A journey from Boeing propulsion engineer to NASA astronaut
Julie Mason’s finding out if she’s got the right stuff to launch into outer space.
June 25, 2020 in Innovation, Technology
Many dream of becoming an astronaut. Julie Mason is on her way to making it happen. The Boeing space propulsion engineer out of Huntsville, Alabama hopes to launch herself to the moon – or beyond.
Hovering just inches below the ceiling, Julie Mason's hair rises up. She stretches out her arms to keep from bouncing off the padded walls. This is exactly where she wants to be, learning what weightless feels like, aboard a reduced-gravity aircraft used for astronaut training.
“The first time I experienced microgravity, I floated to the top with a huge smile on my face,” she said. “I actually looked and felt like an astronaut.”
Fitting, as she wants to be an astronaut. And Mason sees close correlation between her everyday work and her astronaut aspirations.
“Being at Boeing allows me to participate in cutting-edge propulsion research, where I get to lead and work in teams to solve challenging problems,” she said. “I’m currently working on a propulsion test program that could benefit NASA’s Human Lander System for a 2024 lunar mission.”
“When you’re working on a propulsion test program, safety is critical. You’re working in a higher-risk environment than just an ordinary office, which is exactly what astronauts are asked to do on a daily basis,” Mason added. “Unforeseen issues can arise in outer space that the astronauts must work to solve. You’re constantly using analytical skills to evaluate the situation and find a resolution. It’s definitely not one for one, but I feel like it’s bringing me one step closer.”
She took one small step in her path to aerospace as a 12-year-old.
“My parents took me to a launch at Cape Canaveral and a tour of the NASA facility," she recalled. “It was an awe-inspiring moment. And it was at this time I told my parents I wanted to be one of those astronauts.”
Fast-forward two decades. In summer 2019, she found herself in a capsule in Houston, by choice, for 45 days. She was one of four participants in NASA’s prestigious research program Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), in which confinement and isolation are intentional.
The program allows scientists to safely determine on Earth how to deal with the effects on the human body and mind of living in space.
Mason’s mission made a “trip” to Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars. Though they never left NASA’s Johnson Space Center, participants acted as if they did, performing a virtual spacewalk. They also worked with a simulated robotic arm and communicated with students “back on Earth.” Mason grew lettuce in the team’s hydroponic garden.
“Most of our meals were typical to what you might take camping,” she explained. “It needed to be rehydrated with hot water. No fresh food or resupply was allowed.”
Years earlier, Mason also played a leading role in a different NASA project. She was part of the team that designed the Badger eXploration Loft (BXL), an inflatable space habitat that deploys upon landing and sits on top of NASA’s Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU).
A NASA competition had provided three universities with $50,000 each to conceive and build a habitat for an environment beyond Earth. The university with the highest-graded design would be used by NASA to conduct simulated Mars missions. The University of Wisconsin, and Mason, won.
Their entry, the BXL, is an external fabric shell with integral, pressurized airbeams for structure, air conditioning and heating. The interior skeleton is mixed carbon fiber and aluminum. It is deployable, retractable and elevates the sleeping quarters above the living quarters using electric actuators.
NASA stationed the HDU in the Arizona high desert near Flagstaff in 2011. It was a shining moment in Mason’s senior year at Wisconsin.
“I had the opportunity to be part of a team that stayed a night in the habitat,” she said. “It was exciting to be part of the mission and see NASA astronauts sleep in something I created.”
Mason’s father, Scott, believes her interest in aviation and space started even before she could walk, in the open fields of Wisconsin.
“I used to own an old Apache twin-engine. When Julie was an infant, we’d strap her in the back in her car seat and go flying around. That was her introduction to aviation, whether she has any recollection of it or not,” he said.
In middle school, Mason and her family spent time in Europe, which sparked an interest in foreign languages. This became an unexpected asset in her quest to become an astronaut.
“It helps me to connect with people from different backgrounds and learn about other cultures,” said Mason, who is now fluent and French and studying Russian. “Learning languages has also been shown to help keep you mentally fit as you age and utilizes a similar skillset as that required for writing computer code.”
The summer before she started high school was also a life- changer for Mason. She attended Space Camp in Huntsville on the grounds of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is, coincidentally, a five-minute drive from where she now works.
“We completed mock missions and I was chosen to be a mission specialist,” she recalled. “I felt like that’s what I would apply for in the astronaut corps, so I wanted to get all the practice I could.”
Mason graduated from Space Camp and has been invited back several times to speak with the young campers about her experience and to discuss her current role as a space propulsion engineer. She’s never been shy about sharing her space dreams.
“All my teachers were very supportive of my goals,” she said. “I still keep in touch with my physics teacher and have gone back to participate in STEM activities with his classes.”
Though her ambitions are out of this world, she wanted to stay close to home for college. She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, double-majoring in engineering and French. While there, however, she was selected to participate in the NASA Flight Opportunities Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, working side by side with NASA engineers and scientists in the microgravity program. And that’s how she had a chance to float in a converted jet.
“I conducted experiments on an airplane dubbed the ‘Weightless Wonder,’ which does parabolas in the sky,” she recalled. “We had 30 seconds of microgravity in the plane.”
Her power-packed college career also included her introduction to Boeing via a Seattle internship.
“I just loved the culture and the people. I felt like I was constantly learning from everyone around me and that Boeing was a place where I could grow and become a better engineer,” she said.
In her final semester in 2012, she got a letter she’ll never forget.
“I remember carrying around my Boeing offer letter through the halls because I was so excited. It was a dream come true to come to Huntsville, where I spent time at Space Camp as a kid, and work as a propulsion engineer. It truly felt like I was coming full circle.”
Mason first worked on propulsion design when she started at Boeing, but she has since begun to focus on the research side.
“I see propulsion engineering as something that will help us get to Mars if we can build and improve the systems to get there,” she said.
Although immersed in her work, Mason continues to add to her well-rounded resume. She achieved her master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama- Huntsville. She has earned scuba certification, wilderness first-responder certification and a pilot’s license.
And she has dreams to climb the tallest peaks on all seven continents — which she already started by bagging Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America.
She draws parallels between ascending mountains and traveling to space.
“When you summit a mountain, you’re exploring new environments and working in a team to accomplish a goal,” she said. “Exploring outer space is not something you can do alone.”
And just like on the peak of a mountain, she keeps her eyes fixed on her ultimate goal. NASA recently sent out a call. Julie answered. She just applied for the next class of astronauts.
“It’s every four years,” she said. “The more you apply, the better your chances are of getting accepted, as NASA likes to see what you’ve done between applications.”
If she does not get selected this time, she plans to pursue her doctorate, become EMT certified and possibly even head to Antarctica to conduct research.
“I believe if I work really hard and focus all my energy on achieving my goals, I am confident I am on the path to becoming an astronaut,” she said.
In Mason’s dining room, a poster hangs on the wall, not of a musician or movie star or athlete. It’s an original Apollo 13 mission poster signed by NASA astronaut Jim Lovell. It includes a message: “Hi Julie — I can’t wait to see you walk on the moon.”
Someday soon, she just might.