Over the past couple of decades, Mamta Patel Nagaraja has worked on various spaceflight priorities and initiatives at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “I believe in the power of knowledge, of discovering, of exploring,” she said when describing her longtime passion for that field of human endeavor.
Patel was born in Anaheim, California. Her parents had emigrated from India to the United States just a year earlier. When she was only two months old, Patel and her family moved to San Angelo, Texas.
In recalling people who have made a positive impact on her life, Patel singled out her parents. She noted, “From a tough life in impoverished conditions in a rural area of India to a tough life in a small West Texas town where ignorance of other cultures prevailed, my parents were part of an immigrant generation that at the time was still proving themselves capable of creating a highly educated and contributing next generation of Americans (to which I am proud to say I belong).”
Patel has credited another family member with encouraging her early interest in space exploration. “When my older sister claimed she would one day be an astronaut, on the heels of Sally Ride’s launch into space [in 1983], I made the same claim,” Patel recounted. “Though, it was more because I dreamed to be just like my sister! It turned out that she outgrew the crazy dream, and my desire only got stronger.”
Another influential figure for Patel turned out to be a high school math teacher named Mrs. Bean. During a TEDx Talk that she gave in 2014, Patel recalled how Mrs. Bean handed her an application for a full-ride scholarship from Texas A&M University. (This scholarship is all-inclusive, covering tuition, room and board, books, transportation, and various other fees.) Patel had only one day to complete and submit that scholarship application before it was due, so she worked right away on filling out the forms and writing the required essays. She then sent the completed application via overnight delivery to Texas A&M.
Patel was awarded that scholarship and went on to enroll at Texas A&M in 1998. During her time as a student there, she was an intern at the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. Patel’s undergraduate pursuit of a potential career in spaceflight took an even larger and more consequential turn in 2001, when she first began working for NASA as a participant in the agency’s Cooperative Education Program.
Patel graduated from Texas A&M in 2003 with a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering. She has since earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a doctorate in bioengineering at Emory University.
Patel has also continued to work in several key capacities at NASA since her time as a cooperative education student. Her wide-ranging roles to date have included serving as a flight controller and astronaut instructor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; a space policy analyst at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.; and instruments and lead mechanical engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
In 2011, Patel was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal for her contributions to U.S. space exploration efforts. “It gives me hope and confidence to see the many women, some who even look like me, in positions to further NASA’s mission considerably,” she said during her 2014 TEDx Talk.
Patel’s current duties at NASA include advising the agency’s senior leadership on science and information technology policies. She also manages contractor teams responsible for both NASA’s science website and ScienceCast video series.
In addition, Patel has long been engaged in NASA’s initiatives to encourage young women to pursue careers, in engineering, science, math, and technology. “You have to find what you’re good at and what you really enjoy doing,” she has noted with respect to those educational efforts.
Photo Credit: NASA
For more information on Mamta Patel Nagaraja, please check out https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/3151/mamta-patel-nagaraja/ and https://www.nasa.gov/careers/Mamta/
Additional information on Patel and other female Asian American trailblazers in space exploration is available at https://www.kcet.org/summer-of-space/a-womans-place-is-in-space-meet-eight-asian-american-women-reaching-for-the-stars