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Meet: Imelda Terrazas-Salinas

a photo of Imelda

Group Leader of the Test Engineering Group

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Who I Am
My job is very exciting. I work for the Thermophysics Facilities Branch. This branch operates test facilities which are very much like high temperature wind tunnels, called "arc jets". The arc jets are used to test heatshield materials which protect spacecraft from the extreme heat that they encounter when they enter the atmosphere of a planet. Our facilities were used extensively for Space Shuttle testing and in developing the tiles for the Space Shuttle.

My official job title is Aerospace Engineer, but I think just about everyone at the Center is an Aerospace Engineer, so the title doesn't really say much about what I do. On our organizational charts, I'm listed as Group Leader of the Test Engineering Group. This is a pretty neat title and the job that goes along with it is also pretty neat, except for the fact that the group consists of one person in addition to me. Since the group is so small, most of my job falls under test engineering.

As the group leader, I'm responsible for scheduling tests in our test facilities and for making sure that the tests get done in a timely manner. This means that when one test is running over, or something breaks down, I need to work with all of our customers to see how we can move things around to make sure everyone gets all of their tests done. I also work with our customers to help them plan their tests.

As a test engineer, I'm responsible for getting individual tests done. The test program consists of individual "runs". I tell the facility operators what settings to use for each run to obtain the conditions that the customer wants -- in effect, I'm back-seat driving. After the run is done, I check the data to make sure there are no errors. After I verify that the data is ok, I pass it on to the customers for them to analyze. Then, I start on the next run. At the completion of the test, I prepare a post-test report and move on to the next test program.

My Career Path
I decided I wanted to become an aerospace engineer some time during high school. I don't remember when, but when I was applying to college, I was looking at colleges with aerospace majors. I didn't really prepare for a specific career until I got to college -- at this point, I just followed the prescribed curriculum for my chosen major. During high school, I took the classes that were required for admission to the University of California system with no particular goal in mind. During high school, my main goal was to graduate so that I could go to college. I liked school and academics, so I took all of the college-prep classes I could take. My electives consisted of classes like Advanced Placement Biology. I enjoyed taking the hardest classes available to me because I really got a lot out of them. This turned out pretty well, because even though I didn't really have a specific goal in mind, I was well-prepared to study for just about anything.

Why I like my Job
My job is never boring. This is both good an bad. The good part is that my job is really fun most of the time. I work with very good people and we work as a "team", so we're pretty close.

Sometimes, however, my job is not boring because we're having to deal with some sort of crisis. This is the kind of excitement I could do without. Most of our crises arise because of failures in our equipment. Most of our equipment is very old and our group does a really good job of keeping it running. However, every once in a while something fails. This usually happens in the middle of some critical test, so we have to find some way of making sure that we are able to complete the test. Luckily, our staff is very dedicated: they are here to do the job and they take pride in doing their job, so they are usually willing to do whatever it takes to finish the job - sometimes this means coming in to work at 4:30 am, or staying until midnight. If it weren't for our great crew, my job would be very difficult.

I don't think you can really prepare for a career. Of course, you have to go to school and take all the right classes (math, science), but most of what you need for your career will be learned on the job. The schoolwork will give you a good foundation, but I don't think you can expect to come to work right after school and immediately solve NASA's problems.

A lot of the time we may think that because we went to a good school and got good grades we're going to be God's gift to the world of Aeronautics. However, there's still a lot to be learned after we get out of school.

Random thought: One of my mentors used to like to tell me and other colleagues who were close in age that some of the great thinkers of our time (Shroedinger and others) had made their great discoveries by the time they were our age.

Early Influences
My mother, of course, was very supportive and she never pushed me to go into one field or another (I think she probably would have like me to become a doctor, but medical stuff grosses me out). So, it was nice to go through school knowing that I could do whatever I wanted with my education.

My high school counselor was also very influential and I give her a lot of credit for where I ended up. She encouraged me to apply to the schools I wanted to even if I didn't think I'd be going there for one reason or another. If it hadn't been for her, I might not have applied and gone to Stanford.

Finally, I think it was a Marines recruiter that was responsible for me choosing aeronautical engineering. I was talking to him about joining the Marines to become a pilot. He pretty much told me that there was no way I'd become a pilot in the Military (my eyesight wasn't good enough and they didn't allow women pilots, except maybe for helicopters, at the time); I could probably become a commercial pilot, though. Since I couldn't become a pilot, I looked for something else that was related to aviation. Since I was pretty good at math and science, I settled on aeronautical engineering - or maybe I was already considering aeronautical engineering to supplement my flying career???

I love wildlife: I especially love the cute, furry animals, like baby polar bears. One of my favorite TV shows is the "tale of twin polar bears" that shows up on PBS every-so-often - I would pay to have an experience like that - or simply to be able to hold a baby polar bear. I think it's a cruel trick of nature that the cutest animals are also among the fiercest. I'm also very fond of the less-cute animals: I love crocodiles, alligators, and other reptiles - amongst my favorites are the frilled lizards. I love watching wildlife shows on Animal Planet. I don't own any exotic animals, though, but I do have a little love bird who likes to pretend not to like me.

I also love to sew. I make most of my clothes because that way I can fit them to my likes and I can use the materials that I want. I like to use natural (like cotton and silk) and high-tech (microfiber) materials. I like to support industries that care about our environment, that's why I made a fake-fur coat for myself. Not that our weather really warrants heavy coats, but because I wanted to make a statement that we don't need real animal furs to have luxurious coats. Unfortunately, with our weather, I don't get to wear it much. I would love to see fake fur replace real-fur products. It's very difficult to find ready-made eco-friendly clothing. I am looking into buying organic cotton cloth, but that is very difficult to find - I love natural, undyed cotton - it just doesn't compare to the over-processed cotton that is readily available.

Chat Archives

October 15, 2001 Webchat

September 12, 2000 Webchat

Page Last Updated 10/17/2001


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