Great career advice from three incredibly talented Amazon women engineers who sent Alexa into space

Staff Writer Dec 21, 2022
Connected Devices Alexa Skills

NASA’s Orion spacecraft returned to earth last week as part of Artemis I, the first of several missions intended to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. Alexa was part of the mission as part of Callisto, a technology demonstration payload embedded into the Orion spacecraft and built in collaboration with engineers from Amazon, Cisco, and Lockheed Martin.

A virtual crew experience developed for the mission at the NASA Space Center in Houston allowed people on earth to test utterances and execute smart device control from over 200,000 miles. Actress and producer Taraji P. Henson joined Alexa Business to Business and Developer Marketing Director Kelly Wenzel to test Alexa technology that might be able to help astronauts on future space flights.

Henson memorably played the role of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures that tells the story of story of Katherine Jonson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch into orbit of astronaut John Glenn.

After her experience collaborating with Amazon to launch the first ever voice AI into space, Henson spoke about the importance of increasing the representation of underrepresented minorities in space exploration.

“When I was growing up, no one ever said it to me but it was understood that math and science was only for boys. So I literally would disappear in those classes because it wasn’t for me. You know, I had no interest. If we had more women, people of color in the field maybe I would have dreamed to be an astronaut one day. Maybe I would have fallen in love with math and science. If you see it, you believe it, you can achieve it.”

Women engineers across Amazon played a prominent role in helping develop technologies that helped send Alexa into space. In this article, we speak to Sahana Arani, Pratima Dandamudi and Lacey Williams about their role in the Artemis 1 mission, the moments that shaped a lifelong love in science, technology and math, and their advice to girls on getting interested in STEM related subjects.


Describe your involvement with the Artemis project.

As an acoustics engineer, I was involved in acoustic design, performance optimization, analysis and writing test procedures to ensure the health and status of the speaker-microphone system on board Orion. I ran the acoustic testing, captured electro-acoustic measurements of the original prototype in our lab in Santa Clara, and worked to make sure we achieved parity with the final flight hardware. There were a wide variety of acoustic challenges to address that included unknowns such as actual reverberation and background noise levels in the cabin during the mission, and the characteristics of the final hardware.
I just want to give a quick shout out to my mentors here at Amazon, Scott Isabelle and Chinan Shen, who have been so supportive at every step of the way. Their technical expertise and guidance made it all possible!

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

I was always a bit of a dreamer. It must have started from an interest in sky gazing, and reading books by Carl Sagan, andA Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking in high school with a close friend. At the time, it all went over my head. However, these books left me with a desire to understand, and know everything I could. 

When I was ten, my grandfather got me into jazz music from the bebop era – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc. – and Indian classical music – U Srinivas, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and others. The passion for music stayed with me, and after my undergrad in Electrical Engineering, I pursued a master’s degree in Acoustics and Signal Processing from the University of Rochester.

What is your advice to young girls (and their parents) about building a lifelong interest in STEM?

Don’t be afraid, it’s okay to dream big. I remember when I was deciding what to do with my career, I received advice to go into the arts and the humanities. At the time, I remember thinking about the hard work I had put in every day to get better in Math and science. I decided to ignore what my advisors were telling me, and just go for it. And that’s what I recommend young girls and their parents do – don’t be afraid to break new ground. Cliches are often true, and you should remember that fortune favors the brave.



Describe your involvement with the Artemis project. 

I worked as a quality assurance engineer on the Amazon team responsible for sending Alexa into space. In this role, I was responsible for the entire end-to-end software testing for the Virtual Crew Experience (VCX). 

My role involved testing over 3,500 utterances for different domains in addition to the cabin control, telemetry and music skills. This allowed us to fine tune the natural language understanding algorithms for the utterances so that Alexa was able to recognize them correctly.

As part of the software testing, I also organized “play with” sessions, where people would interact with Alexa as though the voice agent was in space, while simulating the latencies that exist in earth to space communications.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

My mother was an electronics and communications engineer for the Electronics Corporation of India Limited, which is a public sector enterprise under India’s Department of atomic energy. My mother excelled in STEM related subjects from an early age – she was a gold medalist in her diploma in the state of (then) Andhra Pradesh. 

Her accomplishments were especially remarkable when you consider that her father was a farmer. To this end, I also consider my grandfather as a profound influence on my career—even though he was illiterate, he actively encouraged his daughter to move away from more traditional paths, and pursue a career in science and technology.

What is your advice to young girls (and their parents) about building a lifelong interest in STEM?

As I think back to my formative years and my career, I would say that my biggest learning is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to understanding science and Math. Unlocking understanding in STEM related subjects can be different for every person. So if you or your child is struggling in understanding something like linear equations don’t assume that this lack of understanding has anything to do with your aptitude. Instead, go online, and watch a video that outlines multiple approaches to understanding linear equations. We are blessed to be living in an age where we have access to so much information, and so many perspectives, and I’d encourage everyone to find the perspectives that work for them.


Describe your involvement with the Artemis project.

I’m the Software Development Manager for the Alexa in Space experience on Alexa devices. I’ve led the team in creating the experience you hear and see on the Alexa devices, when you ask things like “Alexa, take me to the moon,” in addition to other questions about the Artemis mission. 

My favorite part of our Alexa experience is the real-time dashboard experience you’ll see when you say “Take me to the moon,” anytime during the Artemis mission. You’ll see the exact location and speed of the Orion rocket and where it is in orbit. That’s all thanks to our team’s integration with NASA’s telemetry data. I’m also actively supporting the team onsite in Houston handling the continued maintenance and support of Alexa on Orion throughout the Artemis mission, and want to give a shout out to Pratima who is our primary support on-site at NASA’s Houston Mission Control.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

I’ve always been a computer junkie. I was fortunate to have a computer in my house when I was very young. I have been typing, designing, and developing things since I can remember, It wasn’t till my senior year in college that I realized I could pursue a career in software development. I crunched my senior year to take all of the necessary classes needed to add a Management of Information Systems (MIS) to my Business Degre.

What is your advice to young girls (and their parents) about building a lifelong interest in STEM?

Give it a try and start now! I feel so fortunate to have found myself a career I love, and it’s not lost on me that I could have taken that direction even earlier if I had a mentor when I was younger. Because of this, I’ve spent years working with “Girls Who Code” organizations and teaching grade-school kids how to get started in software development. My advice to all young people is to try everything, and not to shy away from anything that interests you.

Recommended reading

5 inspiring facts about Alexa and NASA’s Artemis I mission
The incredible technical innovations that took Alexa into space
The acoustics behind Alexa in space