Houston, We Have a Vision

by Sharyn Kopf—Cedarville, Ohio

Just try telling Stacie Bennett Cox ’00 you can’t dream big. If anything, the Texas resident believes in dreaming on a cosmic level. It started before she even graduated from Cedarville, when she went after her ideal job … and got it. Stacie currently holds the title of project manager for sustaining engineering in her organization at NASA. Yep, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston. And she is proving to others — and herself — just what someone can accomplish when they put their mind to it.

    The electrical engineering major always wanted to work with the space program, considering it her “end goal” as far as a job was concerned. Her timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

    “I got wind during my senior year that NASA was lifting its hiring freeze,” she says. “Career Services sent an email to engineering majors asking if anyone wanted their resume sent down. I also sent one through a friend whose dad worked there. So, my resume made its way to two different organizational branches.”

    It wasn’t long before Stacie received two phone calls that lead to an interview. She flew down in May of 2000 to meet with the Electronic Design and Development branch in the Avionic Systems Division. But when she talked to the supervisor she learned that, unfortunately, he had not yet received the authority to hire for the job. So, Stacie took option No. 2 and accepted a position at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. She also enrolled in — and received a scholarship to — the Air Force Institute of Technology. It all added up to two exciting opportunities.

    And the Monday after graduation, Stacie turned them both down.

    Remember the supervisor at NASA who couldn’t hire her yet? Well, apparently, the approvals he needed came through … because he called Stacie while she was on a post-graduation vacation and offered her a job. That August she moved to Houston. She started out doing basic research and design for several years, moving from project to project, until she was, finally, put on a true flight project.

    “After the Columbia accident,” she says, “we had a ‘return to flight effort.’ The next three flights were to test the new capabilities for inspection and damage detection. It was a concentrated effort to get the Shuttle flying again.”

    Stacie’s role was to work on the Orbiter Boom Sensor System. The OBSS — a long stick with sensors on the end that attaches to the Shuttle arm — is used on every mission to take 3-D laser imagery of the Shuttle’s surfaces. It allows the astronauts, engineers, and image analysts to check for damage on ascent and to clear the Shuttle for re-entry. As her skills and knowledge became more necessary, Stacie saw her responsibilities on the project evolve. She was named sub-system manager for one of the laser sensors, and led that team from the development phase through successful flight operation.

    In fact, it became clear, over the years, that Stacie’s strength was in management. She tried design for awhile, but her naturally out-going and social personality made the isolation of such work difficult. “I’d rather be up and out,” she says, “overseeing technical work, and managing the various aspects of a project, including requirements, documentation, budget, and schedule.”

    While at NASA, Stacie met her husband, Gary, who works in the Orbiter Projects Office — the organization that manages the Shuttle vehicles. When she was working as project manager for the OBSS sensor packages, she went into pre-term labor with their son and ended up having to be away from the office longer than she had planned. Two months after Taylor was born, she was back on the job … only it was a different job, as someone was already filling her former position. This time, Stacie’s title was project manager for sustaining engineering. That means, she manages all of the flight hardware her division maintains for both the Shuttle Program and the International Space Station Program.

    “The coolest thing I’ve experienced so far,” says Stacie, “is seeing hardware I’ve helped develop being used in space. The OBSS was the number one ‘return to flight’ project and was on the news. I’d see it on CNN and say, ‘I did that.’”

    Of course, meeting astronauts is a pretty decent perk in and of itself.

    Her years at Cedarville provided Stacie with much of the day-to-day skills she needs to be a success in her job. From learning how to take a design from start to finish, to managing a budget, to understanding how to work on a team, she knows the value of her education. She especially appreciates the team aspect of her schooling.

    “You don’t always get to pick your team. You and your project are only as good as the team you’re on and how well you work together.”

    Speaking of teams, though Stacie admits she primarily works in a Christian environment, she’s grateful for what Cedarville taught her about ethics and figuring out where people are coming from based on their worldview. This really rang true for her in April of 2007, when a NASA contractor killed a co-worker before taking his own life … an event that took place just down the hall from Stacie’s office.

    The tragedy brought to light the many other believers at NASA, and reminded Stacie that she is a Christian first, even in a work environment. “Part of being a Christian is being a good employee,” she says. “You can have a testimony.”

    Sure, she pursued her vision of working at NASA and yes, she saw it realized within days of graduating from Cedarville University. But for Stacie Bennett Cox, reaching for the stars simply means seeking God’s will for her life.

    Cosmic, indeed!