Joan Higginbotham began her career in 1987 at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, as a Payload Electrical Engineer in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division. Within six months she became the lead for the Orbiter Experiments (OEX) on OV-102, the Space Shuttle Columbia. Later she worked on the Shuttle payload bay reconfiguration for all Shuttle missions. She was also tasked by KSC management to undertake several special assignments where she served as the Executive Staff Assistant to the Director of Shuttle Operations and Management, led a team of engineers in performing critical analysis for the Space Shuttle flow in support of a simulation model tool, and was involved working on an interactive display to show detailed Shuttle processing procedures at Spaceport USA. Higginbotham was promoted to Lead Orbiter Project Engineer for OV-102 after two years as an orbiter project engineer for OV-104, Space Shuttle Atlantis. She held the technical lead government engineering position in the firing room where she supported and managed the integration of vehicle testing and troubleshooting.
Selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in April 1996 Joan Higginbotham reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1996 to begin two years of training and evaluation. Successful completion of initial training will qualify her for various technical assignments leading to selection as a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle flight crew.