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Q&A Jun 20, 2022

Conducting Wind Tunnel Tests to Support NASA’s Artemis Program: A Q&A with Ashley Dittberner

Meet the Jacobs Operations Manager for the 14-by-22-foot Subsonic Tunnel (14x22) at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Q&A with Ashley Dittberner Jacobs Operations Manager, NASA Langley Research Center

For International Women in Engineering Day 2022 we’re excited to bring you a series of interviews with some incredible #OurJacobs women from around the world. In this article meet Ashley Dittberner and learn how she got to where she is today, why she was attracted to a career in STEAM and what she thinks is the best part of working at Jacobs.  

Let's talk with Ashley:

Tell us what you’re working on these days.

I’m the Jacobs Operations Manager for the 14- by 22-Foot Subsonic Tunnel (14x22) at NASA’s Langley Research Center. My role is to ensure the day-to-day operational needs of the wind tunnel are met while working directly with our client to maintain the schedule and budget for the facility. We use the 14x22 to test a variety of scaled aircraft typically focusing on takeoff and landing configurations. Several recent tests have focused on validating new types of airplanes that could reduce our carbon footprint in the future.

What led you to this point on your career path?

I studied Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University with a minor in Business Administration. After college, I followed my husband’s career to Virginia where I began my professional career as a wind tunnel test engineer at the National Transonic Facility. Although I had no idea what a wind tunnel test engineer did before I started the job, I grew to love it. The job involved more than just using the engineering skills I had learned in college; it also taught me how to lead teams and coordinate multiple aspects of test projects.

After a few years in this role, my husband was transferred to California where I took on a new role as a research assistant to perform integration and testing of CubeSats — a type of miniature satellite. One of the CubeSats I worked on launched on an Atlas V rocket and was used to detect space debris.

A few years later, we returned to Virginia where I was able to return to NASA Langley and become a test engineer at NASA’s massive wind tunnel. It was there that I was promoted to the operations manager role. With each new role in my career, there were several people along the way who encouraged, inspired and taught me more than just engineering principles; they taught me how to lead others by setting a positive example and looking for strengths in people.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEAM?

Growing up in a small town I didn’t know any engineers, but I knew that I loved math and wanted to enter a career field where I could use these skills. My physics teacher in high school suggested that I study engineering in college, so I followed his advice and decided that aerospace engineering sounded like a challenging but exciting field of study. I had no idea where this career path would lead, but I’ve enjoyed every step of the way.

  • Ashley Dittberner in a wind tunnel

Tell us about a memorable project you’ve worked on that has helped build a brighter future.

At the wind tunnel, we conducted a series of tests for the Space Launch System (SLS) in support of upcoming Artemis missions. These wind tunnel tests were performed to test the interactions between the launch tower and the rocket during the liftoff and transition phases. As a female engineer, I’m thrilled to be part of this program to ensure the safe liftoff of  SLS as we work to send the first woman and person of color to the moon!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

Say “yes” to opportunities! With every job opportunity or new role, I always have a brief hesitation before saying yes where I wonder if I’m experienced enough or if I’m the right person for the job. What I’ve learned is that if I put the work into it and seek out help from the right people, I can be successful in just about any role.

“My physics teacher in high school suggested that I study engineering in college, so I followed his advice and decided that aerospace engineering sounded like a challenging but exciting field of study. I had no idea where this career path would lead, but I’ve enjoyed every step of the way. ”

Ashley Dittberner

Ashley Dittberner

Jacobs Operations Manager, NASA Langley Research Center

Proudest/most interesting career moment?

NASA Langley hosted the Vice President of the United States, and the wind tunnel was one of the tour stops. Leading up to the visit, there was a lot of work that had to be done to prepare the operational facility for an event of this magnitude. The tunnel staff and others at Jacobs Tidewater Operations Group (JTOG) worked diligently for several weeks leading up to the event. I worked closely with our client during this preparation time to coordinate the numerous activities. After several long weeks of cleaning, coordinating, and planning, we were rewarded with the unique privilege of touring and taking a photo with the Vice President.

What does the future of engineering look like to you?

Engineering has always been about solving problems. The future of engineering is about innovation and creating new and better ways of solving those problems. Innovation doesn’t always involve the latest and greatest technology, but it’s about looking at problems from a new perspective and developing practical solutions to those problems. 

If you could tell your 18-year-old-self one thing, what would it be?

I’d tell myself that some of the most challenging experiences in your life will lead to some of the greatest rewards. Don’t give up! While I don’t completely buy into the adage of “no pain, no gain”, I do feel there is some truth in this saying. Throughout my career and personal life, I’ve experienced some challenging situations but looking back at them from the other side, I realize now how much those experiences have shaped me into who I am today. Those experiences rewarded me with tools that have equipped me to better perform my job and to help others.

People would be surprised to know that I…

…enjoy running!  I recently trained and finished a half marathon this spring after postponing it two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I enjoy spending time outdoors and find that running is a great stress release.

What do you enjoy most about being part of #OurJacobs?

The best part of #OurJacobs is the people — they care deeply for each other. both professionally and personally. We look out for each other’s safety and share our lives and experiences with each other. This company truly is a company like no other because of the people.

About the interviewee

Ashley Dittberner

Ashley Dittberner is the Operations Manager for the 14-by-22-foot Subsonic Wind Tunnel (14x22) at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She is the chapter lead for the Jacobs Tidewater Operations Group (JTOG) Jacobs Women’s Network (JWN) and serves as the Co-Director of STEAM and Recruitment for the JWN East Region. She is also a Jacobs Positive Mental Health Champion. Ashley also represents the 14x22 wind tunnel as a member of the Subsonic Aerodynamic Testing Association and the Wind Tunnel Characterization Working Group. Outside of work, Ashley enjoys spending time with her husband and three children and actively serves in the children’s ministry at her church.

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