By Paula Grubbs
Butler Eagle Staff Writer
PASADENA, Calif. — Katie Beckwith’s entire life has been an orbit around Mars.
Beckwith not only attended the Mars School District and graduated from Mars High School in 2007, she is now employed with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., working on NASA’s future voyage to Mars.
“I like to think that when I came to interview at the JPL they gave me a job on my merit,” Beckwith said, “but I really think they were so excited to hire a Martian.”
She said her co-workers at NASA are delighted at the name of her hometown in Western Pennsylvania.
“People just get a kick out of it when I say I’m from Mars,” Beckwith said.
The daughter of Robyn and Louis Beckwith of Harmony, Katie has been employed with NASA’s JPL for three years.
She said her childhood dream to work for NASA began at about 9 years old, when she and her father hopped into the car and followed the Hale-Bopp comet down Route 228.
“That moment really kicked it all off for me,” Beckwith said.
Her teachers at Mars were all too happy to perpetuate her fascination, and Beckwith took nearly every science course the district offered.
“I had one of the best support systems in the Mars School District,” she said. “Many science teachers encouraged me to pursue science.”
While at Mars High School, Beckwith attended the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute and the state Governor’s School on Healthcare, where she got a pre-med experience.
“I thought it would be really interesting to learn how the human body might react in a space environment,” Beckwith said. “That’s a cornerstone at NASA, how the body reacts without gravity.”
After graduation, Beckwith enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied material science and engineering.
“Hey, I’m a Pittsburgh girl,” she said of her choice to study at Pitt. “I’ve got to stay local.”
While at Pitt, Beckwith served as an intern at General Electric Aviation. She worked on everything from applied engineering to high-temperature metallurgical applications to turbine engines.
After graduating from Pitt in 2012, Beckwith landed a job with Alcoa Power and Propulsion in Hampton, Va. She worked there for about a year on the impact of high temperatures on metal alloys.
Having married in the interim, her husband got a job with NASA at JPL as a navigation engineer working in the field of trajectory. Beckwith had planned to attend graduate school in her new home of California, but her husband encouraged her to apply at the JPL.
“So I did, and I got a job,” she said.
Beckwith’s title is materials and processes engineer. As such, she helps select materials that are suitable for various projects or that maintain the integrity of a design, ensures that performance objectives are met, and studies whether materials to be used on crafts flown in other gravity, such as Mars, won’t be compromised by that atmosphere.
Beckwith is one of the NASA experts from the JPL who will travel to Mars — the town — in May to participate in the second Mars New Year.
She is working on a technology demonstration project for the Mars New Year that involves flying a helicopter on the Red Planet. Her work includes studying what design would be best and the limitations to flying a chopper on Mars.
“I think it’s the coolest thing,” Beckwith said. “I love coming to work every day.”
She will also give a number of presentations and serve as a judge for the Meet the MARS Challenge!, a school program that presents a hypothetical situation in which 100 people are traveling to the Red Planet to live. The students must come up with problems, issues or challenges they would face and create a solution.
“I’m so proud of my hometown because I’ve seen how much effort the mayor and the committee have put in,” Beckwith said of the event. “My passions are coming together and I couldn’t be more proud on both sides.”
Mars Mayor Gregg Hartung is excited that a native daughter will return for the Mars New Year.
“What a wonderful opportunity for the Mars School District to have one of our graduates doing such cool work for NASA,” Hartung said. “As a Mars graduate myself, it was fantastic to talk to Katie about how important a quality education is to inspiring today’s students to possibly be an engineer or scientist who will help reach the Red Planet.”