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Dr. Kathryn Hurlbert in a zero gravity plane
Dr. Kathryn Miller Hurlbert ’90 shares her career experiences at NASA, including her time during a zero-gravity flight on a KC-135 aircraft. | Image: Courtesy of Dr. Katy Hurlbert

“My second earliest memory is the moon landing,” said Dr. Kathryn Hurlbert ’90, a former graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University. “My father was taking pictures of the landing as we watched on our black and white TV, and I remember thinking how I wanted to go and play on the moon.”

That was one small memory for Hurlbert, one giant leap toward her future career.

Hurlbert received her bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, her master’s degree from Texas A&M and her Ph.D. from the University of Houston. While attending Texas A&M, Hurlbert applied for and was sponsored by the NASA fellowship program. Through that, she was able to get her first taste of what her future would hold with directed research at Texas A&M to support the organization in microgravity fluid dynamics.

In 1997, she was hired by NASA and became part of the organization she once admired from a television screen. During her tenure, she has held management, leadership and supervisory positions. Now, she is the human landing system (HLS) and commercial test manager in NASA’s Crew and Thermal Systems Division, planning for large-scale test programs in support of NASA’s future missions.

“Life has a way of steering you down the path you’re supposed to be on, no matter how hard you try to derail it,” she said.

Hurlbert has worked on many different projects utilizing her various degrees and expertise during her time at NASA. Early in her career in the 1980s, she participated in flight testing, flying with Dr. Fred Best, also from the Department of Nuclear Engineering, using a zero-gravity KC-135 aircraft. Years later, she led teams to complete several suborbital test projects on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic missions. She will continue to do ground research and flight payloads in support of future missions for beyond Earth orbit and to the moon.

“Nuclear (engineering) is a great degree to have,” she said. “It supports a multitude of disciplines such as thermal hydraulics, power systems, fluid dynamics and computer modeling.”

One notable project in Hurlbert’s career was her participation in the Lunar-Mars Life Support Test Project in the late 1990s. Phase II of the project aimed to test an integrated, closed-loop system that employed biological and physiochemical techniques for water recycling, waste processing and air revitalization for human habitation. For a month, a small team lived and worked in an enclosed 20-foot chamber. The crew members did not switch out and were fully responsible for internal maintenance and repairs. Phase III of the project increased the time in the enclosed space to 90 days for a four-person crew. Hurlbert was the first woman on a crew of this kind, where previous testing in that chamber had been dedicated to NASA’s Skylab mission and crews in the 1970s.

“My journey to NASA certainly wasn’t an easy or straightforward path,” she said. “My best advice would be to just take a chance on something. I didn’t even think I had a chance at a NASA co-op, and look where I am now.”