Guy Kawasaki's Remarkable People

Wanda Harding: A Journey from Stars to Students

Episode Summary

Listen to the remarkable Wanda Harding, a former NASA engineer and rocket scientist with over 20 years of experience in the aerospace field. Wanda's knowledge stretches from the stars to the classroom as she worked on the International Space Station program and managed the Mars Science Laboratory mission launch. Today, she's inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers as an 8th Grade Physical Science Teacher at Young Middle School in Atlanta. Wanda is also the author of "When I Consider...God's Amazing Universe," a children's book that explores the connection between God and the universe. With a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from Hampton University and a Master's from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Wanda was the only woman of color on her team during the Mars Curiosity rover mission. Get ready to be inspired by Wanda's incredible journey and impact on the world.

Episode Notes

Join Guy Kawasaki on the Remarkable People podcast as he interviews Wanda Harding, a former NASA engineer turned 8th-grade teacher and author. Get inspired by Wanda's journey from the International Space Station program to the classroom and her impact on the world.

07:59 to 09:07 - Wanda describes what it took to develop and launch the Mars Rover.
22:58 to 24:07 - Why Wanda believes there is a creator behind everything we see in the universe.
38:50 to 39:40 - Wanda on teaching students + Teaser

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Guy Kawasaki is on a mission to make you remarkable. His Remarkable People podcast features interviews with remarkable people such as Jane Goodall, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Marc Benioff, Woz, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Bob Cialdini. Every episode will make you more remarkable.

With his decades of experience in Silicon Valley as a Venture Capitalist and advisor to the top entrepreneurs in the world, Guy’s questions come from a place of curiosity and passion for technology, start-ups, entrepreneurship, and marketing. If you love society and culture, documentaries, and business podcasts, take a second to follow Remarkable People.

Listeners of the Remarkable People podcast will learn from some of the most successful people in the world with practical tips and inspiring stories that will help you be more remarkable.

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Episode Transcription

Guy Kawasaki:

I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. 

Helping me in this episode is the remarkable Wanda Harding, a former NASA engineer and rocket scientist with over twenty years of experience in the aerospace field. 

Her knowledge stretches from the stars to the classroom. She worked on the International Space Station Program and managed the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. 

But her journey didn't end there. Today, she's using her expertise to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers as an eighth grade physical science teacher at Young Middle School in Atlanta. 

Wanda is also the author of a book called, When I Consider God's Amazing Universe, a children's book about the connection between God and the universe.

Wanda holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Hampton University, and a master's degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

She was the only woman of color on the team during the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission. 

Get ready to be inspired by Wanda's incredible journey and the impact she's making on the world. I'm Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People, and now here's Wanda Harding. 

Wanda, you could say, as a test, "Houston, we have a problem."

Wanda Harding:

Ha. All right. Houston, we have a problem.

Guy Kawasaki:

There you go. So if you had said no, curiosity would not have taken off? That's the kind of power you had?

Wanda Harding:

And when you put it like that, the answer is, wow, yeah, I guess so. The way the launch poll work, it gives everybody an opportunity to highlight and say if something doesn't quite go right, then we are sitting on the ground for the whatever the duration is for it to go well. 

And by the time we got to our actual launch date, I think we were at that point where we were actually sitting on console, and the weather for that day, we literally had just the right opening in the clouds for us to do a takeoff. And so everything just had to come together, and it did. It did. 

But yes, that is what happens. If someone gives a no, then we sit there until we figure out the problem.

Guy Kawasaki:

But I'm just curious, so at that kind of moment, is it a real binary decision like, "All the gauges are green, let her rip"? Is it a no-brainer or are there some things that are yellow, something's green, something's red, and then Wanda says, "Nope, we're going"? How does it work?

Wanda Harding:

So the reality of how it works, my role as a mission manager had a lot more to do with getting to the launch date. And when you're sitting on console, it's everything that happened up to that point. 

If any part of that comes apart, then my no-go would be based on "Wait a minute, everything that was supposed to be in place didn't quite happen." So when you ask if it's binary, it really is, and it's the likelihood, it's probabilities, it's just everything coming into play, of your role, your part. 

And if it's green, we're good, we're go. And you're talking about not just my input for it, but you have the program manager for the actual Curiosity Rover, you have the ULA representatives who are responsible for the rocket itself. 

