NASA veteran Liz Antognoli is helping develop a new generation of spacecraft to deliver payloads into orbit
Lots of kids grow up dreaming of missions into space. Gazing upward at the night sky. Dressing up as astronauts. Building model rockets and counting down to launch, 3…2…1…
Liz Antognoli made her dreams real. After earning her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis in 1997, her career lifted off at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Now, following a dozen years as a flight controller, she is helping develop a new generation of vehicles to deliver people and payloads into orbit.
Antognoli, 42, is a systems engineer for NASA contractor Sierra Nevada Corp. in Louisville, Colo. The company is building the Dream Chaser, a reusable, autonomous spacecraft capable of being launched into low-Earth orbit atop an Atlas V rocket. One version — Antognoli's — will deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The vehicle resembles a mini space shuttle and is about one quarter of the size of the venerable spacecraft retired by NASA in 2011.
Dream Chaser is scheduled to make at least six cargo service missions between 2019 and 2024. Antognoli is at the heart of that effort, responsible for the integration of NASA's diverse cargo needs with the design, processes and operations Sierra Nevada engineers are developing to meet them.
"Since I was six years old I wanted to be part of the space program," she says, "and I still find it challenging and inspiring."
Growing up outside Chicago in Wheeling, Ill., Antognoli was fascinated with science. Physics class captivated her during high school, and guidance counselors suggested she pursue engineering.
"My dad took me around the country visiting colleges, and I fell in love with the WashU campus," Antognoli says. "I wanted to have opportunities to be well rounded and found them. I learned a lot about myself while I was there. It was the best place to allow essential elements of my personality blossom and come together."
Upon graduation, Antognoli began her career with NASA contractor United Space Alliance at Johnson Space Center. She served as a mission planner and flight controller while also remotely earning a master of science degree in space operations from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. NASA later became her direct employer, but all the while Antognoli was responsible for essential elements of space shuttle missions and ISS assembly. Highlights included the integration of the station's robotic arm and various cargo transportation and retrieval missions.
"On those missions I spoke directly to (shuttle and ISS) crew members every day to discuss cargo transfers and answer questions," Antognoli says. "That was one of my favorite things I've done in my career."
Antognoli found her way to Sierra Nevada and Dream Chaser when the space shuttle program wound down. She also began a side venture called Mission Control Education LLC, developing manuals and lesson plans to assist teachers in recreating NASA mission control centers in their classrooms to inspire future engineers.
Antognoli's study of the physical world has coincided with a complementary exploration of her inner self. Early in her NASA career, she found herself feeling angry and judgmental about herself and others.
"I had checked a lot of boxes that are supposed to represent success and happiness, but my inner life was not as joyful," she says.
She began searching within herself, and credits Fr. Gary Braun, director of WashU's Catholic Student Center, with sowing seeds of introspection during her college days.
"He helped me examine approaches to spirituality and the questioning of beliefs," Antognoli said.
That process led to an introduction to yoga and the study of eastern philosophy. Her practice became so life-changing that for the past 14 years she has complemented her space operations career by teaching yoga and leading Ayurvedic workshops.
At home, Antognoli and her wife, Jen, are also busy raising their one-year-old son, Luca, and chasing around their dog, Mowgli.
Antognoli encourages today's WashU students to try new things, even if that means following a nonlinear path.
"Trust your interests and the things that provide you with inspiration and passion," Antognoli says. "If something is working, keep going. If it's not, change it."
The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 98 tenured/tenure-track and 38 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.