STEAMD Women of NASA: To Infinity & Beyond with USA Judo Athlete Katheryn Vasquez

Kaki Flynn // 

DAEGU, Korea -- Not only can she beat you up, if she wanted to -– although luckily for you, that is not what the sport of judo is really all about -– she is also a lot smarter than you are as well.

Katheryn Vasquez, an engineering major at Florida Atlantic University in Miami, Fla., is one of an elite few that has a scholarship through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

We shared an apartment in the Team U.S.A. House at the Pan American Games in South Korea, packed in with a group of athletes from around the world.

It's a United Nations of athletes, filled with both elite athletes as well as dignitaries.

While writing stories for dozens of different sports and athletes with venues sprawled all over the city, it's a lot just to keep up with the Games in the moment.

Around 2 am one night, when I got back from a typical 6 am - 2 am day in the press room, Katherine's teammates told me about her extraordinary work with NASA, in addition to her Judo accomplishments.

My brain was already buzzing with the stories happening there on the ground, but I wanted to hear more about her work.

I did the interview laying down on the floor, with a couple of other judo athletes sprawled around us, filling me in with what they knew were her many accomplishments.

Since this story, Vasquez has gone on to work for NASA full time at Goddard, working on the James Webb Telescope. This story below, however, is perfect to keep as is so that you can get a glimpse of what it takes to work for a company that focuses on the impossible:

Katheryn Vasquez, Team USA

As a kid growing up in Miami, Fla., she loved listening to her older brother talk about airplanes, his first love. “He can listen to an airplane fly by, and tell you the type of aircraft it is, that is how much he loves it,” said Vasquez, whose brother is now training to be an air traffic controller.

Vasquez looked a little farther into the sky, and decided that where she wanted to be was outer space, and fell in love with anything to do with the subject.

During her first year in college, a professor that knew about her love of space encouraged her to apply for a coveted scholarship with NASA. Vasquez won the scholarship, and then had the chance to meet some of the astronauts when she started her internship at NASA.

That part is simple – understanding what she does at NASA is more complicated. Start asking her to explain the projects she is working on for the space organization, and you better pull out a dry eraser board and some markers to keep it all straight.

“I have gotten to meet a lot of astronauts,” said Vasquez. It was one astronaut that had the biggest impact on Vasquez – the first Hispanic astronaut and one of the few female astronauts, Dr. Ellen Ochoa.

Dr. Ochoa has been an astronaut since 1991, and has flown on four Space Shuttle missions.

As an intern at Johnson Space Center, Vasquez had the chance to listen to her give a speech. Vasquez never got to chat with her – she just got her autograph after the speech – but the biggest impact wasn’t what Ochoa had to say, but who she is and what she has accomplished.

“She talked about her schooling, and where she is now. It was an inspiration just to see her. It makes it seem like you can do it if you just try your hardest,” said Vasquez.

Vasquez lived in Venezuela, where her dad was a math and physics teacher, until her parents moved to the United States when she was in elementary school because of the unstable economy in that country.

She has already completed three internships at NASA.

She started out in Houston, Texas, at the Johnson Space Center, and then completed internships at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif., and Goddard’s Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The people that she works with at NASA are very supportive of her judo career, but were understandably surprised when they found out this 5’6”, 138 lb. woman was a competitor in one of the toughest martial arts.

An internship at NASA sounds like a dream job to just about anyone.

When asked if the internship resembles the movie Space Camp, Vasquez laughs, and then explains exactly what she has done for NASA.

“The first year, I did a web page. The second year, I built an enclosure for an optics table to create a dark room and clean-room atmosphere. It’s part of a large aperture for a telescope. To test it, there needed to be no contaminants,“ said Vasquez.

The second year, she worked on the Mar’s exploration rover, which was just launched in July and will arrive on Mars around December of this year. Vasquez worked on the avionics for the Rover, which included working on the circuit boards that control the artificial intelligence of the rover, a panoramic camera, and a rock abrasion tool that will be used to study soil on the surface of Mars.

She also worked on a thermo vacuum, to simulate zero gravity, and did vibrator testing to simulate lift off of the rockets.

This spring, Vasquez is planning on working with NASA, where they will put her in charge of even bigger, more complicated sounding projects.

Kaki Flynn is a press officer for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Pan American Games in South Korea. For more stories, go to

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