By Emily Sohn
Johanna Lucht sat in a control room at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, north of Los Angeles, on a clear day in April 2017. In the sky, a flight crew was testing an aircraft with an experimental, twistable wing flap for the first time. On the ground, alongside at least 10 other engineers in a quiet room full of computer screens, Lucht’s job was to help monitor and analyze data, with the ultimate goal of boosting flight efficiency. She knew it was an experience few people get to have, and she was both excited and focused. Photo courtesy NASA
It was only after the mission was over that Lucht, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2014, discovered she was the first deaf engineer to take an active role in a NASA control center during a crewed research flight. “I was kind of flabbergasted because I’d just made history without realizing it at that moment,” Lucht says. “This achievement to me is a feat, validating all my hard work and numerous people who have supported me to this day.”
It was a moment that 26-year-old Lucht had, in many ways, been working toward for years, as she tackled one communications obstacle after the next. Born in Germany, where at the time there were few resources for deaf people, Lucht didn’t learn American Sign Language until she was 9. Before then, her memories are fuzzy, probably because of the language delay. But as a preteen and the only deaf student at her school, she remembers the pain of being excluded from social groups by other kids. When she was 12, her family moved to Alaska, where she was finally exposed to a deaf community that gave her full access to a more complete social world and, she says, “your typical school drama.”
Lucht arrived at the U in the fall of 2010. She had been impressed by the interpretation services during her tour the year before and, as a bonus, her brother lived nearby. After working through some initial homesickness, Lucht became involved with groups like the U’s deaf and hard of hearing ambassador program—which taught her about teamwork and leadership. Living on her own for the first time, she learned to advocate for herself, sometimes pushing resistant professors to provide interpreters and video-captioning in classes.
After graduation, Lucht landed an internship and then a job at NASA, where she has continued to overcome challenges. The Armstrong Flight Research Center is located on the Edwards Air Force Base in the remote Mojave Desert and lacks a robust supply of interpreters. Over time, Lucht has worked with freelance interpreters who drive in for meetings and off-site interpreters who call in through video conferencing, among other strategies. But many of the words she uses on a daily basis are so technical that she has to teach them to each new interpreter she works with. And sometimes, all options fall through. Once, she had planned to work with an interpreter from the Air Force side of the base, who was pulled away to another project at the last minute, leaving her unable to participate in a meeting.
As a deaf woman at NASA, helping control a test flight last spring was a triumph in more ways than one. “It proved that deaf people can do something amazing,” says Lucht, who recently spoke with a 10-year-old girl who was starstruck to meet her. “It’s not just deaf children but also hearing girls who are inspired. It’s astonishing really.”
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