AMU Alumna’s Career as Air Force Pilot, NASA Crew Member
By Kristin Drexler
Faculty member of Geography and Conservation of Natural Resources for American Public University System’s School of STEM
The APUS chapter of Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) recently hosted a presentation by AMU alumna Major Eleanor Morgan, who spoke about her background and professional career path. She also offered some advice to those in the audience who might be interested in pursuing a STEM career.
Describing herself as “always a space nerd at heart,” Major Morgan said she was first inspired to a space career when she won a competition in the third grade. She was able to ask an orbiting astronaut her question: “Can fish swim in space?”
Major Morgan earned a Master’s in Space Studies in 2014. She has been a C-17 aircraft pilot for the U.S. Air Force and a crew member for NASA’s human exploration and research analog (HERA) program.
She is now a senior crew systems engineer for Bigelow Aerospace, a private aerospace company designing expandable surface habitats for the moon or Mars. Morgan first learned about Bigelow Aeronautics while working toward her Master’s degree at AMU.
Morgan Spent More than Four Years Flying ‘all over the World’
Recalling her experiences flying the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster, Major Morgan said: “I spent four and half years flying the C-17, which was a really awesome experience. I flew all over the world, did all kinds of missions [including] humanitarian relief missions. I transported all kinds of cargo — as you can see including giant tanks. I did med-evac missions, brought people home from deployment, did aerial refueling. It was a really cool time in my life.”
Photo credit: Eleanor Morgan and wstemapus.org.
A crew member on NASA’s human exploration and research analog (HERA) program at Johnson Space Center, Major Morgan said the nine-week program involved six weeks inside a habitat, simulating a special exploration mission. She participated in 18 different research investigations from the U.S. and Europe. “The primary focus of this analog simulation was on team dynamics, and [testing] the psychological, interpersonal and physiological changes inside a confined environment,” she explained. The simulation also included a sleep deprivation study.
Major Morgan (far left) inside NASA HERA program simulator. Photo credit: Major Morgan and wstemapus.org.
“It’s pretty cool knowing that you had the opportunity to, hopefully, positively affect future space exploration,” she said. “Whether you’re in space or not, things we’re doing on the ground now are greatly assisting the efforts in learning more about how to take care of astronauts on long-duration missions and deep space journeys.” Major Morgan said she’s looking forward to seeing the reports of this research.
Now Morgan Is Preparing Astronauts for a Journey to Mars or the Moon
At Bigelow, she is working on preparing astronauts for a journey to Mars or the moon by designing expandable habitats that can dock with another vehicle or the International Space Station. Also, they will be able to work as an autonomous surface habitat on the moon or Mars. Her specific project is designing a large, expandable structure with life-support systems, propulsion, and solar arrays that can accommodate four to six crew members.
During her presentation she fielded some questions from wSTEM APUS students. “What’s the best advice that people gave you along the way?” one student asked.
“Don’t get discouraged if things don’t work out the way you think they are supposed to work out, that’s okay,” Major Morgan replied: “A door won’t close without another opening. Don’t sit back, you need to make it happen.” Read, research, learn and take opportunities, she added. “Seek opportunities out and go after them. Take the time and effort to put yourself out there and go for it.”
When asked how she coped and thrived in a male-dominated field, Major Morgan replied: “I was always in the minority from college on. I think in my experience, I’ve been very lucky.” She added that she’s always enjoyed the co-ed camaraderie. “I always felt like I had a bunch of brothers. [So] as hard as it is, try not to think about yourself as being a woman. Think about yourself as being part of the team. We wear the same uniform, [just] know your stuff, do your job well, be a good person, have a good attitude, and be a person people want to be around. That has served me well.”
Overcoming confidence issues also helped her in her male-dominated field, she said. “The challenges over the years [were from] confidence issues that I put on myself.” Earlier on, she felt she had to be really good because she represented all women. “I think I carried that weight for way too long.”
When asked about building confidence, Eleanor Morgan said: “Challenge yourself and do something outside your comfort zone. Those experiences have made me learn and grow and helped my confidence.” When she faces a challenge, Eleanor says to herself: “I can do this…I can do this…I’ve flown planes…I can do this!” She advised the wSTEM students: “It’s normal to be nervous or hesitant or scared at first. [My best advice] is to move through it and you’ll be so grateful you did.”
Please visit the APUS chapter of wSTEM for more information about wSTEM and how to join the group.
About the Author
Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member of Geography and Conservation of Natural Resources for American Public University System’s School of STEM. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Leadership at New Mexico State University. She earned her Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, with an emphasis in Natural Resources Management. Drexler has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation, and sustainable agriculture.
Until she became a full-time Instructor with APUS in 2009, Ms. Drexler was an Environmental Scientist in New Mexico, conducting field biology surveys and environmental impact analyses. Drexler founded the Belize Field School Program at NMSU, coordinating short courses in Belize in wildlife, agroforestry, marine ecology, and documentary film (2006-2014). Most recently, Drexler produced an award-winning short film, “Yochi,” a story about youth conservation and action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In the late 1990s, Drexler served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize. She serves on the board of directors of Full Basket Belize, a U.S. nonprofit that provides high school scholarships and community grants in Belize. She also regularly volunteers for the Mesilla Valley Film Society in Las Cruces, New Mexico.