04 March 2021

Yajaira Rose-Smith: being a Black female in aerospace

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Yajaira Rose-Smith is a Director of People at Virgin Galactic, driving teammate success and heading up diversity, equality and inclusion. In this blog, Yajaira, reveals her experience, working as a Black female in a predominantly white-male industry. Her story is the latest in an ongoing series that focuses on teammates across Virgin Galactic and puts the spotlight on diversity, equity and inclusion within the aerospace sector.

Industry insight:

At present, Black people make up 13.4% of the US population and 15.3% of American undergraduate and graduate students. However, a recent study by Aviation Week found that only 6% of US aerospace and defense workers are Black and when it comes to leadership positions, the same study found that only 3% of aerospace executives are Black. The result of this underrepresentation is that the aerospace sector is missing out on the advantages brought by hiring, training, and empowering diverse groups of people, which have been proven to drive innovation and improve results in countless other industries

“I’ve called Virgin Galactic home for almost nine years. While here, I’ve watched a spaceship be built by my friends, then saw some of those friends get inside it and fly into space and back, twice! Working at Virgin Galactic has provided the most unforgettable moments of my career and I’m so proud to be part of this team.

That said, working in aerospace was something I had never aspired to do. I identify as Afro-Latina, which just means I am a Black Latina.   I never thought working in space was available to me, but that’s because I never knew or met anyone that worked in this industry from within my community. It was something ‘other’ people did.

I’m an immigrant born in Panama.  I didn’t speak a word of English until I was eight years old.  I moved to South Central  Los Angeles when I was in the third grade and then went on to high school and college, earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and later a Master’s degree in African American studies.

 My husband was in the U.S. Air Force, so when I got the call from Virgin Galactic to see if I was interested in joining the team, I had a pre-conceived idea of what it would be like.  I knew from my husband’s career that the industry was predominantly white and male, but that didn’t stop me from considering the call from Virgin Galactic. My only concern was that I had no background or history within aerospace, and I thought teammates at Virgin Galactic would find it hard to relate to me.

I had always been a big fan of Richard Branson, and I liked the values of the Virgin brand, so I thought why not give it a try!  Within a few hours of my first day, I knew I needn’t have worried; everyone was fantastic, and I’ve never been treated like an outsider. I have a job to do, which is to attract, retain and develop rewards and programs for talented engineers to enable us to build the world’s first commercial spaceline, and that’s all anyone cared about. We’re on a mission at Virgin Galactic, and while we’re interested and respectful of everyone’s background, the main thing is, ‘can you help us achieve our goals?’

That said, being Black, and also a woman, while working in aerospace isn’t common. As an industry we have a lot to change and I think it’s naive to believe race isn’t an issue.

Early on during my time with the Company, I went to an aerospace recruitment event and some people seemed genuinely surprised that I was representing Virgin Galactic. I was there to lead recruitment for the Company, but people avoided me, as they assumed I wasn’t the decision maker or someone who could talk about the technology in spaceships. One attendee even assumed I was a receptionist for the person who would be doing my role. The people at this event who were looking for jobs in aerospace ignored me as I didn’t look like an important person in this industry is supposed to look. This is because it’s not normal for people with my background to end up working in aerospace, and the history of space is very white.

NASA has recently renamed its headquarters in honor of Mary W Jackson, its first ever Black female engineer, and is in the process of renaming facilities to reflect work done by women of color across the agency. But when I first started in this industry, you could, and still can, walk into military bases and buildings, which are named after people who were not supportive of equal rights for Black people.

I know that can sound quite shocking, but those things never put me off, although I understand why for others it might. It highlights how perceptions need to change and I think the topic of race at work is something that should be discussed more openly.  It's not about making others feel any guilt, it's more about amplifying diverse voices in the workplace, which in turn brings a feeling of belonging and inclusiveness.

On a personal level, I like to think that by working here, I can help change and challenge perspectives. Now one of my biggest passions is trying to use my position to give young Black and Hispanic students the confidence to go into this industry. I went to a career day once in an area of California that has a large Hispanic community. There were five or six engineers who build spaceships and then me, but the children were coming to me with questions because I looked like them.  Representation matters and it was so clear to me that day. I represented those kids; they identified with my story which to them was our story.

It’s the same when I go back home to Panama. I get tons of interest from friends about space. I’m the only person from my family that’s ever worked in this industry and everyone knows I’m associated with the brand – it’s become part of my identity now.

I have a young cousin in Panama who wants to be an astronaut. I never thought about that when I was younger, but it’s my cousin’s ambition and she believes it’s possible, as she sees herself represented in this industry by me. It’s the same for my own children – I hope by the time they’re all starting their careers, it’s routine for Black and Brown people to be key decision-makers, helping to set the agenda for space exploration.

