Published: Aug. 1, 2023 By

Sasha at JPL.
Sasha Gladkova during her internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Astronaut Scholarship winner charts her own path

Sasha Gladkova has always loved science and space, but she never imagined work in those fields could become her career.

She had done well in high school math, completing multiple levels of calculus, but was dedicated to another future: gymnastics and acrobatics. It was an area where she had excelled to the highest levels competing internationally for the United States as a teenager.

“I’ve been a gymnast my whole life. I was super serious. The last five years of it I was traveling around the world for competitions,” Gladkova said.

In 2019 – during her senior year of high school – she applied to the University of Colorado Boulder’s aerospace program. She did not really expect to attend here, planning intending instead to continue training at her local acrobatics gym in the Washington D.C. metro area while attending the University of Maryland.

“CU Boulder was the first place I toured though and I instantly fell in love with the campus. This was my top choice, but in a dream, in a life I didn’t have. Then COVID happened and everyone’s life changed. I could see acrobatics wasn’t going to return to normal any time soon and I decided to retire from gymnastics and come here instead,” she said

Today, as an undergraduate senior in aerospace engineering sciences at CU Boulder, Gladkova is equally passionate about the world of aerodynamics, space missions, and astrophysics research. Over the last three years, she has been part of internships and jobs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CU Boulder’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.

“I’ve done research in a lot of different areas in the space field. I have so many interests. Space is just really crazy,” Gladkova said.

In 2021, she applied to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation – an organization founded by the Mercury 7 Astronauts and sustained by successive generations of NASA astronauts. She was recognized with their scholarship award in both 2022 and 2023, which provided significant tuition assistance and outstanding professional development opportunities.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “All of a sudden you have all these resources and a new branch of your life opens. They have a mentorship program where each scholar is paired with an astronaut. I’ve gotten to meet so many astronauts I can’t keep track anymore.”

As she has advanced in her education, Gladkova has only found more things to love about aerospace engineering.

“Every place I’ve worked you have the people you work with directly, but I also talk to everyone else there to find out about their job and what they do. That is how I found out I’m really interested in mission operations,” she said.

Mission operations is the only most recent on a growing list of future job tracks Gladkova is considering. Graduate school is also a possibility as are other options in industry or research. One position not immediately on the list: astronaut. Despite being an astronaut scholar, she plans to keep her feet on terra firma, for now

“I had a nightmare where I was an astronaut and was all by myself, everyone was really far away, and it was the most gut-wrenching lonely feeling I’d ever had. It’s stuck with me,” she said. “I have more things to do on Earth first.”