The first female director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center shares the secret to her success.
Janet Petro grew up on the Space Coast. In the early ‘60s, her father worked on the Mercury and Gemini space projects. One of five children, she says she didn’t feel like a trailblazer, as she would later become, rather, it was just her nature to never give up. “I was in the middle of my family: two older brothers and two younger sisters. I think I was treated as one of the older kids and that helped me see myself as responsible,” Petro says.
Today, Petro has proven just how responsible she is. On June 30, 2021 she was named the first female director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This new promotion is certainly an honor but not the only highlight of Petro’s distinctive career.
As a member of the second class of women ever to be accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Petro says watching rockets launched from KSC when she was young made her want to go into aeronautical engineering.
At West Point, Petro fell in love with flying and upon being commissioned as a second lieutenant, decided to go into the aviation branch. She spent the next five years in the Army flying helicopters. She says that when her time with the Army ended, she decided to get a master’s in business administration from Boston University Metropolitan College and went on to work for aerospace companies where she processed payloads for rockets.
Her advice to young people entering STEM-focused careers is to ask for more. “Put yourself out there. Make sure your colleagues and mentors know that you’re ready and not afraid to take on more work,” she says.
As for being a woman in a male-dominated field, she says her experience at West Point taught her a lot about how to be resilient. “When I got into the private sector, I didn’t go ‘oh my gosh, I’m the only woman in this meeting.’ I had four years of that at West Point and five years of it in the Army. If anything, it pushed me more.”
She says anyone wanting to grow and succeed, no matter the industry, would do well to look past gender and consider what they are bringing to the table and what they can contribute.
In 2018, Petro was recognized for having made significant contributions to the improvement of life for women and all Florida citizens and was inducted into the Florida Women‘s Hall of Fame. It is one of the high points of her career.
“JoAnn Morgan, the first female engineer for NASA, is also in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. So, to be in any group she’s in, I feel pretty special.”
Prior to being named the eleventh director of KSC, Petro was the deputy director there since 2007. That was only three years after President George W. Bush announced that the space shuttle program was ending. Rather than see this as an ending, Petro saw this as a new chapter for KSC.
Petro says at West Point they had a saying: “Cooperate to graduate.” And she continues to carry on that tradition by giving credit for the success of the center to the dedicated and talented workface at KCS, or what she calls the “crown jewel of NASA.”
In Depth: Janet Petro is not alone. NASA has some very encouraging statistics for an industry that in the past has been seen as a male-dominated one.
34% of NASA’s professionals are women
57% of KSC’s leadership are women (with 14% being women of color)
8% of the Fortune 500 have female top executives (with 0.4% being women of color)