Powtawche Valerino (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians) is a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She worked as a navigation engineer for the Cassini mission.
Early life and education
Valerino was born to a Mississippi Choctaw mother and African-American father. She grew up on the Mississippi Choctaw reservation and is an enrolled member of the tribe. When she was ten, she moved with her family to New Orleans. That year she saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on television and became interested in science. Valerino learned cello at age twelve, and still plays in the Pasadena Community Orchestra. During high school, Valerino interned as a mechanical engineer as part of NASA’s Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program, where highly achieving students shadow NASA professionals.
She obtained a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, and received her masters and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Rice University. During summers at graduate school, Valerino interned at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, where she worked on the X-38 vehicle (International Space Station lifeboat) team. Her dissertation, Optimizing Interplanetary Trajectories to Mars via Electrical Propulsion, was submitted to Rice in 2005. She was the first Native American to earn a PhD in engineering at Rice University.
Research and career
Cassini-Huygens lifted off with a Titan 4(01)B from Launch Compex 40
Valerino joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mission Design and Navigation Section in 2005. She first worked on the proposed Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter mission, then transferred to the Cassini mission, where she was a navigator with the maneuver and trajectory team. The Cassini mission far outlived the predicted four-year lifetime, with engineers like Valerino pushing it to thirteen years. Throughout the Cassini mission, Valerino shared the spacecraft status and findings with the public.
Her next project is the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, which is planned to launch in late July 2018. It will become the first satellite to fly as close to the sun as Helios 2 did in 1976.
Valerino has worked to recruit and encourage the participation of under-represented groups in science. This has included working with Soledad O’Brien to encourage black and Latina young women to pursue careers in STEM at the PowHERful Summit. In 2016 she received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Education Award for her outreach activities. In 2017, Valerino joined 21st Century Fox in their promotion of the film Hidden Figures, which tells of the role of outstanding African-American mathematicians and scientists in the Apollo program.
Valerinao is a fan of comic books. She has also discussed strong women in graphic novels on podcasts.
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