HUNTSVILLE, Ala., July 28, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Cheryl Harrell's journey to NASA began in elementary school, just a few miles down the road from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
"My foundation and the passion and joy and love I have for NASA really started at that school, named after Christopher Kraft," she said. Kraft worked at Langley before moving to Houston to become NASA's first human space mission flight director.
The foundation laid, Harrell would join NASA at Langley in 1987 where she worked until her first move to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2005. Today, she brings her skills and 28 years of diverse NASA experience to the Space Launch System Program Office at Marshall, where, as manager of the Program Planning and Control Office, she is responsible for managing resources for SLS – the world's most powerful rocket, including an annual budget of nearly $2 billion.
Joining the SLS management team is the latest in a long line of opportunities that date back to Harrell's teenage years when she was first making her ever-important college decisions.
Nearing the end of high school, she found out about an internship program offered at Langley. Learning more about it from a program graduate, she applied and was selected. She worked half of each day and took classes the other half.
It was not all smooth sailing at first, though. Like many young people who start off on a journey different from their friends, Harrell was unsure if the program was the right fit for her.
"I remember going home and telling my mom and dad that I didn't think I was going to like it," she recalled. "They told me to be patient, that I was just getting started. I stuck with it and had some really great mentors who opened the doors for me and were patient with me, and taught me the foundations of the person I've become today." Those foundations include work ethic, work experience and a wide array of opportunities.
Following completion of her Cooperative Education program in 1990, Harrell held a variety of positions within Langley's Office of the Chief Counsel, Supersonic/Hypersonics Aerodynamics Branch and Research Facilities Branch. From 1996 to 2002, she was a program/management analyst for the High-Speed Research Program and lead program analyst in the Aero-Performing Center Program Management Office.
"I allowed myself to grow horizontally to promote opportunities later for vertical growth," she said.
In 2002, she accepted a management position at Langley and pursued leadership opportunities over the following decade at both Langley and Marshall in a variety of space transportation programs, the Marshall Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the Langley Office of the Director, and most recently in the Marshall Office of Strategic Analysis and Communications.
In her new position, she uses her skills and experiences to implement innovative program management plans and processes while serving as the liaison between the SLS Program, Marshall and NASA to ensure that when SLS is delivered, it is capable of fulfilling the requirements of carrying humans to deep space destinations, including Mars. In addition to her new management role, Harrell joins the Senior Executive Service -- the personnel system that covers most of the top managerial, supervisory and policy positions in the executive branch of the federal government.
"I would say I have one of the most fantastic jobs in the agency," she said. "I have a great team, and I'm excited about the journey of being able to establish the next heavy lift vehicle for the agency."
Harrell is also using her journey through NASA to pay it forward by mentoring and helping develop the leadership skills of future space program team members.
"I think a lot of where my gratification in the last four or five years comes from is through helping and nurturing the next generation to come in behind us," she said. "For me, the education opened the door, but the on-the-job experience is what really enabled me to be where I am today."
Harrell -- the first person in her family to graduate college -- holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from St. Leo College in Hampton. Her service to NASA has garnered numerous honors and awards, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, NASA Administrative Medal, Space Flight Awareness Honoree Award and multiple group achievement awards.