When Kate Gunderson was in second grade, her father stood with her in the driveway as they marveled at the star-speckled night sky over their North Dakota town. This would become a pivotal moment in Kate’s life, one that would propel her into the stars.
“I was fascinated by space and feeling really small. I wanted to be a part of humankind's journey to discovery in some way and knew from then on that I wanted to work at NASA. I wanted to be an astronaut.”
Kate started applying for colleges around the same time NASA shut down its 30-year Space Shuttle program. “You’ll never work at NASA,” Kate recalls people telling her. Unfazed, Kate researched the qualifications required to work at NASA's mission control which led her to pursue a degree in engineering. She instantly fell in love. Engineering allowed her to be hands-on and solve problems outside the classroom.
"We need to show all the cool jobs you can have with an engineering degree because it comes across as this boring desk job. People also believe that engineers are math whizzes and have to be the smartest person in the room. Well you don't. My dad talked to me before grad school because I was having intense imposter syndrome. I said, ‘I don't know why people think I'm so smart. It's not that I'm smart, I just work really hard.’ And he said, ‘Being smart and working hard are the same thing.' ... I've kept that in the back of my mind. If you're willing to work hard and show how passionate you are about what you're doing, then nothing can stop you.”
Kate's hard work paid off. She graduated with a Bachelor's in Mechanical / Aerospace Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology and a Master's in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech. She then scored her dream job at NASA's Johnson Space Center!
Yes, at the place that many told her she would never, ever work at. Kate dove right in, working two different roles both as an engineer and as a project manager. In addition to applying what she learned in grad school, specifically in the field of fracture mechanics, Kate was also a bit of a window expert. She was in charge of optical glass windows on airplanes that NASA used for various missions.
“We would bring astronauts to their launches, bring them back when they landed from space, and we would also fly science missions. I got to fly along, so it was cool, because I got to experience the entire project lifecycle.”
At this point, Kate finally reached her goal and lived happily ever after. The end. Welllllllll not quite ... while she loved what she was doing at NASA, she felt further and further removed from her childhood dream.
“I loved my job, but I didn't see a direct path towards my goal of becoming an astronaut.”
So Kate decided to look for an alternate path to the stars and applied for a coveted, million dollar fellowship at the National Test Pilot School. This program trains both civilian, military test pilots, and flight test engineers while the fellowship is only awarded to 1-2 students a year.
Kate was accepted to the fully funded flight test engineering fellowship. In a bittersweet moment, she had to part ways with her dream gig at NASA. Yet deep down, Kate knew that this was the way ... this was her way.
"I wanted to fly. Lots of astronauts come out of the test pilot school. It's known worldwide as being a rigorous program. It's one way to get my foot in the door and I can return to NASA as a certified flight test engineer.”
As Kate moves closer and closer to realizing her dream of going to space, she acknowledges that it's nearly impossible to do so alone. Finding that pillar of support is pivotal to success, especially when you're an outlier.
“Nobody cares about your career the way you do. If somebody has advice that doesn't align with where you want your career to go, find somebody else to be an advocate. When I talked about wanting to fly at NASA, a lot of people told me I needed to wait my turn, that I was too young. Then I met a guy who was doing that job. I would always tell him how much I wanted this and he brought my name up when they were looking to pick the next flight science officer. He advocated for me and I was really, really grateful for that. If somebody's doing something that you want to do, go talk to them. Making personal connections is critical to advancing your career”
Being one of the few women in aviation engineering, Kate feels the added responsibility that she carries on her shoulders. So she started sharing her journey hoping to inspire others to follow and excel in this male-dominated field.
“I didn't have a lot of female role models in the field that I could look up to. And I think it's really important to have that. So I just want to help foster that community for other girls who might not have their role models.”
When Kate isn't pushing the limits of flight, she sets and breaks personal bests as a runner. She recently finished the Boston Marathon and continues to set new goals for herself. For Kate, sky is NOT the limit.