Space Day is here and rewarding careers in STEM – an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math – are taking off and climbing to new altitudes and atmospheres. Space Day launched in 1997 when Lockheed Martin decided every first Friday in May would be dedicated to encouraging youth to take greater interest in STEM subjects and professions.  Millions of teachers, students and professionals have since participated and today Space Day is celebrated internationally.  Today, Heather McKay, a propulsion engineer at Lockheed Martin, speaks to ClearanceJobs Contributor Ana Sherman about Space Day, STEM careers, and the future of space exploration.

A: Please introduce yourself

H: I’m Heather McKay, a propulsion engineer at Lockheed Martin working on the Orion program.  Yes, a real rocket scientist!  I’m part of the team that designed and built the spacecraft that successfully flew on Orion’s first flight test in December, Exploration Flight Test One.  Orion is NASA’s next generation spacecraft for human exploration of deep space.


A: Lockheed Martin created National Space Day in 1997 to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) among America’s youth. How will the company celebrate National Space Day today?

H: Lockheed Martin [Space Systems] will be supporting the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Space Day celebration. The Museum’s Space Day festivities include hands-on activities, presentations and Q&A sessions with space industry professionals.

A: In addition to founding the USA Science and Engineering Festival, are there other ways in which Lockheed Martin encourages today’s youth to take interest in STEM professions?

H: Lockheed Martin supports a wide-range of diverse and sustainable STEM activities that reach both students and educators, from elementary school to college. Some of those programs include:

  • Through our Engineers in the Classroom education initiative we provide opportunities for our employees to interact with the next generation of great minds by serving as local school advisors, mentors and career role models.
  • Our Girls Inc. pilot program connects Lockheed Martin volunteers with girls ages 9-12 to strengthen their confidence in pursuing STEM education and careers.
  • Lockheed Martin also supports Project Lead the Way’s (PLTW) Launch, Gateway and Engineering programs.
  • Lastly, our annual Young Minds at Work Day, also known as Take Your Child to Work Day, introduces thousands of students to hands-on STEM activities. Space Systems had more than 1,800 students attend this year.

I have personally had the privilege of touring the country with the Orion Crew Module mock up.  Everywhere we go, kids always show up in their astronaut suits.  They just want to see and touch the spacecraft.  Human space exploration, and the work that Lockheed Martin does, is truly inspiring.

In 2022, it is projected that the top STEM-related industries will include information security, environmental protection, statistics and biomedical engineering.

A: What are the most in-demand jobs for a person pursuing a career in STEM?

H: Over the next eight years there will be more jobs available in STEM than any other occupation. In 2022, it is projected that the top STEM-related industries will include information security, environmental protection, statistics and biomedical engineering.

I often tell kids, “Become an engineer to design the propulsion system that will take humans to Mars. Become a geologist to help the world understand the make-up of the universe. Become a biologist to search for life on other planets.”  Even if they don’t all grow up to work in the aerospace industry, these kids will be scientifically literate and create the foundation of tomorrow’s economy.

A: I’m going to guess that when people think about jobs in the aerospace arena, many will imagine equation-crunching old men in oxford shirts with pockets. Can you shed some light on how Space Day is helping to change the Hollywood stereotype?

H: Space is still a source of inspiration for young people. Space Day leverages that appeal to help students see how the industry can offer rewarding careers and provides opportunities to work on life-changing technologies. By bringing math and science to life through interactive, real-world space exploration examples, we’re inspiring the brightest minds of the future.

We have a very diverse team working on the Orion program and Lockheed Martin is always looking for talented people to join us.  From computer scientists developing code for the avionics, to materials engineers creating advanced 3D printing technologies, to manufacturing technicians welding the crew module structure, it takes individuals with all backgrounds and expertise to build a state of the art spacecraft like Orion.

A: How did your career path lead you to a job in the aerospace industry?

H: When I was 10 years old, I met former NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless at a Lockheed Martin’s Young Minds at Work event.  Hearing Bruce talk about his adventures in outer space, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in aerospace.  I studied Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and came to work at Lockheed Martin after graduation.  I’ve been working on the Orion program ever since.

the future of aerospace depends on collaboration

A: We’ve heard a lot about a decline in aerospace programs. I think the termination of NASA’s space shuttle program has a lot to do with that.  Can you tell us a little bit about what is next for the industry, or Lockheed Martin’s space programs?

H: To strengthen the workforce pipeline, success depends of collaboration among industry, educators and families. As an industry leader, Lockheed Martin is committed to working with these groups to develop programs that educate and inspire tomorrow’s great minds.

NASA is setting its sights on the generation-defining goal of landing an astronaut on Mars – this journey began in December with the launch of Orion. Looking forward, Lockheed Martin has already begun building the next Orion spacecraft for its 2018 launch aboard the powerful Space Launch System rocket.

Orion has the potential to define a generation and inspire the next wave of great scientists and engineers. This is such an exciting time for an individual starting a career in STEM, and especially in the space flight industry, as we take the first step in exploring deep space and the universe.

A: What do you hope National Space Day will accomplish this year? In the long term?

H: I hope that Space Day inspires a new generation to look to the stars, with the long term goal of motivating tomorrow’s scientist, engineers and technologist to write a new chapter in the history of space exploration.

The first person to travel to Mars someday on Orion is probably in middle school or high school right now! Perhaps a youngster at Space Day will be inspired to one day pursue this great adventure and achievement for all of humankind.

A: Thank you, Heather, for your contributions to space exploration, growing the next generation of achievers in space, and for your enthusiasm for careers in STEM.

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