When Orson John III was a young employee at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, he did a lot of outreach to young students to encourage them to pursue careers in STEM. After meeting with one class, he was approached by a Native student who made a comment that still sticks with John. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m glad to see someone who understands our experience working where you are. But I am afraid I’m going to lose who I am if I pursue this,’” recalls John. “That challenged me.”
For John, who joined NASA in 2009, the comment prompted him to look back at his own life. It was an exercise that provided him a strong reminder of the many people who influenced him as a kid growing up in the Navajo Nation. “I understood the teachings of my elders, and one of the most important values is to always remember who you are, no matter where you go,” he says. “If you know who you are, it doesn’t matter where you go because you have a foundation that keeps you grounded.”
Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, John seemed almost destined to end up at NASA from the time he was in elementary school. John’s parents constantly emphasized the importance of reading — his mother assembled a collection of almanacs that ignited John’s interest in the Apollo and space shuttle missions as well as the solar system as a whole.
But it was another item John picked up at a book fair that really got him focused on space, and NASA in particular. “It wasn’t a book — it was a NASA bookmark that pictured the Cassini-Huygens mission that went to Saturn,” John says. “That really sparked my interest.”
John powered that initial spark of interest in STEM with an enviable work ethic. After receiving a BS in physics from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, John wasn’t sure how his career would progress. As an undergraduate, he attended a few AISES National Conferences and came to believe that most of the people who were offered internships were electrical or mechanical engineering students. “Physics didn’t seem to apply for the majority of companies,” John says.
At the 2008 AISES National Conference in Anaheim, though, Marcellus Proctor, a Piscataway Conoy Nation NASA employee, set John up with an interview for an internship. That interview landed John a position at Goddard, which ultimately led to a full-time job and a full-blown career. Today, John is a reliability engineer for NASA.
“We look at systems, whether it’s satellites or ground equipment or instruments to identify possible causes of failure,” John says. “And then we take that information and look for ways to mitigate those failures on the ground so missions can survive the elements they encounter in space.”
Though John has worked on a number of missions and had a variety of responsibilities in his 13 years at NASA, one common element has been the organization’s strong commitment to his career development. “From the time I was an intern, my mentor Nancy Lindsey invested in all her interns,” John recalls. “When I look back, I understand that Goddard was investing and developing younger engineers and colleagues coming up in the industry. NASA taught me about investing and growing people and pairing you with a mentor to help pursue your career and goals.”
For John, this meant getting assigned to projects that both fit his technical strengths and stretched his limits, such as leadership training, technical writing, and public speaking. It also meant ensuring John had mentors who could help navigate the big jump from rural New Mexico to the nation’s capital. “Coming from a reservation and from a small college to a metropolitan area, it’s a culture shock,” John says.
Today, John tries to help young Native NASA employees make the same difficult transition. He reminds people to stay true to who they are. “My grandfather was drafted and served overseas but never lost his identity. A lot of the elders before me left their communities and attended school and still maintained their identity,” John says. “That is who I am, and I am proud to be that. Every tribal person is rooted in his or her name and family and elders. Know who you are.”
— Chris Warren
NASA.GOV/CAREERSWE ARE AMERICAN INGENUITY When most people hear “NASA,” they think “astronauts.” But NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has a staff that comprises a diverse range of specialties in STEM fields and beyond. Among the people who work at NASA you’ll find engineers, scientists, IT specialists, many kinds of technicians, writers, accountants, and more. It’s not just the roles at NASA that are diverse; the people who fill them are diverse as well. NASA was named the 2021 Diversity Champion of LinkedIn’s Talent Awards and the Best Place to Work in the Federal Government for nine years straight, and this independent federal agency has instituted programs that ensure equal opportunity in hiring and career advancement.