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From orbit to the boardroom: WVU alumna finds opportunities through engineering

A split image depicting Kerri Knotts in her space suit working on a shuttle above Earth's Atmosphere and the other showing her with a headset at ground control on a separate occasion.

Before enrolling at West Virginia University Kerri Knotts didn’t know what engineers did. Finding the answer to that question was the key to a successful career as a project manager, flight controller and now chief executive officer.


“I had a few high school teachers ask me to consider engineering, but it wasn’t something girls got exposed to back then, so I really had no idea what engineers did,” said Knotts. “I brushed it off and stuck with my plan of becoming a lawyer.”

Knotts enrolled at WVU and majored in broadcast journalism knowing she would learn to write and speak well, an important factor in law school interviews. But her lingering questions about engineering persisted and after three years of study, Knotts met with Gary Morris, an advisor and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“In that first meeting it was clear that Kerri had the right stuff to be successful in aerospace engineering – she was very bright, eager and displayed an unusual passion for learning,” said Morris. “As an advisor, I encouraged her to reach for her dreams and to choose a career path in which she would be excited to go to work every day.”   

“I looked back on my life and realized that I was always meant to go into engineering, I just needed someone to explain it to me,” said Knotts, who immediately took the math and science placement tests required for entrance to the program and switched majors to aerospace engineering.

For the next three years, Knotts took classes about rockets, satellites and biomechanical design. In her classes, Knotts heard about NASA’s cooperative education programs – or co-ops – and decided she had to be accepted into the program.

“Everyone kept telling me how hard it would be to get accepted because NASA doesn’t recruit from WVU,” said Knotts. “But I was determined, so I called them. I figured there was no harm in asking.”

NASA told Knotts that if she could get to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, they would interview her. She scraped together frequent flyer miles and bought a new suit.

As it turned out, Knotts’s mix of journalism and engineering knowledge worked to her advantage. Knotts was not only offered a position, but received her first choice area, spacewalk operations, for the co-op tours of duty.

“I treated each opportunity like the real deal,” said Knotts, who did two co-op tours before being offered a full-time position upon graduation. “I learned all that I could so that NASA would need me back after investing so much time in my training.”

For 20 years, Knotts held multiple positions at the Johnson Space Center. She was responsible for planning, training and executing space shuttle and international space station missions from mission control center, developing advanced spacesuit technology and designing areas of the Constellation Program that would allow exploration beyond low earth orbit. Knotts used her broadcast journalism background when featured on “Secret Space Escapes” on the Science Channel discussing an ammonia leak during a 2001 space shuttle mission.

When the Constellation Program was cancelled, Knotts needed a new challenge. She took on a six-month position in business management for human resources, where she was responsible for multiple business contracts that supported NASA employee’s quality of life programs. Six-months turned to four years and by the end, Knotts had fully overhauled the program to better benefit employees and the budget.

“I had this great opportunity to transition from engineering into a business leadership and innovation area,” said Knotts, who never imaged there would be so many different opportunities afforded to her with an engineering degree. “It’s hard to appreciate it when you’re in the moment, but I’ve had some really cool jobs. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.”

In 2014, Knotts became CEO at PetroActive, a fuel-additives company. Knotts’ business leadership experience made her the perfect fit for the company that needed a global expansion strategy. The expansion was accomplished with a merger strategy that has been very successful. While she was sad to leave NASA, the new role affords Knotts more flexibility and time with her family."

“I am so grateful to the WVU engineering program for getting me started and to Dr. Morris for believing that I could make such a drastic major change,” said Knotts. “I can’t imagine any other school that would make me as proud to be a part of.”



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