As the Perseverance rover heads towards Mars, back on Earth, a crew of engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are supporting the Mars 2020 mission. One of those people is systems engineer Heather Ann Bottom. With a bachelor's in astrophysics and a master's in space engineering, she certainly fits the bill. But Bottom has a few extra qualifications on her resumé: She was a Rockette in New York City and in the Broadway national tour of A Chorus Line.
Careers in the arts and engineering might seem like polar opposites. But Bottom, 32, sees the benefits of applying her dance experience to her current role. "I have been able to recognize, as a dancer, what my strengths are," she says. "Things like picking up choreography really quickly, being a visual learner are important to recognize. Then I can take that into my job and say, 'Oh, the reason I'm getting this so quickly is because I'm a dancer. I understand it. I can put the steps together in my head.' "
"Or many times, I've related these grand, large-scale tests in the engineering world to like a dance performance—you have all the different players and they need to be in their spots at the right time and read the script correctly and all of that. Wherever I can recognize, 'Oh, that's a part of my dance self or my performing self that is now coming into the engineering world' has really helped me embrace both sides."
But this balance of dance and science wasn't always a constant in her life.
Growing up, Bottom loved dancing, singing and acting, and had her eyes set on Broadway. "That was my dream. But at the same time, I recognized that I was really good at math," she says. As she advanced in her dance training, she continued exploring math and science and developed a love for astronomy. "I've kind of always been known as 'Heather, she's a great dancer, but she's also a nerd.' "
For undergrad, she moved from Arizona to New York City to study astrophysics at Columbia University. "I didn't have a lot of free time to be a typical college student," she says. When she wasn't in class, she was training at dance studios throughout the city and auditioning for dance and musical theater shows. Her first big contract: the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Bottom took a semester off for the show, but once she was back to class, she kept auditioning. Soon, she booked the Broadway national tour of A Chorus Line, and left school for another six months.
Left: Heather Ann Bottom in costume for the Christmas Spectacular. Right: In costume for the finale for A Chorus Line.
Courtesy Heather Ann Bottom
She graduated in four and a half years and found herself at an imaginary fork in the road. "I had this weird idea that I had to choose one. It was like, 'Heather, you've always loved astronomy and you've always loved dance. Now you need to choose. No more balance.' "
"That's the worst advice I had ever given myself," she reflects. Dance won out and she spent a couple of years auditioning in New York City, while tutoring to pay the bills. "I was up for Broadway shows and other dance gigs, but at the end of the day, I think I realized that I missed the science-y part of me." Bottom did a "total 180," this time towards engineering. She traded coasts, too, studying space engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Postgrad, she worked at SpaceX before landing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Heather Ann Bottom on Mars 2020 launch day.
"It's only been in the last handful of years that I've been able to really find the balance again. It's much more fulfilling." Though she's currently located in Hawaii, when she lived in Southern California, she'd train at The Sweat Spot or EDGE. "And I love keeping up with tap"—citing Johnnie Hobbs as a favorite teacher.
Meanwhile, during the day, Bottom continues to support Mars 2020 as Perseverance approaches its February 18 landing date on Mars' Jezero Crater. "I now sit on-console as one of the uplink leads in the cruise operations phase of the mission," she says. "This work involves gathering information for each of the activities during the cruise phase and helping to create the uplink products (commands/sequences/files) that we send to the vehicle every day."
Though her work is headed millions of miles away, she feels decidedly grounded. "I went through this long period where I tried to shut down one part of me or the other part of me. I said, 'Okay, dance 100 percent, no more science.' And then I did engineering 100 percent, no more dance. Through doing that, I lost a sense of who I was. I thought back to when I was in high school—I was always juggling both, and that was what made me human," says Bottom. "That's what makes me me."