Rebecca Wingfield has always been fascinated by space.
That fascination, which began as a child looking up at the night sky over her hometown of Princeton, has taken her to great heights and a career with NASA as a flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"Being in western Kentucky, and having the ability to walk around at night and see the stars, see the Milky Way and look for the planets and that kind of stuff, going to the planetarium at Golden Pond, that was always a really cool thing for me," Wingfield said.
Wingfield talked about her lifelong interest in space and her present day duties overseeing the planning, training and execution of human missions with NASA as the featured speaker at Thursday morning's Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce's Power in Partnership breakfast at the Julian Carroll Convention Center.
"I was interested in NASA, always," she said. "I was a nerd from way back. I even had one of my senior pictures taken here in Paducah with all my NASA paraphernalia, I loved that stuff."
She credits her parents for encouraging her interest and trips to visit her grandparents in Florida, which included regular visits to the Kennedy Space Center.
"Seeing the rocket launches and getting to experience all of those things was really important and really shaped who I was. I just never grew out of that 'I want to be an astronaut' phase of my life."
The 2002 graduate of Caldwell County High School went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. While in college, she participated in the cooperative education program, rotating between going to school for a semester and then working at the Kennedy Space Center for a semester.
The co-op experience really helped her understand the application of engineering, she said.
"I knew I was good at math and science, but I didn't really know how to apply it in order to get to work in the space industry," she said. "While I was there, I worked on the ground support equipment, like the launch pad or the crawler, those really iconic things.
"Those were the projects that I got to work on as a college student, so it was really, really cool to get my hands on."
Her education includes a master's degree in system engineering from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She began her career as a flight controller for the International Space Station as an operations support officer responsible for all mechanisms and maintenance performed about the spacecraft.
She's also held positions in the capsule communicator (CapCom) role and as a chief training officer. As a capsule communicator, she was the primary point of voice contact to space and answered as "Houston" in communicating with the astronauts.
"It (CapCom) is the most fun job in the flight control room ... because you get to talk to space," she said.
As a training officer, she was involved both in recruiting people right out of college to become flight controllers and later training the astronauts.
"When I was assigned astronauts selected for a long-duration mission, I would be in charge of their whole curriculum to get them ready to fly," she said. "How the space station works, how the rocket that they're going to ride on works, how they respond to emergency situations and how we're going to get information to them when they need it.
"Bringing all those pieces together and making sure they were well trained and ready to sit on top of that rocket when it was time to go was very rewarding."
She credits NASA's ability to provide mentors like the one she was assigned her first day at the Johnson Space Center with helping her develop. That mentor happened to be Terance Williams, the son of Deborah Edwards, a former Paducah chamber board chair.
"We have been really good friends, and he's been an amazing mentor for me," she said.
When she was first selected for the flight director class of 2018, NASA put out a news release about the participants, which wound up garnering Wingfield some publicity back home.
"That (news coverage) really bonded us together," she said. "When the Princeton Times-Leader put it out, I sent a link to my teammates. I said 'Hey, look, we made the front page.' They were really excited about that."