How NASA Engineer Marcie Washington Worked 'Basketball-Style'

Download Audio

This story re-aired on July 4, 2020. It originally aired on July 6, 2019.

At Only A Game, we search far and wide for stories of athletes who’ve accomplished great things on or off the court. Reporter Olivia Christian didn’t have to look far at all for someone who’s done both: Marcietta Washington.

"My grandmother asked me once — my sister could cook, she could do hair, she could sew, she could crochet, all these things with her hands — and so my grandmother asked me, you know, ‘I know all the things Cherry can do. What can you do?’ I looked at her and said, ‘Play basketball,’ " says Marcietta Washington, my aunt.

I heard stories about my Auntie Marcie’s basketball greatness growing up — her quick hands and natural talent. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that those stories weren’t just family folklore. Auntie Marcie could legit play.

Marcie Washington (with Coach Joe Sanchez, left) being honored at a UCF basketball game for scoring 1,000 points in her career. (Courtesy Marcie Washington)
Marcie Washington (with Coach Joe Sanchez, left) being honored at a UCF basketball game for scoring 1,000 points in her career. (Courtesy Marcie Washington)

"I was this basketball-playing, skirt-wearing kid at the park, because my church didn't believe that girls should wear pants. So I didn't wear pants," Auntie Marcie says. "But I was gonna play basketball. So I would put a rubber band between the skirt so I could play basketball. But I still had on the skirt.

"I grew up with a confidence that I really, Olivia, could pretty much do anything I wanted to do if I wanted to do it. So I tried to do it all."

My Auntie Marcie grew up in the small towns of Marianna and Palatka, Florida. Her can-do attitude had her playing basketball against cousins, brothers and friends in the neighborhood. And because those boys never let up against her, she was better prepared for high school ball than she even knew.

"When the coach was calling out the starting lineup, we were all in the huddle, and she pointed at me, and I looked down at her finger. And it was at me," Aunt Marcie says. "I'm like, ‘I'm starting?’

"I knew a starter was a big deal, but I'm telling you: I was just this kid glad to be out there. And I had a uniform and running up and down. And so that freshman year, as I kept playing and I became the leading scorer, I was up there with the seniors scoring with those girls, and I'm like, ‘Oh, OK. I can play.’

"But my coach wouldn't let me do the streetball stuff. You know, streetball, you talk trash. You're doing one-on-one. You hoped somebody would challenge you one-on-one. And so a couple of times, you know, I'm getting ready to run this girl down the court. I'm like, ‘OK, you want to do this? Let's do this.’ And the coach would yell out, ‘You better not! Pass the ball!’ So, you know, you're on a team. So I had to learn how to play real team ball."

In addition to scoring, Auntie Marcie also led the team in steals and rebounds. And in one other categorythe talking.

"Yeah, my coach hated it," Aunt Marcie says. "And so I didn't know how much he hated it until after one game we’re getting on the bus. He stops me. And I remember this so clearly — he says to me, ‘Somebody asked me, “Who's the coach? You or Marcie?” ’ And, you know, the little braggart that I was, I didn’t say anything. I just kind of gave him a look — like, ‘Well, yeah. Who is?’ "

My Auntie Marcie has another natural talent, one that would require her to be just as determined as she was on the court.

Two Loves

"I was also fairly good at science," Aunt Marcie says. "My mom was a chemistry teacher, so I think some of the technical things just kind of came. My dad was a brick mason. He was a master brick mason, and he could just do math and things in his head. He was a phenomenal man.

“You were either a jock, or you were a nerd. I said, ‘Well, I'm both. Hey. Y'all can't make me pick. This is who I am.’ ”

Marcie Washington

"I knew I liked math and science, but I didn't know what you could do with it other than be a teacher. At our high school, they had this computer in the library, and it was like — you go in and put in all your interests, your loves. It would spit out some career choices that might be good for you. And so engineering was one of these things that was on there. And I'm like, ‘What is an engineer?’ Because, of course, to me, an engineer was a train engineer. And there was a main train that ran through Palatka, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do that for a living. So as I learned about engineering, I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah. This sounds really interesting.’

"So now I'm looking for engineering and basketball. These are the two loves of my life."

As a senior in high school, Auntie Marcie led the state of Florida in scoring, averaging 27 points a game. But she wasn’t recruited. With the help of a former coach, she went to the University of Central Florida on a half academic and half athletic scholarship.

She enrolled in the School of Engineering. At orientation, professors warned parents that the coursework would be incredibly difficult and that half of the students would switch majors.

"Well, that's a challenge," Aunt Marcie says. "I mean, see, you gotta realize — when somebody says something like that to me, that's a challenge. ‘Oh, OK. You don't think I could do this?’ You know, you were either a jock, or you were a nerd. I said, ‘Well, I'm both. Hey. Y'all can't make me pick. This is who I am.’ "

That competitive nature served my Auntie Marcie and her new teammates well.

"My freshman year, there were three other freshmen that were on the team," Aunt Marcie says. "And they named us the Fearsome Foursome Freshmen, because we were getting on the court. And we were playing ball, man. We were doing some things, you know."

Auntie Marcie’s four years at UCF were tough. But she didn’t quit. She stayed with the heavy course load, writing papers and taking practice quizzes on the bus to games. She led her team in points and set records for steals and rebounds. But it wasn't until the year after she graduated and started working that she learned just how good her basketball career had been.

Aunt Marcie's Recognition

"I believe the [UCF] sports information director called me at home and said, ‘Hey, Marcie, we want to honor you, because you scored over a thousand points at UCF,’ " Aunt Marcie remembers. "I said, ‘Oh, I did?’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ "

She went back to campus for one of the women’s basketball games, and the team honored her at halftime.

