Thunder Bay

Working on Hubble telescope for NASA a 'surreal' experience says Lakehead University grad

Lakehead University engineering graduate Colette Lepage made her dream of working for NASA come true. She was part of the contamination control crew for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Colette Lepage grew up gazing at the stars but never imagined she would explore them

Colette Lepage, an engineering graduate from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., was an avid stargazer as a young girl and ended up working on the Hubble Space Telescope. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Colette Lepage made her dream of working for NASA come true.

"It was surreal. I had to pinch myself some days because I'd be staring up at the launch pad with the shuttle, Atlantis, that had all of our hardware on it," says Lakehead University engineering graduate Colette Lepage of her experiences.

Those experiences included work on the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 24, 1990.

Lepage spoke about her path to NASA and her work there at several events at Lakehead University this past week.

Growing up in the rural part of Sudbury, Ont., Lepage loved looking up at the stars: "Even on those clear, cold January nights I would still go out there, and lay in the snow."

Lepage always wanted to work in the space field. "But did I think it was possible? Absolutely not. I was a shy, quiet, average kid from northern Ontario and Florida, Kennedy [Space Centre] seemed a little bit far away, like another universe really."

After graduating from Cambrian College with a diploma in chemical engineering technology, Lepage worked for a few years before deciding to earn an engineering degree. She thrived in the close-knit program at the small university, an experience that prepared her for her job at NASA.

Colette Lepage, an engineering graduate from Lakehead University worked in contamination control on the Hubble Space Telescope and was part of its launch from the NASA facility in Florida. (Colette Lepage)

"You have one common goal and that's to get stuff to be successful when it launches and gets into space. And so you all have to get along really well and play nice in the sandbox," she said.

With her new degree from the Thunder Bay, Ont., university, Lepage moved to Maryland and applied for an entry level job in contamination control at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where her primary responsibility was keeping the hardware clean — very, very clean.

'Go for it, just try'

"The bottom line is mission failure," said Lepage, explaining that a speck of dust, a single strand of hair falling on a microchip "could zap that microchip. And imagine that happening up in space where there's nothing you can do — you can't fix it."

Lepage eventually moved to Florida and worked in contamination control on the Hubble with the crew there. They did their job well because throughout the course of its mission, the Hubble telescope has "provided technology and images of the universe that we have never seen before."

Now working as a contamination consultant, Lepage spends some of her time encouraging other young people, especially women, to follow their dreams and pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"Go for it. Just try. I failed many times at different things, but I think the key is just to get up and try again," she said. "If there is something you really want to try, you really have to override a lot of your fears and just continue to walk through the doors of opportunity that open for you."

You can hear more from Colette Lepage here.