/ January 13, 2022

By Jessi Loerch
Reposted courtesy of the iSchool.
Photo by Doug Parry for the UW iSchool.

Shannon Gatta’s work is out of this world.

Gatta, who graduated from the iSchool in 2020 with a degree in Informatics, works as a data engineer for the private aerospace company Blue Origin, has completed the first level of private astronaut training, and has interned at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Langley Research Center.

She’s not content with fulfilling her own dreams; she’s using her talents to help other people — particularly those from marginalized groups — shoot for the stars as well.

Gatta first found a passion for space while at Seattle Central Community College. She had moved to Seattle from Texas after serving with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan, with a goal of transferring to the University of Washington. At Seattle Central, she heard about a rocketry club. It sounded cool and there was pizza, so she checked it out. It showed her a path forward she’d never expected.

“For me, it was a lot of large-scale topics I’d never really imagined for myself growing up in Texas,” she said. “It really surrounded me with a lot of goal-oriented people and helped me align with what my goals were going to be.”

While studying at Seattle Central, Gatta found opportunities to get involved at the UW, including aerospace-related research. By talking with advisors and students, she learned about Informatics and the iSchool, which sounded like the right fit for her. Before she even started at the iSchool, she was earning internships in her future field. She was working on flight software at NASA when she found out that she’d been accepted to the Informatics program.

Gatta settled into the iSchool quickly. Dowell Eugenio, an iSchool advisor, had suggested that she consider studying data science. When she enrolled, she took a class and liked it immediately.

“I loved that the class wasn’t just about the technology, it was about the responsibility that comes with knowing the data, and how you manipulate it and the power and accountability that comes along with the insight you provide,” she said.

As Gatta continued her studies, she was selected as an astronaut candidate for Out Astronaut and, in 2019, she completed the first phase of training. She’s still part of that program, which is seeking funding to send an openly queer astronaut into space. As a queer woman, it’s a goal that Gatta cares about deeply.

“That kind of visibility is important, not only for our own community but also for our capability to inspire the next generation,” she said. “We’re this invisible minority that has yet to be presented openly on such an international platform.”

Gatta was hired by Blue Origin right out of school. She now works as an aerospace data engineer on New Glenn, the largest payload capacity rocket ever created. Gatta’s work is creating a software platform that connects, tracks and interprets the immense amount of information that’s collected from the rocket’s many sensors. That information allows the rocket to adjust autonomously during launches, and it can help guide maintenance to allow quick turnarounds between launches. It also allows Blue Origin to closely analyze information to understand how the rocket will perform in different situations. For instance, how would it act differently lifting a heavy load of satellites versus a lighter load of humans?

Eugenio said Gatta stood out at the iSchool for her leadership and determination to be an advocate for others. He’s pleased that she found a job that made use of her many skills and interests.

“Shannon is sociable and friendly, passionate and caring. She was always a strong advocate for those who are marginalized,” he said. “She has a strong moral and ethical core in what she’s doing. She’s not going to be content with the status quo.”

As she thinks about the future, Gatta is thinking beyond her work. She’s focusing on helping other people in the field, particularly young women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. At Blue Origin, she the president of an LGBTQ+ organization of more than 150 employees. They’ve made important progress, including getting human resources to publish guidelines for people going through the process of gender transitioning.

“I think a lot of my goals now for the future are not so much career oriented, but about my volunteer work, and my job affords me that time,” she said. “When you’re in college, it’s always about what you create and what you do. Now that I’ve graduated, my life has centered around — what are you cultivating? What are you revisiting? Who are you helping?”