Our role as NASA, bringing all of that together. And yet it's that binary, and you're just sitting there on console, you're like, "Everybody has to give that green light." And by the time you get to that final countdown, if it's there, we're good, we're off the ground.

Guy Kawasaki:

But are you saying that at the point that you say go, everything is perfect? There's nothing that is not quite right, but we can still go?

Wanda Harding:

For that type of investment, you want to make sure everything is as perfect as it can be. And I've been in the situation with prior campaigns where we got to a point where we had to do a no-go for launch. 

And that's because there's so much on the line. If we give a go and everything is not perfect, Curiosity doesn't get to the planet. And you have just now pretty much destroyed any opportunity to confirm whatever curiosity was going to discover. 

And here we are ten years later, and everything had to go right. Everything had to go right. Everything.

Guy Kawasaki:

So this is definitely not the Elon Musk theory of management.

Wanda Harding:

No, everything has to go right. And part of it too is that we're your tax dollars at work. And you want to make sure that that investment is well worth what we said it was going to do, and our team, we were the bridge from earth to space. 

So getting it off the planet, that was our job, separating the spacecraft in its right point for the trajectory, once it left Earth on its way to Mars. If we didn't insert it in that right point, there were correction maneuvers that they were going to have to do before they landed on the planet. 

So yes, it had to be right. As a matter of fact, fact, we were two years later than the original launch date. So we have to take those gambles, they had to take those chances, so yes.

Guy Kawasaki:

Can you just give us some idea of the scale of what it takes to send Curiosity to Mars? I've been involved with the launch of McIntosh, which is probably on a scale of one to ten compared to Curiosity, is like a negative one. 

How many people are involved? How much money's involved? Just give us an idea of the scale of what it takes.

Wanda Harding:

Okay, so the scale is fifty years long, because when you think about it, you're going all the way back to Mariner. So you got Mariner and then you have the Viking landers, which prove that you can actually touch the surface. 

And then you have Sojourner that you can move around, which was in the early nineties. So by the time you get to Curiosity, when you're talking about the scale and what it takes to get to something like that, there's a long history that gets you to the point where you can send something the size of a small car to another planet, and expect it to maneuver. 

And in the case of curiosity, we're even beyond solar power. We're using nuclear power to help provide and recharge the battery that's on board. So it's even a larger scale on so many levels. 

And my role as mission manager is making sure that whatever happened during the launch environment, making sure that the integration that's required for setting the spacecraft and the launch field to get together, and then making sure trajectory wise, we are sending you and putting you on the right path.

It's a lot that's involved in it, and the teams are huge. Just from our Kennedy Space Center side of the house, we had about 200 people involved in different aspects of it, but then that doesn't count the large team that was at JPL, responsible for actually developing and building the rover itself, the team from Lockheed Martin for their role with the heat shield and the encapsulation, the role for ULA for putting the rocket together. 

So it's a huge team. It's a lot that's required to bring all of that together.

And it's exciting when you get to console in that day that it's ready for liftoff, and just because it clears the tower, that's just one part of it, but it's the successful separation from the launch vehicle, that's another piece of it, and then you have the journey, and then of course that famous, so seven minutes of terror for it actually to get to the Martian surface and land there. 

A lot involved, but once it's behind you, you're like, "Wow, that's good. Let's get on to the next one."

Guy Kawasaki:

And how do you test something like this? You firing rockets at JPL all the time? Listen, I'm pretty technical, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around how something like this is done. You don't go and just spend fifty million bucks to shoot off a rocket booster just to see if it'll... That's how ignorant I am.

Wanda Harding:

And again, I will go back to the more than fifty-year history of getting to Mars. And each step is incremental. 

You’re building off of the success of the prior missions. And for example, the Atlas five launch vehicle that we used for that mission, it's a heritage of the prior pedigree of Atlas launch vehicles that were in place. 

And so when you're getting ready for a mission like Mars, the trajectory that you used, you're refining something that was used. You had the opportunity in Spirit Missions that served as predecessor rovers for it. 

So as you're wrapping your head around it, you just have to appreciate the fact that each time you're just building on the success of the predecessor mission. Kind of like in life, you do it better than the next generation, hopefully, but you're just learning from the successes and you move forward.

Guy Kawasaki:

So going back in time to 1994, how did you get the job at NASA?

Wanda Harding:

It wasn't anything that I was pursuing. As a matter of fact, I was working with an electrical contractor here in Atlanta, and was ready for a change.

