1990, supporting NASA aeronautics and space exploration missions. She has more than twenty-eight years of experience in engineering, technical, and managerial positions supporting both aeronautics and space mission projects. She is currently execution manager for the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program in addition to the Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project.

Martínez told students said that much has changed since she was the only woman at Embry-Riddle, adding “and there were no women professors at all,” she said. “As time has gone on it, it has become a matter of ‘can you do the work?’ When you deliver, you are part of the team.” That standard, she said, makes NASA “a great place to work.”

She’s grateful for the opportunities NASA afforded her as she has risen through the ranks, Martínez said. One highlight came in 2010 with the first fully-integrated test of the launch-abort system design on the Orion spacecraft. The test was a critical step toward developing safer crew escape capability during rocket launch emergencies.

The multiple demands of being a systems engineer on that project, she said, were at first “mind boggling,” she said, “but [everyone] was so helpful and if I had questions I asked them. Ultimately, we took the capsule to White Sands . . . and it worked—our team was elated. If that had been a real situation, people would have walked away safely. Never would I have every thought I’d be part of that.”

Still, she did relate how initially she was told there were no openings for her in engineering simulations part of NASA. Determined, she moved to the area anyway. “I just showed up and said, ‘I’m here,’” she said, and landed a job. “So you have to persevere and don’t take no for an answer. Find a way.”

Asked about the “one strength that a person should have” to succeed in her field, she said again it comes down to confidence.

“The main thing is to believe that you can,” she said. It’s not just rocket science, either; the work “depends on a wealth of expertise in fields that include biology and chemistry.” NASA, she reiterated, is not “just for fighter pilots. Don’t limit yourself.”

Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering and dean of graduate education for the School of Engineering, organized the lunch as the first in a Women in Space speaker series she expects to roll out over the next few months to highlight opportunities in STEM fields, those encompassing science, engineering, technology, and mathematics.

Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in the world to go to space and former director of the Johnson Space Center at NASA—and an honorary degree recipient this May at Tufts—will speak with students on Monday, April 22 at 51 Winthrop Street, Breed Memorial Hall. Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. followed by her talk from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.  

“Because of student interest in space and because of the planned landmark all-women spacewalk, it seemed a good time to bring people to talk with students about opportunities that are out there,” said Panetta.

Women currently make up 38 percent of the School of Engineering, which is a partner with the Association for Women in Science. The partnership offers students (both women and men) free one-year membership and access to its professional development and leadership training.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.