A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, Assistant Director for Space Policy at the White House Office of Science Technology Policy, Former NASA Program Executive with hands-on experience working across small satellite mission design, large spacecraft development, systems engineering, and computer science.
What is your background?
My professional background is in aerospace engineering. I have contributed to over 60 missions – as an engineer, a technical expert, and a manager – in earth observations, planetary science, heliophysics, astrophysics, and human exploration at NASA. I am currently determining civil and commercial space priorities for President Biden’s science advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
My educational background includes advanced course work in software engineering, systems engineering, aerospace engineering, leadership of technical organizations and public policy.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I am most proud of being able to contribute to three stand-out efforts. My hands-on engineering work involved building seven large spacecraft, which all launched successfully. One of the spacecraft was the Global Precipitation Measurement mission. GPM saves lives by monitoring precipitation, including hurricanes, which makes me proud. I worked with an international team on space communication networks (in Norway, Australia, South Africa and South America) that ensure users on Earth get data from satellites in orbit. I have also moved from engineering – where I contributed to exploration missions that expand human knowledge to improve conditions on Earth – to policy, where I can contribute thoughts, plans, and actions for using space exploration to improve conditions for humankind now and in the future.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Being relentless in demanding excellence in all my pursuits has served me well.
Staying curious and learning something from everyone has also been critical.
Learning how to learn from mistakes – mine and others – and how to discover better choices from those mistakes has been useful. Along with that, trying new things even if I might fail.
Having a brain trust has proved helpful. A brain trust is a group of humans who advise you. My brain trust includes people I do not know personally. I study them through their impactful writing like Dr. Maya Angelou or my late grandmother. I also talk to lots of people, who genuinely care about how I can use my talents to contribute to society.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I would not be where I am today or who I am today without any part of my journey, so all parts of my education – in school and in life – have been impactful. I wanted to be an inventor and I thought studying computer science was the best way to learn to create and implement new things. Think of the software world that machine code has allowed us to create, and what it can do for autonomous systems in the future! I was not content being a contributor and wanted to be able to lead an engineering spacecraft mission, so learning how to do things well required some advanced study—in addition to a lot of hands-on work—in systems engineering. I dreamt about robots building satellites and other things in space, so I had to learn space robotics. Lastly, I thought it made sense to understand how to make policy, so that one day, I could influence decision-makers to support all the space ideas I have.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I have enjoyed that every day provides different and uncomfortable challenges because I succeed and fail each day, and both help me grow. I designed small spacecraft for a while, and preferred my time spent building spacecraft to conceptual design exercises because I enjoy creating things. I also wish we could have built the space habitats and space hotels people promised in the 1980’s because the efficiency of in-space manufacturing, and innovation in autonomous systems would improve life on earth tremendously. Waiting for all the great ideas to become great space missions can be hard.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
My biases lead me to offer an exciting secret in space that is getting out: space is an interdisciplinary phenomenon where everyone can play. We need many skill sets to help us build the future of space. We need space farmers to grow food in space, mathematicians and engineers to build self-assembling structures, space doctors, space artists, space lawyers, and space architects. Satellites are increasingly critical for communications (your phone service and satellite TV), weather, and infrastructure such as electric grids, water networks, and transportation systems. Human deep-space missions, to Mars and beyond, will need space psychologists and sociologists with skills for keeping space communities healthy and productive on their multi-year travels to distant worlds. We also need more data scientists to analyze remote-sensing data for finance, agriculture, and our climate.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Focus your energies. Our future is in good hands because you are all a bright and resilient bunch, so work smart by focusing your energies on what excites you. If many things excite you, then they will eventually intersect. Begin with the one which has the most momentum for you under your current circumstances and ask for help. We are all likely to do the most good and make the most contributions in areas that are intuitive for us. Since most things worth doing are hard, it is easier to give everything you’ve got to what appears to be common sense to you. Then inject yourself into or create your tribe of fellow, relentless doers. If climate monitoring is a no-brainer to you, then do your part to monitor our climate. If orbital debris concerns you, then please work to create policy or build tools to prevent, track, and clean space debris. If assembling and manufacturing in space makes sense, then please join me in building the next frontier in space.
Read and build. Your generation has more tools for “going to work in space” that any prior generation has had. Try them out while your young. Read books – factual and fictional – about space. Works by brilliant people like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin gave us images of what could happen in the future. Think on it: Verne popularized underwater adventure; Clarke theorized that satellites ringing Earth could relay information across the globe in seconds; Asimov practically defined how we think about robots, and Le Guin introduced us to the impacts of diversity on space travel. We have their imaginations to thank for many of the ideas I work on today. Build things – many no-cost resources allow for fun and learning: coding Python, doing virtual physics experiments, “inventing” new chemical compounds, writing your own stories about space, and just learning cool stuff.
Prepare yourself for your future. Space requires a lot of knowledge; make sure you are well-rounded and have not only science and mathematics knowledge, but also reading, writing and logical thinking skills. Don’t give up because it doesn’t come easily. We humans excel at finding ways to succeed (which might be the most important skill for working in space). Look around you – at your neighbors near and far – and think how you would make their lives better, if you could. Never forget – the best use of space is to help us all live better lives (wherever that might be in the universe). Let your mind wander while you dream of answers to the question: “How can I make things better or easier for my grandmother or my best friend or my planet?” The answer to that question is why I love working in space and why I think you will too.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Fail more and try again a little smarter. Demand kindness and humility of yourself. All these will serve you well.