NASA's Ginger Kerrick: “I have no idea what is next for me, but I trust I will find myself exactly where I am supposed to be!"

by Jess Clackum

 Ginger Kerrick, NASA's first hispanic female Flight Director. (Photo: NASA)

Ginger Kerrick, NASA's first hispanic female Flight Director. (Photo: NASA)

A native of El Paso, Ginger Kerrick earned her bachelors and masters degrees in Physics from Texas Tech University. She began her career with NASA as an intern in 1991 and was given her first permanent assignment as Materials Research Engineer in 1994. Just over a year later she was reassigned to the Mission Operations Directorate as an instructor for the International Space Station Environmental and Life Support System where she was in charge of training development, simulator development and training conduct for crew members and flight controllers. In 2001, Kerrick became the first non-astronaut Capsule Communicator (CapCom), a position within Flight Control that relays information from Mission Control to the crew. Four years later, Kerrick was appointed Flight Director, the first Hispanic Female Flight Director in NASA history. Kerrick is a dual-certified Flight Director meaning she has supported both Space Shuttle Operations and the International Space Station. She now serves as the division chief for the Flight Operations Directorate's Flight Integration Division. Kerrick has received a number of awards from NASA and other organizations for her outstanding work.

Read more about Ginger Kerrick, in her own words. Courtesy of NASA:

I knew early on that when I grew up, I wanted to be an astronaut or a professional basketball player. Then one day, when I was 11 years old, tragedy struck. I watched my father die of a heart attack. My stay-at-home mom had to quickly figure out how she was going to raise me, my older brother, and my older twin sisters on her own. She got a job at my junior high school so she could keep an eye on me. My mom made it clear that without my dad around, she was not going to be able to pay for my college. She explained the concept of academic and athletic scholarships to me and kept me on the straight and narrow all the way through high school. By the time I reached my senior year, I graduated second in my class and was named El Paso Female Athlete of the Year, which meant I had a number of college offers to choose from. After much soul searching, I accepted an academic scholarship at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I majored in physics and was a member of the women’s basketball team, until I blew out my knee shortly before the first game of the season. There went the professional basketball player dream. Good thing I had the astronaut option still going for me!

Toward the end of my freshman year I learned that NASA did not have a co-op program established with UTEP, so I contacted the Texas Tech Physics Department Chair to inquire about transferring. I explained my financial situation and my goal to become an astronaut. The Chair found a number of scholarships and two part-time jobs for me, the sum total of which would pay for everything I needed for the next year.

I started my junior year at Texas Tech in the fall of 1989 and experienced my first semester away from home. At age 19, I wasn’t quite as grown up as I thought I was. While I had a great time, I lost sight of my priorities and allowed my GPA to drop from a 4.0 at UTEP to a 2.7 after my first semester at Texas Tech. I lost a few scholarships for the second half of the year and NASA told me that there was no way I’d be able to co-op with a GPA that low; some lessons you have to learn the hard way. I spent the next year and a half getting back on track and graduated with a GPA of 3.3, still too low to be considered for NASA’s co-op program but not too low to apply for a summer internship.

In 1991, I got my first taste of working at NASA as a summer intern with the safety organization in a calibration and materials testing laboratory. With my supervisor’s assistance, I transitioned to co-op status at the end of the summer. In October 1993, 2 months before graduating with my master’s degree in physics, I received a letter from the co-op office. The President had put a hiring freeze on all government agencies. They had no idea when it would be lifted and when they could offer me a permanent position. Luckily I stayed a semester ahead in finances so I opted to stay at Texas Tech and take some business courses that next semester while I waited. I knew though that if the hiring freeze was lifted, they probably wouldn’t be able to hire everyone, so to set myself apart, I decided to call the co-op office every Friday at 1 o’clock. Eventually a position opened up and I was one of the lucky few to be hired.

In May 1994, I joined NASA full-time in the safety organization. After 1 year, I met the minimum requirements for applying for astronaut selection. To increase my competitiveness, I was encouraged to seek out a rotational assignment in mission operations to broaden my experience base. My boss approved a 6-month rotational assignment to the Mission Operations Directorate as an instructor for the Environmental Control and Life Support System of the yet-to-be-flown International Space Station (ISS). About 3 months into that assignment, I was notified that I had been selected for astronaut interviews. I could not have been happier! However, during the medical tests I learned I had kidney stones, a medical disqualification. Needless to say, I was devastated. After wallowing in self pity for several days, during which I contemplated giving up on NASA altogether and moving on to something else, I arrived at a new perspective – it just wasn’t meant to be. But, as an instructor for the astronauts, I could still make a contribution to the program, with each astronaut taking a little piece of me with them. That would be the closest thing to actually going myself. With that new perspective and the support of my supervisor, my rotational position to the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) was made permanent in 1996.

Over the course of the last 14 years in MOD I have had a number of unique and very satisfying jobs. Following my experience as an ISS Life Support Systems Instructor, I created a new position, that of Russian Training Integration Instructor, to integrate training and operations products among Houston, the Gargarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and Roscosmos (the Russian space program) in support of the Expedition 1 Space Station crew. Following the successful execution of that mission in 2001, I became the first non-astronaut CapCom (Capsule Communicator), the Flight Control position that relays information from Mission Control to the crew. I served in that role for 4 years until I became a Flight Director in 2005. I am a dual-certified Flight Director, supporting both ISS and shuttle operations. I have supported 13 ISS crews and five joint shuttle missions, including lead assignments for Expedition 14 and STS-126/ULF2.

I have no idea what is next for me, but I trust I will find myself exactly where I am supposed to be!