What it's Like to Be a NASA Engineer

Omenaa Boakye

Farah Alibay’s earliest memory of falling in love with space was watching Apollo 13 as an 8-year-old. “What fascinated me was not only the vast expanse and dangers of space," she says. "But also that teams of engineers rallied together to solve what seemed to be insurmountable problems.”

The now 31-year-old NASA systems engineer grew up in Joliette, a small Canadian town where working for NASA was unheard of. “It was just the stuff of dreams,” she says. Alibay, whose parents emigrated from Madagascar to North America, realized at a young age that as an aspiring engineer, she had no female role models to look up to, let alone women of color. Now, she hopes she can play that role for the next generation.

In November 2018, she made history as part of the team responsible for landing the spacecraft InSight on Mars. As the tactical shift lead for the team, Alibay’s role was to build the commands that would allow communication between the spacecraft and NASA officials back on Earth. “It had been six years since anyone had landed a spacecraft on Mars,” she says. “As a young woman of color, it was hard to feel like I deserved a seat at the table, but I learned to trust my judgment and to find allies who gave me a voice,” she says. “Now I literally get to talk to a robot on another planet!”

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Trailblazers: A high achiever, Alibay attributes much of her success to the badass women who came before her. “I admire all women that try to be the best in their field, stand up for their beliefs, act as role models and pave the way for others.” As a child she looked up to Julie Payette, a French-Canadian astronaut whose achievements included flying on the space shuttle twice, serving as the Chief Astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency, and her current role as Governor General of Canada. “Julie has had roles that have been traditionally held by men, and she has performed them at the highest standard,” Alibay says. “She was the reason I grew up believing in myself and that I could achieve anything I set my mind to, regardless of my gender.”

Overcoming obstacles: Perseverance played a big part in Alibay’s success. “As a teen, I was bullied because of my skin color and teased for being ‘a nerd’,” she says. However, she believes that facing such negativity helped to make her into the woman that she is today. Her studious nature and academic achievements gained her admission into the prestigious Cambridge University in England, where she studied Aerospace Engineering. An amazing accomplishment, to be sure, but Alibay still struggled with self-confidence issues.

“I found myself in a very competitive environment where I thought everyone was smarter than me,” she says. “Most of my peers were from wealthy backgrounds, and I was amongst the few that did not attend private school.” It took guidance from a mentor to put things back into perspective. “I didn’t need to compare myself to others. College was supposed to be about educating myself and doing the best that I could,” she says. “It didn’t matter how well others were doing as long as I was pushing myself and learning.” Alibay ended up graduating with the highest honors and went on to obtain a PhD.

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Pushing boundaries: Alibay thinks a badass woman is someone who simply does her best, speaks up for others, and redefines what society expects of her. “A badass woman smashes stereotypes and believes in herself,” Alibay says. “She also pushes the boundaries of humanity, whether they are societal or scientific, either through her work or personal endeavors. And when she has setbacks, she reaches out to her mentors and peers for help. When things are going well, she reaches out to her community to inspire and help elevate others.”

Paying it forward: Alibay mentors young girls and women as part of several groups, including the Big Brother Big Sister Program. “I’ve been a big sister for three years now, and I have loved seeing my little sister grow and feel empowered to follow her dreams,” says Alibay. She also works with CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles, where she helps children who are in the foster care system. “I want to empower others to go out and change the world,” Alibay exclaims. “The sky is the limit, but for those of us that work in aerospace, the sky is just the beginning.”

Best advice: “Pick something that you are curious and passionate about, and make it your career path,” she says. “Don’t compromise, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.” Alibay also acknowledges that failure is a part of learning. “When you fail, pick yourself up and keep trying. If there’s something you really want to do, it’s never too late and it’s always worth trying again.”

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.