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Dana Bolles
Flight Systems Safety Engineer
Safety & Mission Assurance Directorate
NASA Kennedy Space Center

Picture: Dana Bolles

Dana first went to the University of California at Santa Cruz and finished her degree at California State University, Long Beach, in Mechanical Engineering. Next, she spent a year at San Francisco State University, where she received her Masters Certificate in Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology. Upon completion, she was hired at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, where she has been working in the Safety & Mission Assurance Directorate for about a year.

Question 1: Can you describe your work?

My job is to ensure that the safety regulations and requirements at the Kennedy Space Center are met. In order to do this job I need technical skills to make sure that projects coming to Kennedy conform to engineering safety codes.

I work on three areas:

1) Safety Initiatives Award Program
This program awards contractors for planning and implementing ways to improve their safety program. These safety plans are negotiated with us and agreed upon by both parties. If the stated goals are met by the end of the award period and if the contractors met the milestones in their plan, they are given an award.

2) International Space Station
The International Space Station (ISS) is a program where the United States works with partners from countries such as Italy, Japan, Canada, etc. The program is relatively young and at this time, I review data packages for the Space Station elements that will be processed and launched from the Kennedy Space Center. I also assess the ground support equipment that will be used for ISS processing.

3) Expendable Launch Vehicles
This part of my job has to do with equipment (i.e. satellites) put into space by rockets. Similar to my work in ISS, I review data packages to ensure that the people and facilities are safe during the processing of these satellites.

Recently I became involved in improving wheelchair accessibility at the Kennedy Space Center. I'm also active with a smaller committee that works on general accessibility issues at the Center. While I was not formally hired to work in the area of accessibility, I am constantly teaching people how to be aware of issues that affect disabled people.

Question 2: Is learning math important if you want to have a career in aeronautics?

You have to learn math. I can't think of any instance where math isn't important if you want to work in aeronautics.

Personally, I've always liked math. It did not come easy to me, but I enjoyed it because it was more concrete than other areas of study. I always liked writing, but math is more straightforward and I like the fact that there is always a right answer.

I also had good math teachers in high school and that certainly helped.

Question 3: How did you get interested in aeronautics?

I was born with no arms or legs. I knew that an astronaut wouldn't need a wheelchair in space because there is not much gravity. I loved that idea and I still do!

In 1985, I was a part of a high school program called ACT - the Advanced Career Training Program - sponsored by Rockwell International, in Downey. That's where I got my first taste of engineering and the space program. It seemed like it would be interesting work and I stuck with it.

Also, as a female in a wheelchair, I would watch people in wheelchairs in the movies and there were no role models except office workers. I wasn't around the disabled community much and as such, I wasn't exposed to any disabled people who might have given me a better idea of the many work possibilities out there.

At Long Beach State I worked for the Disabled Student Services High Tech Computer Lab. This gave me the experience of meeting many wonderful and skilled people who were disabled. There I saw disabled people who were great role models and who gave me much inspiration.

I also met a lot of great role models at San Francisco State, especially a man named Ralf Hotchkiss, an expert in designing wheelchairs. He travels to developing countries and shows people how to make their own wheelchairs with local materials. I loved this work and even though I work here at NASA, I still keep in touch with him and his organization and try to stay involved.

After my Masters Program I was hired on with NASA. It's very exciting at NASA because of the different missions, the different research, etc. One important thing for me is that my experience at NASA helps me see the reality of having disabled astronauts.

Question 4: What's easy and what's hard about your job?

It's easy to talk with people. That's the easiest part, the communication with co-works and customers. I work with a great group of people at NASA.

The hardest part is that I am still learning about the job. I went through a six month training program at NASA, but I still need to learn the practicalities of working on a day-to-day basis. I'm the newest person on the unit and it's difficult to be the "new kid on the block." I'm lucky in that I get a lot of support from my co-workers.

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in aeronautics?

As a freshman in high school I wanted to be an astronaut. I never thought I would be working for NASA, but here I am.

I think that anyone interested in aeronautics should try to work in the field. However, you also need to understand that the aerospace industry is going through a lot of changes. At the moment there are work cutbacks, so you need to be able to live with some job insecurity. The work is very very interesting, though.

Question 6: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math? Why?

I would really encourage it if you like math at all. Also, I recommend sticking with it if you like math but it's difficult for you to do. All that is needed is the desire.

I especially recommend it for females. If you're female, its easy to discount math in school because - at least in the past - school officials often didn't encourage females to excel in math. Sometimes females weren't encouraged to take math courses at all. So if you are female and you like math, stay with it.

Question 7: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with physical disabilities who are considering a career in aeronautics and/or math?

I would like to encourage you to reach for your dreams. Don't be discouraged by people who want to limit you because of your differences. Nobody knows our limits better than we do. For me, I've always wanted to be an astronaut. I believe that someday, disabled astronauts will be a reality. I may not be the one, but if I am able to help make it happen (for disabled people), it will be most rewarding to me. Others have tried and/or are still trying to push the door open. We need to plant big ideas in young minds if we want to see it happen. Maybe these young people can even help push. After all, who can benefit more from being in space than disabled people? In microgravity the barriers are minimized.

Question 8: What challenges, if any, have you dealt with in your career due to your disability?

The biggest challenge is that my disability is not something I can hide. Seeing me without arms and legs is something that everybody notices and some people make assumptions based on appearances. They make snap judgments. They think that I am delicate, that I'm not smart. Once they get past their initial prejudices they see me for who I am. I think I handle it well outwardly, although I sometimes get frustrated by the paternalism and the pity.

It's mainly an issue on the surface when I don't deal with people on a daily basis. People who know me, my co-workers for example, know my capabilities and therefore don't feel sorry for me. Unfortunately, there are a lot more people who do pity me since they go by my physical appearance.

Question 9: Would you encourage young people with disabilities to pursue careers in aeronautics? In math?

Math is the key subject. Many people are afraid of math, but if you do well in it you can go far in life. The mind is a great equalizer. You can't always change your appearance with a disability, but you can usually change the way people treat you. If you are smarter than someone else, then it diminishes the pity factor for disabled people...or at least it decreases it.

Part of being a contributing member of society is being able to work. I used Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to get through school and I certainly appreciated it. SSI is good for many people, but I know people who are on it but don't want to be dependent on the system. It's a great feeling to be able to support yourself. So I don't want young disabled people to fall into the trap of getting stuck without work if they can avoid it.

With assistive technology like special computer aids for people with disabilities, there are no limits to learning and expressing yourself. Kids should take advantage of that in any field.

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