Guy Kawasaki:

Wait, stop right there. When you say electrical contractor, are you saying someone who puts light switches in a house or are you talking about electrical engineering?

Wanda Harding:

No, I'm actually talking about, I was a project manager with an electrical contractor. We did commercial facilities, so we were putting wires in renovated buildings helping to modify some of the signals and transit stations here. So from that perspective, it was the hard hat and the steel toe boots as a project manager. So I was not actually doing that, but I was telling the people who were what to do.

Guy Kawasaki:

So now, how did you get from that to NASA?

Wanda Harding:

So from that's to NASA-

Guy Kawasaki:

It's quite the leap.

Wanda Harding:

Yeah, that is a huge leap. But I recently finished grad school at Georgia Tech, and so wanted to try my hands at the hands-on world, and started just floating my resume out, and good friend knew some people down at the space center, passed my resume along. 

And when they took a look at it, I got a phone call asking, "When would you like to start?" And my first response was, "Wait, I don't know about rocket science." They said, "That's fine. Based on your resume, you can easily learn about it. Come on down and join us." 

So October of 1994, I packed my stuff up and headed down to Kennedy Space Center to start working with the International Space Station Program and the ground processing group there at Canadian Space Center. So that was the start.

It was a huge change, it was a big shift, but it was one of those things where NASA came and, I don't want to say they knocked on my door, but I wasn't running to their door, because I sent in my information and didn't follow up, and got a phone call that said, "Didn't you get the information we sent? Would you please go ahead and follow up?" So I did. And the rest is history.

Guy Kawasaki:


Wanda Harding:

So I look at it as a blessing. It was just one of those things. I have this philosophy in life where, each opportunity that comes along just prepares you for what's next, and you never really know truly what is next, but if you just take advantage of the opportunities that you have. 

So my work with the electrical contractor gave me some great project management skills, which were easily transferrable to the role that I inherited when I started with NASA. And my work in the International Space Station Program gave me opportunities to work with engineers not just domestically, but the name international, I had a chance to work with engineers over in Italy for the component of the space station that they were responsible for. 

And those skills were transferred and provided an opportunity to change and join our launch services program, which was responsible for sending spacecraft, rovers, and other satellites to orbit. And that path led to opportunities to work with JPL on the Mar Science Laboratory, and the rest is history.

So it goes back to that each experience, each opportunity just builds on the success of what happened before and you just keep going. Which is what threw me into the classroom, which is another, you talk about a huge leap from electrical contractor to NASA. 

It's even a larger leap to go from NASA to the classroom, where kids are looking at you like, "Why in the world are you here and why did you leave that kind of job?" And from my perspective, I jokingly tell them they're going to be the future taxpayers, "And I can't complain about you if I don't do anything to solve the problem." But the reality, I want to contribute. 

I want to push that next generation. I had a great time on my career, it's time for somebody else to take that position. And so I want to be a part of the foundation development for our twenty first century leaders that are going to move us forward.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh my god, Wanda, my head is exploding. I thought you're going to tell me some story about, you had two strikes against you, you're a woman and you're black, and you had to overcome prejudice, and there were 200 white people in front of you, but you clawed your way to the top, and you're telling me all you had to do is answer the phone?

Wanda Harding:

Well, for that case, I did. I had to answer the phone and, I hear what you're saying, and I've had people that asked me about that before, and it was one of those things when I started working with NASA, yes, it was very obvious. You're looking around the office and you're like, "There are not a lot of people that look like me," but you can either spend your time looking at that and wondering, or you can just jump right in and do your job, and have fun while you're doing it. 

And so that's what I did. I knew that I was qualified, I had degrees in engineering from Hampton University and Georgia Tech, had the experience with project management, and like everyone else there, you're learning on the job as you go, because you're doing something that's different and unique, and just having fun with it.

And to say that I didn't have any issues where I thought maybe I might be held back because I'm a woman or because I'm black, but like I said, you can either dwell on it or you can just dive in and do what you got to do. And that's what I chose to do. Dive in and do what I got to do.

Guy Kawasaki:

Wanda, did you have to get over imposter syndrome? "What am I doing? Last week I was at Home Depot getting 220-volt switches and this week I'm at NASA?" Or did you just hit the ground running?

