Langley Celebrates Black History Month: Alexus Cottonham

Alexus Cottonham is an aerospace engineer supporting NASA Langley’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate. She completed a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering at Colorado State University. She started with NASA in 2020 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and is completing her first year at NASA Langley.

Who or what inspired you to choose your career and why?

Growing up, I actually didn’t like science. I found science fairs so stressful, and I wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until I took physics in high school, and I was like, “Wow! This is amazing! You can predict the future? You can use this mathematical equation to tell me where Mars will be and its orbit 20 years from now?” I just fell in love. I had a high school teacher, high school physics teacher, Mr. [William] Budell who saw my enthusiasm and really encouraged me to think about a career in engineering, which I had never done before. As I was exploring different career options, I found aerospace, where I could combine my love of space and engineering.

What do you find most rewarding about working with NASA?

The most rewarding thing I find about working at NASA is the culture here. We really do have that ‘One NASA’ mindset. We’re all working towards a shared vision. Not to say that we don’t have our challenges or disagreements, but it makes finding solutions to those challenges so much easier knowing that we’re all working for the benefit of humankind.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Outside of work, I have a lot of different interests. I enjoy spending time in nature, checking out city parks, state parks, and national parks nearby. I also enjoy board gaming. I love to travel and I’m usually planning my next big trip outside of work, and whenever I can, I like to support local theater.

What advice would you give young people who might be interested in pursuing a career at NASA?

To those who are interested in a career at NASA, I usually give advice to two different groups. You have a group of young people who know that they want to work at NASA but aren’t really sure what they’re dream job is, and that’s perfectly okay. I would say to that group, find your passion. Find the thing that sparks joy in you, and you can do that by pursuing internships, finding extracurriculars that spark interest, and once you find that passion, follow it! I used to think that NASA was only for scientists and engineers, but that’s so not true! We have communications specialists and accountants, lawyers, and artists and so many different fields of careers here, so I would explore whatever you’re passionate about.

Then to the second group, to people who know what their dream job is I would say, find a mentor, somebody who’s in the next stage of life that you trust and ask them questions. How did they get to where they are? How would they have done things differently if they had the opportunity?

Last piece of advice to both groups I would say is to be open to opportunities. You may not always find a direct path to where you’re going but you can find opportunities along the way that will help you gain the skills and make connections that will eventually get you to where you want to go.

How does your background and heritage contribute to your perspective and approach in your role at NASA?

Growing up, I heard the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” many, many times. And that’s true to my experience. Growing up in a single-parent household I saw my mom make connections with friends, with my teachers, and rely on my extended family to give me anything and everything that I needed, whether it be childcare or new clothes for school, or supporting me in my extracurriculars. And that principle is something that I like to bring into my current work. Nobody goes into space alone. It takes a village. It takes a team, and so not only do I look for strengths in myself that I can bring to my team to help us achieve our goals, but I’m also always looking around to others to see, “Hey! that person is doing amazing work!” or “This team is really awesome at this.” How can we partner together to improve our processes, to better our design, and achieve our goals together?

The 2024 theme for Black History Month is “African Americans and the Arts,” spanning the many impacts that Black Americans have had on visual arts, music, cultural movements and more. How have the arts played a role in your life? 

The arts have played a big role in my life. Growing up I was so shy. I would have never agreed to do a video interview or give a presentation to dozens or hundreds of people like I have at NASA. I got over my nerves and I jumped into drama club in middle school, and I loved it and I stuck with it all throughout high school becoming the president of the drama club my senior year. I learned so many skills that I still use today in my role. From customer interactions and customer satisfaction that we had to learn while we were selling tickets for our shows. I also learned how to consider different perspectives. When you’re putting on a show you have to think about the audience, how they’re going to react. You have to think about the actors on stage and the crew backstage and how it all comes together to complete our mission, which is putting on a great show. These are principles I still use in my work today.

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