I’m proud of the work Virgin Galactic is doing to try and address this, especially with our new BLAST scholarship program, which is set to welcome its first scholars in 2021.  This scholarship, which stands for Black Leaders in Aerospace is available for Black scholars pursuing STEM education in the U.S.  We’ve partnered with a number of other organizations to offer paid summer internships and skills training, which will begin to address the under representation we see in our industry.

It’s a start, but it’s not enough; we all need to do more. We need to go out to our historically Black colleges and universities that have amazing aerospace and stem programs and go even deeper, right back to schools. We need to show young Black and Brown people that they can have amazing careers in our industry, and a place to start is by highlighting those of us who are here already thriving in this field.

Our spaceship is called VSS Unity, and that’s because we believe that when you look back on Earth from space, you’ll see there are no borders. Astronauts coming back to Earth will have a changed perspective and this, multiplied by the long list of future astronauts set to fly with Virgin Galactic, will result in a wider mission to create good, and a realization that we’re all in this together on one big spaceship.

This change can create a fairer world, where the youth can believe they can become anything they set their mind to. I believe that through hard work, passion and determination, you can achieve your ambitions, whether that dream is to be a space wrench or the first female astronaut from Panama.

GEORGE WHITESIDES

GEORGE WHITESIDES

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD CHAIR

George T. Whitesides is the Chair of the Space Advisory Board, where he is responsible for bringing together aerospace leaders to advise the Virgin Galactic senior management team on the journey towards regular commercial spaceflight, developing the next generation vehicles and exploring new opportunities. Previously, George served as the Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic, spearheading the development of future technologies, including high speed, point-to-point travel and orbital flight, after stepping down as CEO in 2020.

George joined Virgin Galactic in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer. During George’s 10 years with the Company, he built the company from 30 people to a workforce of over 900, successfully guiding Virgin Galactic through its human space flight R&D and flight test program, culminating in two space flights. These historic flights saw the first humans launched into space from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as well as the first woman to fly on a commercial space vehicle. George led the transition of operations from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, New Mexico, and oversaw the company’s successful public listing making it a multi-billion dollar company and creating the world’s first publicly traded human spaceflight venture.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA. Upon departure from the American space agency, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

George’s volunteer service includes Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, Princeton University’s Advisory Council for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. He is a fellow of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He previously served as Vice Chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, chair of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a member of the Board of Directors of Virgin Galactic, a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, and the Board of Virgin Unite USA. George has testified on American space policy before the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. An honors graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, George later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

He resides in California with his wife Loretta and two children.

CHRIS HADFIELD

CHRIS HADFIELD

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and test pilot who has commanded the International Space Station. Formerly NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia and veteran of three spaceflights, Hadfield’s many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Hadfield is a three-time NYT bestselling author, a renowned musician, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, chair of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and host of several internationally acclaimed television series. In addition, Hadfield leads the space stream at the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s top tech incubators.

DR SANDRA MAGNUS

DR SANDRA MAGNUS

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is the Principal at AstroPlanetview, LLC. Most recently she served as the Deputy Director of Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Undersecretary of Research and Engineering. In that role she served as the “Chief Engineer” for the Department of Defense establishing engineering policy, propagating best practices and working to connect the engineering community across the department.

Dr. Magnus is the former Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Prior to leading AIAA, she was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps for 16 years. During her time at NASA she flew in space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002, and on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. In addition, she flew to the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008, served as flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18, and returned home on STS-119 after four and a half months on board.

Following her assignment on Station, she served at NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Her last duty at NASA, after STS-135, was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office.

While at NASA, Dr. Magnus worked extensively with the international community, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as with Brazil on facility-type payloads. She also spent time in Russia developing and integrating operational products and procedures for the International Space Station.

Before joining NASA, Dr. Magnus worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. While at McDonnell Douglas, she worked on internal R&D and on the Navy’s A-12 Attack Aircraft program.

Dr. Magnus has received numerous awards, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the 40 at 40 Award (given to former collegiate women athletes to recognize the impact of Title IX).

DAVID A. WHELAN

DAVID A. WHELAN

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

Dr. David A. Whelan is the SVP Chief-Scientist of Cubic Corporation. Dr. Whelan retired from Boeing in 2017, as the Vice President, Engineering (BDS) and Board of Directors for HRL Laboratories. Whelan served as Director of the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began his career at Northrop as designer of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Whelan is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Physical Society and IEEE. He earned his Ph.D. Physics from UCLA; He holds over 75 US patents.