Telling them to reach for the stars |

Telling them to reach for the stars

Melanie Wong
Marlene Martinez, Senior Systems Integration & Test Engineer of NASA's Orion mission team, answers questions posed middle school girls from throughout the Vail valley while giving a presentation at the Walking Mountain's Science Center in Avon on Tuesday.

AVON — Marleen Martinez remembers the first time she was told she couldn’t become an engineer.

Martinez, who grew up in rural Washington state and wanted to be an astronaut since age 5, said she was told in her late teens, “You won’t get into engineering school. Your grades aren’t good enough.”

That wasn’t true, in fact, and Martinez went on to become the senior systems and test engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton. However, the “nos” stuck in her mind — others who told her in college that “girls don’t become engineers,” or that she’d only be able to get a job based on her race and gender, not her skill.

If anything, that discouragement has only made the young engineer work harder to prove herself, and now she dedicates a lot of her time to telling other young people that they can indeed do whatever they set their minds to.

On Tuesday, Martinez visited Eagle County and spoke to more than 200 high school and middle school students about her work on the Orion project and her aspirations to become an astronaut. Martinez’s visit was made possible by the 2015 Vail Valley STEM Awareness initiative, which includes partners such as The Women’s Foundation, The Youth Foundation, Walking Mountains, the school district and other nonprofits.

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Martinez is, in simple terms, a “real, live rocket scientist,” and it didn’t take long for the students to become engrossed in her words.

She didn’t even get halfway through her prepared talk before kids’ hands shot up in the air. They asked the important questions, such as “Where does the astronauts’ pee go?” or “Are they allowed to bring any of their own stuff into space?” and “Did the first monkeys in space survive? How about the dog?”

Overcoming challenges

Martinez was also able to talk about some of the challenges she faced, and assure the students that obstacles are no reason to stop trying.

She figures that if enough people tell a child they can do something, then they might eventually believe it. Whether the students connect with her as someone from a small town, as a female or as a minority, she hopes that something she says will ring true.

“I grew up in a town that was so small that no one told you what you could and couldn’t do,” she told a group of middle school girls. “When I told my mom that I wanted to be an astronaut, she just said ‘That’s nice, Marleen.’ As a child, I was never told that wasn’t something I couldn’t do.”

As she told the students, at age 13 she was invited to apply for a NASA space camp and was accepted. She spent a week at the camp learning about the space program and came back determined to grow up and work in the field. Growing up, Martinez went back and forth between between Washington and Mexico with her parents, who were migrant workers. Despite being a conversational Spanish speaker, she remembers struggling to understand the technical science vocabulary her teachers used in Mexico.

She also was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, something she still has to this day, although most people would never know.

Despite those challenges, she achieved her dream of working with the space program. These days, her job involves building and assembling a spacecraft and writing instructions for other engineers. As of now, that’s the closest she’s gotten to space, but she hopes she’ll get much, much closer.

“For anyone who knows me, it’s no secret I want to be an astronaut,” she said, telling the students that she figures if she knows the spacecraft in and out, then her chances of being chosen to the astronaut corp will be greater. “I applied in 2008 and 2012 and was rejected. You know what I did? I framed my rejection letters on the wall to remind me that I’m not done yet. I have an astronaut friend who applied 10 times before he got in. So maybe after my 10th time I’ll think about doing something else.”

‘Girls are explorers’

Martinez also had a special message for the girls she talked to, including a group of all middle school girls who gathered at Walking Mountains Science Center on Tuesday to hear her speak.

While a number of male students heard her speak throughout the day, the girls were a big reason she came to the Valley.

“We’re built to be astronauts. We are explorers,” Martinez told local girls.

She told the story of the first American space program and how NASA determined that women would make the best astronauts. They were smaller, lighter, more compact, needed less food, and in tests, performed better in sensory deprivation tests in confined spaces than their male counterparts. However, that initiative ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered that women would not be allowed to go into space, “because we will not appear weak.”

“One person said, ‘No,’” said Martinez. “When there are boys in the audience, I tell them, ‘You’re good enough, too. You’ve proven it. You’re just as good as the girls.’ I like sharing that story because it’s not just me and my ideals — it’s science. It’s fact.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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