Carlie Zumwalt, Aerospace Engineer/Flight Dynamics Engineer with NASA

Carlie profile
  • Name Carlie Zumwalt

  • Education B.S. in Aerospace Engineering
  • Target Audience Middle School

Ever since she was in middle school Carlie Zumwalt has been shooting for the moon. Now, as an aerospace engineer with world-renowned NASA, she may pass the moon on her way to Mars! Read on to find out how Carlie works day after day to help land a human on Mars!

What is your job?

imageI am a flight dynamics engineer for the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). Basically what I am working on right now is trying to figure out how to get humans to Mars. My role in this puzzle is to work on flight dynamics. Flight dynamics encompasses a lot of different things, but primarily what I do is use computer-based simulation to develop trajectories for vehicles and provide assessments on how vehicles fly. Essentially somebody will come to me with a concept for a vehicle that he/she wants to land on a certain location on Mars. There are usually constraints to the vehicle, like a weight restriction or a restriction on how hot it can get, and I have to find a trajectory that encompasses all those restraints. Designing these vehicles is an iterative process - I give my recommendations and they go back and revise their vehicle design based on my analysis.

What different factors do you have to think about when designing these flights?

imageIt's actually a pretty interesting problem because there are a lot of considerations you have to make. One of these considerations is how hot the vehicle gets. Since the vehicles are traveling several times faster than the speed of sound we always put a layer of material on the vehicle to keep it protected from the heat generated. The materials we put on the outside of the vehicles can only withstand certain temperatures and we have to design the trajectory so that the vehicle won't get any hotter than the materials will allow. We don't want anything to melt off when it shouldn't! Something else we have to consider is fact that we are putting people in the vehicle and we are constrained by what the human body can handle. The body can only handle so much force, so we have to consider what the acceleration is on the vehicle. We want to make sure that nothing happens to the astronaut while they're in the vehicles so they can land safely.

Why did you choose this career?

I didn't always know what an engineer was but I've always enjoyed taking things apart and seeing how they work. I also had the opportunity to be involved in a couple of NASA programs when I was in middle school and high school and these programs made me realize that my love for math and science could be combined in the field of engineering. I've always had that passion for learning and understanding.

What do you like best about your job?

imageWhen I came to NASA I knew I would be working with incredibly smart people but I assumed they would be very cold, arrogant and focused on their own work. I have been most surprised by how kind everyone is and how willing they are to help you out. There are people who have been here since the Apollo days and when I listen to their stories all I want to do is soak up their information and knowledge. NASA is very much a shared environment because the only way we succeed is if we all succeed. That is how we progress. I definitely have to pull my own weight and make an effort but there is always someone there to help me out if I have a question. The other thing that I love is the idea of what we are doing. In theory, 30 years from now we will be putting people on Mars. That is not something that most people can say they get to contribute to on a daily basis. My dream is to work on something that goes to another planet or to explore the solar system. Coming to work every day and knowing that I'm contributing to this goal is what I love and is what keeps me motivated and excited for what I do.

Were you star-struck when you met the folks who worked on the Apollo missions?

imageWhen I was an undergraduate student I attended a lecture by Gene Kranz, the flight director who was on duty when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and during the day of the Apollo 13 disaster. I never met him or saw him before and I arrived at the lecture early because I wanted to have a front row seat. I sat in the front row next to a very nice older gentleman, and we started talking. I think we talked about what we had for lunch and the softball game I had played the day before. Then, when the room had filled with people, this gentleman that I had been speaking to got up and introduced himself as Gene Kranz. It was amazing to see that this amazing NASA figure was the coolest and most easy going guy! I was so star struck!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to working at NASA?

