The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, was created in 1958 as a federal agency focused on exploring the science and technology for space and flight travel. Since then, the agency has landed on the moon, helped launch multiple space stations, and sent four rovers to Mars.
Elaine Flowers Duncan has been working for NASA for over three decades. Duncan is an aerospace flight-systems engineer and operations-engineering branch chief for the Space Launch System (SLS) at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The SLS, which NASA calls “the world’s most powerful rocket, [that] will launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.”
For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Duncan about what drew her to space exploration, how she came to be an engineer at NASA, and what it’s like to be a minority woman in a STEM field. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do at NASA and how did you get into it?
Elaine Duncan: I am the manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center within the engineering directorate. I've been with Marshall for over 36 years. I started here back in 1980, right out of graduate school after receiving my degree in urban systems engineering, working on the Spacelab Program. I've also worked the Shuttle Program and in the International Space Station, which is on board now in the Earth's orbit. Now, I'm just trying to get this new vehicle built so we can go beyond the Earth's orbit and on to asteroids and to Mars.