Going Full Circle
Going Full Circle
Kendra Redmond, Editor
When Renee Horton found out she was hearing impaired, she was crushed. Not because of the physical impairment—so far, she had navigated life fine by reading lips—but because the disability meant she could never be an astronaut. On the verge of turning 18 and already in college, she dropped out and abandoned her dream of working for NASA.
Her dream had been ignited at nine years old by a telescope from her dad. “That telescope opened up the chasm to my intellect. It opened up my curiosity to the rest of existence—not just the Earth, but the universe . . . I wanted to know,” Horton says.
With the birth of her daughter 10 years later, Horton reconsidered her options. “I realized then that I wanted the world to be different for her. I wanted her to be able to pick and choose where she walked, which meant that I needed to get my stuff together,” she says. With three kids at home, Horton went back to college on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and engineering in two years, because that was the term of the scholarship.
Next came graduate studies in materials science, where Horton was supported by NASA fellowships. “That’s where I realized that life could be what I wanted it to be,” she explains. She could still work for NASA. She wouldn’t be going to space, but maybe she would get lucky and help send someone else.
After earning her PhD, Horton did go to work for NASA. Her first project involved testing the Orion space capsule. She was on one of the welding projects that made the adapter connecting the capsule to its launch vehicle. When the capsule reached space for the first time, in December 2014, it had Horton’s name on it, along with the names of her kids, parents, and sister. “I realized that my life had gone full circle, because I got launched into space. And that was my moment,” she says.
Life took off after that. Horton is now a quality engineer for NASA’s Space Launch System—the Artemis Mission—which, she says, “will put the first woman and the next man back on the moon.” She’s currently on a nine-month leadership detail to the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator program, which aims to demonstrate the feasibility of flying at supersonic speed over land without generating an ear-splitting sonic boom.
In addition to her NASA responsibilities, Horton founded Unapologetically Being, a nonprofit organization that mentors cohorts of students and teaches them to go from surviving to thriving in STEM. She’s also written a series of children’s books about a character who represents herself—Dr. H is a bald, Black woman with a PhD in physics and a hearing disability who flies around exploring space. When “the cutest little White boy” walked up to Horton at a book event and said, “I want to be you when I grow up,” she chuckled. Then she realized the implications of the project. Dr. H spanned so many different intersections that she was bringing people together. The books get kids having fun and learning about the universe and, as Horton puts it, “They’re okay with it being from a Black woman who’s bald and flying around in a VW Beetle.”
In addition to working, mentoring, and writing, Horton gives invited talks around the United States and beyond on topics ranging from NASA’s Space Launch System to diversity and inclusion in STEM, getting girls interested in science, dealing with imposter syndrome, and overcoming disabilities. “When I think of all of those things, I think of an umbrella with me at the top, at the point,” Horton says. “All of those little spokes off the umbrella are different layers of me, [things] that I need to change in this world—or that I need to be changed in this world—for those that are going to follow behind me.”