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Renee Horton Portrait

Dr. K. Renee Horton: World Class NASA Scientist

She’s teaching diversity and elevating courage and resilience in those aspiring to be in scientific fields.

The race to space is a mission filled with heroes of legend. These are the people we look up to, the people we remember and put up on our walls. Our list, however, is incomplete. We need to add those unsung heroes, those men and women who make a difference, to its roster. At the NASA Residential Management Office at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, we find one of those hidden figures, Dr. K. Renee Horton, who fought adversity and a disability yet excelled in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific fields.

NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. Photograph by Steven Seipel

She works as the quality engineer at the facility and the former Lead Metallic and Weld Engineer for the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), a key player in the success of deep space exploration on this, the most powerful rocket ever built. She was nine-years old, when her love of space, the universe, and the stars was initiated upon receipt of a gift by her father, a telescope.

“I never dreamed I would have started my career as a weld engineer and would have had the opportunity to witness the welding of 5 tanks. This welding process was my dissertation focus and I am so honored to have been a part of this.”

Liquid oxygen tank for the first SLS deep space rocket. Photograph by Jude Guidry

Shooting for the Stars

But Dr. Horton’s life, as a female African-American with a disability, was anything but easy. It all started with this passion and the initial desire to explore space as an astronaut. Today, her impressive resume includes serving as the second woman president, and later was a fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists. She is a member of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics Women in Physics Working Group and serves on advisory boards dedicated to diverse inclusion in physics.

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with a minor in mathematics from Louisiana State University. She holds a doctorate in material science with a concentration in physics from the University of Alabama — the first African-American to receive this degree.

But at 16-years-old, she had already finished school and thought her dreams to get into space were just beginning. Then, she started her journey with an ROTC physical where she received a shocking result: she was hearing impaired. She had a genetic disorder that made hearing frequencies in the middle ranges (where we speak!) very difficult.

The results that came out of the hearing test forced her to completely reevaluate her future. Because of her hearing, her plans to become an astronaut were dashed. In reflection she says, “I didn’t know who I was anymore. My whole life had crashed in front of my eyes before I turned 18.” She still knew one thing, however, she wanted to work for NASA.

Photograph by Tre Booker

The news frustrated our hero to the point of dropping out of school.  She got married and had three kids. She decided to ignore her disability altogether. This conscious decision to turn away from the issue chipped away at her marriage. But when someone is born, destined for greatness, it is hard to turn fate away. She did not give up on science.

Back to School

At the turn of the millennium, Horton found herself divorced and raising three children. Through it all, she made her way back to Louisiana State University. The necessary technology and accessibility services were in place to aid her in her education, but until that point, she’d simply never asked. Here, she received her first set of hearing aids, provided by vocational rehabilitation. They weren’t pretty back in the year 2000, and she found she had to work to hide them.

“I remember walking into the vocational rehabilitation center in Baton Rouge and telling them I wanted to go back to college, but my ears were broken… I was 27. It took me ten years to accept my ears were broken and needed help. Ten years… It looked like a big bug was behind my ear,” she continued, “so I grew my hair to cover it.”

Additionally, the university provided lecturers with special mics that input their speeches directly into a set of earphones for use by students that face similar disabilities. Horton took advantage of the assisted learning system and really began to soar through her academics.

Photograph by Romero & Romero

“I wanted what was inside of me fundamentally more than I wanted to allow the hearing impairment to stop me,” she says. “So, I looked for ways to be able to be successful.”

Finally, with a newfound acceptance, set of adaptive techniques as well as the unbridled support of her children, it all came down to working hard and showing true colors through passion. Dr. Horton graduated the second time around with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Naturally, she did not stop there. She became the first African-American to achieve a doctorate in material sciences from the University of Alabama, a few years after the LSU graduation.

Where Talent and Passion Meet

After graduation, she focused on NASA once again and received an incredible assignment. She was placed in the team connected with the vehicle that is set to carry the crew via the Space Launch System to Mars.

And in addition to the first deep space launch since Apollo… the Orion spacecraft project. Her first assignment with NASA was to work on the adapter for the Orion vessel and that hardware still has her name and her children’s and parent’s names written directly on it. In December 2014, the Orion successfully completed its test-flight launch and the rest is history. It was Renee’s moment in space.

NASA, via Wikimedia, Public Domain
Orion Space Launch

“I was all giddy like a kid that my Christmas gift had finally come,” Horton says. “My name got to go into space. It was my way of going into space.”

Dr. Horton currently advocates for diversity and inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She works diligently for the advancement of STEM education and outreach.

In 2017, she founded Unapologetically Being, Inc., a nonprofit designed specifically for empowering and engaging individuals to foster a positive STEM identity. She continues mentoring kids and aspiring scientists, making her a key player in the pursuit of creating a better future for those wanting to advance in STEM.

Her book series Dr. H. Explores the Universe teaches children about planets in our Milky Way and takes them on an adventurous journey while learning facts about our universe. She offers a science club through her website that includes science videos, learning tools, and discounts on books and merchandise.

Photograph by Dennis Duncan

“It’s about what you want for yourself,” Dr. Horton said. “The intersection between your talent and your passion is where you’ll find your happiness.”

Find out more about Dr. Horton and her work at NASA at www.reneehortonphd.com and her nonprofit at www.unapologeticallybeing.org.