Atlanta teacher who helped put the Curiosity rover on Mars looks back

Wanda Harding
Wanda Harding (pictured far left), speaks to NASA administrator Charles Bolden (second from left) in 2011 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Wanda Harding says the focus on math and science at Benjamin Mays High School helped change her career path when she was younger.

“I wanted to be a musician, but it turned out that that engineering path was something that I wanted to pursue,” Harding said.

After graduating from high school, she went to undergrad at Hampton University in Virginia and then earned her master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech.

She joined NASA in 1994 and was the senior mission manager for the team that put the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars on Aug. 5, 2012.

“To actually help send it off to another planet was a big thrill,” Harding remembered. “So when the landing occurred from our launch perspective, it was ‘we did our job right, now it was time for Curiosity to go and do its thing’.”

Ten years later, Curiosity continues collecting and analyzing soil and rock samples and sending back pictures of the Mars’ surface.

But a few years ago, Harding retired from NASA and returned to Georgia, where she now teaches ninth-grade algebra at Carver Early College.

“I’m looking forward to 10 to15 years from now going, ‘Wow, that was one of my students.’ Whether or not they’re leading a mission, working on the next generation of launch vehicles, building satellites, whatever the case may be,” she said.

She says she hopes her career experience will help other students in Atlanta realize they too can excel in a STEM career.

“The movie ‘Hidden Figures’ came out around the time I was going back to school to become a teacher,” Harding said. “It dawned on me as I looked back at the pictures sitting on the launch console, in the mission director’s center where I was, there was only one female in the room and only one Black person in the room – and that was me. Which, now it looks a little bit different 10 years later. It’s pretty cool looking back at that.”

In 2014, Harding wrote a children’s book called “When I Consider God’s Amazing Universe.”

“When I was working with NASA, I’d periodically get the question – because I am a woman of faith – ‘based on all the discoveries and everything that you’re finding out about the universe and what we’re learning, do you still believe in God?’ and my response had always been ‘I have no reason not to, based on what we’re finding.”

That book is being re-released this fall.

Looking back at her time at NASA, Harding says it’s exciting to know the information being gathered by the Curiosity rover, may one day help put a person on Mars.

“That’s the excitement of the 10-year anniversary for something like Curiosity,” said Harding. “The imagination and creativity that got us to that point, it’s like the sky is the limit and who knows what’s coming next.”

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