Always a Logger: CJ Bixby ’86

CJ Bixby ’86
Cynthia Bixby ’86 is now chief engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

When Cynthia “CJ” Bixby was a little kid, the space shuttle used to roll right past her house. Quite literally.

Bixby ’86, grew up in Lancaster, Calif., which happens to be on the route where the shuttle was regularly towed to the nearby testing facility at Edwards Air Force Base. On certain school mornings, Bixby would get up, head out for school, and watch the space shuttle roll by.

The childhood experience “lit a spark,” as Bixby puts it—and it also brought her full circle: Bixby is now chief engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, 30 miles from her hometown.

Bixby earned a bachelor’s in physics from Puget Sound, then spent 10 years in the aerospace industry, doing computer network development, data processing, and flight-test engineering, among other responsibilities. After a one-year sabbatical living and working inside Yosemite National Park (“I rented out bicycles and kind of renewed myself”), she began her career in one of the coolest civil servant jobs on the planet. As a chief engineer for NASA, Bixby oversees the nuts-and-bolts science of all Armstrong flight projects, many of which focus on atmospheric research. She also was involved in tests of the launch escape system for Orion, the spacecraft in which NASA plans to take astronauts to deep space. Her work as chief of the Systems Engineering and Integration branch at Armstrong earned her NASA’s 2016 Outstanding Leadership Medal.

Bixby credits her liberal arts education with informing her approach to her current job, which often involves communicating with administrators and various research scientists. “A big part of my job at Armstrong is to assess and communicate the risks of our flight activities,” she says. Part of that is knowing how to convey scientific concepts clearly to a wide range of people, and for that she credits Puget Sound. “The instructors helped me think like a scientist, but also, you know, not-a-scientist,” she says with a laugh.