Chemical Engineering Alumna Shoots for the Stars

Annie Caraccio ’09 (B.S.) ’10 (M.S.) is working as a chemical engineer at NASA and has helped to established a research collaboration between NASA and Manhattan College. She hopes to go into space one day as an astronaut.

Three years ago, Annie Caraccio ’09 (B.S.) ’10 (M.S.) packed up and drove her beat-up 1995 Mercury Cougar 1,000 miles from New York to Florida with her sights set on the skies.

As her fellow graduates celebrated the arrival of summer, Caraccio put her chemical engineering degree into immediate action at NASA’s highly competitive co-op program based at Kennedy Space Center.

“To me, the NASA sign, the NASA logo was untouchable, and something that always had me in awe,” she remembers from her first trip to the Space Center at age 5.

Although intimidated, Caraccio cast her doubts aside during her senior year at Manhattan and approached the NASA booth at a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) career fair. Refusing to let the opportunity slip away, she applied for the co-op and remained persistent in following-up.

The reward was unexpected. Caraccio received not one, but two offers for co-op positions at Kennedy Space Center. With the decision in her hands, she chose the research and technology development department, kick- starting her dream job the summer between graduating and starting her accelerated master’s degree at Manhattan.

“You’re not just a summer intern getting an hourly pay. You are a civil servant on the government pay scale,” she says, explaining that the co-op program is one of the only channels through which NASA hires its employees. “They are investing in you for the future.”

With that investment comes a great deal of responsibility, Caraccio explains. Along with a load of terminology and systems to learn, each participant is given a predetermined project to work on under the guidance of a mentor throughout the course of the tour.

Everything we do hits back home on Earth in a positive way. We have so much good technology that comes out of study for space.

One of Caraccio’s lab projects on self-healing systems for wiring insulation garnered the attention of others at NASA and was submitted for patenting.

After completing three mandatory co-op tours and earning a master’s from Manhattan College, Caraccio made her last trip to Florida and came onboard with NASA full time in February 2011 as a chemical engineer. She now works in the engineering directorate on two distinct projects. The first project focuses on recycling efforts for deep space missions, while the second focuses on fiber composite development and repair for lightweight primary space vehicle structures.

During the first six months, she worked her way through an intense accelerated training program; learning safety requirements, shadowing personnel at the Space Center, and taking on an important project. This project played a leading role in researching lightweight composite materials for an aerodynamic shield that could protect rockets thermally and save the space program a tremendous amount of money and fuel.

“Everything we do hits back home on Earth in a positive way. We have so much good technology that comes out of study for space,” Caraccio says.

Manhattan College Partners with NASA 

In the wake of all her success, Caraccio still kept Riverdale on her radar.

In need of a special computer-modeling program called HYSYS, she recently contacted Manhattan’s Chemical Engineering department for help on a new project involving deep space waste management.

The blossoming partnership has been well received on both sides — with five students doing hands-on research for a tangible, high-profile project, and NASA receiving real results on an important issue.

“Hopefully at Manhattan, it is the beginning of a long relationship with NASA,” she says.

“There has been a big push in our agency to bring in people from smaller schools. Diversity creates innovation, and that is what NASA is.”

Being proactive within the organization has continued to open doors for Caraccio. She was recently one of only about 40 people accepted into NASA’s Foundation of Influence, Relationship, Success and Teamwork, an agency-wide leadership development program geared toward young professionals.

And she already is a role model outside of NASA, co-leading a middle school Cadet Girl Scout troop, and volunteering as a member of SWE and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronauts.

Three years after her first trip to Florida, Caraccio still has her eyes on the skies. She plans to answer the national call for astronauts in the next year or two, and says she will continue to apply for the chance to go into space well into her career. She also hopes to obtain her Ph.D. and teach at the high school or college level after a long career with NASA.

“Every morning I wake up and think, I get to go to work today, and I get to do this,” she says. “It is such an opportunity for me.”