Boeing

Above and beyond: SLS launch leader broke barriers to achieve her goals

Boeing engineer Suba Iyer turned her fascination with how things work into a career

March 25, 2021 in Space

Suba Iyer, Launch Integrated Product Team leader for Boeing, stands in front of the B-2 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the first Space Launch System rocket core stage recently completed hot fire testing.

Suba Iyer

Boeing engineer Suba Iyer was never one to settle for what was handed to her. “I was always striving to reach my goals, even when multiple situations hindered me,” she said.

Growing up in India, Iyer wanted to be an engineer. At the time, engineering professors and program chairs at her hometown colleges tried to discourage her from pursuing mechanical engineering due to her gender. She had her heart set on it and so did her father, a mechanical engineer himself who ran an automobile parts factory.

While she was able to get her bachelor’s degree in India, educational leaders would not accept her into a master’s program in production engineering despite her high test scores. They suggested she find another field because they had never had a female student in the department.

“So I came to America,” Iyer said.

She went on to not only receive her master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Wayne State University in Michigan, but also an MBA from the University of Nebraska. She started out in the automobile industry and moved to the Space Shuttle Program at United Space Alliance before joining Boeing on the Bombers and then the CST-100 Starliner programs. She’s now Launch Integrated Product Team, or IPT, leader for Boeing in support of NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS.

Iyer leads the IPT at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, working with NASA to launch the Artemis missions that will return humans to the moon for sustainable lunar exploration. Her team will support NASA Stages Operations after the first Boeing-built SLS core stage arrives in Florida for integration, assembly, checkout activities, and all the steps ahead of launch on the uncrewed Artemis I mission around the moon as soon as later this year.

“If someone had told me in India that 25 years later I would be working at Kennedy Space Center as a senior manager for SLS, that would have been way beyond my dreams,” Iyer said. “But everywhere I went through my career, I always stretched a little higher beyond my level.”

From as early as she can remember, Iyer enjoyed visiting her father’s factory, which made hoses, fan belts and other rubber automobile products. She learned the entire manufacturing process of a product from start to finish.

While her two sisters and one brother went into computer engineering and the medical field, she enjoyed the idea of building products and wanted to be the one to follow in her father’s footsteps. She’s still active with her hands. When she’s not working, she builds wooden tables, benches and shelves, and paints landscapes and portraits.

“I just liked the whole point of creating something to benefit others,” Iyer said. “When I was young, I would wonder how things worked. It seemed like magic when I heard sounds from a radio or watched television. I always wanted to understand the engineering behind things. I was amazed at how my dad created a process that he started from scratch.”

The experiences Iyer had at her father’s factory served her well in her first two postgraduate jobs in the automotive industry — first as an analytical engineer in a luxury car division, and then as an occupant development and structural engineering analyst. She developed and designed advanced restraint systems, including airbags, steering columns and seatbelts.

In the automotive industry she also met her husband, who later worked with her on the space shuttle program and now works for a prime contractor to NASA on SLS Exploration Ground Systems. They have two sons.

Iyer said her time on the Boeing Starliner program was exciting because it gave her experience with a capsule as opposed to a rocket. She shared her Starliner production engineering experience with other Space and Launch programs as Production, Test and Launch Capability integrator.

Being part of SLS is a similar thrill, she said, to working on a program like Starliner. “I’m excited to be back supporting a big rocket and being part of countdown and launch,” Iyer said. “We haven’t done this for decades now, building something from scratch that will take humans beyond low Earth orbit to the moon. I think it’s unbelievable. I’m blessed to be part of this team.”

Her goal is to build great relationships and see all the companies involved in SLS working together for the success of the program, because “We are all one team.”

Iyer extends her encouragement and relationship-building outside Boeing with volunteer work for groups such as the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Aerospace.

“Whatever hurdles come your way, you cannot be deterred from your goal,” she said she tells younger engineers and students. “We cannot give up. We have to persevere.”

Suba Iyer with her husband, Hari, ahead of Space Shuttle Atlantis’ launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2011. Mission STS-135 was the final space shuttle mission.

Rod Ostoski