Wanda Harding:

I had to hit the ground running. And that's because, as I mentioned before, I accept that every new opportunity that comes is because I was being prepared for it in the previous scenario. And so the term imposter syndrome is something actually my nephew introduced me to not too long ago, and I had him to explain what exactly is that? 

And yes, sometimes you do get into that situation, "How did I end up here?" And from my perspective, I look at it as "I'm here because I was blessed. God opened up an opportunity.” Boom. I took it and I ran with it. You dive into it, the things you don't know, you spend some time learning about it. 

I was blessed to have quite a few good mentors, and I will have to admit, all of my mentors looked nothing like me.

And that was something I had to get over, because I thought in a lot of cases, that would not be the scenario. But the people that said, "Hey Wanda, I think I want you to come join this team." My boss, and I'll just throw his name out there, Ray Lugo, was one of the biggest advocates that I had. Looked nothing like me, but he saw something, fortunately, in me that I didn't see in myself, and provided just the encouragement that I needed to move forward. 

And that's when I realized, you can't use your skin color as a barrier. I ended up being asked to be mentored by people that didn't look like me. And I appreciated that because then you just start to appreciate people as people, get beyond the exterior and just say, "Hey, let's see how we can work together and make this happen."

Guy Kawasaki:

I have to ask, was there a convenient woman's restroom in 1994? Did you have to go to another building?

Wanda Harding:

So I always tell people, read the book. Hollywood does its thing, and they have to because otherwise the story is a little bit more boring than perceived. But no, to their credit, those who were working at Langley, they did experience a separate lunch cafeteria in that case. 

And when you consider for the fact that we were in the South, when you talk about Texas, you talk about Stennis in Louisiana, you talk about Florida, which, they do have the confederate flags hidden behind Mickey's ears in the palm trees. But it was one of those cases where the one thing I do appreciate that they portrayed in the movie was that they were competent, and they were skilled and they knew what they were doing. Despite the obstacles that may have been put in their way.

And so capturing that history, the scene where he's tearing down the sign with the sledgehammer for the bathroom is, that's Hollywood. It's dramatic. We get that. But I think the biggest obstacle was just having the buy-in that people could be competent that didn't look like you. And that was probably the biggest message to come out of the film.

Guy Kawasaki:

But did you have to overcome that too?

Wanda Harding:

I think I had to overcome it less, because by the nineties, there were enough trailblazers who had proven that you didn't have to question or doubt the competence of your coworkers. Now, for me to sit up here and say there probably were people who never had any doubts, would be fooling myself. 

But I will say I did have a coworker at one point that told me, “Whoa, you have a degree from Georgia Tech, you must be a...”

Which means that for people who didn't know about the degree for Georgia Tech, I don't know what may have been running through their minds. 

And I did have coworkers at Kennedy who were there in the seventies and in the sixties, and they did have some unfavorable experiences. But by the time I came along, fortunately, we were beyond that. And so I had less of that to deal with.

Guy Kawasaki:

So now, looking back, advice for young people, how did you rise to the position of mission manager? What did it take?

Wanda Harding:

So looking at advice for young people, the rise to mission manager, what does it take? It takes courage, willingness to accept assignments as they come, because you never know who's watching. And by that, in some cases the assignment may be very mundane, data collection or serving on a team that may have nothing to do with the mission you're working on. 

But being willing to take those extra assignments is a plus. Believing that you are still someone who can learn, and does not mind learning. The biggest thing I always tell people also is teamwork. If you can work with the worst of people, you can work with the best of people. 

That allows you to move forward. And it goes back to you never really know who is watching you. Because in most cases, you'll end up getting an invitation as opposed to having to scramble to compete for a position.

And to be perfectly honest, that is what happened in my case. It was not so much that I ran and said, "Hey, I want to go and do this," but it was, "We've observed your work, we see what you can do. We'd like to give it a try, have you come join the team and see how you like it." 

And you do it. You work with the people, you learn as much as you can. You are not arrogant about it. They recognize you're willing to learn, you're cooperative, and it just goes from there. And I guess the most important part is having fun with it. If you can enjoy what you're doing and you're having fun with it, then you're definitely going to rise.

Guy Kawasaki:

Great. Question from left field.

So how did your work at NASA affect your belief in God?

Wanda Harding:

So my belief in God was solid before NASA and it remained so after. And the one change that NASA brought about was the opportunity to see from a perspective that I probably would not have, being a civilian, is the insight on not only the missions, but meeting the people that are behind the mission, and just understanding the types of questions that they're asking that would drive them to go off and do the type of research that they did. 

