Why you should care
Because trailblazers do make a difference.
Carolynn “C.J.” Kanelakos is a woman. And she’s a mechanical engineer at the Johnson Space Center. And while some might think these facts make her a bit of a unicorn, she’s never felt particularly exceptional as a woman in the sciences.
“Growing up, nobody ever led me to believe there was anything I couldn’t do. Maybe that was a little naive,” she concedes, “but it was kind of nice as well.”
At her all-girls high school, she joined the all-girls engineering team, and competed on the nearly all-boys engineering competition circuit.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Whoa, maybe there’s not as many females in this field as I thought.’ But I still never saw it as something I couldn’t do,” she says.
It probably helped that Kanelakos grew up in Houston, Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center. While it was on the other side of town, it was close enough for family trips. And it was on one of these early expeditions — when she was 5 years old — that she fell love with space, and NASA.
“It was when the shuttle was still flying, and they had all these hands-on activities and different astronaut space suits and helmets on display that you could put on, and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, NASA’s really cool! And space is cool!’ I got really excited about it from that.”
Kanelakos got to realize her dream while in college, when she joined NASA’s Pathways Intern Program (formerly the Cooperative Education Program). She worked in several divisions, from structural analysis to designing the hardware that gets sent to space. When she joined the organization after college, she ended up working on a team that built a robotic astronaut, or Robonaut. When she joined, R2 (as it is referred to) had a torso, and she helped design its legs.
“Robonaut was designed to be an assistant to the crew,” Kanelakos says. It could be used to fix things around the International Space Station (ISS) and save the astronauts time by cleaning and performing maintenance tasks, and one day may even be used to setup habitats and work environments before the astronauts arrive on another terrestrial surface (for example, Mars). Today, Kanelakos is the Deputy Project Manager for the Cold Stowage group, the division that makes sure materials sent to the ISS are kept at the right temperature on the journey to and from space — a vital role given that the ISS is basically a research lab (albeit one that resides in low Earth orbit).
“It’s definitely a big responsibility because we have an impact on the science the astronauts are able to conduct on the station,” she notes.
A big part of her day-to-day involves communicating, whether it’s with hardware designers or the contractors who oversee real-time operations. What’s she noticed, though, is that she doesn’t stand out as a woman.
“Maybe there’s a few more males in the field in general, but at the Johnson Space Center, I don’t feel like it’s more one way or the other. I guess I’ve never felt a gender bias, which means we’ve come a long way.”