Michele Brekke: Aiming higher

Alumna goes from NASA to Boeing—still with astronauts in mind

Michele Brekke (Aero ’75, M.S. ’77) was just 16 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. She had been mildly interested in space previously, “but not with the passion that I watched the first moon landing. As I watched the astronauts bounding on the moon, I said, ‘I want to do that!’”

Even though NASA wasn’t hiring female astronauts then, she enrolled in the University’s aerospace engineering program. There, she was taken under the wing of Professor Helmut Heinrich, who ran a lab testing parachute designs.

“Heinrich asked if I could type. The only job he offered was secretary. I said ‘OK,’ even though it wasn’t what I had in mind,” Brekke said. “Every couple of months I would remind him that I really wanted to work in the lab.”

“Later he asked if I could sew. They needed someone to construct parachutes,” Brekke said.

“But that got me an actual position in the lab,” she added. “Before long I was operating the wind tunnel and testing the parachutes that I was making. Just because you accept a position as secretary doesn’t mean you have to stop there. You should reach beyond your grasp.”

Heinrich also helped her find confidence in her instincts.

“We were working on a parachute and he asked, ‘What do you think will happen if we make such and such modification?’ I answered, ‘Let me write a program and plug it into the computer.’ He stopped me and said, ‘No, I want you to stand here and think. What do you think will happen?’”

“That’s where I got my initial training to fly by the seat of my pants—which is what I had to do a lot of when I worked in Mission Control,” Brekke said.

Brekke never became an astronaut, but she did work for NASA’s Mission Control Center beginning in 1977. Some of the positions she held include flight director in the Mission Operations Directorate, assistant mission manager and flight manager in the Space Shuttle Program Office, and associate chief of the Space Medicine and Health Care Systems Office.

“I would come into work every day with a huge smile on my face, knowing I was helping to write a page in the history books,” she said.

Brekke went from being one of few women at the Johnson Space Center to being one of many.

“It’s close to 50-50 now,” she said.

She retired after 37 years at NASA and is now working for Boeing, helping to develop a commercial aircraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

“For more females to go into engineering, you have to create a pipeline,” Brekke said.

“You have to get young girls interested in science and engineering, and some of those young students are frightened by math,” she explained. “I did not do well in math when I started college. I had to get a tutor, and I had to really bust my butt to just get Cs.”

Studying hard was the hallmark of her career.

“I have to honestly say, I do not believe I was ever the victim of any kind of a bias against women,” she said. “Except for the astronaut position, I always got the position that I wanted. My biggest struggle was to make sure I did my homework, prepare myself, and meet my own standard.”

Story by Greg Breining