Human space exploration is a fundamental component of technological and economic advancement and growth. Though the rovers we send to the Moon and Mars are complex and advanced pieces of technology, many argue that humans just do the job better. The research that is conducted in space comes back to benefit all of us, and NASA cites that water purification efforts and improving eye surgery are just some of the many benefits that have come from human missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Of course, if we are sending humans into space, safety becomes a top priority. Enter: Agnes Vargas, Space Flight Awareness liaison for Boeing’s Space Flight Awareness (SFA) Program. It is her job to remind the employees and suppliers of Boeing of the importance of their job: that no matter where you fall in the chain of command, your job is to ensure astronaut safety.
Vargas has been with Boeing for 31 years. During the Shuttle era, while she worked at Kennedy Space Center, she volunteered with NASA to bus astronaut families to the Banana Creek viewing site.
“For example, I was assigned to take Mark Polansky’s mother during his first flight,” said Vargas. “I held his mother’s hand, while her hand was shaking as her son left Earth to go up to the Station for the very first time. I thought, ‘I need to make sure that she’s going to be okay.’”
Now, with CST-100 Starliner preparing for its first manned mission, Vargas said, “As we move forward to the next generation of flight with the CST-100 Starliner, I anxiously await sharing the launch experience with Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson’s family.”
This volunteer role was her first experience in supporting the astronauts and their families. As it always does, one thing led to another and Vargas was eventually offered the role of Boeing’s liaison for NASA’s Space Flight Awareness (SFA) program.
She explained that this role is both motivational and educational. Not only is she reminding employees of the importance of their jobs, but she is helping to put a face to the program, which helps to connect the dots for all the employees in their pursuits.
“The biggest thing we always say is, ‘safety first’” commented Vargas. She explained that the program promotes this safety through education, and she will occasionally bring the astronauts and their families to the facilities to make the process more human.
“Walking through KSC with Nicole Mann and her family helped remind people that there is a face to this program,” she said.
She also tours schools across the country with active astronauts in the corps and encourages children to stay in school, pursue STEM and later get involved with the human spaceflight program.
This past August, Vargas had the opportunity to visit her hometown, The Bronx.
She said, “To bring an astronaut to an underprivileged school and have him speak and be able to provide them the resources and knowledge with what they can do with their lives beyond today, is great.”
Of course, as a support system role, Vargas herself is a constant reminder that you don’t have to be an engineer to support or be successful in the human spaceflight program. “There are many avenues; the engineers can’t do it alone,” she said.
“There are so many different elements to spaceflight – engineering is key, but you need a whole team. You need a team with a variety of education,” she said. “We’re all made differently. I hope children can say, ‘I, too, can be part of the space program, even if my interests don’t align with engineering or mathematics.’”
Of course, she also has the opportunity to award Boeing employees, and helps to motivate the team and boost overall morale. She oversees the Silver Snoopy Awards – awards approved and presented by the astronaut corps and given to those who have aided in the safety of the astronauts. Vargas herself was a recipient of this award back in 2001.
She also facilitates the Honoree Awards, and those awarded enjoy an opportunity to watch a launch, receive a tour of the grounds (award winners come from around the globe) and participate in an award ceremony.
When asked about her favorite part of her job, she said: “When I walk into a room with an astronaut, the room lights up. The energy soars – it’s an amazing moment. Every time this happens, I get goosebumps. These employees get so excited to see the astronauts. To be that conduit that helps put this together, it’s awestruck for me. It never gets old.”
Vargas reminded me that the importance of her work “is all in the details.” It is on her to ensure that the overall message of safety disseminates to everyone, and that everyone is reminded of their value.
“I come from The Bronx, and I work with the smartest people in the universe,” she said. “I’ve been given grand opportunities; I’ve worked hard and have taken advantage of the opportunities that have come my way. I want kids and readers to know – take advantage of those opportunities.”