Former NASA and current SpaceX ‘queen of space’ speaks to FSU students on STEM careers

Kathyrn Lueders, general manager at SpaceX's Starbase and formerly of NASA, spoke to FSU students about her experience in STEM careers on April 15, 2024. (Division of Student Affairs).

Florida State University students and staff had the unique opportunity this week to have a career conversation with the first female executive to lead human spaceflight for NASA.

Kathryn Lueders, general manager at SpaceX’s Starbase, one of the world’s leading space exploration companies, shared her insight into STEM.

“We are incredibly fortunate to welcome such a distinguished guest whose career has been at the forefront of innovation and leadership in the aerospace industry,” said Leslie Mille, interim director of the Career Center. “Kathy’s dedication to fostering the next generation of STEM leaders is truly inspiring, and we are beyond lucky to have her here with us.”

Kathryn Lueders met and spoke with students on April 15 at the FSU Globe Auditorium. (Division of Student Affairs)

Making the event even more special, Lueders’ son, Liam Horne, fellow for the Division of Student Affairs Office of the Vice President, had the honor of introducing his mom. Affectionately calling her “the queen of space,” he noted some of her professional accomplishments, joking that her humbleness would not allow her to share them.

Lueders was awarded the highest honor the federal government can grant to a career civilian employee, the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, and NASA gave her their highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. She is also a recipient of the Space Pioneer Award and is in the Space and Satellite Hall of Fame.

“She raised four children while accomplishing these things and not once did any of us feel her career was more important than us,” Horne said. “She came home each night and cooked dinner without ever revealing the pressures she faced at work. She never pushed us to be rocket scientists, doctors or lawyers. The only thing she cared about was us becoming good, decent people.”

Noticeably touched by the warm welcome, Lueders shared with the audience — largely comprised of young women — that her career path in the field was far from typical or traditional. She received a bachelor’s degree in business administration because she was interested in how numbers are used to change and solve problems. Lueders recognized early on that she loved looking at large systems and processes and how to make them most efficient.

With a young family and household to help manage, she went back to school and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from New Mexico State University.

Having worked at NASA for 30 years, she was instrumental in bringing back U.S. human spaceflight capabilities and leading missions that sent astronauts to space from American soil for the first time since the shuttle.

Kathryn Lueders answers student questions about working in STEM and more at her career conversation events on April 15, 2024. (Division of Student Affairs)

After her presentation, FSU senior students Tika Ahern (mechanical engineering) and Kalea Gant (industrial engineering) facilitated questions from the audience.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Force Statistics, women make up only 34% of the workforce in STEM. Lueders was asked if she experienced imposter syndrome, or the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or achieved because of one’s own efforts and skills. She recounted a time she arrived at a job and a man boasted that “they ran the last girl off in a week.”

“Look, everyone is unique, and uniqueness should be celebrated,” Lueders said. “You should always want a group that is not the same so you can come up with different solutions.”

She encouraged the audience to know themselves and to follow their dreams, acknowledging that throughout her life she has been a big proponent of asking “why?”

“Even if something works, always ask yourself ‘why?’ If you do it the same way, you’re not going to lead change or move forward. The reason we spend time in space is to look at how we can fix problems here on earth.”

Lueders also shared insights on life and leadership:

  • “You have to do things you don’t understand to learn, and the only way is to try something you haven’t done before. Thirty years ago, the thought of speaking in public terrified me. And I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? I won’t I’ll recover and move on. Understanding that helps you to not be afraid of what you can achieve.”
  • “Something you like at 22 may not be the same for you at age 40. Whatever (career) you pick, know that you’re not stuck with it for the rest of your life.”
  • “You may not know now what you want to do and that’s Don’t lock yourself into one thing. Find out what you like, what excites you. Explore and make something happen.”

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