Michaela Antolak: ‘If I can’t be an astronaut, I’ll build the rockets’

A strict series of physical requirements must be met in order to earn the coveted position of a NASA astronaut: 20/20 corrected vision, 140/90 blood pressure, and a height between 62 and 75 inches. At 5 feet tall, only two inches separated Michaela Antolak from her lifelong dream.

Michaela Antolak
Michaela Antolak with the Dragon capsule at SpaceX.

Growing up near the Johnson Space Center, the fifth-year senior in aerospace engineering at Iowa State says her whole life has centered on her love for space. “It was disappointing when I found out I was too short, but I decided I can be the one building the rockets or the space shuttle.”

With that unstoppable attitude, Antolak did her first internship with NASA in 2012, where she worked on Treadmill with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization (TVIS) and other maintenance activities.

After that, she worked as a structural engineer for Southwest Airlines, examining Boeing 737-300 and -500 series aircrafts for surface cracks.

Her final internship—and her favorite—was at SpaceX doing test engineering. “It was very hands-on, and I wasn’t at the computer every single day,” she says. Her main job was to watch tests, document them and write procedures for setup and takedown. That also included safety, so Antolak analyzed test safety and job hazards.

Now, only two short weeks until graduation, Antolak is preparing to start her new job at Alliant Techsystems (ATK) in Utah. She’ll be a quality engineer, which means ensuring all requirements and specifications for a product are met.

“I’ll be working heavily with design and process engineers,” she says. “I get to be involved in every single step of the process: designing a product, testing it and then sending it off.”

ATK is a contractor for NASA, the Department of Defense, and other commercial space programs. Antolak will work in the branch that works with propulsion systems and solid rocket motors.

While she’ll get her second dream of working on rockets, Antolak still isn’t giving up on becoming an astronaut. Because she was born in Canada and has citizenship there, she plans to research the Canadian Space Agency and look into her options for going to space.

She also knows SpaceX has plans to create a crew program with their own astronauts. Regardless of what the future holds, Antolak says she just wants to be happy in her career, and aerospace engineering was the first step.

“Everything’s revolved around me wanting to be an astronaut­­—staying true to myself and keeping up with the space program,” she says. “I want to be out there making a difference in the space program in some way.”