Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Air Force Captain and Some Day Astronaut Credits FIRST with Inspiring Her Career

When eleven-year-old Melissa Corley was in the fifth grade, a presentation by then-astronaut Kenneth Reightler, Jr. inspired the youngster to pursue a career in the field of aeronautics and astronautics. As a student at The Hockaday School, in Dallas, Texas, Reightler’s remarks resonated with Corley, setting her on the professional path she follows today ─ as a Captain in the United States Air Force, and a doctoral candidate at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

However, it wasn’t until she became a member of Team Tubthumpers during her sophomore year at Hockaday that Corley really appreciated the connection between FIRST and the speaker in that fifth-grade classroom: in 1998, Reightler was one of the judges at a FIRST regional competition in which Corley participated.

FIRST was foremost

Corley says although she didn’t realize it at the time, FIRST laid a foundation for her future career in engineering. The Air Force Captain credits the organization with introducing her to the world of engineering, and says she appreciates the opportunity she had with FIRST to interact with engineers at such a young age. Through FIRST, Corley also was able to work on significant programs in large corporations, where she learned about the entire lifecycle of a project – from drawing board to operation.

Corley says that FIRST has always given students a chance to do something real with their brains and hands, and adds that the competition factor tends to bring out the best in everyone. “Camaraderie with an intelligent purpose is critical for building the ‘next generation’ of scientists and engineers…and I think FIRST does a great job developing that in young people.”

Corley says that her FIRST experience has followed her throughout her career. “FIRST gives so many people a wonderful opportunity at a young age. It’s something I’ll never forget. I hope more and more kids get involved and inspired by FIRST. I know the organization is making a difference, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

Along with the basics of working in a machine shop, Corley says her early days with FIRST helped her learn the importance of systems engineering and how to bring together different aspects of an engineering process ─ from the mechanical parts needed to build a robot, to the electronics that make it run, to strategies for the human operator to control it.

Touting the importance of teamwork and systems engineering

The idea of working with a team has always been a motivating factor for Corley, who still maintains that team work is the best way to get to know someone because it allows you to work together toward the same goal. “There are always differences of opinion and more ideas than you’ll ever be able to implement, but working through them and bouncing ideas off of each other is a very rewarding process.”

Much of the work Corley performs today revolves around the systems engineering aspect of the business ─ the part that brings all the subsystems together. While she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Corley participated in several projects that required systems engineering ─ brainstorming ideas, building parts, making sure each system interacted properly with the others. At the college she also worked on a small satellite program in which systems engineering played an important part. Corley received a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford in 2004.

An unimaginable career

Corley says her career has allowed her to do many things she never would have imagined, such as working on launch and recovery operations at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she was in charge of a team of engineers and technicians who designed and built an experiment that flew on a high altitude balloon.

“It was a tough job that required a lot of systems engineering, and complicated communication between many people to ensure that the systems all worked together. In the end, we built three payloads and had over 20 launches.” Corley adds that the job was unique as well as challenging, as recovery crews often traveled through rough terrain and had to search for rogue pieces of equipment that might have broken off.

After the astronaut-hopeful receives her doctorate degree, she plans to continue her stint in the Air Force, using her knowledge and experience to work in satellite acquisition programs.

As for that astronaut who made such an impression on a young girl sitting in her fifth grade classroom? Corley recently connected with him last summer when he returned as an alumna to the Naval Postgraduate School campus where she is currently a student. It seems even when it comes to outer space, it’s a small world.

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