As far as human exploration goes, Mars represents the next big thing. And if this young rocket scientist has anything to say about it, we’ll be sending people there sooner than you’d think.
If most of the explorers you know do things like ski and climb mountains, you probably haven’t heard of Tiera Fletcher. But this young rocket scientist has been quietly working on what could go down as the most remarkable exploratory mission of all time. Come 2019 or 2020, she’ll help NASA send another rocket 38 million miles from the Florida's Kennedy Space Center to continue to lay the groundwork for actually sending humans to ... Mars.
Among the rocket-building elite, Tiera is already a star—her friend Amber Meighan calls her “the next Hidden Figure.” At 23, she’s the youngest member of the Engine Section Task Leading team at Boeing, responsible for building an engine section for an 188,000-pound rocket that will eventually send capsules full of astronauts to the moon and Mars. While most of the scientists on her team of 15 are men in their 50s, Tiera landed her first job with the Space Launch Systems program before her senior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since January of this year, she’s been working as a rocket structural engineer at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. She’s the sole woman on the team, starting her day at 5 a.m. gearing up in proper “clean room” attire, and crawling around the engine section of the 322-foot-high rocket, overseeing installations and performing inspections.
Tiera’s path to young black female rocket scientist began with Nerds (the candy). Six-year-old Tiera wanted them, but the only way her mom, Sheila, would give her some was if Tiera could compute the price of the weekly groceries as they strolled through the supermarket. In her head, Tiera calculated the prices of bread, cereal, and lunch meat, subtracted coupons, added tax, and, when she was correct, earned a pack of Nerds. By age seven she was acing the assignment, earning lots of Nerds, and also helping her older sister with her algebra homework.
At 11, Tiera joined fifth graders from her Mableton, Georgia, elementary school on a weeklong study program at Lockheed Martin. A career as an aerospace engineer suddenly seemed possible. The following summer, she attended every STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) camp she could, studying robotics and rocket science. “Tiera loved a challenge,” says her seventh-grade teacher, Allen Newsome. “She was passionate about working until she figured out a way to solve a problem.” After blazing her way through high school, MIT “got her,” Tiera says. She thought about becoming an astronaut but quickly realized, “You can’t design spacecraft if you’re off in space.”
Just as for the characters in Hidden Figures, though, Tiera’s gender and race have “presented situations where people make assumptions,” she says. “My parents taught me that as an African American female, things aren't going to come easy. Their message was to work 100 percent harder than others and to focus on my goal no matter what naysayers said. I get so focused on a project that I don’t even know others are present.”
In her downtime, Tiera and her husband, Myron, also a rocket engineer, stroll their leafy New Orleans neighborhood, plan overseas trips, and let loose, dancing in their living room. They also give back through their nonprofit, Rocket with the Fletchers, a motivational speaking and mentoring program that helps young people realize their dreams.
As for Tiera’s immediate dream, it’s to help put people on Mars—and continue humanity's exploration. “There are so many questions we have yet to answer,” says Meighan. “She wanted to be one of the people in charge." It’s a lofty goal, but it’s already coming to fruition. People have been saying that we’re 20 years away from putting a person on Mars since the 1970s, but now that target looks realistic. If it happens, Tiera will only be 43 and at the apex of her career.
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