For a young woman from Chicago, the offer must have sounded like something out of a science fiction novel. A strong student in math and science, Joan Higginbotham graduated from renowned Whitney Young Magnet High School on the city’s South Side, and then from Southern Illinois University with a degree in electrical engineering. But after a pair of internships with IBM yielded no full-time engineering jobs right away, she was starting to question her career path. And that’s when a representative from NASA reached out to her.
“Come launch shuttles for us.”
Electrical engineers are, by nature, problem solvers. When they look at equipment or systems, they see how the pieces connect, and they understand how to make them work together. Higginbotham was exposed to the world of electrical engineering at an early age through a program called Inroads, a precursor to the STEM curriculum of today, and it opened up for her a world of possibilities.
One year after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, NASA was getting ready to send astronauts back into space, and they were looking for problem solvers like Higginbotham.
“They flew me down to Cape Canaveral, and took me out to the launch pad,” Higginbotham recalled. “It looked like something right out of Star Wars.”
“They flew me down to Cape Canaveral, and took me out to the launch pad. It looked like something right out of Star Wars.”—Joan Higginbotham
The money, she knew, would be less than what electrical engineers made in the private sector. But no one else could offer what NASA was offering.
“They wanted me to test electrical systems for the shuttle – basic operations for the spacecraft and whatever payload it was carrying for that mission – and then sit in the firing room in the Launch Control Center.”
The firing room was her viewpoint for almost 60 launches before she was tapped on the shoulder to become a staff assistant to the engineering director. This was a fast-track program for up-and-coming engineers at NASA, a chance to learn the business side of the space industry and build the next generation of leaders at the agency. It was also the first time someone suggested that Higginbotham look at taking her problem-solving skills into space – as an astronaut.
“My boss kept pushing me to apply,” she recalled. “I finally did it just to get him to stop bugging me about it!”
The application was six pages long, and included an Air Force Class 3 physical. Six thousand people applied. From that pool, NASA invited 122 candidates, including Higginbotham, to a weeklong interview that included medical and psychological testing. Six months later, they chose a class of 15 astronauts, but Higginbotham wasn’t among them. The launch director at the Kennedy Space Center broke the news to her, and told her she just missed the cut. The only thing missing from her candidacy, he said, was a more technical degree than the master’s she had already earned in management.
Higginbotham was emotionally drained, and disappointed by the end result. But throughout the process, the reluctant candidate had started to envision herself as an astronaut, and really wanted this opportunity. So she went back to who she was at her core – a problem solver – and decided to earn a second master’s degree, this one in space systems. That put her over the top, and in April 1996, NASA announced her as a member of its newest class of astronauts. Off she went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin basic training.
“It’s everybody learning everything,” Higginbotham said. “I learned how to fly a fighter jet, I got scuba qualified, and I learned every system on the shuttle and International Space Station. Boot camp lasted 18 months, and at the end, we found out what our individual roles would be.”
“I learned how to fly a fighter jet, I got scuba qualified, and I learned every system on the shuttle and International Space Station.”—Joan Higginbotham
Higginbotham was a member of the seven-person crew that would fly the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station in December 2006, and she would be the mission specialist, operating the robotic arm that would deliver and attach the third port truss to the growing space station. Twelve months of training went into that mission, including hundreds of hours in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 200-foot-long and 40-foot-deep swimming pool with full-sized mock-ups of the ISS and shuttle payloads where astronauts can simulate working in the microgravity of space and practice their mission. The mission was a success, and after two decades with NASA, she decided it was time for a career change.
Like the space agency, Marathon Oil was also in the market for problem solvers, and Higginbotham’s engineering background and astronaut experience made her an attractive candidate. “To do what?” she asked. “To learn the business, and then we’ll find the right fit,” they replied. Always up for a challenge and an opportunity to learn how the pieces connect, she rotated through departments at Marathon, spent time on an offshore platform in the North Sea, and ran the company’s malaria program in Equatorial Guinea.
On a trip to Washington D.C. for a Black Congressional Caucus event for up-and-coming African-American professionals, Higginbotham met her future husband, a city councilman and rising star in politics from Charlotte. Their long-distance relationship lasted two years before they married, and she relocated to the Queen City.
Not sure what her next career step would be, it wasn’t long before she got a call from Chris Ahearn, a vice president at Lowe’s, who was also looking for a problem solver to run the community relations department. Almost five years later, she’s now the company’s director of supplier diversity, responsible for helping Lowe’s find small and diverse vendor partners, a critical source of innovative products and services.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Higginbotham, “but I’m still just an electrical engineer at heart. I love figuring out how things work, and I love solving problems.”
With that skill set, not even the sky is the limit to her career potential. The only question is, which problem will she help solve next?