10-Questions with Kat Coderre

Kat Coderre at the Great Wall of China, 2013. Photo Credit: Mathew Hart
On women in engineering, building spaceships, and getting things done!
Concept & interview by: Shekhar Garde, gardes@rpi.edu

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Kathleen (Kat) Coderre. I graduated with a BS in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering in 2006.  I am originally from New Jersey and was always interested in aircraft and space.  In the 7th grade, I attended a US Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, and I was hooked – I wanted to be an Aerospace Engineer!  A high school teacher of mine recommended RPI and it just felt like the perfect fit.

What do you do? Why is it important? What drives you to excel? 

I work as a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. In short, I build spaceships for a living, which is really exciting. Our team works on NASA’s Orion, a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is part of the mission to put humans on Mars in the 2030s. When space vehicles re-enter earth’s atmosphere, the friction with air generates tremendous heat.  My team and I work on Thermal Protection Systems to ensure we come back safely!

As a systems engineer, I understand the fundamental needs of advanced Thermal Protection Systems, and I make sure that those are included in the design and implementation. This requires that I understand the entire vehicle and the mission well, so that I can help ensure that everything runs smoothly from planning, designing, manufacturing specs, and documentation needed to develop, build, and test a spacecraft. Coordinating day to day issues with Lockheed Martin and NASA also means putting out the fire of the day.  

Knowing that the Orion vehicle will be carrying humans makes this all worthwhile!

You recently won the Director’s Award from RAA. Congratulations. What does the award mean to you?

I am honored to receive the award and honestly didn’t expect it!  I did what I thought anyone would do – I saw the need for a local chapter and figured out how to make it happen.  When I moved to Houston 10 years ago, I was looking for other alumni to connect to.  I discovered that there are over 30 RPI alums at NASA alone, and many more in the Houston area, who are now getting together.  My award also belongs to many awesome volunteers who helped along the way (thanks so much everyone)!

What was your Rensselaer experience like? What do you think distinguishes Rensselaer?

I just returned from my 10 year reunion and oh boy did the memories come back!  RPI was tough, I had to study hard and I had many late nights, but it was worth it.  RPI education and the flexibility ability to do co-ops and internships really helped me prepare for the aerospace industry. RPI has an excellent reputation in industry – it gives you the foundational knowledge, teaches you how to solve problems and learn what you need to know.  RPI is also unique in that there are so many clubs and activities and events occurring on campus, that there is something for everyone.  Employers like to see well rounded students, with real hands on experience, and Rensselaer delivers that and more.

Rensselaer Engineering recently crossed a major milestone – 1000 women enrolled in Engineering! (or ~30%).  How are women engineers and scientists contributing to space exploration? 

Woo hoo!  I think we were around 18% when I started at Rensselaer.  Women have been changing the world of space exploration since the beginning – women performed most of the calculations in the 60s (basically they were the computers of their time) and helped land us on the moon!  Today, women contribute enormously to space exploration.  We have a woman astronaut, Kate Rubins, on the International Space Station as we speak!  The Center Director for NASA JSC is a woman (and a retired astronaut), and there are many more.  Here at JSC, women are designing spacecraft, contributing to human research on the space station, training astronauts, and operating the international space station (to name a few roles).  NASA and my company, Lockheed Martin, embrace diversity in all categories – and I have been lucky enough to help contribute to human spaceflight.

Is there a particular memory from your RPI days that you wish to share?

There are so many, but here is one that I think many can relate to.  For one of our design projects (I think it was for IED), we had to design a glider launch system.  The project culminated in a competition to launch the glider to meet certain requirements.  As we were setting up our system, the electronics box started smoking.  So we had to put out the fire, re-wire the box, and get set up for the competition in a very short time!  Well, being RPI students, we made it work, we fixed it and managed to pass the course!  Talk about a team effort! 

What do you do when you are not working or thinking about your research? 

I love to travel, both within the USA and around the world.  I still play sports (we have a great NASA rec center) – soccer, softball, and kickball (think elementary school but with beer).  I have two dogs who keep me entertained, and I enjoy reading.  I also have my pilot’s license and need to start up my instrument certification.  I got my pilot license while I was RPI – did my training at Schenectady airport.

What are your favorite books or blogs?

I read about everything.  I love science fiction, of course, but also like history, so I read historical fiction and non-fiction.  I also just love a good ridiculous book (the author Janet Evanovich makes me laugh).  Currently though I am reading “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I am part of a book club with a bunch of other women engineers and scientists here at NASA – we meet once a month. I love the Star Talk Blog (and now show) by Neil de Grasse Tyson.  

You contribute to Rensselaer in numerous ways.  Why is it important to you?

I spent four years of my life learning and growing as a person while at Rensselaer.  I’ve met lifelong friends and am able to be in a career I love, all due to my Rensselaer experience.  Rensselaer is preparing students to lead in fields which are important to both our country and the world – and I am proud to be a part of it!

Any message to current Rensselaer students?

All the hard work will be worth it in the end!  Make sure you follow your passion and do something that excites you and makes you want to get up in the morning.  And don’t forget to have fun along the way!