And as I became exposed to what they were discovering, reading the reports that were published, my faith, it grew in some cases, because what we take for granted and what we think we understand, but as we start to learn more, I'm more convinced that there had to be a creator behind everything that we see.

And I don't see the science as a way of discrediting a creator. I just really see it more as a way of crediting a creator. Because it's organized, it makes sense, and the more we discover, the more questions we start to ask, and the answers that we get as we start to discover more, it just reveals some sense of awe. I guess that's probably the best word that I can put there. 

It reveals a sense of awe that makes you go, "There has to be a point to this. There has to be a point. There has to be a point."

Guy Kawasaki:

What a great answer. I'm going off in a different tangent here. 

Based on the last few weeks of Elon and Twitter, changes my perspective, but from the outside looking in, so you realize how little I know about space and space travel, but cutting to the chase, the question is, is SpaceX a big deal? Is Elon Musk showing NASA and the US government how to do things better, or "We can do reusable rockets. How come you never did reusable rockets?" How do I interpret SpaceX?

Wanda Harding:

So to be perfectly honest, a lot of us were very excited about SpaceX. And the reason I say that is, one of the things that our government does is, it wants to foster industry, it wants to foster commercialization. 

And for the launch industry for so long, there had not been that commercialization, that commercial competition. And what Elon did with SpaceX was provided and opened the door for a more commercialized approach for access to space. 

And by the Falcon 9 providing competition for at the time, Delta launch vehicle, or even our Atlas V launch vehicles, it was actually very welcomed. And even when you think about access to the International Space Station, outside of the Russians, our space shuttle, those were the only two nations and only two vehicles, the Soyuz and our shuttle, to access International Space Station, which meant in 2011 when we ended, and I keep saying "we", am not with NASA anymore, but it's an old habit. 

But when we ended the space shuttle program in 2011, our only access to the International Space Station was through the Russians.

And so from that perspective, with SpaceX being able to provide that access to the space station, it was great. It said, "Hey, look, we've been wanting this commercialization to open it up, and SpaceX demonstrated that it could be done. It could be done." 

So that's my take from being on the other side, was, "Hey, yes, it was welcomed." It was welcomed, it was what we wanted. It was a part of expanding the scope of space.

Guy Kawasaki:

I must admit, I never expected that answer too. After this interview one, I'm going to have to put my brain back in my head, because my head is exploding with your answers here.

Wanda Harding:

I guess that's the interesting thing, now that I am a school teacher and observing what's happening in the space industry from the other side, having seen and understood some of the paths in the journeys, for example, even with the most recent Artemis 1 launch that happened within the past week, it was exciting. 

A lot of people were curious when they made the big announcement and had all of the social media people coming out, getting ready for the Artemis launch, and then they had to end up scrubbing it. And I had some friends to ask me, "Were you surprised about the scrub?" 

And I was like, "Absolutely not." Because the last thing you want to do is issue a go when everything is not 100 percent.

And so it was a relief, actually, that they had to scrub the first few attempts, because it was reassuring that, you know what? Quality is important, and because eventually they're planning to put humans on that vehicle, you want to make sure that you have checked off every system and everything is functioning as it should. Because the stakes get higher when you start to put people on there, the most precious of cargo that you could ever send up.

Guy Kawasaki:

There's never moments like Joe Biden or George Bush or Barack Obama, “He needs a win, we got to launch this week” because... That's like, you're mission manager, you don't give a shit about all that. Just like, "It's either perfect or it's not. I don't give a damn about anything else."

Wanda Harding:

It's got to be right. It's got to be right. And a lot of people wonder, it's like, how risk averse do you need to be in order to be successful? And the stakes are high, you make those calls. And that's part of, I said, before you get to the countdown, there's a lot that happens, and a lot of decisions that are made that we had to even make when it came to integrating the spacecraft with the launch vehicle. 

There were some issues that we had to resolve before even U L A said, "Hey, you've got to get this straight before we'll even go forward with the integration." And you have to take it seriously. 

Yes, there is a schedule, there is a budget, but you have to weigh, there's probably more to lose with an unsuccessful mission than there is without, if that makes any sense. And so you've 99.9 percent we're good. But if it's 80 percent, no, let's go back. Let's get it right. We've got to get it right. There's more at stake for a successful mission than an unsuccessful. I'm sorry, I'm rambling.