"I mean it was literally just a basketball that, like, they took out of the rack — the orangest one they could find," Aunt Marcie says. "They wrote the word ‘UCF’ on it, and they wrote ‘1,000’ with a black marker."

And just as she hadn't known what record she'd set on the court, Aunt Marcie didn't know the significance of what she had achieved in the engineering department.

"I did not know until the week after graduation when I saw my picture in the paper — in the school paper — that I was the first African American female [to graduate from the engineering department]. Nobody told me that nobody else had done it," she says.

After graduation and over a Red Lobster dinner, my Auntie Marcie was recruited by NASA.

Her first day was paperwork. But on her second day, she got a tour of the facility. She saw where they bring the shuttle once off the runway and all the people working on each and every intricate part.

"And I'm walking under this thing," Aunt Marcie says. "And I'm looking at these people, and they're just walking around like this is regular. And I'm thinking to myself, ‘Do y'all know where y'all are?’ I'm looking, like, ‘Oh, my God.’ "

Next on the tour was the vehicle assembly building.

"And I'm passed by the wing of this orbiter, and it's got the United States flag painted on the wing of the orbiter," Aunt Marcie says. "And I promise you — and I still remember it to this day — that I wanted to stop and say the pledge of allegiance. I'm like, ‘I'm proud to be an American. This is so great. I'm never leaving! Never, never.’ And I was in. By Day 2. Hook, line and sinker.’ "

'Basketball Style'

Early on as a junior engineer, she put in 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week — eager to learn from veterans on the team, eager to contribute and energized by her passion for the work.

"I kind of work basketball-style in my job," Aunt Marcie says. "And what I mean by that is, for me, basketball players have to — we've got to switch gears very quickly. Right? You're on offense, but if you throw a bad pass, you're on defense. Now, if you pout about throwing the ball away — so now, not only have you thrown the ball away, but the girl has now gone down and scored on you. And so you've made two mistakes at once. So you've got to switch gears quickly, quickly, quickly. And so that's kind of how it was to me at NASA."

But on Jan. 28, 1986, about three years into her career, NASA’s space shuttle known as the Challenger was scheduled to take off.

"So what I remember about that day: it was wintertime, so it's cold," Aunt Marcie says. "It was an unusually cold day for Florida. My offices were almost right behind where the press corps is, but on this particular day, because it's so cold, hardly anyone goes outside. I've just run out to the parking lot to see it, and I throw my coat on and run outside."

Like millions of kids in classrooms across the country, I was watching. As an 8-year-old, I didn’t quite understand what happened. The teams at NASA didn’t know right away either.

"You've got the contrails of the solid rocket boosters going off one way or the other," Aunt Marcie says. "So I run back inside to say, ‘What just happened?’ And everybody is sad. I mean, everybody — it was a very, very sad day.

"One of the guys who had been around, he said, ‘Well, folks, there goes the program.’ "

The Challenger had exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff. All seven people on board had died.

"You know people just started — they put their heads down and said, ‘OK, what can we do next, and what can we change?’ You know, ‘What went wrong? Let's fix that,’ " Aunt Marcie remembers.

Auntie Marcie’s team mentality, the one her high school basketball coach forced her to learn, came into play at a crucial time in her life and in the life of the space program.

After the Challenger explosion, there were Senate hearings and investigations into what went wrong and how — if at all — the space program could move forward.

When NASA wanted more of their most technically skilled people in Washington, D.C., my Auntie Marcie made the move.

"No one person is going to get anything done at NASA by themselves," Aunt Marcie says. "It's just too complex. So you have to work together as a team."

My Auntie Marcie worked for NASA for another 30 years.

"I had a lot of pride in being able to say that I worked for absolutely — it's the best agency in the best country in the world," Aunt Marcie says. "What more could you ask for?"

Three-Point Stance

Marcie Washington worked at NASA for 30 years. (Courtesy Marcie Washington)
Marcie Washington worked at NASA for 30 years. (Courtesy Marcie Washington)

In 2015, a few years after becoming an ordained minister, my Auntie Marcie was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. She spent months getting chemo, relearning how to walk, trying to build up her energy.

"I talked to my pastor, and I said to him, ‘Well, apparently, I may be as strong now as I'm ever going to be.’ So I told my pastor, ‘Hey, put me back in rotation.’ You know, different associate ministers get to preach. ‘Don't leave me out because you think I can't handle it. Hey, I'll preach — when I get home, I can get in the bed, right? I can't keep going like I used to, but I can do something, right?’

"And so in this sermon, I talked about taking the devil on, you know. I said, ‘When I realized the fight that I was gonna be in, I said, I remember the three-point stance in basketball, right? You get in a three-point stance — you can dribble, you can pass, you can shoot. And then you're also in a position — same position — to play defense. And so if I need to get out here and play defense, and I got to fight this thing, we're going to fight it.’ "

"Gotta get off the bench, Coach,’ " Aunt Marcie says. " ‘Coach, you gotta put me. You gotta put me in.’ And I guess that's kind of what I told the pastor, right? He's the coach. ‘Come on, Pastor. Put me back in.’ "

In April 2020, we learned that Marcie Washington had tested positive for COVID-19. She’s since recovered. She likes to joke that she’s survived the three Cs: cancer, cardiac arrest and COVID-19.

This segment aired on July 6, 2019.

Olivia Christian Reporter



More from Only A Game

Listen Live