NASA Engineer on Artemis Mission is Speed School Alum
Dec. 7, 2002
By Holly Hinson
When Alora Mazarakis was a young girl, she didn’t play with Barbie dolls. Instead, she played with airplane toys and Pilot Mickey Mouse and Flight Attendant Minnie. “My dad was a pilot for UPS, and I always had an affinity for space,” said the Speed School alum. “When I was in elementary school, I told my dad I wanted to go to college at NASA,” she said. She had no idea how that child’s dream would actually one day come to fruition.
Fly Me to the Moon
Mazarakis, who graduated from Speed School of Engineering with her Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and a Minor in Astrophysics in 2019, was part of the team for NASA’s Artemis I launch on November 15, 2022, the first of a series of space missions that aims to return humans to the moon, and eventually, send them to Mars. Artemis I is scheduled to return to Earth with a splash down about 60 miles off the coast of the Pacific Ocean this Saturday, December 10.
The 26-year old, who has been employed by NASA since April 2021, completed her MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering specializing in Radio Frequency and Avionics Engineering from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University one month later in May. She worked as a NASA contractor for two years before her current position as a flight communications and tracking electrical engineer. “My job in Artemis I is to be a part of the team that tests, verifies, and prepares all the radio frequency and antenna systems for launch readiness, as well as the video systems on the Orion crew module, “said Mazarakis. “On launch day, we sit in the firing rooms and say, “Go for launch’ on all of the communication systems.”
“It’s a feeling like no other,” said the engineer. “It’s almost like a day that you feel will never come, but when it does, it feels like your first child being born. You’ve put all this work and time and effort into this massive system,” said Mazarakis. “You’ve worked with so many other teams and everybody has really given all their blood, sweat and tears into a successful and safe launch.”
Mazarakis explained that the name Artemis encompasses all of the missions to the moon that NASA will be executing in the next decade. “Artemis I is the first of a couple increasingly complex missions,” she said. “We will launch Artemis II, which is going to do an orbital flight. Artemis III will be the one where we plan on putting boots on the moon.”
From Aspiring Engineer to Cape Canaveral
Originally from New York City, Mazarakis and her family moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky when she was a middle-schooler. “In high school, my hobby was always space, but I didn’t think it was realistic to think of it as a job because I couldn’t see how I was going to do that,” she said.
As a high school senior, she visited Speed School friends and saw the course work they were doing. “It occurred to me that I really loved the idea of problem solving, critical thinking, thinking and making things,” said Mazarakis. “Once I decided on engineering, I knew it would be Speed School because it’s the best engineering school around,” she said. “Everybody knows their engineers go through a much more rigorous curriculum and are much more prepared for the real world.”
Mazarakis first majored in Bioengineering, but she changed gears to pursue aerospace once she joined the River City Rocketry (RCR) team, a student organization dedicated to the hands-on building of rockets. “I had changed my major to electrical engineering because it had sparked my interest, and once I joined the rocket team it just took off from there,” she said.
The engineer, who was awarded Student of the Year in 2019, attributes much of her ability, and the jobs she’s been offered in her field to her foundational experience with Speed School and with RCR. “River City Rocketry wasn’t just a club, it was a team where they only pick the people who have real passion that’s palpable, people who are going to be dedicated and spend all their extra time at the engineering garage and really learn how to build rockets,” said Mazarakis.
While a member of RCR, Mazarakis helped her team win the NASA student-launched competition against schools like Purdue, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. “These are schools that not only have aerospace programs, but the best in the nation,” she said. The networking opportunities afforded by RCR and organizations like Phi Sigma Rho Sorority for Women in Engineering helped her secure an instrumental co-op rotation with Red Wire Space, sending her down the path to aerospace success.
“The fact that Speed School has so many alumni who end up at big space companies like NASA, Blue Origin, Gulf Stream Aerospace, SpaceX, is because we weren’t just sitting in class reading textbooks about aerospace,” said Mazarakis. “To be successful, we had to learn it ourselves and just do it,” she said. “We had the ability to do that through the engineering garage (makerspace), and through mentorship from great professors, but just being able to have the tools was really fantastic.”
Mazarakis likened the rigorous academics of Speed School to boot camp, but said the long, tough hours prepared her for her demanding work schedule at NASA. “You build up this mental rigor for work that is really useful,” she said. “Sometimes at NASA we work around the clock, and I sleep under my desk,” she said. “I really thought that after college, I would be able get a good night’s sleep,” joked Mazarakis. “It’s a good thing that I braced myself early.”
The engineer does look back fondly on her Speed School experience. “It was such a close knit environment,” said Mazarakis. “I never, ever felt out of place at Speed School anywhere. I always felt completely comfortable just knowing at any building I went into, I’d have friends there with smiling faces or could get help from a professor,” she said. “I recently gave a talk at Speed to the freshmen in the Engineering Fundamentals class. Speed School has a real place in my heart.”
The Definition of a Dream Job
“To say working at NASA is gratifying is an understatement,” said Mazarakis. “My whole life I always wanted to work in space, and then at River City Rocketry I realized that I wanted to build rocket ships,” she said. “But to be here now actually building them, it’s like I have to pinch myself on the daily.”
Mazarakis said a lot of the testing she performs for her job requires her to climb into the rocket’s crew module to test from inside the rocket. “Of course, I’m focusing on my work when I’m in there but mentally I’m so excited saying to myself, ‘I’m in a rocket, I’m inside the rocket.’”
One tangible example of the surreal experience of working for NASA sits proudly on Mazarakis’ desk: a tube of Nickelodeon slime that made the trip to space. “I don’t think most people would just keep slime in their office, but it was in space,” she said. ‘That’s how passionately we feel about these things.”
What is next for the young NASA engineer? “I feel like I just achieved my ultimate dream, my ultimate goal just two years ago, so to me it feels weird to be thinking ahead right now,” she said. “I’m just so happy to be here where I am.”
What about the idea of Alora Mazarakis, astronaut? Does she dream of seeing the stars from her own spaceflight?
“It is a lofty ambition and I think I will apply the next time a spaceflight class opens up,” she said. “Do I think I’ll get chosen? Probably not, but I would definitely try,” said Mazarakis. “If the opportunity arose, I would gladly, gladly accept – I’ll put it that way.”