As a girl growing up on St. Thomas, NASA engineer Simmione Fullwood never envisioned herself in the space industry.
“Living on the islands, you see the jobs available: accounting, banking, transportation. You only know what you see,” Fullwood said. “The space shuttle was just something you saw on TV. It wasn’t anything I thought I could aspire to.”
Fullwood’s Anguillian grandfather, however, told her she would become a civil engineer, and she believed him.
“I remember he would put me on a pile of rocks and have me chip the big ones into gravel to make cement,” she said. And she started thinking that she could make roads.
These days, she works in Space Launch Systems at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Florida.
During the NASA & UVI Outreach to students around the globe last week, Fullwood and her husband, Ken, presented NASA’s new spaceflight program to return humans to the moon – Artemis. As the twin sister to Apollo in Greek mythology, Artemis will take the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface.
The Fullwoods explained how the spacecraft works, and they encouraged students to believe in themselves and to take advantage of STEM studies offered in their schools.
Students and teachers from the Virgin Islands, India, South Africa, Scotland, Hawaii, and Tennessee participated in the 17-session event, Jan. 24-28. Christina Chanes, research specialist in the college of science and math at UVI, organized a team of presenters that included scientists, astronauts, professors, educators, and engineers.
Local students from Addelita Cancryn Intermediate School, which Fullwood attended, All Saints School, and Gift Hill School gave presentations and engaged in question and answer sessions with the NASA folks.
“I didn’t anticipate those questions coming out of their mouths. Wow!” Fullwood said. “Even Elon Musk couldn’t answer some of those questions.”
That technology and robotics excite the students and that they keep up-to-date with research impressed her.
“It’s great to see schools extending these types of programs,” she said. “These kids see future potential, things we might be able to do on the moon. They see that there is a way we can make this come to fruition.”
It’s easier to dream big today, she said.
Throughout the event, speakers counseled students to reach out for internships and jobs at the space centers. They stressed that NASA needs not only astronauts and astronomers but also artists, writers, scuba divers, agriculturists, and all sorts of engineers.
“NASA is a 20-30,000 person organization. It needs lawyers, accountants, biologists, administrators. It needs people who build telescopes and launch satellites and ones who take care of the astronauts. NASA needs every occupation that’s out there,” said Dr. David Morris, associate professor of physics and director of UVI’s Etelman Observatory on St. Thomas.
“If you are interested in accounting, you could become an accountant for NASA. NASA is happy to take accounting students and get them plugged into finance internships for the summer,” he said.
Morris came to UVI in 2011 from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington; he studies gamma-ray bursts.
Fullwood’s path to the space industry began when she transferred from UVI to Alabama A&M – near Huntsville – to complete her bachelor of science in civil engineering. Nicknamed Rocket City, Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and its U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which exhibits one of the world’s largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia.
People in Huntsville live and breathe space technology, and Fullwood became ensconced in the atmosphere.
She chose Alabama A&M because she wanted a Historically Black University where she would not feel far from her cultural realm. She met people from the islands there and bonded with them.
“You meet students who travel home when you travel home, students who might know some of your relatives, who eat the same food you eat and listen to the same music, who enjoy the same activities. People you can play soccer with because you enjoy soccer!” Fullwood said. “This was important to me as I continued my education away from home.”
While at Alabama A&M, she applied for an internship at McDonnell Douglas in Huntsville just as the company was transitioning to Boeing. She interned for two years and got paid full-time while she finished her degree.
“They put me on the Delta IV rocket doing stress analysis because I love math.
I also love structures and making sure that they work or why they might fail,” Fullwood said. “I worked with people I still see today.”
On graduation day, her Boeing department manager showed up and watched her march. “She gave me my hiring papers and said, ‘Be at work on Monday,'” Fullwood said. She was hired on as a systems engineer.
Meanwhile, Ken Fullwood had already worked at Boeing for a year. When he transferred to the Kennedy Space Center, Fullwood homeschooled their two children in Florida, set up an architectural design and site development business, and did contract work in the space industry.
She signed on at the Kennedy Space Center 15 years later. Because she had never drifted very far afield and had continued to network within the industry, the transition back came easily.
“You never want to lose those connections,” she said.
The competitive spirit of the environment has been Fullwood’s greatest challenge. As a Black woman in a predominately male field, Fullwood has faced hurdles and counsels newcomers who encounter fierce competitiveness to stay focused.
“Don’t let those things affect you; that’s how you have to handle it,” she said.
She recalled a time when she had to choose an intern and selected the underdog of the applicants. The student, a young woman, listed Subway as her only job experience, but her high aspirations spoke to Fullwood.
“A lot of people picking students for internships want ones with long experience, but why not go for the student who has no experience?” she said.
Fullwood told the intern to learn workplace skills: Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, good note-taking. She stressed the importance of communication skills and of always knowing the speaker’s name and the point of contact.
She mentors students and advises them to “jump out there.”
“Never look down on yourself. Have a positive frame of mind. Say, ‘I’m going to try.’ Present what you have, and someone will give you an opportunity. If not, create your own opportunity by learning to do what the job requires,” she said.
Do what it takes and get referrals.
The NASA & UVI Outreach programs, such as the one last week, give the USVI visibility on an international stage, according to Morris.
“It’s important for students to understand that there is a bigger world out there past the USA borders,” Morris said. “If our students are interested in becoming a part of global engineering and of the aerospace community, we want them to know that there is a pathway for them.”
Through internships with NASA, students can see what a career in aerospace looks like. UVI has been sending students for internships since 2014, more each year. Some go on to careers there.
Between the outreach programs, which began on a small scale in 2016, and the physics degrees that UVI now offers, students can go from UVI to NASA without ever having to leave the territory for further education.
The current push for diversity, equity, and inclusion helps.