Aiming for the stars

Starliner flight software manager’s traumatic childhood journey to America gave her resilience to face any of life’s challenges.

September 08, 2020 in Space

Challenges are nothing new for Stephanie Lu, whose family escaped communist Vietnam when she was a teenager.

Lu, manager of CST-100 Starliner flight software, reflected on that time recently as she also shared how her team in Houston has been implementing software recommendations from a joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review Team prior to the Commercial Crew Program's second Orbital Flight Test. A software anomaly during last year’s test prevented Starliner from reaching the International Space Station.

She keeps her team focused on a successful test despite long days and a challenging year.

“Everyone is working really hard and making sure we do it right and that everything is ready for the next flight,” Lu said. “We all want to see a successful flight.”

She learned about challenges and resilience at an early age. Lu was just a teenager when she, her parents and five younger siblings along with two uncles, an aunt and their children fled Vietnam in 1978 on a small wooden boat with about 100 other people. Her dad, a police officer, and an uncle, a high-ranking military officer, were being held captive by the new communist government, but they were able to escape with the family.

After five nights and four days in stormy, rough seas, they landed in Malaysia and spent more than a year in a refugee camp before being accepted into the U.S. and making California their home. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were said to have escaped following the Vietnam War from 1975 to 1992, with the peak in 1978. The refugees were known as “the Vietnamese boat people” and many lives were lost during the journey.

“I prayed. I was afraid the boat would fall apart with the wind, rain and rocking,” said Lu, who was about 16 at the time and found out two days after the boat departed that a baby had died from the turbulent trip. “Life was tough also at the refugee camp. There wasn’t a lot of food or medical supplies.”

Her family’s escape and challenges that followed made her more determined to succeed. She worked three jobs while at California State University and also attended a cosmetology program to translate for her mom and aunt so they could complete the program. She was the first college graduate in her family after receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science. She later earned a master’s degree in Management Information Systems.

Lu, who joined Boeing 32 years ago, was hired by Rockwell International after college. Her roles have varied from flight software developer to project lead engineer.

Since 2011, she has served as the Starliner software manager for four Computer Software Configuration Items: Flight Management System, System Management System, Crew Interface System and Vision. In this role, she oversees the development of flight software and integration as well as simulation.

The Flight Management System is essentially the automation and brain of the vehicle, similar to a flight plan for an aircraft. The other areas pertain to the health status of the vehicle and the display system for the crew to receive data and allow the crew to manually take over if needed.

Lu and her team in Houston have been working diligently since January on Independent Review Team actions.

“Having worked with Stephanie and seen her demonstrated support and commitment on multiple occasions to get the work done, and done right, I know I can depend on the quality of products she and her team produce,” said John Vollmer, Commercial Crew vice president and program manager.

“She has on many occasions made adjustments to personal schedules to accommodate emerging priorities and program needs,” Vollmer said.

Decades after her terrifying trip to America, Lu has learned to overcome adversity again with cooperation from throughout the company and more engagement with various subsystems, such as system engineers, mission operations and crew operations.

The whole team, she said, is committed to seeing a successful second Orbital Flight Test and first Crew Flight Test.

“We want to be sure that we are successful. We want to build a name for our company,” Lu said. “We stand for quality and the work we are doing.”