Q&A with Andrea Razzaghi '82

I’m always excited to give back to Brown, as Brown has been a very instrumental part of my growth. Staying connected to Brown has been very rewarding for me as I’ve progressed through my life and through my career. Another aspect is the opportunity to reconnect with the Brown black alumni.  This was the first community to welcome me when I was a prospective student and then as a freshman, so it was really great to be able to reconnect with the broader community and then to share with them what NASA is doing. 

The thing my dad didn’t say was ‘Girls don’t play with power tools’ and what was so important to me about that is I was being encouraged to pursue my passion and my interests. I was a little girl who was mechanically inclined and had this big, strapping dad who said ‘Ok, let me show you how to use them.’ He didn’t indicate that was anything unusual, and my mother didn’t either, and so I didn’t think it was strange or special. I didn’t have that baggage about being different. I just thought this was perfectly normal. Then fast forward to when I was thinking about going to college, I had a similar, positive experience with a college adviser who talked to me about my future. He never once said, ‘Oh by the way you’re going to be the only girl in your class in most cases,’ and so I love that I had this sort of ignorant bliss going into the situation, and it didn’t occur to me until I looked around and realized it. I feel like it was a gift not to have that in my head. 

Ruth Simmons remains one of my strongest role models. I’ll never forget when she first became President of Brown and the interview with her in the Brown Alumni Magazine. Here is a woman of color who was born in circumstances where the messages given to her were that her life didn’t really matter. But her approach to life is to take obstacles and turn them into opportunities. When I look at her, I think that is how I want to show up. I want to emulate that calm, determined strength. 

I also think back about my grandmothers. I never knew my father’s mother. She died even before my parents got married. But dad always tells me I’m like her. She’s someone I imagine, who like Ruth Simmons, figured out how to get through this life with not much but a calm determination. I also think about my mother’s mother, who I did know very well, and she actually was at my graduation from Brown. That was her last year of life. She was a widow when my mother and her twin sister were infants. She lived during the depression in the South during segregation, and I think about how she raised eight kids under those circumstances. My grandmother was again someone you never saw sweat, she held her chin high and her back straight. So I think about my lineage and I never forget where I came from. 

I just thought the energy was amazing, when I think about how many people showed up, I believe that demonstrates Brown was a good experience for this community and still is. That people still want to get together and be a part of Brown, even so many decades after they finished. I think that is quite a testament to the experience that this particular community had and continues to have with Brown.

When I think about this, I usually think about two particular projects that I experienced in different ways. I spent seven years of my life on the Aura mission. I was the observatory manager, and so much of my life was invested to make that mission happen, so I feel a tremendous amount of accomplishment in its success. When I think of that spacecraft, I think about how well I knew every nook and cranny of it. It is a very complicated spacecraft, and I knew every little problem that we had encountered and solved, and every little flaw that we had to live with that was built into it. That spacecraft was launched in 2004 and was designed for a five-year lifetime. It is still operating and performing excellently today. So I feel a tremendous amount of pride in it. 

And then the other one would be Curiosity. I was the Acting Deputy Director for Planetary Science at the time we landed Curiosity on Mars. So when I came into headquarters, I was there for the three years leading up to its launch. I was part of the most intense period of the project, where there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. When you do these planetary landings, Mars in particular, you don’t have a lot of margin of error. Everything’s got to work just right, and it did. It was one of the most stressful days of my career waiting for the landing on Mars. And again I had to know everything, not just with generally what could go wrong, but specifically what could go wrong. That was an incredible night! 

I do remember Professor (Jacques) Duffy very well, and I had him for three classes. I was insecure. In my junior year when I was taking Dynamics, it was the first one of those classes that I felt confident enough to go and ask him about a problem. I always share this story when I talk to students because I try to encourage people not to make the mistake I made. Don’t wait until you’re confident to talk to the professor. Go early when you’re having problems.  

I think that is just wonderful.  One thing about being in this profession, I interact with a lot of schools, and I know a lot of schools struggle to attract women. So, I think Brown must be doing something very right to get to this level. It’s really impressive. I’m very proud of Brown.

I’m always excited to give back to Brown, as Brown has been a very instrumental part of my growth. Staying connected to Brown has been very rewarding for me as I’ve progressed through my life and through my career.

Andrea Razzaghi '82 Deputy Director of Astrophysics at NASA