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On Parsons Road, Donna dreamt of working for Nasa

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Reaching for the stars: Donna Mizell (second row, far right) at Victor Scott Primary in the 1970s (Photograph supplied)

Inspired by a class trip to Nasa’s tracking station on Cooper’s Island, Donna Mizell set her sights on becoming an astronaut.

It was the 1970s. A boy who shared her dream called her “stupid” for thinking a girl could accomplish such a feat.

Meanwhile their classmates at Victor Scott Primary School laughed at him, saying no Black man would ever fly into space.

However Ms Mizell’s mother, Victorine Samuels, was fiercely supportive.

“I think she thought I could be Miss Bermuda,” said the 56-year-old, who never became an astronaut, but did join the Nasa staff.

In her teens she changed her mind about becoming an astronaut.

She was working on Wall Street as a research analyst for Lehman Brothers when a recruiter for an unnamed company approached her in the late 1990s.

“I went through the interview and I was acing it because the recruiter said we would like to offer you a job right away. Then he said, ‘here at Nasa this is what you would need to do’.

“I almost messed up the interview because I said, ‘I am an accountant. I am not a maths and science person’,” said Ms Mizell, a certified paralegal who has a bachelor’s degree in finance and a certificate in meeting management.

Donna Mizell at Nasa’s 105th anniversary celebration this week. The former Victor Scott Primary School student is offering free, virtual tours of Nasa to Bermuda schools (Photograph supplied)

Staff at the Nasa Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, “analyse materials and structures to help spacecraft withstand unforgiving extraterrestrial environments”.

However, the recruiter assured Ms Mizell that there was a need for people in a wide range of fields.

She took the job and started out in finance, but is today in charge of event management at the conference and training centre.

Every time she drives through the gates at Nasa she thinks of the little boy in her class at Victor Scott who didn’t have faith in her.

“I see [the logo] and I say, ‘Take that!’” she said. “I’m not an astronaut, but I am supporting the space mission.”

It’s in that role she is hoping to provide virtual tours of Nasa to Bermuda schools. All she needs is buy-in.

“It would cost the school zero dollars, because it is part of our outreach,” she said.

As a training officer, Ms Mizell helps organise events for anywhere from 100 to more than 1,000 people.

Donna Mizell is offering free, virtual tours of Nasa to Bermuda schools (Photograph supplied)

“They really believe in your work-life balance,” she said. “I can work at Nasa Monday to Friday, and then on weekends pursue my other interests. We all tend to do multiple duties.

“My first event was a top secret one in 2009. People came in big, black SUVs. Dogs had to check the perimeter. No one could come in but those who were assigned.”

Charles Bolden is one of many astronauts she has met during her time at Langley. Now retired, he flew on four Space Shuttle missions and is a former administrator at Nasa.

Ms Mizell describes him as “a good man”.

“It would shock people to know that people at Nasa are normal. There is no Mr and Mrs so and so. We are on a first-name basis.”

Hidden no longer: Bermudian Donna Mizell, right, with Christine Darden, a Nasa mathematician and aeronautical engineer, who was featured in the book that inspired the film, Hidden Figures (Photograph supplied)

When the 2016 film Hidden Figures came out, Ms Mizell was especially eager to see it as she had gotten to know one of the women featured in the book that inspired it.

Christine Darden, an American mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer, devoted much of her 40-year career in aerodynamics at Nasa to researching supersonic flight and sonic booms.

She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour in 2019 and inducted into the Hall of Honour at Langley earlier this year.

“She is such a wonderful and incredible woman,” said Ms Mizell, who returns to the island regularly. Her last trip home was three years ago.

To Bermudian youngsters who dream of becoming astronauts, she offered encouragement: “Don’t give up. Don’t forget where you came from and continue to strive. Just keep pushing.

“Visiting Nasa, all those years ago, who would have known that a little girl from Parsons Road would one day be working for Nasa?”

Donna Mizell is offering free, virtual tours of Nasa to Bermuda schools (Photograph supplied)

The struggle would today be more difficult for anyone who is not an American citizen, Ms Mizell conceded.

“But when I first came to Nasa I was not a citizen. Back then you could come in as a resident alien, but that has changed. I am an American citizen now. But I never gave up my Bermudian citizenship.”

For information on the virtual tours offered at Nasa, contact Donna Mizell: donna.m.mizell@nasa.gov

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Published July 20, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated July 21, 2022 at 8:02 am)

On Parsons Road, Donna dreamt of working for Nasa

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