For pursuing the outer limits of science
“I hope to be an astronaut,” Kenneth Harris II says. “You can’t put something like that at the top of your to-do list. You may be setting yourself up for constant disappointment if you’re easily swayed by rejection.”
Harris is not easily swayed.
He arrived at NASA at the age of 16. His subsequent work as project leader on the James Webb Space Telescope program made him one of the youngest African Americans in the U.S. space agency’s history to lead an integration effort on a multibillion-U.S.-dollar satellite mission. Today he’s the database lead engineer for NASA’s Joint Polar Satellite System J2 mission as well as a powerful advocate for STEM studies. No, he’s not an astronaut. But as he’s quick to point out, he’s just getting started. Here are five glimpses into how he’s brought his to-do list to life.
During his first year as a high school intern at NASA, he built so-called breadboards (construction bases for prototyping electronics) and wired up components to run readiness tests for projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s lab. “By doing that multiple times and proving myself, that’s what gained the confidence of my superiors and higher-ups,” he says.
When the summer ended, he volunteered to continue working in the lab after school. “People saw the drive in me to do some additional things,” he says. “I wasn’t being paid for it. I was doing it for the experience. I really enjoyed working with my project team.”
Harris once had a fear of public speaking, but he didn’t want that stage fright to limit his career opportunities.
“I tried to tackle that challenge head on,” he says, setting his sights not just on stakeholder presentations but motivational speaking. He started small, presenting to student groups on mentorship and careers in STEM.
Over time, his audiences—and confidence—began to grow. Leading small presentations at a Space Generation Advisory Council meeting opened his eyes to the potential of a global stage.
“To see and be able to talk to all of these other individuals made me really want to broaden my horizons even more,” says Harris, who has since keynoted a TED Talk and presented to the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. “Space is bigger than NASA, and it’s not just owned by one country.”
As a digital native, Harris knows the power of social media and uses it to spread the word of space exploration and influence next-gen STEM students and leaders. He partners with NASA team members to craft content that features product scientists explaining their roles and highlighting projects.
“You can’t ask a satellite how it was built,” Harris says. “You have to ask the person behind it.”
Learning to Fly
Day to day, Harris works with numbers—from calculating the payload of modules to factoring vendor fabrication into flight mission schedules. It requires constant problem-solving. During his second mission at NASA, he built a test material out of tungsten for added strength. He went through the entire fabrication process before showing it to his mentor, who said it weighed too much to fly.
“That mentor always told me to fail early and fail fast,” he recalls. “From these experiences working at NASA, I’ve realized not to shy away from making mistakes.”
Opening the Skies
“I want more seasoned people in their careers to be reaching back and helping to develop the younger ones,” Harris says. “It’s pretty selfish to have someone with 20 or 30 years of experience to just be going through the motions and not giving back.”
Harris is already nurturing those who might follow in his footsteps. He recently ran to become a local school board member, vowing to deliver better STEM resources for classrooms. “I want the next generation of people to go further than me and my generation have,” he says.
And Harris isn’t afraid to push them.
“I often challenge newer engineers on our project with a solution that I know has several flaws, only to test if they will go with their gut and highlight how the task can be completed more efficiently,” he says. “I don’t want young people to lose themselves in the chaos of project life. It’s okay to be wrong. We need your ideas; we’re all learning and ultimately moving toward the same goal.”
Q&A: Kenneth Harris II on adaptability, coronavirus communications and living in space
What projects have most influenced you personally?
The first was the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched before I was born. Just the idea of being able to see things in the galaxy and indirectly exploring was amazing to me. The Hubble Space Telescope was also exponentially more powerful than the small telescope I had in my room growing up. The second project is the International Space Station. This project, when conceptualized, would allow people to live in space. Growing up, that was something you only saw in movies, so it was amazing to think it would actually happen in my lifetime.
What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy of tomorrow?
Adaptability. If I’ve learned one thing from working with local and international partners, is that we are constantly changing. Whether it’s interacting with different cultures or demographics, this skill is needed. The need for proper and effective communication does not subside over time. I could argue that in these pressing times dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more necessary to adapt to the changing styles of communication. Our work doesn’t simply stop because of the inability to interact face-to-face. Instead we implement and enforce new ways to accomplish the task.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Having the opportunity to work on the James Webb Space Telescope was truly life-changing. Leading a team in a cleanroom environment, on a US$10 billion satellite that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe was very humbling. I didn’t understand the gravity of the work at the time but looking back on challenges my team overcame, and ultimately the success of the integration, I am truly thankful for the opportunity.
What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?
Younger people will be stepping up as the project managers and team leads. There will be a drastic shift in the age gap of leadership. However, with this shift comes changes in leadership styles and approaches. It is imperative that those in management now seek out and pour into the younger members of their teams that they see potential in. For them to embody good effective leadership, it will take an exceptional example from those currently in positions of power.
What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?
I would want Dorothy Vaughan on my project team. She is one of the three Hidden Figures highlighted in NASA’s history—an absolute wiz when it came to understanding electronic computing. She also led the group West Computers for a portion of time, continuing to increase her visibility and ultimately her responsibility within the agency.