Tech Insights

Aprille Joy Ericsson: Aerospace Engineering Trailblazer and STEM Advocate

February 14, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Aprille Joy Ericsson is a notable figure in engineering and aerospace, best known for her work as a NASA engineer. She had many impressive achievements, including her advocacy for the advancement of women and minorities in STEM fields.

Aprille Joy Ericsson is a notable figure in engineering and aerospace. She is best known as a NASA engineer for her contributions to developing technology for space exploration.


Aprille Joy Ericsson. Image used courtesy of NASA


Early Interest in Science

Ericsson was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1963. From a young age, she would watch coverage of the Apollo missions on television, which piqued her early interest in science. 

She attended MIT UNITE (now called MITES, MIT Introduction to Engineering & Science) in high school, a pre-collegiate summer immersive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program for students from underserved communities.  This experience taught her more about science and aeronautics and determined her to work at NASA.

She graduated from MIT in 1989 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering. She received her master's degree in engineering and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, the aerospace option, from Howard University. She also received a Ph.D. in engineering at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

Her graduate research at Howard worked on developing control methods for orbiting large space platforms like the International Space Station (ISS).

Ericsson was the first African-American woman to receive a mechanical engineering Ph.D. from Howard University, the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, the Aerospace option from Howard, and the first African-American woman to receive an engineering Ph.D. at the NASA GSFC. 


Aerospace Engineer

Ericsson began her career at NASA GSFC as an aerospace engineer and has worked on many projects, including the design and testing of propulsion systems for the Space Shuttle program, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. She served as lead engineer on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, responsible for designing and developing the rover’s robotic arm.

The Mars Rover arm allows scientists to collect rocks and soil from Mars's surface. Image used courtesy of NASA


Her work on the Mars Rover is considered one of Ericsson’s most notable achievements. The mission was designed to explore the surface of Mars and search for evidence of past or present water and habitable environments. The robotic arm Ericsson designed was used to collect Martian soil and rock samples for analysis. The mission was a success, and the data collected by the rover has provided valuable insights into the geology and history of Mars.


STEM Inclusion

Ericsson’s work at NASA is notable not only for its scientific contributions but also for its impact on the advancement of women and minorities in STEM fields. As an African-American woman, Ericsson has been a role model for many young girls and minorities. She has advocated for diversity and inclusion and has worked to promote STEM education for underrepresented groups through various initiatives.

She has given several lectures and presentations on the importance of STEM education and has been involved in various outreach programs to encourage young people, particularly girls and minorities, to pursue careers in STEM.

Ericsson has expressed pride in being able to be a voice of activism and encouragement for both women and minorities in STEM. Having faced many hardships and alienation herself in the working world, she believes the main driver for few women in STEM is discouragement rather than lack of capability.


Other Notable Achievements

Ericsson has been recognized for her contributions to engineering and aerospace with numerous awards and honors, including the NASA Goddard Honor Award (1998) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Ralph Coates Roe Medal (2022).

She is currently working as the New Business Lead (NBL) for the NASA GSFC Instrument Systems and Technology Division. In this role, she aims to establish government partnerships that allow for industry, small businesses, and universities to collaborate and compete for the opportunity to address the research and development challenges faced by various government agencies in the United States.

Previously, she worked as Capture Manager for STAR-X, a proposed Astrophysics mid-sized Class Explorer, as the NASA GSFC Program Manager for Small Business and Innovative Research, as the Deputy to the Chief Technologist for the Engineering and Technology Directorate, and as Program Executive for Earth Science.

Ericsson was an Adjunct Faculty member at several universities, including Howard and Bowie State University. She currently sits on the Board of Higher Education and Workforce, the MIT Industry Advisory Council for Minority Education, and is Chair of the Advisory Board for Howard University Department of Mechanical Engineering.