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"A Safe Place to Learn and Grow"

Cristy Wilson’s Unconventional Journey to NASA Network Leadership

By ​Danny Baird

June 1, 2022

Near Space Network Deputy Project Manager for Resources Cristy Wilson Credit: NASA

Cristy Wilson serves as Deputy Project Manager/Resources for NASA’s Near Space Network, leading a financial team powering communications and navigation services to user missions from the launchpad to a million miles away. She’s an impactful manager within the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division, advocating for her team and fostering a positive environment for all.

"I never in a million years thought that I would be where I am today," said Wilson. "I've been blessed at NASA with managers that gave me a safe place to learn and value what I bring to the table.

"Now, my goal is to provide a safe place for people to learn, grow, and become more than what they are today."

Wilson began her career right out of high school, managing retail stores. When her daughters were born, she left retail to run her own small business: a beauty salon providing specialty nail services. In 2005, Wilson made the switch to government work.

"When my oldest went to high school, I decided I needed more consistent work," said Wilson. "I went to work at the Defense Intelligence Agency – part of the Department of Defense – and I was there for two years."

In 2007, after two years working in a dispersing office that sent funds to national security personnel abroad, Wilson transitioned to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She’s been with NASA ever since.

"I did the reimbursable billing for Goddard, which is the largest NASA center for reimbursables," said Wilson.

In this context, "reimbursables" is a technical term for when one organization procures services from another and then pays them back them for the work performed. Goddard has reimbursable agreements with many organizations, building and operating spacecraft for other government agencies, international governments, and the commercial sector.

After a few years on the reimbursables team, Wilson helped stand up the NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC) at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. NASA established the NSSC to increase operational efficiency and customer service in financial management, human resources, and other business support functions.

"I went to the NSSC when it went live to make sure that the transition went smoothly," said Wilson. "I had two people shadowing me at Goddard for three months so they could execute financial tasks at NSSC."

After standing up the NSSC, Wilson served as a resource analyst for Goddard’s Management Operations Directorate, which maintains the center’s facilities.

"I’ve always heard it described as the 'roads and commodes,'" said Wilson. "It's the infrastructure that keeps the center running."

In 2012, Wilson made the shift from the institutional to programmatic side of Goddard, joining the Flight Projects Directorate and beginning her career with ESC. She began doing financial work for the division’s exploration systems engineering team, but quickly found her home within NASA's Near Earth Network, a predecessor of the Near Space Network.

As a civil servant within ESC, Wilson took on other responsibilities as needed. She supported the Search and Rescue office, which develops emergency beacon technologies for the international Cospas-Sarsat Program, and shares in the oversight of the Space Exploration Network Services and Evolution (SENSE) contract, which performs systems architecture and engineering, development, integration, testing, operations, maintenance, and sustaining services for NASA space and ground systems and facilities.

Most recently, Wilson helped realize the reorganization of Goddard network assets into the Near Space Network. This reorganization embraced a new paradigm for space communications, where NASA engages with industry to build a space communications marketplace and empower the commercial space economy.

That change didn’t come without serious logistical challenges that Wilson needed to overcome.

"The reorganization meant splitting the budget and dispersing it to three brand new organizations," said Wilson. "The budgets are created five years in advance, so we had to make sure that all our work aligned with the original intent of that budget."

When ESC formed the Tiger Team executing reorganization, Wilson became Deputy Project Manager/Resources for the newly formed Near Space Network. The network offers a comprehensive set of communications and navigation services to diverse mission customers through a combination of commercial and government infrastructure.

"We have human spaceflight. We have launch vehicles. We have robotic missions. We have development projects. We have new procurements to support commercialization," said Wilson. "I have all of that to manage while being part of the network’s leadership team."

As a manager, Wilson values transparency. She’s known to be a generous and kind coworker, one who meets her commitments with a smile and leads from the heart.

"I think one of my biggest values is making sure that people have a safe place to learn and grow," said Wilson. "We’re all going to make mistakes, but we need those opportunities to learn and further our careers."

Wilson’s positive outlook and wholistic approach to team management make her an invaluable fixture within the Near Space Network and Goddard’s communications and navigation community at large.

"I try to make sure that all of our individual teams work cohesively and in harmony toward the division’s goals," said Wilson. "I find the most joy in pulling people from different areas and seeing everybody work together harmoniously."

Despite having worked within ESC for over eight years, Wilson still finds the work rewarding and interesting.

"I don't see myself getting bored anytime soon," said Wilson. "The network will be busy in the coming years with the commercialization effort and I’m super excited to be a part of that."

Reflecting on her unconventional journey to NASA, Wilson encourages folks to embrace what makes them different as a powerful tool for change.

"Don't have tunnel vision. Never discount somebody else's journey," said Wilson. "It may not look like yours, but it doesn't mean that it isn't as valuable. You might not have a PhD, but you have something to contribute to NASA’s mission."

Outside of work, Wilson loves the beach, reading, and spending time with her family. Over the COVID-19 pandemic, she took up quilting as a hobby. She also volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, giving children who have experienced abuse or neglect a voice as they move through the foster care system.

"I’ve been doing that for about 10 years now and am on my third case," said Wilson. "I was able to provide my own children a great education and a great start to life, and I wanted to give some of my time back to those that don't have that opportunity."