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Vanessa Aponte

Vanessa is helping design a new spacecraft that will revolutionize space exploration.

Ever since she was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Vanessa Aponte remembers, “I wanted to work at NASA. And that’s all I knew. I had no focus. I just knew that space seemed like a lot of fun.” 

Today she is part of the team designing NASA’s high-profile Orion mission, the spacecraft that will carry a new generation of astronauts to the moon by 2020. Orion is the most exciting advance in human space exploration in decades, and for Vanessa, “It’s just an amazing feeling to know that what you do is going to be part of history.”

All Systems Go
Vanessa is an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Colorado, the contractor NASA chose to design and build the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will be the replacement for the space shuttle.

Her job deals with the big picture—the spacecraft as a whole. As an engineer, she says, “you can specialize in one particular thing. But in my case, I decided that I wanted to get a global picture of how the spacecraft works. And not only that, I wanted to understand how the human body works in space.”

Vanessa is part of the spacecraft design integration team, which ensures that all the systems involved in developing Orion function well together, whether it’s the life-support system, the computer network, or ground operations. “By the time Orion flies," Vanessa says, "I’ll know a little bit about everything in the spacecraft!”    

Working with Great People
Vanessa’s job involves working with many different types of people, and she believes that “people skills will get you as far or farther than the necessary technical skills. When you are working in any sort of program that’s interdisciplinary, if you cannot work well with others, you’re not going to get what you need from them.” If you have a talent for communicating, she says, “it will put you above the rest. And that could be a really good thing for someone who’s not 100% technically inclined, which is what happened to me. I loved science, but I struggled with the math—always." 

From Chemistry to Aerospace
Chemistry was a favorite subject of Vanessa's, so she pursued chemical engineering in college. But her childhood interest in spaceflight never diminished. “I decided that although my undergrad and my masters were in chemical engineering, I wanted to learn about space. And so I started tying my chemical engineering research to space applications.” In grad school she specialized in astronauts’ health, a field called bioastronautics. One of her favorite projects was developing a tiny biological sensor to monitor the immune systems of astronauts during space flight.

Mountain Rescuer and Rocket Doctor
Vanessa has always had many passions. She’s learned to fly planes and play the guitar; she loves French, psychology, Kung Fu, and volunteering as a mountain rescuer in the Colorado Rockies. Engineering has given her the same flexibility and breadth she’s sought in every part of her life—“You can take one specialty, like chemical or aerospace, and still end up working in really diverse areas, which is what I did.”