The NASA Rocket Scientist Leaving Mars for Politics

After 13 years at her dream job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tracy Van Houten feels newly called to run for office.

Space shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July 2007 (Scott Audette / Reuters)

A few Fridays ago, Tracy Van Houten drove to a registrar’s office to pick up the paperwork she would need to run for Congress. Doing so would mean giving up her role as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—a dream job that she had held for 13 years. Her plan was to pick up the papers, think about them over the weekend, and make a decision afterwards.

Sitting outside the building, she wavered, and decided to call her senators to voice her opposition against Betsy DeVos—the since-confirmed nominee for Secretary of Education. She got a busy tone. She tried again. Another busy tone. “It was at the fifth one that I thought: Okay, I need to get to Washington and get a seat at the table,” she says. “That motivated me to get into the building and get on with it.”

Van Houten is now officially running to represent the 34th Congressional District of California in the U.S. House. The seat’s former occupant, Xavier Becerra, was appointed as attorney general of California last December, and 23 candidates are now vying to replace him in a special election, to be held in April. The roster includes experienced politicians, activists, and lawyers. Van Houten, who is something of a wildcard, is the only rocket scientist.

Shortly after joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), she became the lead systems engineer on Team X—a crack team of engineers devoted to designing plans for innovative space missions. “We designed every kind of space vehicle you could think of, designed to go to every space destination out there,” she says. That led her to work on the Mars Curiosity Rover, as part of a group that “checked if everything was working, so we could hand the keys to the science team.” She’s now working on a similar rover that should land on Mars in 2020. “I had intended to be there to the end,” she says. But if her candidacy is successful, she’ll be abandoning Mars for Capitol Hill.

I spoke to Van Houten about her political ambitions. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ed Yong: Why run for Congress?

Tracy Van Houten: It’s been several years in the making. I love my job at the JPL, but I’ve been feeling this calling, that something bigger was needed from me. I was hoping to make a run for the California state legislature in 2018 or 2020—and then Trump was elected. And his first weeks in office brought executive order after executive order, and horrendous cabinet nominee after horrendous cabinet nominee. When this special election opened up, I thought I must accelerate my plans and do this now. I’ve been very involved with my community and the Society of Women Engineers and public schools here. I realized that everything I’ve been doing in my life has been leading to this point.

Yong: Tell me more about that path. What was the first step?

Van Houten: I did an engineering elective in high school, and although I was one of just two girls out of 40, I had the highest grades in the class. I loved the design process, and I always had this infatuation with space. So when I was 15, I became singularly focused on getting to JPL. I decided that’s where I wanted to work. For the next several years, if I met anyone with any association with JPL, I would collect their business cards and write little notes saying: This person’s uncle’s boss’s niece knows someone who works at JPL. By my senior year in college, I had a notebook with 200 business cards, and I just carpet-bombed the network. And it worked.

Yong: So, you’re in the job you’ve worked toward for years, you help to explore other worlds, and you are literally a rocket scientist. And you’re given that up for a life in politics?

Van Houten: Everything I’ve done so far in my career has been to study the big questions about the universe. And right now, that doesn’t feel big enough. That contribution feels so pitiful when our rights and environment and families are on the line.

You need to have a seat at the table. The only way we’ll change Washington is if we change the people who we send there. Engineers make up less than 2 percent of Congress, and I believe that if I’m elected, I’d be the first ever woman engineer in Congress. It’s shocking to me that in 2017, that would be a novelty. So, part of this is about inspiring the next wave of young women, moms, and those with in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds to run. I’ve been a mentor for a long time and I can see in the faces of my mentees how deeply this election has affected them. I feel that this is the right response.

Yong: What specifically have you done to inspire the next wave of women in STEM?

Van Houten: At JPL, I have mentored nearly 40 summer students and early-career hires. They haven’t all been women, but certainly well over half have been. For the last two years, I’ve been part of a team whose specific mission is to go to women’s organizations and recruit women to JPL. I’m also a life member of the Society of Women Engineers, and was a leader of that organization in college. Out of college, I helped to develop a program within the organization that identified and trained future leaders in engineering. That program has been in existence for 11 years now, and has graduated hundreds of women engineers. [Van Houten also won an Emerging Leader Award from the Society of Women Engineers in 2016.]

Yong: Speaking of which, have you seen Hidden Figures?

Van Houten: Yes! There’s also another book I love called Rise of the Rocket Girls, about female computers at the JPL.

I’ve very aware of sexism throughout our industry, although my own experience at JPL has been a very positive one. I’ve had to push back on minor things, like being given secretarial duties. Part of why I love Mars 2020 is that we have a huge team of phenomenal women, a lot of whom are in leadership positions. But the proportion of women in engineering is still just 14 percent. It’s 19 percent in Congress, so if and when I get there, I’m going to feel surrounded by women.

Tracy Van Houten (right) at her campaign’s kick-off event on February 20. (Joseph Sanchez)

Yong: I note that, unlike other scientists and engineers who have expressed interest in running for office, science doesn’t form the core part of your platform. You’re also taking specific stances on education, public transit, social justice, and affordable housing.

Van Houten: When Trump was elected, the thing that I was singularly most fearful about was the irreversible damage that could be done to our environment. But I’m definitely not just doing this because of science. I’ve spent my whole life trying to help people. I’ve been a big supporter of public schools so I felt sick watching Betsy DeVos get confirmed. I’ve stood for the rights of the LGBTQ community for a long time; in my early 20s, I protested and quit a job that I loved because of their discriminatory policies. And I come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother was a small business owner in San Diego, and she fought for civil rights there. She had a way of bringing warring groups together at the table to make positive change, and that has always been a guiding light in my life.

I think that the challenges in my district come down to affordable housing, making our public transportation system work, and water issues. Every time it rains, all that water goes flooding down our streets, into the Los Angeles River, and into the ocean. This isn’t sustainable; we need to find a way to store our water appropriately. These are all areas where being an engineer will really help.

Yong: Recent debates about the March for Science have shown that many scientists still feel that science should be above politics. Would you disagree?

Van Houten: I agree that ideally, our STEM workforce should be focused on solving the problems of the world. I think all of us would probably much prefer to stay in our own domains and make change there. But unfortunately, that’s not working for us very well. We can’t say that science doesn’t have a place in politics. Politics has dragged us in.