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NASA’s Space Ace

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DywbwPU7Zzw[/youtube]

Had the WNBA existed during her childhood, Aprille Joy Ericsson jokes that  she might have gravitated to pro basketball as a profession. Instead, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native became NASA’s first African American Ph.D. rocket scientist. Only an old knee injury and chronic asthma kept the aerospace engineer out of the cockpit as an astronaut.

“If I’m a ‘giant in science,’ it is only because I stand on the shoulders of my forefathers,” she told a rapt audience at the Library of Congress in 2001. “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward.”

Little in Ericsson’s past foretold her future as an aeronautical engineer. Born, appropriately enough, on April 1, 1963, she grew up the tough housing projects of New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The oldest of four daughters, heer parents separated when she was 8. Her interest in science was first ignited in junior high school, when she won second place in the science fair—having been the only African American in the school’s special accelerated program. As a first grader, she remembers seeing U.S. astronauts land on the moon. Still, in high school she imagined becoming an artist, track star, or lawyer.

Ericsson credits MIT’s summer science camp for minorities with helping her envision a future in space. At the time, she was a high school junior living with her grandparents in Cambridge, Mass., and attending an area private school on full scholarship. (She had won admission to several of New York City’s most selective technical schools as well.) MIT’s camp introduced her to rocket design and she was off, later earning a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from MIT, where she worked on manned space missions. She graduated the year that Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all nine crew members. Undaunted, Ericcson applied to become an astronaut but was rejected because of an old knee injury and chronic asthma. So she returned to school, earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1995 from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and interning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she has been ever since. There, she works in the Guidance, Navigation & Control section on computer simulations of spacecraft design and instrumentation.

Her work designing satellites has distinctly down-to-Earth significance. The Tropical Rain Measuring Mission, for instance, helped observe the effects of weather cycles known as El Niño and La Niña in order to correlate their activity with crop productivity. She connects her work to the real world by noting that products developed for use in the aerospace industry, such as protective eye lenses and pill-size heart monitors, also are being used to improve our daily lives.

A mentor and motivational speaker, Ericsson is an adjunct engineering professor. She still plays sports (her co-ed softball team, the Hardrock Senators, is nationally ranked) and enjoys Stephen King novels. “My greatest challenge is climbing the ladder of success, and pulling others behind me,” she has said, invoking a favorite quote by Roots author Alex Hailey: “If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, you know he had help getting there.” Among the pinnacles Ericsson has reached is being named the federal government’s best female engineer in 1998.  Not bad for a girl from the ‘hood!

Read her first-person account.

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