Rebecca Wingfield has always been fascinated by space.
That fascination, which began as a child looking up at the night sky over her hometown of Princeton, has taken her to great heights and a career with NASA as a flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"Being in western Kentucky, and having the ability to walk around at night and see the stars, see the Milky Way and look for the planets and that kind of stuff, going to the planetarium at Golden Pond, that was always a really cool thing for me," Wingfield said.
Wingfield talked about her lifelong interest in space and her present day duties overseeing the planning, training and execution of human missions with NASA as the featured speaker at Thursday's Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce Power in Partnership breakfast at the Julian Carroll Convention Center.
"I was interested in NASA, always," she said. "I was a nerd from way back. I even had one of my senior pictures taken here in Paducah with all my NASA paraphernalia, I loved that stuff."
She credits her parents for encouraging her interest and trips to visit her grandparents in Florida, which included regular visits to the Kennedy Space Center.
"Seeing the rocket launches and getting to experience all of those things was really important and really shaped who I was. I just never grew out of that 'I want to be an astronaut' phase of my life."
The 2002 graduate of Caldwell County High School went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. While in college, she participated in the cooperative education program, rotating between going to school for a semester and then working at the Kennedy Space Center for a semester.
The co-op experience really helped her understand the application of engineering, she said.
"I knew I was good at math and science, but I didn't really know how to apply it in order to get to work in the space industry," she said. "While I was there, I worked on the ground support equipment, like the launch pad or the crawler, those really iconic things.
"Those were the projects that I got to work on as a college student, so it was really, really cool to get my hands on."
Her education includes a master's degree in system engineering from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She began her career as a flight controller for the International Space Station as an operations support officer responsible for all mechanisms and maintenance performed about the spacecraft.
She's also held positions in the capsule communicator (CapCom) role and as a chief training officer. As a capsule communicator, she was the primary point of voice contact to space and answered as "Houston" in communicating with the astronauts.
"It (CapCom) is the most fun job in the flight control room ... because you get to talk to space," she said.
When she was first selected for the flight director class of 2018, NASA put out a news release about the participants, which wound up garnering Wingfield some publicity back home.
"That (news coverage) really bonded us together," she said. "When the Princeton Times Leader put it out, I sent a link to my teammates. I said 'Hey, look, we made the front page.' They were really excited about that."
Also on Thursday, Wingfield answered an array of questions from participants of the 2019 STEM 4 Girls Conference at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.
"What is it like to, well, eat on the space station?" asked one girl.
Wingfield compared eating in outer space to camping.
"We send up things like granola and occasionally, we'll send up fresh fruit, although it goes bad pretty quickly," she answered. "But most of their food is dehydrated. So, we pack it in little packages and we take all the water out and then when they get on board, we put hot water back into it, kind of swish it around, sort of like you would do like Ramen noodles, maybe, and reconstitute it."
The food is "really, pretty good," especially the Thai Chicken Curry, she said.
The space station, according to Wingfield, is the size of a football field and travels 17,500 mph around the Earth every 90 minutes. At Mission Control, she said, they have three primary jobs: keep astronauts safe, keep the vehicle "healthy" and mission success.
She explained how routine things work in outer space like getting a haircut or using the toilet, and showed photos of astronauts on the job, such as American engineer Christina Koch, who recently took part in the first all-female spacewalk.
"She's in space right now," Wingfield said. "She just did a spacewalk not too long ago, and I put this picture in here because she's an engineer too. She's an electrical engineer and when she got the call that she was going to get to be an astronaut, she actually worked for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)."
Before girls left for sessions, Wingfield gave some advice on the secret to success and encouraged them to find a mentor.
"I want you to know that along the way, it is highly likely that you're not going to be good at something," she said. "It's just part of life. I'm that way also, but I'm going to tell you just to keep going because if you've got a dream and you've got something that you wanted to do, like how I always wanted to work with space, I want you to know that you can and that you should."