PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Finally, here's one of our favorite interviews from the past year. Tiera Fletcher went from Atlanta, Ga., to MIT to study rocket science. And at the age of 23, she was designing rockets for Boeing.
CHIOKE I'ANSON: When she came on WAIT WAIT in July, Peter asked her if she always loved science.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
SAGAL: So before we get to your current job, did I get that right that you wanted to be a rocket scientist from a very young age?
TIERA FLETCHER: Yes, from the age of 11, I decided to be an aerospace engineer.
SAGAL: Now, what inspired you to do that?
FLETCHER: So I actually had a program at my elementary school that introduced students to the fundamentals of aerospace engineering - I know. That's ridiculous. Since the fourth grade, I have been wanting to be an aerospace engineer because of that program.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Wow.
JORDAN CARLOS: So cool.
POUNDSTONE: I love that.
SAGAL: So you went to MIT.
SAGAL: And that was a pretty impressive thing. And we're told you graduated with a 5.0 average.
FLETCHER: Yes, it was a very interesting time there. Yeah.
SAGAL: Yeah. As far as we knew, the scale goes up to four.
SAGAL: How did you manage that?
FLETCHER: So my parents always encouraged me to say just reach beyond what's expected of you. So I just worked hard, worked - oh, my God - so many hours late, late night. And I just made it happen.
SAGAL: So even for...
POUNDSTONE: Wait, you just made so many parents feel like crap.
CARLOS: So you were, like, a nerd at MIT, which is already nerd heaven.
FLETCHER: (Laughter) I tried to keep a good balance. I was still very involved in different student organizations.
POUNDSTONE: What student organizations were you involved in?
FLETCHER: So many of the cultural groups - the Black Students Union, also MIT and Diversity (ph) and also an African dance team. I tried to mix it up a little bit.
POUNDSTONE: That is so cool. Well, you probably understood the dynamics of the movement.
FLETCHER: Yeah, exactly (laughter).
POUNDSTONE: Right? Which is almost cheating.
POUNDSTONE: Would you say to the other, to the rest of the team, like, no, you need a 25-degree angle at your knee?
FLETCHER: Right. Right.
SAGAL: All of us as kids may be droop airplanes or rocket ships, I did that, or maybe made paper airplanes or models. But you're like - you were not satisfied. You wanted to make them out of, like, steel and make them fly.
FLETCHER: Exactly. And I wanted them to be pink - for sure pink.
SAGAL: Wait a minute.
CARLOS: That's great.
FLETCHER: Yeah, still working on that part.
SAGAL: Really? So you were recruited by - what was it? - Boeing right out of school, right? You worked for them before you even graduated?
FLETCHER: Correct, yes.
SAGAL: And so tell us what your job is.
FLETCHER: So I'm a rocket structural engineer. What that means is that I design various parts of the rocket, analyze those parts. And then I'm also doing manufacturing engineering, as well, to get all of those parts together into the rocket that you'll see.
POUNDSTONE: Because you're a girl, they didn't make you do the curtains?
FLETCHER: Right. Yes, I was very happy that they did not make me do that.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, good for you.
SAGAL: So you're actually designing the rocket engines. And everybody told us that the rocket, specifically that you're working on to design, is the one that's going to go to Mars. Is that correct?
FLETCHER: That's correct. And first, we'll be going to the moon, per the most recent charge from our vice president.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, are taking him to the moon?
FLETCHER: If he would like to go.
CARLOS: Is it like a pit stop? Before you hit Mars, you go to the moon? Or what's going on there?
FLETCHER: Yeah, so we'll be creating a NASA gateway in order to get ready for a longer mission, such as Mars, by establishing a habitat on the moon.
SAGAL: Right. You're going to do that first, and then you're going to Mars from there.
POUNDSTONE: Do you personally care about Mars?
FLETCHER: I do. I do. I find it to be very exciting, just the point of exploring the unknown.
CARLOS: Are you guys going to go get the rover back?
FLETCHER: You know, we could pick that up, huh?
SAGAL: You could pick it up.
FLETCHER: We have to figure out the payload, but...
SAGAL: I mean, it would be nice of us to clean up our messes...
FLETCHER: Yeah, right. Right. Yeah.
FLETCHER: ...For once.
CARLOS: It's so sad.
SAGAL: You are a rocket scientist, literally.
SAGAL: That is the absolute cliche for extraordinarily smart person. Like, you know, the phrase, it's not rocket science. So do you intimidate people when they find out what you do for a living?
FLETCHER: Well, a little bit, I guess, by the title. But I assure them that many people can be a rocket scientist.
SAGAL: That's just not true.
SAGAL: I mean...
CARLOS: People can.
SAGAL: It's very pretty to think so. And I want everybody to be encouraged. But no.
SAGAL: Your husband is an astrophysicist. That's right?
FLETCHER: He's a rocket propulsion test engineer.
SAGAL: Oh, wow.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, my gosh.
POUNDSTONE: So wait a minute. So he...
CARLOS: What a slacker.
SAGAL: So you build the rockets...
SAGAL: ...And he tests them.
FLETCHER: Exactly. It's so cringing, yeah.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, it's...
SAGAL: Wait a minute. That seems to me that it might provide cause for tension.
FLETCHER: I guess, yeah.
SAGAL: I mean, what if you build an engine, he tests it and it blows up?
