Even rocket scientists are unsure sometimes


As I sit in a hotel room waiting for the arrival of the first rocket motor of our Ascent Abort flight test build, I am reflecting on how exactly I managed to get here. This is pretty bad-ass work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the wonder of space exploration. I’m good at this work, and that’s why I’m called to do it again and again.

But, each time I walk into my building with a dozen amazing technical experts looking to me for leadership, it gives me a catch in my throat, an uneasiness in my gut. It’s the imposter syndrome writ large. I walk in and wonder if I’ve got what it takes to lead this team to success.

This is dangerous work. Mistakes can be deadly. I don’t take that risk lightly for myself or my team.  And while I think it is important to be serious about doing the work safely and properly, it is also important to not get so wrapped up in the consequences that you can’t think clearly. There’s a delicate balance between safety and activity, and I walk that every day.

I’ve done this work for more than 20 years. I’ve seen all kinds of spacecraft building activities. I’ve learned from some of the best people in the industry, and I’ve been leading this Orion assembly for over a decade. So why now does the imposter syndrome come up?

It actually started a few weeks ago. I was visiting Vail with my family. You might have seen the pics of our llama hike in my Instagram feed. The first time I ever went to Vail, I was in college. It was one of the first trips I made without my parents. I felt so grown up, so cosmopolitan, wandering through the shops and restaurants without their oversight and planning. I was doing whatever struck my fancy. This time, I was the adult who planned the trip, who was suddenly responsible for more than just me. I wondered to myself just how I managed to grow up and be the adult. How did I manage to suddenly possess the wisdom, experience, and responsibility to do this?

The imposter syndrome is a well studied phenomenon where people who are quite skilled and talented at their work feel like they’re a fraud, posing as someone who actually knows what their doing. It’s part fear, part nerves, and part comparison. And surprisingly, the sense of crippling fear gets worse when others point out your expertise, compliment you on your skill, and designate you as the expert.

Every woman I know has experienced this at one time or another. I imagine you have, too. I don’t think you can get rid of it. I don’t think you can ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ I am quite certain that I don’t have an herb for that. What do you do? What am I doing? I’m doing it scared. Taking one step at a time and make slow but steady progress.

You do the best that you can with what you have from where you are.

And, it will be enough. We will be the incredible women everyone sees us to be.

Lisa Akers