Recent graduate Kira Headrick sees blue skies ahead.

Headrick, S.B. ’17, a mechanical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is one of only 25 women selected by the U.S. Air Force to enter the rigorous and prestigious Pilot Training Program.

“My ultimate goal is to become an astronaut,” said Headrick. “That would be a life-changing experience, and also an important public service, since I would be able to do valuable research and help others understand how important it is to save the planet.”

Pursuing a life of service has been among Headrick’s prime ambitions since her childhood in Colorado. Her parents, who both enjoyed long careers as Navy intelligence officers, inspired their daughter to pursue a future in the military.

At Harvard, Headrick completed the Air Force ROTC program and became one of six graduating seniors commissioned into the Armed Forces. The Pilot Training Program she will join accepts a mere 14 percent of ROTC cadets.

With her ROTC training, combined with leadership skills she developed through SEAS courses, she approaches the next set of challenges with confidence. During two years of ROTC training, and one summer-long ‘field training’ camp, Headrick practiced both cooperation and humility as a member of a high-performance team. During her junior and senior years, she applied those skills while training underclassmen cadets.

Headrick conducts an ROTC training session on the Radcliffe Quad. (Photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer.)

“I came into college a little more reserved and not 100 percent confident,” she said. “ROTC consistently pushed me to speak decisively in public, make quick decisions, and stand by them. It pulled me out of my shell.”

While Headrick kept busy with ROTC training, she was also juggling a demanding mechanical engineering course load. Her ROTC experience paid off as she took the lead on group projects, while the opportunity to express her creativity drew her deeper into the engineering discipline.

For her senior thesis, she used paper-jamming structures to improve the movement of soft robots, providing a perfect opportunity to apply ingenuity in a practical way. Working in the lab of Rob Howe, Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering, Headrick crafted an attachment for a robotic leg that decreases friction during motion by more than two-thirds, streamlining forward and backward movements and enabling a soft robot to travel with increased speed.

For her senior thesis project, Headrick developed this attachment for a robotic leg that decreases friction during motion by more than two-thirds. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell/SEAS Communications.)

“I loved the opportunity to test many different ideas and to be iterative,” she said. “If we can simplify soft robotic motion, maybe there could be more innovation toward developing soft robots for more novel functions.”

She also had the opportunity to apply creativity to engineering projects as an intern at the NASA Aeronautics Academy where this one-day-astronaut worked on a team that developed a more efficient airplane wing design, drawing on the anatomical elements of a bird’s wing that enhance in-flight aerodynamics.

Not only did that internship solidify her desire to someday travel into space, it also gave her valuable experience conducting a multidimensional engineering research project.

Headrick (second from left) and her NASA internship research group pose behind the aircraft they worked on during the summer of 2015. (Photo provided by Kira Headrick.)

Headrick will draw on those research skills for the next four years as she completes a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the California Institute of Technology. After earning her Ph.D., Headrick will enter Air Force pilot training and launch her career in military service.

As she looks to the upward trajectory before her, Headrick’s lifelong focus on service keeps her grounded.

“The U.S. is currently involved in some really difficult situations around the world,” she said. “I am humbled by the opportunity to be a good leader, to have the power to make good decisions and help people. Being able to do something tangible to help the country that I love is unbelievably rewarding.”

One of six 2017 Harvard graduates to be commissioned into the U.S. military, Headrick looks forward to launching a life of service in the Air Force. (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer.)