Be energetic, passionate, transparent, trustworthy, competent, and set the vision and purpose and strategy for and with your team. People want to be part of something impactful, and will commit their best when you give your best. Being energetic in the midst of all things helps set the tone for others. It is crucial to be realistic about the current situation if things are challenging, while offering a path forward that people can relate to. Involving the team in decisions is crucial for buy-in and to get the most robust strategy.
As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingJoy Kelly, Ph.D.
Joy Kelly is Vice President and General Manager of the Jacobs Clear Lake Group which provides design, development, and testing of spacecraft and associated systems for human spaceflight and astromaterials curation and basic research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). Joy has responsibility for approximately 1,500 personnel and annual revenues of 240M dollars.
From 2008–2019 Dr. Kelly served as Deputy General Manager of the Clear Lake Group. From 2004 to 2008, she served as the ESC Group’s Director of Engineering and Chief Engineer on the contract supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station programs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in Florida called Merritt Island that is home to Kennedy Space Center. Growing up in the midst of human spaceflight certainly fueled my passion for space exploration. Neither of my parents finished college, yet from a very young age, my mother stressed the importance of getting a college degree so I could take care of myself. Without going into details, my mom had a very tough life as an adult. She worked very hard to put food on the table and to make sure we had clothes that looked nice. She sacrificed a lot and wanted to instill in me the importance of being financially comfortable. I loved to learn from a very young age, and had a passion for math. At the recommendation of my high school calculus teacher, I studied engineering rather than math because he felt it would give me many more options in my career.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I don’t really have one particular book that has made a significant impact on me. I have a few that stand out for different reasons. Perhaps the one that has been most impactful is “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. The focus of mindfulness in everyday life and being truly present in the current moment has shifted my approach to life and has helped me to cultivate a heart of gratitude in the moment. I read this book about 25 years ago, and am so grateful for the simplicity of its lessons.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Two quotes come to mind. “Always assume positive intent” which has been quoted by several leaders through the years and “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff fife is made of,” by Benjamin Franklin.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
Growing up in the midst of the space industry in Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was really what inspired me to pursue a career in the space industry. School curriculum was filled with space and my father worked as a technician in the photography lab at KSC. He was allowed to bring photos home periodically of the Apollo astronauts, and I was deeply inspired by all of it. I have said many times that “I have space in my blood.” My dream is to get to go to the moon as a tourist. It might be 20–25 years away, yet I believe an industry tipping point could make that a reality.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
The coolest connection for me in my career was at the point I came to Houston as Director of Engineering for the JSC Engineering and Science Contract. The first connection was identified early on — the avionics team conducting experiments and research on wireless communications using a pair of P200 ultrawideband radios. Those radios were designed and built as prototypes by my team and others at Time Domain, a start-up company I worked for in Huntsville, Alabama a few years prior. Then fast forward, I was on a robotics tour part of my team was giving with NASA at JSC. In talking to the division chief of the robotics and automation, we determined that the foundation of their rover work was part of the work I had done during my robotics days in my early career in Denver a couple of decades earlier. It is truly such a small world!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The one that comes to mind is learning about cold weather. I married my high school sweetheart after he graduated from West Point at 20 years old and we moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado as his first assignment. They had a satellite campus of the University of Colorado where I finished my undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering. We moved there in late December. I had no closed-toe shoes, so I bought wool socks to wear with my high heel wedge shoes. BIG MISTAKE!! Also, to add insult to injury, the only color they had was red. So, I showed up at class the first day in January, with red wool socks stuffed into my high heel shoes, thinking that would keep my feet warm, and looked much better than those clunky hiking shoes everyone else wore. After all, wool keeps you warm even when it gets wet. I showed up with snow caked on my red wool socks. Lesson learned — dress properly for the elements!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people through the years I have learned different lessons from, but the person I hold most dear is my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Mims. He made the recommendation to major in engineering and it has shaped my life and career. While having a career in mathematics would have had its own interesting journey, I’ve been afforded many opportunities more readily in the field of engineering.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The team I lead at Jacobs here at the Johnson Space Center partners with NASA to develop everything from the next generation spacesuit that will be worn by the first woman and next man on the moon to conducting fundamental geological research on astromaterial samples, exploring the origins of the universe and materials that will enable humans to live on other places in the universe; whether it is the moon or Mars. We provide hardware for the International Space Station and provide support to NASA for commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. There are way too many things to list, so perhaps the best way to frame it is that we work on so many aspects of human spaceflight supporting NASA it’s truly awe-inspiring. All of this work supports efforts for humans to live, work and thrive in space, and they offer analog benefits here on Earth. That’s pretty cool!
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
1) The increased interest in space exploration is very exciting. Having extremely prominent tech-savvy, highly successful people turn their profits into investments in the space industry has helped to fuel a renewed interest in space. The excitement globally is wonderful also.
