Have you ever wondered about what it really takes to live and work on other planets? Katie Cardon, mechanical engineering manager for Lockheed Martin's lunar mobility vehicle, is currently working with space exploration teams exploring that possibility.
Cardon has engineered everything from spacecraft sent to explore Martian conditions and asteroid regolith, to personal creation machines in crafting rooms around the world. Her nearly twenty year career in aerospace started in the Brigham Young University Mechanical Engineering Department.
The 2003 graduate didn’t start college with her sights set in space. She grew up loving math, science and learning. It was a lecture from her Intro to Engineering course about the nature of tempered glass that led her to the field. An internship at a Utah State Space Dynamics lab gave her the experience needed to get an internship at Ball aerospace the following year. She was hired full time at Ball after graduation, and she has been dreaming of the stars ever since.
“The cool thing about space for me is that the other people [I] work with are just so passionate and compelling, because they are people who have always wanted to be in space; so while I didn't start out as a space aficionado, I'm now a huge fan,” Cardon said. ”I love that the generation that we have now are going to be people who see the first woman and the first person of color, step foot on the moon. It is so compelling and I can't imagine not being a part of it.”
After graduating with her master’s of aerospace engineering from University of Colorado Boulder, a friend she met during her graduate degree suggested she applied to be part of the early Orion design team. She leapt at the opportunity to be part of the US manned space mission.
Cardon spent years designing the outer thermal protection for the crew module, specifically the part that holds the astronauts’ windows. It's a complex curvature composite material structure, at the time the largest, most complex geometry that the company had ever made—and she did it while pregnant with her first son.
“I remember laying up composite material over this huge mold that you use to shape the parts, and my pregnant belly was so big and in the way that I had to lean sideways to get the material to the [mold],” Cardon shared.
Even though she didn’t have what are deemed “typical” encounters with engineering many engineers have as children, she did have experience in an area that helped even more on this project—sewing. She is from a family of home economics teachers, and experience with fabric is woven through her childhood.
“Three generations got together and sewed my wedding dress together in a day and a half. We are big makers when it comes to textiles,” Cardon said. “It was really cool for me to use this deep knowledge and understanding of how fabrics move and shape and can come together to make this aerospace part, and to see that my engineering background, while it may have been different than a lot of my male counterparts, really did prepare me to become the maker and engineer that I am.”
Her career went on to include positions at Cricut (a company dedicated to helping people live creative lives where she learned the start to finish process of selling a product), and Owlet (a company born from the BYU Student Innovator of the Year competition in 2012).
Cardon has done her best to make an impact on the world in every place that she’s worked, and empower others (especially women) to do the same.
“A lot of young girls really love creating and crafting and I think that that is the engineering spirit. Being able to provide tools for young girls to set them up for an engineering career is a really cool thing to bring to the world,” Cardon said in reference to her work at Cricut. “I also think it's really cool that a lot of women use these tools to gain economic freedom; they start their own business by creating things that other people want to buy. I just love it.”
Cardon’s husband is a scientist and a communication disorders/neuroscience professor at BYU. For those who don't see much difference between their two disciplines, Cardon points out that engineers play a pivotal role in being the solution makers for the problems that scientists discover.
“I like to say that scientists are so important because they figure out the what of the world, and engineers take that and we answer the 'so what'—we take scientific discoveries and we amplify the impact by scaling the solution, making them into tools to benefit people.”
She and her husband have two boys together. When she’s not sending rovers to space, she’s hiking to new heights with her sons and growing things in the dirt of her own backyard. Gardening is an inherited passion for Cardon, and an essential part of her success.
“I feel like when I go away and I do that [gardening] and then I come back, I can solve some really challenging technical problems, because I've had that chance to let my brain recalibrate outside,” Cardon said.
Remote work has made it possible for Cardon to rejoin the Lockheed Martin team from Utah, and she is excited for her future there. However, she has loved the growth and opportunity that have come from every turn in her career. Her advice is to go with the flow but not get stagnant, because that will truly allow you to find meaning in your career and fulfill your potential.
“Take the thing that seems great for the moment, give yourself the freedom and the grace to make decisions, then change your mind, because life is long,” Cardon said. “Pick what you want to do for now, and then leave room for adjustment as you go.”
By Larissa Beatty