Guy Kawasaki:

Not at all, don't apologize. So Wanda, do you think that humans will be living on Mars at some point? Some point is a long time, but why are we trying to, or are we trying to live on Mars? What's the plan here? I don't understand. Why don't we just fix the earth? Isn't that easier?

Wanda Harding:

That question is probably age-old. Why are we trying to get to Mars? What's the big deal? What's wrong with Earth? And I have two answers for it. The first one is, because it's a really cool thing to just go off and try to do. 

But the second one goes back to, I call it the big question that David had back in Psalm 8, it's like, when I look up there and I see everything... And sometimes I believe it's hard for us to believe that we are special created beings, and we're in search of an answer that tells us we're not special, if that makes sense. Now I'm going off into another tangent.

But anyway, the reason I say that is because if we are not special, if we're not exceptional, then I don't have to believe that my life is purposeful. Because I can look off and say, "There's nothing special about Earth. I can go colonize Mars. Why am I just limited to Earth?" 

And all of the money that we're spending and the great research that we're doing just to prove that Mars is habitable, is answering a big question. Why is Earth the only place that I know of in our solar system that I can go outside and not have to wear a spacesuit? What makes it so special? Why here? Why us? 

And yes, I do think that, at some point we will send a human expedition to Mars, and what will they do? They'll replicate everything here on Earth.

Guy Kawasaki:


Wanda Harding:

That's all we know. When we're looking for, what is it that we need to survive? You think about the movie, The Martian, he needed food, so he ends up doing what, creating a garden?

Guy Kawasaki:


Wanda Harding:

You could do in your backyard. I need the oxygen to breathe. I need companionship. So everything, all of the conveniences that you have here on earth, when you go to colonize another place, you're basically replicating those comforts and those conveniences just so that I can survive. 

And not that I oppose the exploration. I think it'll be interesting for those that are brave enough to go and take that journey. But when you boil it down, we have the best of everything right here.

Guy Kawasaki:

More pieces of my brain just left my skull. No, you brought up an interesting point here. So when someone like you reads or watches The Martian, the book, is it like, "Yeah, you are showing how sexy and interesting this is," or is, "Oh my God, they got so many things wrong"?

Wanda Harding:

It's a combination of things, and I love the fact that Hollywood is not afraid to combine imagination with fact. And the reality is, innovation is that as well. It's combining imagination with fact and saying, "Hey, we can do something a little different." 

In some regards, you're watching the movie, you're like, "Yeah, that could never happen," but it's still fun. It's fun, it's creative. And if you're focused on trying to influence a new generation, you've now planted something new in their mind for them to go off and think about and say, "Just because they said it couldn't happen, does that really mean it can't happen? Let me see what I can do to change that."

Guy Kawasaki:

There's been movies made about Steve Jobs and Apple, and I've not watched any of them because-

Wanda Harding:

Why not?

Guy Kawasaki:

One is PTSD, but other is, I know they're going to get stuff so wrong and that'll just aggravate me. So anyway-

Wanda Harding:

But I'll interrupt you because that's the way I felt about the movie, Hidden Figures. Like I said, the biggest message that personally I wanted people to get out of it was, fortunately, you can now see that competence is not limited to one skin tone. It's not limited to one gender.

Guy Kawasaki:


Wanda Harding:

Big message. The rest of the movie I enjoyed, but I was also cringing, because I was like, "That's not what was in the book, and that's not the reality," but it's good for Hollywood. And anybody that asked me about the movie, my first response was, "It was cool, but read the book." Get the facts.

Guy Kawasaki:

So you touched on this before, but now I want to ask you directly. So you're at the end of your career at NASA, and you go and you decide to become a teacher, as opposed to going to work probably for a lot of money at one of these contractors. 

So what was that decision process?

Wanda Harding:

Believe it or not, it was actually me following through on a commitment that I made in undergrad. My favorite professor at Hampton was a retired IBM engineer, and I love the fact that he came to the classroom with an abundance of credibility. 

And teaching was something that I always wanted to do, but I said I wanted to be like Mr. Jenkins. I wanted to come in my classroom with experience. And so my initial plan was to work for NASA for three to five years, and return to Georgia and become a teacher. 

But I was having too much fun, and that three to five years turned to ten, turned to fifteen, twenty. And I realized that if I was going to go in the classroom, I better do it quickly before I changed my mind.

