HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — Every day, Tawnya Plummer Laughinghouse helps the team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center push the boundaries in space.

She started working at MSFC full-time 19 years ago — now she manages the Technology Demonstration Mission Program, which is the largest part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

However, that wasn’t always the plan for the Sparkman High School alumna — she once dreamed of being a doctor.

“It wasn’t until, I think the end of my high school year that I discovered NASA and the SHARP program,” Laughinghouse said. “We took data, we presented that data at the end of the six-week program, and so it was an amazing experience in that I saw and worked with engineers that looked like me.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than other fields. They also make up a lower share of STEM graduates by comparison.

Laughinghouse says a NASA apprenticeship throughout her years in college showed her what was possible — and helped her aim for the stars through the NASA Women in Science and Engineering Scholarship Program.

“It was a five-year dual degree program where you go to Spellman, pursue a natural science or math [and] computer science-type degree and you got to an approved engineering school, and do the final two years of an engineering degree,” she explained. “That just appealed to me so much.”

With bachelor degrees in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Laughinghouse is leading the way in the Technology Demonstration Mission Program.

Most recently, she played a pivotal role in NASA’s low-Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable decelerator that launched in November 2022. That inflatable heat shield will be a crucial part in safely and successfully landing the first people on Mars.

“Because it can be stowed very tightly that means you have more space for more critical high mass items if you’re going to Mars,” Laughinghouse continued. “You know, like oxygen systems, like rovers, like habitats. This LOFTID technology really became a game changer for one day returning humans to the lunar surface and eventually trips to Mars.”

Now, Laughinghouse is setting the stage for others.

“Every responsibility that I’m given, every role I take on, I want to knock it out of the park so that the next Tawnya has an opportunity,” she added.