NASA Internship Leads to Frontline Role for Stennis Space Center Communicator
STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. — From NASA:
Sallie Bilbo grew up hearing the roar of engines being tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, while spending time in her backyard with friends and family.
A native of Pearl River, Louisiana, Bilbo’s elementary school teachers allowed her class to watch space shuttle launches, helping the children to feel as though they were part of history in the making. Little did she know then that she one day would play a role in telling the continuing story of her local NASA center.
After high school, Bilbo followed a path to becoming a business major at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “I never thought I could work for NASA since I wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in engineering or science that you typically associate with NASA,” Bilbo said.
She did not know NASA looks for employees across a wide array of professions and offers internships to candidates from all sorts of college majors. However, when the opportunity presented itself, Bilbo applied for a Stennis internship at the end of her first year of college.
Bilbo was offered an intern position in the Stennis Public Affairs Office (now Office of Communications) and continued in that role while completing her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. Bilbo then received a full-time position offer in the Public Affairs Office at Stennis, where she has served for almost 25 years, including her time as an intern.
Beginning full-time as a public affairs specialist in December 2001, Bilbo has worked every aspect of the office except the news chief position. In 2019, NASA selected Bilbo as the team lead for the Office of Communications. She currently serves as the acting director for the office, filling in for Director Pam Covington, who is on detail with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
As acting director, Bilbo serves as a liaison between the center office and both the Office of Communications Enterprise leadership at NASA Headquarters in Washington and the Stennis leadership team. Ultimately, her goal is to ensure that the public knows the role Stennis plays in America’s space program and that local residents are proud of the contributions Stennis makes to NASA’s missions. Bilbo looks to share the story of NASA in an inspiring way. “Our challenge is to ensure the public knows what we are doing and is inspired by and supportive of it,” she said. “We need support from stakeholders, employees, and the general public to back our missions. With a small office and shrinking budgets, we have to be creative in the ways we tell our story.”
Bilbo played a leading role in publicly communicating Stennis’ role in the Green Run testing of the first Space Launch System (SLS) core stage on site. The testing concluded with a March 2021 hot fire of the core stage’s four RS-25 engines, just as during an actual launch. The hot fire marked the most powerful test conducted at Stennis in more than 40 years.
“Being involved in and witnessing the historic test was truly an honor,” said Bilbo. “Due to the pandemic, we were not able to host as many people as we initially planned. I realized that being on site when the test occurred was an opportunity of a lifetime. And knowing that I am just a small pixel in the big picture of the Artemis program gives me a great sense of pride.”
Bilbo and her team worked to set up the limited viewing site, support the test broadcast on NASA Television, and keep media informed as the event took place, sharing the experience with the public and stakeholders. The team accomplished their work twice – once for an initial hot fire test in January 2021 that experienced an early automatic shutdown and again for the follow-up full-duration hot fire in March. During both events, she coordinated and supervised several simultaneously moving parts.
The SLS Green Run testing was just one of the many proud moments in Bilbo’s career. “There have been many instances throughout my career that I’ve been proud to be a part of NASA,” she said. “Witnessing my first shuttle launch, STS-105, was my first, proudest moment. But each launch I attended afterward was an individually proud moment. Our team has hosted many large-scale events that make me proud to be a part of the NASA team as well.”
For Bilbo, the best thing about her role at NASA is the people and Stennis’ family-oriented culture. “I work with an amazing team,” said Bilbo. “I spend a lot of my time with my ‘work family,’ and having such a great group of people to work with makes it easier and more enjoyable.” Additionally, Bilbo said she really enjoys the diversity of her work. Having so many different projects, events, and site visits might be stressful to some, but it is one of the aspects of the office that keeps Bilbo interested.
Throughout her continued service, Bilbo has witnessed change as NASA and Stennis has worked to promote workplace diversity and inclusion. This emphasis has included a variety of efforts at Stennis, including lunch-and-learn sessions for employees, on-site diversity programs, and education opportunities designed to build awareness and broadened perspectives.
“There have been some difficult conversations over the past few years, but in Office of Communications, we feel that we can ask those hard questions or have a conversation about a difficult or uncomfortable topic with open minds and no judgement,” Bilbo said.
NASA has recognized Bilbo for her efforts and professionalism. She recently was a part of the team who received a pair of group recognitions, including a Silver Achievement Award, for the Green Run guest operations effort. In addition, she has received several individual achievement awards throughout her career, including NASA’s Space Flight Awareness Silver Snoopy and an agency Exceptional Achievement Medal.
Bilbo said she looks forward to the future of NASA and specifically the Artemis I mission. NASA’s Artemis I launch marks the beginning of returning humans back to the Moon, and Artemis missions will see the first woman and the first person of color put boots on the Moon. Envisioning future work at Stennis, Bilbo also looks forward to how Stennis might support new commercial projects.
Still living in Pearl River, Bilbo enjoys spending her time off with family and her two goldendoodle dogs. She is active in her community, leading worship service for her sister and brother-in-law’s new church in Diamondhead, Mississippi.
Stennis Photo – Sallie Bilbo cutline: Stennis Space Center Public Affairs Specialist Sallie Bilbo uses her skills and 25 years of experience to share the story of NASA’s premier propulsion test center.