DIVERSITY PROFILE - BETH SHOLES
Beth Sholes knows she’s found the perfect company at which to excel as a spacecraft propulsion engineer, but when others in the industry deemed her work worthy of the prestigious Resnik Challenger Medal, she felt especially humbled about her work.
The medal is awarded only to those who have made visionary contributions to space exploration.
“Those are really huge words to live up to,” Sholes said, crediting Ball Aerospace for giving her the “opportunity to play a significant role on programs that have really contributed to space exploration.”
The medal is presented by the Society of Women Engineers in honor of Dr. Judith A. Resnik, NASA mission specialist on the ill-fated 1986 Challenger space shuttle flight.
Being recognized as having made an industry-wide impact in the area of spacecraft propulsion, she says one of the best things about being at Ball is that the company deliberately seeks full participation from all employees so that it can benefit from new and different ideas.
Sholes’ pioneering idea for using space-saving hydrazine as the propellant in the reaction control system (RCS) for NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope got noticed.
“I chose hydrazine because we didn’t have a lot of room for rocket fuel within the Kepler system; the technology itself is mainstream. But at the time, there was no way you could propose to use hydrazine on a mission like this because it was a widely accepted scientific belief that it would contaminate the optics once it hit the extremely cold space environment,” she explained.
Proving how it could be used safely on Kepler took months of analysis. “We knew we couldn’t risk the science, so we tracked every molecule of the hydrazine reaction products from the combustion chamber through the system,” Sholes said.
After proving to NASA and the mission’s principal investigator that hydrazine wouldn’t harm Kepler’s optics on orbit, Sholes and her team opened the door for the compound to be considered throughout the industry as an RCS propellant for future spacecraft missions.
What gives her the courage to challenge the status quo? Sholes said it’s the inclusive environment at Ball Aerospace that encourages her to “put my ideas out there.”
“It instills so much ownership and pride, and it’s easier to do great work that way. It’s very motivating,” said Sholes, who has worked at Ball for 10 years.
The Ball Aerospace culture is known for embracing the many unique perspectives, experiences, and approaches to work that define each employee as an individual. Then it melds these things with a strong atmosphere of teamwork and respect.
“At Ball, everyone automatically has respect and trust for you. You don’t have to spend your energy trying to prove yourself,” Sholes said. “If you are here, then everyone already knows how good you must be.”
It’s a very supportive and collaborative place, she continued. “We get the job done together. There isn’t any chest-beating or ego-stroking. It’s about the team and what we can accomplish together.”
“I was very excited and overwhelmed when they told me I had won the Resnik medal, but at the same time, I was a little uncomfortable at being singled out from the great team we have here,” she admitted. “It’s just not like this anywhere else.”
She says one of the most challenging things about aerospace is being prepared for the ups and downs. “A mission might get cancelled after you’ve been working on it for years, so you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. Patience definitely helps.”
Her greatest challenge – and enjoyment – is designing, building and testing propulsion systems “from cradle to grave.” “I’m very fortunate to have this job at this company where I can truly ‘own’ what I do. I’m involved in every step of creating the system. And the real thrill is, once it’s on orbit, I get to see it work for the very first time.”