Laurie Marshall Grindle grew up around planes she got her pilot's license in high school but her current work at NASA goes well beyond the basics of taking off and landing. As chief engineer for the X-43A Hypersonic Project at Edwards Air Force Base, Grindle was responsible for an unmanned vehicle powered by scramjet technology, which takes oxygen from the atmosphere and circulates it through the engine, instead of carrying heavy oxygenating equipment that traditional engines require. Last fall, the experimental aircraft set a world speed record during an 11-minute flight at almost 10 times the speed of sound. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say the flight was a milestone for new ways to launch vehicles into space and could eventually lead to high-speed commercial flights. A Los Angeles native, the 34-year-old Grindle has spent the last 12 years working for NASA, and was just recently named "Outstanding Woman in Technology of the Year" by the National Society of Black Engineers.


Question: There is ongoing debate over the lack of women in science. When did you realize there weren't many women pursuing aeronautical engineering careers?
Answer:
I guess it was in college when I realized that we had to hike a couple of other floors to find a bathroom. There were men's restrooms on every floor maybe two or three to a floor. But a ladies' room? I had a double major in aeronautics and mechanical engineering, and yes, there were fewer women in my classes, but I didn't really notice it much.


Q: Harvard President Laurence Summers suggested that women might be genetically predisposed for certain fields other than science or engineering.
A:
Well, he really walked into that one, didn't he? I do not believe in "predisposition." My background would be anything but that. I didn't have to worry about my race and my gender I was able to just focus on my education, which is enough of a challenge. I've never been in that environment where I was thinking, "I don't know if I can do this, I'm just a girl."


Q: Did you always feel that way?
A:
I went to an all-girls school Westlake School for girls (now the co-ed Harvard Westlake School). My father didn't want me to be in an environment where I wouldn't be secure in my achievements. He wanted me to have as much confidence as I could possibly have.


Q: I've read that when you were 10, you looked up at the stars through a telescope for the first time and that's what started it all for you.
A:
I'm a pretty focused person. I wouldn't say I knew I wanted to be a NASA engineer when I was 10, but I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. In my sophomore year of high school, they start talking to me about careers. They had this computer program where you could punch in personality traits and then it spit out what kind of careers you'd be good at. I was interested in math and science, and had always done well in those areas. I'd always liked taking things apart and putting them back together, and I've always loved airplanes. So when I played with this computer program in high school, it pumped out aeronautical engineering.


Q: What does the chief engineer do?
A:
The role of the chief engineer is to handle all the aspects of engine on the vehicle, and make any decisions that affect engineering. We're talking aerodynamics, propulsion, flight systems, structure, guidance, navigation and control. It was initially very intimidating, but what helps me is to break things down. I have to try and prioritize, to figure out what things really do require my attention and how many things can be handled at another level.


Q: How many people reported to you on the project, and were they mostly younger or older?
A:
As chief research engineer, I had on the order of 30 to 40 people reporting to me. All engineers, mostly older than me. The technology used in the scramjet engine is something that people have been working on in wind tunnels for 40 years, so there are a lot of people that have a lengthy history with it.


Q: Were you their boss?
A:
I'm not someone in control of their promotions or anything they're reporting to me just for the aspects of the project. I've been working with this project and with these people for six years, so they knew that I was capable. If I wasn't able to do that, I'd fall on my butt pretty quick.


Q: Do you feel you have to constantly prove yourself?
A:
I don't really feel that way. That could be a combination of my personality and the environment that I grew up in, but I haven't felt that. Every now and then there's a person who comes along who doesn't know me, and their first reaction is to not respect me but I have a tendency to react in such a way that we put it to rest early on. But that is really an exception rather than the norm.


Q: How did you start on the X-43A project?
A:
In the beginning, I was just one of the aerodynamics engineers. Our first flight in 1999 didn't go so well there was a problem with one of the launch engines. A nine-month mishap investigation followed, then a return-to-flight effort that lasted two years, which I was deeply involved in. The chief engineer at that time asked for some additional help, so I stepped up. I became the chief engineer of the launch vehicle. After a successful Flight 2 in 2004, they made me chief engineer for the project.


Q: Let's talk about the X-43A flight in layman's terms. What did the flight mean for the rest of us?
A:
The flight demonstrated that a scramjet engine could fly at hypersonic speeds. That means the engine takes oxygen from the atmosphere, instead of having to carry along all the fuel. Imagine the launch vehicle for the space shuttle, for example, the big orange thing? The X-43A showed that we could make an engine that didn't need to carry all of that.


Q: So what's the next step with this engine? When can it be put into a new airplane or jet?
A:
A lot of the work that you do at NASA is not necessarily going to give that instant gratification of seeing it on the street tomorrow. We demonstrate the feasibility of a technology. Someone has come up with something, and we're testing it to see if it can be used. We'll put it through all of its paces, we'll write papers and do all the data so that someone else can take it and build a fleet of airplanes.


Q: Is that happening anytime soon?
A:
The primary focus of the X-43A project is access to space and space flight. The things that could be done with it right away would probably be military missiles, for example. If we were going to use it commercially, more likely it would be for a trans-Pacific type of flight getting across the Pacific in two hours, for example. But that's more like 15 to 20 years from now.


Q: What's next for you?
A:
Right now I'll be working in the unmanned aerial vehicles office. The X-43A was a pretty hectic job. At this point, I'm writing a lot of reports on results, and doing more of a floater-type of chief engineer job. It's a little bit more relaxing, and that's just the way I'm taking it.


Q: Do you still want to be an astronaut?
A:
I thought I could do aeronautical engineering while I waited for my astronaut application to go through. Being an astronaut is something that's pretty competitive. I wanted to pick something I would enjoy, in case it didn't work out. I wanted to be sure that if I never got to be an astronaut, I'd be happy doing what I do now. And I have been.


Q: Did the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster dampen your desire?
A:
There's probably nothing that could dampen my desire to become an astronaut, other than not being accepted. If someone came to me today and said you could be an astronaut tomorrow, I'd do it.

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