RocketStars: The Road Less Traveled

September 10, 2020

A Journey from the Classroom to the Prop Shop

Whether you're fresh out of college or a seasoned professional, the road to a career at United Launch Alliance (ULA) isn't always linear. Sometimes it takes a bit of outside perspective, soul searching and determination to find the right fit.

Systems test engineer Jennifer Adams worked as a high school science teacher in North Carolina for nearly a decade before pursuing a mechanical engineering degree and landing a job in Pueblo, Colorado, at our Propulsion Shop and Test Facility (affectionately known as "the Prop Shop"). Jennifer began teaching in 2008 and was never shy about her passion for science. Her journey to ULA began in 2015 with a birthday gift from students at South Stokes High School in Walnut Cove, North Carolina.

Jennifer's students often poked fun at her enthusiasm for teaching and used her picture from the school's website to create an ID badge that included the iconic NASA logo. The badge read, "Ms. Adams, Future NASA Employee." The students told Jennifer she should follow through on her dream of becoming an engineer.

After giving it some thought, Jennifer enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2015 and continued working part time as a substitute teacher, covering everything from science and math to physical education.

"My school system was probably as supportive as any school system could be," Jennifer said. "My South Stokes family all but kicked me out telling me to go chase this dream."

Chasing that dream nearly a decade after completing her undergraduate program was daunting. Jennifer commuted an hour and a half each way multiple days a week for school and occasionally slept on the floor of her younger sister's dorm room.

"There were some really hard times where I thought 'Is this worth it? Am I being a good mother and partner? Should I go back to teaching?'" she said. "I was really determined to accomplish what I set out to do and to make everyone proud, and my family backed me 100 percent."

Jennifer learned about ULA during a 2016 tour of the Decatur, Alabama factory that had been arranged through her summer internship coordinator.

That's when it all clicked.

"That's when I knew this is what I want to do, I want to be a rocket scientist," she said. "To see the actual scale of the rocket, walk along the boosters, see Centaur being processed, and seeing that it really comes in as sheet metal and pops out as a rocket, it was truly incredible"

Luckily, many credits from Jennifer's undergraduate career carried over into the engineering program and she was able to earn her mechanical engineering degree in three years instead of four.

Just before graduating in 2018, Jennifer applied to ULA and received a call back from Propulsion Systems Design Engineering Leader David Kuhns.

"As soon as they gave me the tour of the Prop Shop, I knew this is where I had to be," Jennifer said. Although she fulfilled her students' prophecy and completed two internships at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Jennifer said she's found a home at ULA and in the Prop Shop.

"I love it here," she said. "We have a great group of incredibly dedicated employees and because we're so small, we're more like family."

That familial sense was mostly symbolic until this summer. Jennifer's younger sister, Maria, recently completed a data management internship at ULA in Centennial, Colorado before returning to UNC Charlotte.

"My daughter loved having her Aunt Maria here for the summer," Jennifer said. "ULA has made a lot of my family's dreams come true."