By David Goddard
Like millions of other people around the world, Katherine Van Hooser (’91) spent April 12, 1981, glued to coverage of the first space shuttle launch.
As the Space Shuttle Columbia cleared the tower that day, Van Hooser—then a sixth grader in Madisonville, Kentucky—hoped that one day she would work for the space agency.
Barely ten years later, that dream became a reality.
“I was fortunate to know early in life what I wanted to do,” said Van Hooser, who was recently named the chief engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“After learning about that first launch, I followed everything about the shuttle and NASA and worked toward becoming a part of it.”
The first step was pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering, something not offered at any Kentucky college.
Thanks to the Academic Common Market, however, she had the opportunity to attend UT at the in-state rate since it was a program her state didn’t offer.
In actuality, it worked out well for Van Hooser, who was born in West Tennessee to two UT alumni before her family moved to the Bluegrass State when she was a mere six weeks old.
“Before attending medical school, my dad was a Sigma Chi at UT with Johnny Majors, and my dad’s best friend also played football for the Vols,” said Van Hooser, whose mother is also a UT grad with a master’s degree in medical social work. “I started attending football games with my parents as a small child, so I grew up as a UT fan.”
Her decision to attend UT was further cemented by a tour of various engineering and science buildings, but she began to wonder if a field such as physics might be a better path to NASA.
That’s when the late H. Joe Wilkerson, a longtime professor of aerospace engineering at UT, gave her a key perspective on the choice she was facing.
Wilkerson, who earned his doctorate at UT in 1970, pointed out to Van Hooser that if she started in engineering and switched to something else, many of her classes would still be relevant, but if she started in something else and came to engineering, she would still have four years of engineering classes in front of her.
“That made sense, so I stuck with my choice to go into aerospace engineering. I loved the challenge and subject matter and never changed,” said Van Hooser.
She also said associate professor J.A.M. Boulet, who is still in the department, made a strong impression on her.
“We were required to take several classes in engineering science and mechanics,” said Van Hooser. “I love challenges, and these classes were tough, but Dr. Boulet made them interesting and fun.”
An invitation from NASA came at the perfect time, when she was delivering her senior project presentation.
Van Hooser had interviewed on campus for a job at NASA, but in that pre–cell phone era had missed calls from NASA offering a job because she was working on her project.
Determined to track her down, NASA had called the department head’s office, whose secretary found her at the best moment imaginable.
“I was delivering my presentation to faculty when the department secretary opened the door and asked ‘Is Katherine Van Hooser here? NASA is trying to call her,’” Van Hooser said. “To be making an aerospace engineering presentation for a grade and have it interrupted because NASA wanted to talk to me could not have worked out any better!”
Since joining NASA at Marshall in 1991, Van Hooser has worked on a number of projects as she’s climbed the chain of command, including improving the main engines on the very shuttles she grew up watching. She was deputy chief engineer and then chief engineer for the space shuttle main engine for the last twenty-one launches of the shuttle program.
“That was the best job I could ever have imagined,” said Van Hooser.
Later, she became the first chief engineer for the engines on the new exploration-class Space Launch System (SLS), which is the biggest rocket ever built.
Now, in her new role as the Marshall Center chief engineer, she is responsible for assuring the technical success of all spacecraft, propulsion, science payload, life support, and mission systems, from the smallest instrument payloads to the giant pieces of the SLS rocket that will take astronauts to deep space destinations, including Mars.
Despite her important work and busy schedule, Van Hooser has never lost touch with her UT past.
She tries to attend at least one game a year, and despite her job being located in Alabama, her love for her alma mater remains strong.
“I love seeing how the UT campus has grown and improved, and I tell the Alabama grads that, win or lose, I’d rather spend a lifetime as a Vols fan than one day stuck as a Bama fan,” said Van Hooser, readily aware that she might one day have another UT fan working with her in the person of current Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, himself an aerospace engineer.
Asked what advice she would offer students who are interested in working for NASA, Van Hooser didn’t hesitate: “Find something you can be passionate about, and make it work for you.”
“There’s such a huge variety of jobs available at NASA; there are lots of opportunities in addition to engineering,” said Van Hooser. “We need engineers, but we also need nutritionists, botanists, technicians, programmers, crew, crew trainers, doctors, accountants, and people with all kinds of skills.”
“I could not ask for a better place to work. I’m very lucky.”