AFRL engineer develops satellite technology

By Jeanne Dailey

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 A little girl’s curiosity has carried her into a career working on satellite technology as an adult.

Space systems engineer Millay Petersen has worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Kirtland Air Force Base for the past 12 years, supporting both the Space Vehicles and Directed Energy Directorates.

“Right now my job is in the Space Vehicles Directorate and is a mix of technical and program management,” Petersen said. “I am responsible for overseeing requirements, design, testing, operations, schedule and financial activities for satellites that we develop to meet Air Force technology needs. This involves management of technology development across a broad range of fields — structures, thermal analysis, software, electronics, launch and range safety, and orbital mechanics.”

“I love working at AFRL. We have great people who look out for each other and there’s always something amazing to work on.”

Her branch chief, Mark Scherbarth, said Petersen has been a pleasure to work with over the years.

“She embodies what it means to serve, having done so in several different capacities (active duty, civilian, Reservist) and in a highly technical field,” Scherbarth. “Her support and hard work on our highest-priority program is greatly appreciated!”

Petersen holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a master’s degree in engineering and technology management, both from Oklahoma State University.

A native of Oklahoma, her early years were spent in a rural setting where she had chickens and a huge vegetable garden. In later childhood she lived in Oklahoma City.

Her curiosity began at an early age.

“I always enjoyed learning new things and I wanted to know how everything worked, whether it had to do with mechanical systems, biology of plants and animals, or ecological systems,” she said.

“I really liked math and science, and I knew that I wanted to do something where I could focus my interests on creating or doing new things.”

Petersen said her mother was her biggest influence in her career choice as well as her primary role model.

“I admired my mom for her intelligence and hard work,” Petersen said. “As a single mom raising two daughters, she was working through a difficult prelaw degree at the University of Oklahoma, and I watched her work hard to get the highest grades in her class.

“We didn’t have many material things growing up, but I think we had every copy of National Geographic in the house and a wall full of books.”

When she was a junior in college, Petersen decided to join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and was commissioned in 2001.

“I had always admired the service and sacrifice of my grandfather and father through their military service,” she said. “I felt that by joining the Air Force, I would honor the memory of their service, that I would be able to use my degree to contribute to the country, and that I would have a career that I was proud of.”

As a wife and mother of five children, Petersen said it became harder to balance the need to move more frequently and attend long training and military education courses. She decided to become a government civilian and to continue her service to the Air Force as a Reservist.

Petersen feels fortunate to have been selected for a civilian position with AFRL at Kirtland, where she was assigned while on active duty. 

“I am a woman working in a male-dominated field — engineering — and in a male-dominated employment sector — the military. I have always been treated fairly and respectfully, and I have always been recognized for the work that I do,” Petersen said. “In my experience, the Air Force is an excellent place for for women and minorities to work.”