By Janene Scully
Staff Writer, Lompoc Record
Ellen Porshneva’s route to a job at Vandenberg Air Force Base involved the unlikely combination of Belarus and basketball.
Now an employee of United Launch Alliance, which manufactures Atlas 5 rockets, Porshneva was born in Minsk, Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union.
She immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 with her family, including physicist dad, and settled first in Chicago, where the basketball-crazed teen arrived just after NBA star Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls.
“I was all about basketball, wearing a Jordan jersey, Jordan shoes, so I was the happiest a kid could be to be in the United States and play basketball,” said Porshneva, 29, of Vandenberg Village. “That was kind of exciting.”
She had started playing basketball a year before arriving in the U.S., drawn to the sport by her height.
Still, it wasn’t easy for a player without a basic understanding of English. A newspaper article noted that while she didn’t understand the coach much, she understood basketball very well, she said.
Her family soon moved to the Bay Area, where the 6-foot 1-inch teen’s on-court skills landed her a basketball scholarship to the University of California, Davis. She played on the Aggies women’s team as a power forward and center for three years.
At Davis, she majored in international relations and economics, while serving as the Aggies team captain and gaining a number of honors including becoming, in 2005-06, the program's 12th player to eclipse the 1,000-point milestone.
She went on to earn her Master of Business Administration in 2012 from California State University, East Bay.
While she’s been back to Belarus, including a stint volunteering for a couple of months at a children’s shelter after graduation, she doesn’t plan to return permanently to live in the country of her birth.
“It wasn’t home anymore,” she said.
With degrees and American citizenship in hand, Porshneva wanted a job involving the defense or justice departments.
“Those missions inspire me, I guess,” she said.
Her career research led to applying for a job vacancy at ULA.
“I actually said on my application that I wasn’t looking for a job, I was looking for a home.”
She also found herself wanting to again be part of a group working toward a common goal.
“After I graduated I really missed that team spirit atmosphere. I was kind of looking for that — loyalty and dedication to each other, a common goal. That was kind of my main search criteria for a job.”
Before accepting the job at ULA, she had never witnessed a rocket launch before.
“It’s a transforming experience definitely, watching a rocket launch,” she said. “You never think that it’s going to be as loud as it is when it seems so far away, even watching it from here.”
As a buyer for ULA, she helps technicians and engineers acquire parts and services needed to make a rocket launch reality.
“I joke around sometimes saying we’re kind of like a fairy godmother, making wishes come true,” she said of her job as a subcontract administration specialist for ULA.
The requests that cross her desk vary widely.
“It ranges from the littlest thing that you wouldn’t even think about as being needed around here to something like even office supplies,” she said. “Anything, really.”
In most instances, planning by various teams gives the purchasers adequate time to acquire the needed item.
“There’s definitely fires that we have to put out sometimes. We just do our best and beg our suppliers to help us the best we can,” she said.
Porshneva is one of the newest members of the ULA purchasing staff, with other members having logged 20 to 25 years on the job. She said she eagerly soaks up their knowledge of the ULA and the industry.
“I love my coworkers. ... All the knowledge and years of experience they have, it’s just amazing how much I learn every day.”
She added, “Every day I say how lucky I am and it’s one of the best decisions I made.”