2) The national and international interest in space among the youth is fueling an interest in STEM education, which is great for humankind — the world’s challenges are often solved by the analog application of needs for space exploration, and vice versa.
3) We are by our very nature, explorers. The space industry provides the platform for our next really big exploration into the unknown. This is fundamentally unifying, and as we shift to a global way of being, allows a strong bond among all of us as human beings.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
There are really two key issues from my perspective. First, getting consistent direction and funding (which has changed with each administration for many decades) for NASA is crucial to making uninterrupted progress for human exploration. This is fundamental to creating the basis for an economically viable human exploration space industry. Second, the risks associated with human exploration are high, and thus too expensive for commercial companies to take on independently. There are many things that need to be solved before space exploration can become viable for totally commercial endeavors. The partnerships between NASA, companies who have decades-long experience in human spaceflight, and the newer companies with fresh ideas on how to do things differently, can all come to the table to accelerate the commercial human space industry.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think the biggest change that needs to be accelerated is providing hands-on activities for young girls that appeal to a majority, rather than simply a few. Hands-on experimentation is the foundation of engineering and many careers that tend to favor and attract more men than women. This effort needs to start at a very young age and continue through high school. The focus needs to target under-represented groups of children as well, who are much more unlikely to have the foundation of going to college.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think this is better covered in my leadership lessons below. I have wrestled with this topic throughout my career and I wonder if the biggest challenge is standing in our own way. We just need to do it — whatever “it” is.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
No myths come to mind. Of the industries I’ve worked in, the space business has had the highest percentage of women compared to other fields, and overall it is welcoming and collaborative.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Put yourself out there for opportunities as stretch goals. You build experience and confidence by just doing it. Getting my Ph.D. seemed a bit daunting at the start, but that was a tremendous door-opener in my career. There are many other examples in my career, but this one stands out for me.
- Enlist the support of others. You don’t have to have all the answers. No one does. My first work assignment out of college was to derive the kinematic equations for a 6-degree-of-freedom robot. There were no engineering books on the topic yet; I had not learned ANY of that in school, FIRST robotics programs didn’t exist, and I had no idea where to begin… except to ask the resident applied mathematician, where to start. Fortunately for me, he was eager to help. He taught me how to derive coordinate transformations and many other things. Our robotics team grew to about 30 people — two applied mathematicians, several mechanical engineers, a few electrical engineers, computer scientists working on computer vision and path planning, and two philosophy majors turned software gurus working on artificial intelligence. I completed my masters and Ph.D. in electrical engineering with an emphasis of adaptive control of flexible robots while working full time (for the most part) with this incredible team. Continually putting myself out there, and not being afraid to ask questions built my confidence significantly that I was “on par” with my male counterparts.
- Be clear on your purpose and drive to action. When I was working at a start-up company, about three months into my tenure in a technical role, the COO asked me to form and lead a systems engineering group to help drive the team to get a product out the door. Despite my fear of losing my technical acumen (which by the way was a BIG DEAL to me), I said yes. I became clear on my purpose — I believed the best value I could bring to the company was to take this on — There were LOTS of REALLY smart people that already knew the technology, but the group needed direction. I knew that I could make a difference and provide the leadership the team needed.
- Manage your stress and learn to be resilient When I was at a different start-up company, the leadership from the top was adversarial by design. The CEO wanted everyone to be a little bit afraid of losing their job so they would work harder. I developed a robust approach to manage stress to survive in that culture. My stress management approach — exercise judiciously (don’t skip the workout because you’re too busy), eat well, work to get enough sleep, and practice the discipline to keep a sense of humor and have a heart of gratitude. Fast forward to February 2005 when Jacobs started the Engineering and Science Contract, 6 months before the launch of STS-114 the first return to flight mission following Columbia. My bulletproof approach to managing stress and being resilient in the midst of very long hours allowed me to effectively lead the engineering department of over 700 employees, get to know and work with the leadership team, and thrive in the midst of it all.
- Be energetic, passionate, transparent, trustworthy, competent, and set the vision and purpose and strategy for and with your team. People want to be part of something impactful, and will commit their best when you give your best. Being energetic in the midst of all things helps set the tone for others. It is crucial to be realistic about the current situation if things are challenging, while offering a path forward that people can relate to. Involving the team in decisions is crucial for buy-in and to get the most robust strategy.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement would be education for children in less economically privileged areas around the globe. Providing an education that enables them to have a better way of life will help generations to come and allow significant improvement in the quality of life for everyone on Earth.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I am inspired by many people for different reasons. I think rather than someone who is really prominent, I would love to have an opportunity to talk with someone who has an amazing story to tell of a difference they are making, and would like the chance to share the story more widely. Then we could connect him or her to people that could help their cause on a larger scale.