And the opportunity came up through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship Program, where they were actually looking for STEM professionals to transition from their careers into the classroom. 

But the target was urban school districts, and providing that face, providing that experience, that exposure, to a different set of students, to see if we still gin up that interest in STEM. And for me, it was the perfect bridge out of NASA and into the classroom.

And I had to do it before I changed my mind, but looking back there are no regrets. The only time I do think about it is often because I still have students that will ask me, "Why did you leave?" 

And when I tell them, "It's because I do believe in them and I want to contribute to their future," their response is usually, yeah, they don't believe it. And that part is, because I know why I'm there, and it's intentional, and when I have a student that I'm at a point now where students that I've worked with have graduated high school and they're now in college, and when they can come back and thank me for being there, taking an interest, providing some additional insights or new insights, then for me, that's worth it.

Guy Kawasaki:

That is a beautiful answer. All right. You're teaching math, right?

Wanda Harding:

I am teaching math this year, yes.

Guy Kawasaki:

Okay. So how is math being taught where you are, and how do you think math should be taught? Because this is a very hot topic these days about the US ranking in math tests, and should it be taught this way, and whoever is going to use calculus, et cetera, et cetera. 

So talk to me about how you think math should be taught.

Wanda Harding:

So the first part of that question is, and I always laugh, not really, but I do, I laugh sometimes at people who propose different ways for teaching math, because they're the ones who learned the traditional way and they've mastered it. 

And so it's a matter of, how do you take the best out of what worked well for you, and then diminish what often causes people to be afraid of math? And I think part of it has to do with how we have not really confessed the reality that math is like a language. It's a language, and for anyone who does physics or science, they can appreciate when I say math is the language of science. 

And so I think if we are honest with ourselves and try the approach of teaching it within the context of its application, that it may carry over better, a little differently, as opposed to just an isolated stovepipe approach of saying, "This is algebra, and this is algebra two, and this is pre-calculus, this is calculus," and not really presenting it in its integrated form.

The theorists would probably not appreciate what I'm saying, because they look at math a little bit differently. But for those who apply it, I think that's one of the things COVID has forced a lot of us to do, is to revisit education, the approach, what's really important, and how do we best make that integration with our students? So that's one of the things that I want to make sure that I do, is that they're seeing how the concepts are helping us to communicate, as opposed to just learning the concepts in isolation, if that makes sense.

Guy Kawasaki:

Now we're going to switch another topic. What does it mean to a black kid that two black men are running for US Senate in Georgia?

Wanda Harding:

You probably have to ask a black kid. But I will say that, not since reconstruction would you have that kind of scenario. But the irony of it, and the interesting historical piece of it is that both of them, to their own merit, have a link to history that is unique and significant. 

In the case of Raphael Warnock, his link to Ebenezer, Morehouse and Martin Luther King is one trajectory. But then to Herschel Walker, where from the sports arena, the Heisman Club is such an exclusive group of athletes and men, that they have both been recognized as being at the top of their respected careers, if you will.

But when it comes to politics or who to best serve, this generation has probably seen more of a diverse, and when you think about my students, as ninth graders who were born in 2008, which means that they grew up only knowing Barack Obama as the first president of memory for them. 

So to see two black men in Georgia running for Senate, no big deal. We had a black man as a president. For that generation, and that's the way we have to start thinking now, is, for that generation, it's normal. It's not an anomaly.

Guy Kawasaki:

But wouldn't you say that in the past six years, it seems like we're proving that we're a racist country? Or do you think I'm overblowing-

Wanda Harding:

Now, in the past six years, we haven't proved that we're a racist country. In the past six years, we've just more exposed the reality, if that makes sense. So it's not that there's something new or some breathtaking, earth-shattering revelation that is out there. Now that social media, we now have instant access to everything that's out there, we're just having to come to terms with it in a different way. 

And by different way, we're talking about, we're just really fifty-five, fifty-six years removed from John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, being alive and going through the whole Civil Rights Act of 1965 and all of that. And the issues that they were trying to resolve then, we've made progress on. 

But I would dare say within the past six years, what we've probably exposed, is that there's another aspect that we, and I heard it on one of your other podcasts, I'm going to just point that out, but America's caste system, blend blended with racism, has just become a little bit more exposed now.

And so again, for the mere fact that we have the two black gentlemen running for US Senate, they're not the first to have run, but they are the first to have made it as far as they have, Warnock being the first to actually be elected to that position. 

