EKU STEM Grad Develops Future Habitation Systems at NASA

Published on March 27, 2023

By Sarah Bashford

As a young child, Tracie Prater, '06, tagged along to EKU classes with her mom, who was then pursuing a master's degree. From an early age, Prater’s favorite subjects included science, math and space. While attending classes at EKU the summer of her junior year—this time through the Governor’s Scholars Program—Prater studied engineering for the first time. She later decided to enroll at EKU and major in physics. Now, she is supporting the efforts to develop habitats for human space missions at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Throughout her time as an undergrad, Prater took several engineering courses, including thermodynamics. She credits her former advisor, retired Professor Dr. Jerry Cook, for encouraging her to keep pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Prater went on to complete a NASA internship and then a student research fellowship when she was a graduate student.

As an engineer for the Habitat System Development Office, Prater works with other engineers on developing habitats beyond the International Space Station, such as the lunar surface habitat and Mars transit habitat. Their work also includes the identification of technology approaches, development of technology maturation plans for habitation systems and helping to determine strategies for future missions. Teams engaged in mission planning ensure future habitats have all the necessary supplies and that technologies are ready to support them when needed.

For Prater, the most rewarding part of being a NASA engineer is getting to work on projects that might sound like science fiction to people outside the space industry. 

“I used to watch Star Trek Next Generation growing up, because my dad was a fan of the show,” Prater said. “I remember the replicator and can easily connect it to the years I have spent at NASA working on the in-space manufacturing project, which focuses on technologies to create, repair and recycle parts on-demand for long-duration space missions.”

Prater is passionate about encouraging students who have an interest in space or STEM to consider the vast opportunities in the space industry. 

“When I was growing up, I thought the space community was just NASA. However, the space community is way bigger than just NASA. Universities, academic institutions and commercial companies are all a part of the community. We have several partnerships and work with small businesses,” said Prater. “There are just so many opportunities that contribute to the work of NASA, even if you're not working directly for NASA. There are opportunities for any field to work with NASA, including graphic designers, journalists, medical officers and lawyers. The industry is everywhere—you can find a place for yourself in the space industry, if that's where your interests are.” 

Prater is excited about the future of space habitation which aims to expand a human presence to the moon, eventually Mars and developing commercial space stations. 

EKU’s renowned College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) offers a broad range of degree programs to prepare students for their chosen career or advanced studies. With EKU's state-of-the-art Science Building, students gain access to interactive classrooms, high-tech labs and well-equipped research facilities for opportunities to learn in a hands-on environment. Find more information on EKU’s College of STEM.