Bill Ingalls / NASA
Kate Folmar works on rockets. She’s hands-on with cryogenic operations — or servicing liquid nitrogen — and installs payloads into flight vehicles that head to space. Much of her work is focused on the International Space Station, where she fuels tanks and sends them back up, which provides the astronauts with air conditioning. Some of Folmar’s expertise is consumed into NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, the multibillion-dollar launcher expected to lead humans to back to the Earth’s Moon and beyond.
And despite all of that, Folmar says she’s not a rocket scientist.
“I’m just a nerd,” Folmar, an engineering technician at Kennedy Space Center, told Ladders.
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As a child, Folmar once begged her family to take her to Kennedy Space Center during a trip to Disney World. She used to fantasize about the different pantsuits in her mom’s J.C. Penney’s catalog, telling her that that was going to be her uniform at NASA. Her early sets toward propulsion came by being surrounded by her dad, who built front-engine drag racing cars, where Folmar quickly became his biggest helper.
Folmar, a 29-year-old Pennsylvania native, is living her childhood dream at NASA. It took calculated steps to reach the top of the aviation world, starting at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics where she said she received a hands-on experience learning at the trade school through some of the best equipment and having teachers that not only embraced mistake but helped correct them.
“They give you everything,” she said.
A month before graduating, she landed a job with Pratt & Whitney and packed her bags and moved to Georgia. She worked in maintenance, repair, and overhaul for commercial jet and military engines, learning how to tear down each engine and build it back up. It taught her how things wear and work. After four years, Folmar transferred to West Palm Beach, FL, which got her closer to rockets.
“You have to be able to show you can work and that you are confident enough to work inside a rocket,” Folmar said. “It’s high-precise work. It’s very delicate. But I’m a big nerd and just bothered the rocket people until I was finally given the chance.”
Her path landed her at the Vandenburg Air Force base in California, where she worked from the ground up on an Atlas 5 rocket and was able to work on the engine. Folmar also acquired launch-control experience, sitting in the propulsion room and watching data screens about vehicle behavior through launch. It successfully launched her training with rockets and helped her build her resume, so when NASA started hiring technicians and engineers, she was able to make the jump.
“I still have to pinch myself sometimes,” Folmar said.
With America celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July, Folmar said NASA hasn’t missed a beat in its strive to accomplish more.
“It’s incredible what we did in the 60s,” Folmar reflected. “It’s amazing to see the dedication that people put into making that happen. I’ve met a few astronauts of that time and a lot of people that work here with family employed around that time. The passion has not faded from that generation or the people that are going to be putting people on the moon again.”