Shooting for the Space Station

by | Apr 6, 2018 | Alumni Profiles, Spring 2018 | 0 comments

When Penny Pettigrew ’92 was a young girl in California, she dreamed of being an astronaut. Growing up in the era of space exploration, it wasn’t an uncommon aspiration for her and others her age. Further inspired by the 1986 movie SpaceCamp, Pettigrew hoped she’d be able to visit space one day. 

Determined to achieve this goal, Pettigrew applied to Mines. She visited the school for a quick tour to make sure it was the right fit for her, then started on the path to earn a chemistry degree that eventually led to a job as the space station payload communications manager (PAYCOM) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Although her career path was set, Pettigrew found another opportunity for self-discovery. She had only recently learned of her family’s Native American heritage before enrolling at Mines but received a large Native American student scholarship and became part of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), where she was able to connect with students who all had different Native American backgrounds. 

“I was still learning [about my background],” Pettigrew said. “Some folks had lived on reservations and understood their heritage their entire lives. Even though we were all Native American, we all came from very different backgrounds. We could learn from each other.”

Coupled with the AISES support system and a small chemistry cohort, Pettigrew excelled at Mines and found herself looking into graduate programs. When nothing grabbed her interest after touring prestigious schools in California, she talked to her counselor at Mines. 

“I remember explaining my experience and the counselor asked, ‘Well, what do you want to do in your life?’” Pettigrew said. “I’ve always been interested in space, so she said, ‘Then go find a grad school that does space stuff.’ Which, to me, was like a ‘duh’ moment.”

Pettigrew thought back to her experience attending the Adult Space Academy—the adult version of space camp—as a Mines student, when they toured the university across the street: the University of Alabama in Huntsville. When she went back for a second visit, she had the same good feeling she had when first visiting Mines. She enrolled at UAH and participated in graduate research for NASA, which eventually led her to the position she holds today.

“I’m one of the few people on this earth who get to talk to the astronauts who are living and working at the space station,” she said. “We focus on the science that the astronauts do up there.”

At any given time, there could be 150 science payloads at the International Space Station, and Pettigrew and her team monitor the steps the astronauts are taking and the tools they are using in their research. When she looks at her daily tasks, she sees similarities to her EPICS project at Mines. 

“What I learned to do at Mines that I still use today is critical thinking,” she said. “In an environment like the space station, you don’t always know what’s going to happen.”

Pettigrew started on the path to her dream job while at Mines, and she continues to encourage today’s youth to follow their passions, particularly those with diverse backgrounds like hers. 

“When I talk to Native American kids, I see the same excitement in their eyes all kids have about space,” she said. “Then when I start talking about opportunities, I can see that switch flip, and they think, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to do that,’ or ‘I don’t have a way to do that’ or ‘those opportunities aren’t available to me.’ The excitement and chatter quiets. I try to encourage them not to give up and keep working toward their dreams no matter what.”