Star Wars Fangirl Strikes Back

Holly Griffith lives Star Wars. Toys from the famous movies litter her desk, and she wears R2D2 shoes. She works at NASA as a safety engineer for the Life Support Systems for Orion, which is closest thing to living a Star Wars life on Planet Earth. Her commitment to Star Wars extends to also being a role model and encouraging more women to take on STEM careers. Griffith studied mechanical engineering at McNeese State University, where she was also vice president of the ASME chapter. She talked to ASME about how the epic movie influenced her decision to join NASA, her decision to study mechanical engineering, and planting the seeds for more careers in STEM.
ASME: How did Star Wars motivate you to get into NASA, and also mechanical engineering?
HG: Star Wars was my entry into the world of sci-fi and it really opened up an entirely new world - spaceships, robots, lightsabers, aliens, etc. I wanted to live in a universe where those things existed. Obviously we’re limited here on Earth by physics and budgets, among other things, but NASA was the closest place I could be at and be close to Star Wars in some least on the spaceship side of things.
The character of Princess Leia is another thing that motivated me to work at NASA. Never before had there been a female character like her - she was strong, smart, and took charge. Since I started watching the movies at such a young age she taught me that it didn’t matter if you were a woman. She’s pretty much only 1 of 2 women in the entire original trilogy and look at how she handles herself - it never gets to her or bothers her. In my mechanical engineering class I was 1 of only 2 women in my graduating class and that’s the attitude I tried to have, that it was no big deal.
ASME: How did you choose mechanical engineering?
HG: I always wanted to work at NASA, and in doing my research, engineering seemed like the best career to get into. I narrowed it down to the electrical, mechanical, and aerospace disciplines. Initially I wanted to do aerospace but it seemed too narrow because this field is always in flux as it is dependent on money from Congress. I went with mechanical engineering because the classes interested me and it had broader appeal. I’m glad I did as I switched careers for a while after the Shuttle program. I’m back at NASA now, but had I not chosen mechanical engineering I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
ASME: Do you think Star Wars would plant the seeds for more careers in STEM?
HG: I do! Star Wars LEGO’s are hugely popular and I think LEGO’s are a great way to get younger kids to start thinking more technically. There’s even a show now called Science and Star Wars and some of the technology from the movie isn’t just fantasy anymore. Droids like R2D2 and BB-8 are inspiring droid-builders, or people who make their own droids. And we have Robonaut on the International Space Station now, who does some of the tasks for the astronauts. So if Star Wars got you into robotics, NASA is definitely a place for you.
If you’re more into medicine or biomedical engineering, think of Luke’s artificial hand in the Empire Strikes Back. NASA is working to develop artificial muscle systems and moldable materials for a more natural look and feel of flesh. If actual rocket science is your thing, Star Wars had TIE (Twin Ion Engines) fighters, while NASA has a Triple Ion Engine, which is being used on the Dawn spacecraft currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. There are our astrobiology programs, looking for life on planets other than Earth. We need explorers, or astronauts, to go to space or the moon or Mars one day. We need to think about fixing spaceships and bases before a mission begins.
ASME: From here to into the future, where do you see the relationship between people and machines going? Will it be anything like Star Wars?
HG: I’ve heard different opinions from “experts” on AI, anywhere from warning us that it will mean certain death for humans to it will be the greatest thing ever. I’m not sure what to believe. Once AI/machines get to a certain point, a lot of moral and ethical questions will need to be asked. I don’t know that we, as humans, have made it to the point where we’re ready to accept that responsibility. I think technically one day we can get to an R2D2 or C-3PO level of droid or maybe something even more advanced in time. As we reach each new levels, I really hope we think about what we’re doing.
ASME: Does Star Wars have an effect on the daily work you do at NASA, or does it set the tone for how you look at work?
HG: Technically it doesn’t because my work is on the Orion program. That’s the vehicle that’s replacing the Space Shuttle. I work on the ECLSS - Environmental Control and Life Support System. That doesn’t really relate to Star Wars but my coworkers know what a huge fan I am so they’re always stopping by to tell me about something they saw or heard that’s related to it. I have movie-based toys decorating my desk and have R2D2 shoes that I wear every now and then. Those have been a hit around the office.
ASME: Engineering is male-dominated, and women are underrepresented. Do you believe we need more role models like Leia, and are you a real-life Leia?
HG: We could always use more role models like Leia. When I graduated female engineering graduates were less than 20% of engineering graduates and that number hasn’t changed much. Role models are a big part of helping women choose engineering but there are other factors as well. Most women get turned off of science/math around middle school and there’s research that talks about why, so I think it’s also a problem that needs to be addressed in school and at home, but that’s another story.
I do go around the country, talking about science and Star Wars and my career and women in STEM and trying to show other women and girls that we do exist. I try to let them know that it’s not scary and that if I can do it, they can do it. I’m just a regular girl from south Louisiana who saw Star Wars and became interested in space exploration and because there was a strong female character I wasn’t intimidated in going for it. Am I a real-life Leia? Maybe I’m a technical version of Leia, who was a politician, a senator in her day job. I’ll stick to the numbers.
Agam Shah is an associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.