NASA official shares her story of faith, challenges

Cynthia Simmons, the associate division chief of the Instrument Systems and Technology Division at Goddard Space Flight Center, shares her story of struggles and achievements at the Men's & Women's Day at John Wesley Methodist Church in Front Royal on Saturday. Ashley Miller/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – On Saturday, members and visitors of John Wesley Methodist Church gathered for Men’s & Women’s Day, where the theme was “Unity in Our Community.”

Robert Cairns, trustee for John Wesley, explained the day was a time to honor men and women of all backgrounds.

“It’s also an opportunity to bring the community together,” he added.

Saturday’s event was specifically honoring women of color, pioneers and innovators at NASA.

The celebration opened with rousing songs performed by local musical group “Witness” and was followed by an inspirational story of a woman who spent half her life trying to find out how to get to the stars by simply following her faith. The presentation was titled “Look Up, Rise-Stand Up and Be Counted.”

“Acknowledge challenges, don’t give them power,” is the motto Cynthia Simmons shared with the audience.

For Simmons, 59, the associate division chief of the Instrument Systems and Technology Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, her passion for space started at an early age with television shows like “Star Trek.”

“I dreamt of designing spaceships and exploring space,” she said.

As a child Simmons, would sit outside at night and admire the universe. She recalls not really understanding the concept of space travel or how one would get there. But, she knew one thing: “real is what you make it. And goals can be achieved.”

Emma Stelzl, 10, of Stephens City, sat in the audience as Simmons shared her struggles and achievements. For Emma, Simmons story was awe-inspiring.

“I found her story to be inspirational and moving,” Emma said. “I also wasn’t aware how bad the time period was. It’s not like what you learn in school. It was more real.”

Emma was referring to the Jim Crow laws era, known for its segregation by skin color. The 1960s and 1970s were dramatically difficult for African-American girls, Simmons explained.

Girls were encouraged to pursue homemaking skills that would prepare them for marriage or being a secretary.

Simmons was a straight-A student, all except for a single B she said she received because “of the color of her skin.”

Simmons, like all the other girls in her class, was encouraged to look at degrees in teaching or nursing. For her, those weren’t an option.

“I wanted to go to space,” she said. “But my mother thought otherwise,” she added laughing.

For 19 years, Simmons spent her life looking at the stars. She experienced many hardships, but she wouldn’t let them define her life.

“How is that possible?” an audience member asked. “Because I believe in my faith,” she responded.

Faith has shaped Simmons’ life through and through.

“Be curious. Expand your horizons. Don’t fit yourself into a box,” Simmons said.

She followed her passion for space and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy. where she was one of eight black graduates. She majored in biology and what is known today as aerospace engineering. While her time spent in the Air Force sent her into another field, communications, eyesight waivers were given to a few select students, Simmons being one, and she felt her faith and Lord had rescued her.

“I was on my way to space,” she said.

Crystal Arfal-Addoh, a liaison for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said her goal is to take museums to the masses. And she’s starting with Simmons’ story.

“It’s such an incredible story she has. And it hasn’t really been told, but it deserves to be,” Arfal-Addoh said. “Now is the time.”

Simmons’ story is anything but brief. Browntown resident Gay Shell,  like Emma, was awe-struck by Simmons’ story.

“While I was listening to her speak, I was inspired,” Shell said. “To hear what she went through, and see where she is today, all because of her faith is astonishing.”

Pastor John Stelzl said he was grateful for Simmons in sharing her story with his fellowship.

“We want to bring people together,” he said. “Regardless of their backgrounds, we’re one community.”

Arfal-Addoh hopes audience members will tell their friends about Saturday’s presentation.

“I want Cynthia’s story to be heard,” she said. “I want schools, libraries, business, etc. to want her inspiration inspire them.”

For Emma, she walked away with a new take on life.

“Cynthia’s story reminded me that no matter what, you can achieve anything,” Emma said. “How?” a church member asked. “With faith,” Emma said.