I think a lot of people say the classes you take as an engineer major are really hard, and I agree with that. The classes are hard, but there are a lot of people and resources out there to help you succeed. So I wouldn't say that the hard classes were really my biggest challenge, but rather my own self-doubt. I almost cancelled an undergraduate co-op tour in the branch that I work in now because I was worried I wasn't smart enough and that I wouldn't be able to do the job. I had a lot of moments in my career that I thought "I can't do this" or "I'm not smart enough". This mindset has been a limiting factor for me at times because if you think about it, the only way you are going to get smarter is to apply yourself and to learn. If I don't think I can do this job because I don't know a certain programming language well enough, I should just go learn it until I know it. The hardest part of my journey has been trusting that I can do the job and that the people who hired me did so for a reason. I don't know if many people admit it, but a lot of people that I've talked to struggle with self-doubt. I think there's a perception that a rocket scientist has to be a brilliant person that knows everything and never has any questions, but that's not the reality. You have to take the initiative to ask questions and learn things on your own, but you can't be expected to know everything. The only way to overcome this mindset is just to prove it to yourself. It's not about being a genius, it's about hard work. I worry that there's a stigma against this career because people feel like you have to have aced your SAT's or gotten straight A's all throughout high school and college to even consider becoming this type of an engineer. This is never the case. It's all about hard work. If things are a struggle for you, it doesn't mean that you aren't going to be good at something, it just means that you have to work at it.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? Who was he/she and how did he/she do it?

Aside from having the world's greatest and most supportive family, I think an important and motivating person for me was my high school physics teacher, Ms. Warden. She was the one who introduced me to the NASA programs that I participated in. On our first day of class she had us write down what we wanted to do when we grew up. I remember thinking I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, even though I didn't 100% know what that meant or if I would be any good at it. When Ms. Warden read my career ambitions she told me that I could make it happen and no one could stop me but myself. That was really a turning point for me. She also did a really good job at making physics fun and showing how physics relates to everything in the world - she made the world make sense.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can get practical experience in your field?

In middle school I came to NASA every other weekend and I participated in a lot of science camps. The first thing I ever did that made me really catch the space bug was participating in a Mars settlement design competition. For two or three days I was placed in a room with a group of my peers in order to come up with a concept for a Mars settlement. I loved every second of it! It was so cool to see a bunch of passionate people come together to create a proposal and presentation for a concept. We even got to present our concept to a panel of astronauts! This activity was designed to give an understanding about what you need to consider when putting a human being on Mars.

Are there exciting things happening in your field that could involve students who will enter the field in 5-15 years?

The really cool thing about being an engineer with NASA is that we take things that aren't possible and make them possible. Today, we cannot possibly put a human on Mars - we don't have the technology to do it. So every day we come in to work and we chip away at the problem. In 20 years, assuming we continue to get the funding for this project, it's going to be a reality. Every step along the way is a technological advancement toward making that happen. A lot of the cool work we're doing now, even though it isn't directly putting people on Mars, is getting us from where we are today to where we need to be in the future. All the tiny improvements in technology need to be made before we can get to a system that could land humans on Mars. While the ultimate goal is far in the future, there are a lot of interesting things that need to be done along the way. That is why I get excited to come in to work every day and that is what makes things interesting.

imageI think you have to do what you love. The key to being a good engineer is being passionate about something. My advice to young people is to find what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about robots, go become an electrical engineer. If you are passionate about spacecraft, go become an aerospace engineer. There are a lot of really interesting and incredible things that engineers are doing these days. In middle school or high school your interests may not seem like the coolest thing to your peers, but school is a very limited time in your life. Don't let what other people think stop you from pursuing your passion, because you are pursuing something that is so much greater than what people think of you. Be encouraged by the fact that your interests are important to the world and don't be discouraged by difficult classes or self-doubt.

Rockin' Rocket Science:


  • Astronomy was an important science to many ancient cultures. The stars have been used by many cultures for navigation, calendars and have even been considered gods.
  • The term "aeronautics" originated in France, and was derived from the Greek words for "air" and "to sail."
  • NASA was established in 1958 when President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act.
  • The first female astronauts for NASA completed their training in 1979. 
  • The first close-up picture of Mars was taken in 1965.


Rocket Rhetoric

Apollo 11: The NASA mission that led to humankind's first steps on the surface of the Moon. 

Apollo 13: Apollo 13 was supposed to land in the Fra Mauro area of the moon. An explosion on board forced Apollo 13 to circle the moon without landing.
Gene Kranz: A retired NASA Flight Director and manager who served on the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.
Iterative: Repetitious.
Trajectory: The curve described by a rocket in its flight.


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