Technology missions manager finds niche in space | Technology Today

Instead of pursuing her dreams of becoming a doctor, Tawnya Plummer Laughinghouse decided to follow a new career path – after completing a NASA apprenticeship – that would eventually lead her to space technology.

Laughinghouse is manager for Technology Demonstration Missions at the Marshall Space Flight Center, where she oversees the largest program in the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. But during middle school and most of high school, Laughinghouse had her heart set on being an OB-GYN, and she was selected for early admission to medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Those plans changed in 1990 when she was selected to be part of NASA’s Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program to work for six weeks with scientists and engineers in the former Space Science Laboratory at Marshall. That summer, Laughinghouse learned about the Women in Science and Engineering program, a partnership between NASA and Spelman College in Atlanta that encouraged underrepresented groups of women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. She was selected and went on to complete a dual-degree program, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Spelman and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech.

After graduation, Laughinghouse worked in the chemical manufacturing industries for several years. She joined Marshall in 2004.

“It’s been a thrill for the last 18 years,” she said.

Question: What are your primary responsibilities as a manager for Technology Demonstration Missions?

Laughinghouse: My responsibilities are twofold. First, I manage and execute a portfolio of technology demonstration ground and flight projects led by NASA centers and industry partners across the country. We mature them to system-level demonstrations in space or space-like environments on the ground. As manager for the Technology Demonstration Missions Program Office – part of the Science and Technology Office at Marshall – I lead a truly stellar team of senior-level folks, including mission managers, program planning and control personnel, independent tech authority, and procurement / acquisition specialists. These team members ensure we provide guidance and direction to our projects through their respective development life cycles, and the right level of insight to our numerous stakeholders, administratively through the center, and programmatically to the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Question: What excites you now about the future of space technology and exploration?

Laughinghouse: With the mantra of “Technology Drives Exploration,” the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s mission is to drive innovation and advanced technology throughout the agency while opening a greater opportunity for partnerships with industry, academia, and small businesses. Since I became a program manager in late 2018, Technology Demonstration Missions has launched six technologies to space as rideshares / hosted payloads on commercial rockets or as part of the Department of Defense missions. So, it gives me tremendous satisfaction knowing I have a hand in making sure we have the cutting-edge in innovative technology that enables rewarding new space missions – missions that ultimately advance exploration and our understanding of the solar system and the universe around us.

Technology Demonstration Missions has two exciting launches scheduled for this fall: the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, which will demonstrate a crosscutting aeroshell – a type of heat shield – for atmospheric reentry; and Deep Space Optical Communications, the agency’s first demonstration of optical communications beyond the Earth-Moon system.

Question: You’ve said that one of the reasons you want to excel is to help pave the way for “the next Tawnya” to get an opportunity. Would you speak more on the importance of leaving a legacy?

Laughinghouse: While there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the first of this or that throughout your career, I believe your impact is so much greater when you are intentional about preparing others for the opportunities that will ensure you’re not the last. I count it an honor when a fellow supervisor asks if I can mentor a new leader in their department or a performer with high potential. I made a personal commitment to start engaging with mentoring sessions almost every week since the summer of 2020 and have participated in a dose of mostly virtual outreach events, sharing my work / career at NASA, thoughts on leadership, and providing encouragement to students locally, nationally , and even internationally.

Question: What has been the proudest moment of your NASA career?

Laughinghouse: In 2019, I was honored to be part of a contingent of Marshall female engineers and leaders, including Marshall Director Jody Singer, to represent “Ladies Who Launch” on the “Today” show for International Women’s Day. One of the ladies in our group, the late Roslin Hicks, was one of the young Marshall engineers who first inspired me as an intern. That was an amazing opportunity for all of us to represent the diversity of NASA and to impress upon young minds and space enthusiasts they are only limited by their imagination. During any special moment of my career, it means everything to me when my family – which includes my husband and teenaged daughter and son – have a chance to experience it. That is why sharing my proudest moment with my daughter, who was 12 at the time, was the most incredible part of that day.

Question: What advice would you give to NASA’s young professionals or those considering a career with the agency?

Laughinghouse: Keep yourself open to new opportunities for growth, even if they aren’t in your natural or trained / technical skill set. Having depth and breadth of experience makes you even more valuable to your organization or team.

Pursue leadership development programs – like NASA’s Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success, and Teamwork, or the Army Aviation and Missile Command’s Leader Investment for Tomorrow – designed for early careers. I found those programs to be an excellent way to jump-start strong connections and relationships across the agency, and I applied the concepts and tools I developed for increasingly higher responsibility assignments.

Make sure your mentors reflect a wide range of experiences and perspectives.

Do what makes you uncomfortable. You won’t have all the answers as you start something new and that’s OK. You’ll grow as you learn, so be sure to enjoy the journey.

Editor’s note: Daniel Boyette, an LSINC employee, supports Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications.

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