But with this next generation, what we are trying to get them to appreciate and to understand is, you have the opportunities that, three generations ago, didn't exist. And so be a part of the solution. And that's why I'm in the classroom, is just to help them equip themselves, get the foundation ,so that as the opportunities come, you're prepared to take your place in leadership and move us to where we need to be.

Guy Kawasaki:

And what is your interpretation of Stacey Abrams not winning? Because I'll tell you, if somebody said to me, "Guy I'm going to give you a silver bullet. You can have anybody you want on your podcast." Anybody alive, anyway, right?

Wanda Harding:


Guy Kawasaki:

Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Tom Brady. I don't want Tom Brady. And if somebody said you could have anybody, Greta Thunberg, anybody, I would say Stacey Abrams. She would be my number one pick. So I don't even know how to wrap my mind around the fact that she lost.

Wanda Harding:

And I would agree with you. She would be an excellent, remarkable person, incredible story that she has. And quite the inspiration because she's an HBCU grad from Spelman, right here in Atlanta, and she was able to garner great attention, even though she had also served in our statewide legislature, and pursuing the opportunity to take the helm. 

And it's just, open up the doors and the opportunities for others to say, "Hey, you know what? It's possible for me." And you go back to that generation again of what has become normal for them to see, starting, like I said, born in 2008, my ninth graders, seeing a Barack Obama in the White House, being able to see a woman like Stacey Abrams take it as far as she did for the campaign, the upcoming elections that we have now, America still has a lot of growing to do, a lot of growing up to do, but I think, and I keep going back, we're putting a lot on this next generation, but I think the twenty-first century holds some wonderful promises, if we prepare them to take the challenges head on.

Guy Kawasaki:

And you, Wanda Harding, are doing that one classroom at a time. That's what it's going to take, right?

Wanda Harding:

That's what it has to take, one classroom at a time. One classroom, one smile, one student at a time,

Guy Kawasaki:

And twenty or thirty years from now, somebody's going to be interviewing somebody and they're going to say, “I had a teacher named Wanda Harding, and she taught me how I could accomplish whatever I wanted to accomplish.” 

You're going to inspire a lot of people, Wanda, truly. Oh my God.

Wanda Harding:

That is my genuine prayer. I just want to be an inspiration, I want to point people in a direction where the encouragement that was provided to me as a youngster, the nurturing that I received, I just want to be a part of giving back to the next generation. And from Atlanta to Mars, back to Atlanta, to whatever is next, that's what I want to leave to that next generation.

Guy Kawasaki:

To put it mildly, this interview did not go as I expected.

Wanda Harding:

Some new thoughts, some new ideas, hopefully came to mind.

Guy Kawasaki:

I'm not expressing disappointment. I am just thrilled at the diversity of your answers. Wow.

Wanda Harding:

That's life, right? That's the way life sometimes comes at you. It's the unexpected, and when you're looking at different perspectives, you're never really quite sure what is on the other side until you flip that coin over and you're like, "Oh, wow, I hadn't thought about it that way, but now I can."

Guy Kawasaki:

Are you always this positive and uplifting? Do you ever have down moments? Because you-

Wanda Harding:

Of course, I have down moments. I'm human.

Guy Kawasaki:

Madisun, don't you think she's the most positive person we've ever had on this podcast?

Wanda Harding:

Of course I've had down moments. But life is too short to dwell in an abundance of down moments. People are counting on you. 

When I say people are counting on you, every encounter that you make, I have an uncle that used to walk around and say, "There's something eternal about every moment." So you don't know what kind of impact you're making. You just need to make sure it's a good one when all is said and done.

Guy Kawasaki:

Man. Well, Wikipedia's entry for optimism, they should show a picture of you. My goodness. 

And there you have it, folks. A remarkable conversation with Wanda Harding.

From her journey as a NASA engineer and rocket scientist, to her current role as an inspiring teacher and author, Wanda is truly a shining example of what can be achieved when we pursue our interests and passions, and use our skills to the fullest. 

Thank you, Wanda, for joining us today and sharing your remarkable story.

Remember to tune in next week for another exciting episode of Remarkable People. 

Until then, keep reaching for the stars. And speaking of stars, my thanks to the stars of the Remarkable People team, Jeff Sieh, Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Madisun Nuismer, Luis Magana, and Alexis Nishimura.

Until next time, mahalo and aloha.