A Mercer University engineering alumna wanted to work with a program that was making history, and she’s doing just that as a Starliner fluid systems test engineer for Boeing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Lyndsey Conley, who grew up in Savannah, is part of the team that readied the Starliner spacecraft for its first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test in December 2019, and she is currently helping prepare for a second test that aims to send the vehicle to the International Space Station.
She graduated from Mercer in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in engineering technical management. However, a career in engineering wasn’t always on her mind.
Conley’s two older sisters are accountants, and she planned to follow in their footsteps until her dad suggested she look into engineering. Her father and mother both majored in engineering, and other family members had commented that they thought Conley would be a good engineer. She decided to go for it, and at Mercer, she discovered the aspects of the field that she liked and focused on mechanical engineering.
She helped to re-establish the University’s Society of Women Engineers after a long hiatus, and as president, she arranged for members to tour various companies. Those site visits combined with internships at Northrop Grumman and Gulfstream Aerospace showed Conley that she had a passion for space, and the aerospace industry was the right path for her career.
She received job offers from three big aerospace companies and decided on Boeing because of the opportunity to work on a spacecraft, something she had always wanted to do.
“It was awesome that I had those three options to choose from. Though my career would have looked very different, I’ve never second-guessed my decision,” Conley said.
With the design and test components of her work at Boeing, she gets to “see the practical and hands-on application side of engineering” and her work is far from a desk job, she said. Conley’s main job is being a part of the Fluids Test Team. She also is one of a dozen members on the Starliner Pad Team, which prepares the Starliner spacecraft for launch at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. That prep work includes final cabin and hatch seal leak checks and making sure valves and switches in the cabin are positioned properly.
“On a day-to-day basis, my main job as a fluids test engineer is to test the spacecraft in different phases of the build to ensure manufacturing and design quality and to verify component and system functionality,” she said. “We get to see the vehicle from the initial build and testing all the way to servicing it for flight.”
Conley saw the Starliner in pieces when she first started her job, and she’s worked on it throughout each of the big fluid system testing phases, including preparing for environmental testing in California and pad abort testing in the desert.
After the spacecraft was put on top of the rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, she and Pad Team members made sure everything was installed correctly and performed all the final checks before the launch.
Conley worked inside the Starliner eight hours before the Orbital Flight Test in 2019. She said being on top of the rocket was “breathtaking,” not only because of the view overlooking the ocean but because of the realization that she had played a part in a milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to bring human spaceflight launch capabilities back to the United States.
Conley said another cool part of her job is seeing and interacting with astronauts from time to time. It’s rewarding to know that when test teams find and fix an issue on the ground, it won’t be a problem when the Starliner is in space.
“It’s a really awesome experience meeting the astronauts, and it really puts into perspective what we do. The reason we do what we do is to keep our astronauts safe,” she said.
Conley said it’s an exciting time for her team now, as they put the finishing touches on the Starliner before the second Orbital Flight Test. After that flight test, the team will move on to launching another Starliner mission, this time with three astronauts on board. Both the uncrewed flight test and Crew Flight Test are planned for this year.
Boeing offers a lot of opportunities for career growth, and Conley said she can see herself moving into a leadership role in the future.
She’s going to keep on encouraging girls and young women to consider careers in engineering. She regularly speaks to college students and middle- and high-schoolers and visits local schools to help with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities.
“A position (like mine) isn’t out of reach,” Conley said. “You can pursue your dream! Just set your sights on whatever career path you want to take and pursue it. Even in 2021, there aren’t many females in this field. Pursuing a career in engineering at a company like Boeing is possible. These companies want to bring in more diversity to add additional talent and to bring a different perspective to their engineering portfolio. Engineering is wide open for females. It is obtainable, and it is possible.”