Tiera Fletcher ’17 decided to become a rocket scientist at 11 years old. Almost 15 years later, she’s helped bring to life one of the most powerful rockets ever built—NASA’s Space Launch System. The rocket will someday propel the next generation of astronauts to the moon and beyond by launching the Orion spacecraft and its crew into deep space. Its first launch is intended for later this year.
“Having a role in bringing the rocket to this point—I felt like a rock star,” says Fletcher, now a project engineer and the modernization deputy program manager in Boeing’s Space and Launch Division. “It nearly brings tears to my eyes because I saw it start on paper, physically crawled into the engine section, helped integrate the pieces, checked and balanced it via documents, and approved it to travel to the Kennedy Space Center. Being a part of so many segments of the journey makes it my other baby, right?”
Now 27 and a soon-to-be mother of three (not counting the Space Launch System), Fletcher’s first exposure to aerospace engineering came at an outreach program from Lockheed Martin held at her middle school.
“That point of impact really dictated my trajectory,” she says.
People in the STEM field, we can’t underestimate the impact that we can have on a student. Without exposure, students can’t really understand what possibilities there are.
She had always been into math and science. Grocery shopping with her mother, she would use mental math to calculate the tab before they got to the register. Her father, a construction worker, taught her how to build and problem-solve in a physical space. But it wasn’t until that Lockheed Martin presentation that all those disparate-seeming STEM interests merged into one dream of becoming an aerospace engineer.
That presentation also imprinted on her the importance of leadership and mentorship.
“People in the STEM field, we can’t underestimate the impact that we can have on a student,” says Fletcher, who earned an AeroAstro degree at MIT. “Without exposure, students can’t really understand what possibilities there are.”
Which is why she and her husband, fellow aerospace engineer Myron Fletcher, formed the outreach group Rocket with the Fletchers. It gives kids from underrepresented groups a look at what it’s really like to be an engineer.
They fulfill their mission through an active social media presence and speaking engagements sponsored by organizations like MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs and Disney Dreamers. They have also been featured on TV shows like Discovery Channel’s Rocket Around the Xmas Tree.
“We are trying to provide kids with the mentor access and knowledge to pursue a career, and also show them what an aerospace engineer looks like,” Fletcher says. “We’re not all older Caucasian males who have been part of the Apollo program, right? Mentorship is about allowing a true unbiased opportunity for diversity of mind to impact what innovation can be brought to the table.”
To that end, Fletcher has also coauthored a book titled Wonder Women of Science, which gives kids—particularly girls—another view of what scientists look like. The book tells the stories of 12 “amazing scientists who happen to be women,” she says. The profiles include people from varied specialties and walks of life, including former deputy administrator of NASA Dava Newman SM ’89, SM ’89, PhD ’92, who is now director of the MIT Media Lab, and Mareena Robinson Snowden PhD ’17, the first Black woman to graduate from MIT with a PhD in nuclear engineering.
In Fletcher’s profile in the book, she admits that while studying at MIT she struggled to believe in her own abilities.
“I would say, ‘You know what? Why should I even be an aerospace engineer? I might like it, but maybe I’m just not good at it.’ And my support system allowed me to pick myself back up,” she says. From professors and staff members at MIT to family and friends back home in Georgia, a network of loved ones and mentors made sure she didn’t give up on her dreams.
“Those moments are what carved me,” she says. “And ultimately they gave me a new perspective of how much strength I actually have.”
Photo (top): Michael A. Schwarz.
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