FLETCHER: Right, you know, it's...
SAGAL: What's dinner at home going to be like that night?
FLETCHER: I have to be really careful with my design because I know that my husband is testing them. And it's just - it's a lot of pressure.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, sure.
SAGAL: It is a lot of pressure.
POUNDSTONE: Do you ever say to him, do you want more coffee? - and he says, yes, and you go, what's you're capacity?
FLETCHER: We do have those moments, unfortunately.
SAGAL: Wait a minute. You do? You actually, like, you do nerd humor with each other?
FLETCHER: We have a ton of nerd humor.
CARLOS: Oh, that's funny.
SAGAL: So you at 24 are already designing the rocket that's going to go to Mars, which I imagine would be the pinnacle of other people's career. So do you have goals? Is there something that you want to do before you're finished?
FLETCHER: I do. Of course, I have my passion for rockets, but I also want to explore the side of planes, as well.
SAGAL: So you want to design airplanes?
SAGAL: Any particular kind of airplanes?
FLETCHER: I do love military aircraft - that was the exact type of aircraft that I fell in love with at first. So...
SAGAL: Really? You were an 11-year-old girl, and you loved, like, fighter jets.
CARLOS: You were a different kind of kid.
FLETCHER: Yes, like the F-35...
FLETCHER: ...F-22 - oh, man..
SAGAL: I'm just imagining you at the age of 11, like, playing with your friends. And they're playing, like, with their dolls, and your jet comes in and strafes the tea party.
CARLOS: Wait. The F-35 is the one that just takes straight off, right?
FLETCHER: Yes, it has different variations.
CARLOS: I just wanted to get something right in front of you.
CARLOS: I know.
SAGAL: Well, Tiera, it is a pleasure to talk to you. And we're going to see if we can stump you because we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: We Must Defeat The Monstars.
SAGAL: Sure, space is your jam, but what do you know about the movie "Space Jam?"
SAGAL: Oh, no.
SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about that 1996 movie, which starred Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.
FLETCHER: Oh, man, I was, like, 1 year old.
CARLOS: Oh, don't say that.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, you know what?
CARLOS: That's not cool.
SAGAL: If you get two questions right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners.
Bill, who's Tiera playing for?
KURTIS: Jonathan McCrae (ph) of Bangor, Maine.
SAGAL: All right, Tiera, ready to do this?
FLETCHER: I'm ready.
SAGAL: Here is your first question. "Space Jam" was a huge success in 1996. Its appeal is far-reaching, as proven by which of these? A, in an interview, Neil Armstrong said this movie is the greatest space thing ever done...
SAGAL: ...B, there is a VHS copy of the movie "Space Jam" enshrined in the North Korea International Friendship Museum in Pyongyang; or C, Smucker's sold out of its Space Jam, which was just a jar that's, quote, "empty just like the vastness of space."
FLETCHER: I might need a little help here.
POUNDSTONE: I can...
FLETCHER: What is the audience thinking - A, B or C?
CARLOS: Who knows?
POUNDSTONE: Well, I know who's a movie fan.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: B.
CARLOS: B, B, B.
POUNDSTONE: We know who's a movie fan.
SAGAL: They're thinking B.
FLETCHER: Are we saying B?
SAGAL: Is this what you did at MIT, by the way?
FLETCHER: No, never.
SAGAL: I'm just saying. I'm kidding. Yes, of course, it's B.
FLETCHER: I use my resources is all.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Of course, it's B.
SAGAL: You use whatever resources you have. There is a VHS copy of that movie. North Korea is weird.
All right, your next question - Chuck Jones was the original creator of Looney Tunes - Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, all the rest. He was invited to make a speech to the filmmakers when - who were making "Space Jam," which used all his characters. What happened? A, he challenged Michael Jordan to a game of one-on-one and lost 108-0...
SAGAL: ...B, he announced that Porky Pig had been cured of his stutter and, therefore, would be speaking perfectly from now on; or C, he insulted the film with such vigor he had to be escorted off the Warner Brothers lot?
FLETCHER: Oh, I'm going to go with C.
SAGAL: You're right - C.
SAGAL: Chuck Jones...
SAGAL: Chuck Jones, who is, of course, a genius, hated the movie, thought it disrespected his characters and made his feelings known. And he had to be escorted off the land.
SAGAL: Last question - LeBron James is producing a sequel to "Space Jam" starring himself. There's been one problem with the production, though, what? A, LeBron's co-star Kyrie Irving walked off the set after refusing to believe the original "Space Jam" was not a documentary...
SAGAL: ...B, the guy who voices Elmer Fudd has not forgiven LeBron for leaving Cleveland and keeps adding profane insults to all of his lines...
SAGAL: ...Or C, other NBA stars have reportedly refused to join the cast because they know the movie will just be LeBron dunking on them?
FLETCHER: Let's go with C.
SAGAL: You're right again.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: They don't want to be embarrassed on film by LeBron or Bugs Bunny. Bill, how did Tiera do on our quiz?
KURTIS: She got a 5.0.
SAGAL: Another success. Another success. Tiera Fletcher is a rocket scientist. She's building the spaceship that'll get us to Mars. You can find out more about her by searching for Rocket With The Fletchers on Facebook.
Tiera Fletcher, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
POUNDSTONE: Congratulations, Tiera.