Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Kim Kowal Arcand, Science Visualization Lead, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory & Author

10 December, 2017
Kim Kowal Arcand (Image credit: Brittanny Taylor)

Kim Kowal Arcand (Image credit: Brittanny Taylor)

As the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observatory, Kim Kowal Arcand transforms data into stories to communicate about the Universe.

With an impressive background, combining an undergraduate education in molecular biology, and a graduate degree in computer science from Harvard University, Kim talks to Rocket Women about the wonders of NASA’s Chandra Observatory and her crucial role, currently using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), to communicate its findings to the public.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?

I’ve had the pleasure of working for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since 1998, about a year before the spacecraft was launched from Space Shuttle Columbia. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is an X-ray telescope that studies very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and black holes. Operated for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Chandra orbits about one third of the way to the moon at its farthest point from Earth. Scientific and control operations for the observatory are headquartered in Cambridge, MA, where I work.

Operated for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Chandra orbits about one third of the way to the moon at its farthest point from Earth. Scientific and control operations for the observatory are headquartered in Cambridge, MA, where I work.

But I didn’t go to school thinking I would work in the space industry. Like many kids, I suppose, I had wanted to be an astronaut when I was young (quickly realizing I could in no way handle the bumpy launches!). I really enjoyed science however, in all forms. I completed my undergraduate work in molecular biology and then went on to do graduate work in computer science. That background combining biology, physics, chemistry, computer programming, etc., was incredibly helpful in my job working for Chandra.

I use data to tell stories and communicate about the Universe in many different ways. So I transitioned from working with data from a microscope to working with data from a telescope.

As the Visualization Lead for that observatory, I use data to tell stories and communicate about the Universe in many different ways. So I transitioned from working with data from a microscope to working with data from a telescope.

What are your favourite things about your job?

There are a lot of things to love. In this line of work, I get to learn something new each and every day. Right now, I’m learning all about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), as I’ve worked with some collaborators to create our first VR/AR data-driven experience for Chandra of a supernova remnant in our Milky Way. Getting to walk inside a star that exploded 10,000 light years away, based on data that we’ve been collecting for a good number of years from Chandra and additional observatories? Just incredible.

Getting to walk inside a star that exploded 10,000 light years away, based on data that we’ve been collecting for a good number of years from Chandra and additional observatories? Just incredible.

Our work is typically very collaborative. Being able to work with and learn from incredibly bright, interesting people from all across the world is another definite perk.

I’ve learned so much in this job, beyond the scientific/technical aspects, from how to write better, to how to speak better, to how to work through highly complex situations. Those softer skills have really helped me grow into areas I would not have expected – writing popular science books (my fourth one just came out this month), giving a number of public talks around the world, working with scientific diplomacy groups, etc.

Kim Kowal Arcand on the TEDx stage (Image credit: Tracy Karin Prell)

Kim Kowal Arcand on the TEDx stage (Image credit: Tracy Karin Prell)

When you’re having a stressful or bad day, what helps you get through it?

Beyond smaller practical techniques such as keeping an organized digital calendar and a lot of sticky notes, I would say two things help me. One is that my job is flexible, and the other is that it can be creative. So if I’m feeling particularly stressed about a project or situation, I know that I can usually step aside for a bit, and get a little space or perspective. I might use that time to switch to a project that’s more creative leaning until I can figure out the way to approach the other more difficult situation.

Sometimes, when I’m really deep in a stressful project or situation, I try to remind myself that I’m not saving lives in the ER or on an operating table. I love my job, but keeping a reality check is healthy for me.

Also, I have a very, very supportive family. I couldn’t do much without them! The whole “it takes a village” thing is definitely something I believe and am fortunate to have.

Kim presenting on-stage (Image credit: Rudy Montez)

Kim presenting on-stage (Image credit: Rudy Montez)

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?

I didn’t know many women in science or technology when I was young. I was a little bit isolated I think. But I always looked up to my mom. She was a waitress when I was very young but she wanted to be a nurse. I remember sitting with her at our dining table when she was studying anatomy for one of her classes at a local community college. I was really interested in that anatomy book! But I was also so inspired that she could be more than one thing- a mother, a waitress, a student – all at once. She even took me to school with her a few times, and I can remember looking through the bookstore at science texts. She became a nurse’s aide a few years later and enjoyed her job until she retired recently.

I didn’t know it was ok to fail sometimes. I didn’t know where to look for internships and events and organizations and jobs. I tried to read up on my fields and take an educated guess, but I was just stumbling through hoping I would make the right decisions.

It is important to have role models. In high school and college, most of my science and computer science teachers were men. As a first generation college graduate I didn’t have a network in either of these fields. I didn’t know it was ok to fail sometimes. I didn’t know where to look for internships and events and organizations and jobs. I tried to read up on my fields and take an educated guess, but I was just stumbling through hoping I would make the right decisions.

I was very fortunate to land in a job where there was a supportive network growing for women in STEM, from the scientists and administrators to the very astronauts who launched the telescope. I’ve had that personal support for much of my career in a male-dominated field, and I truly appreciate it. I also try to pay it back as much as I can for young women and minoritized groups exploring the field.

Kim Kowal Arcand experiencing VR (Photo credit: Elaine Jiang)

Kim Kowal Arcand experiencing VR (Photo credit: Elaine Jiang)

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

One technical achievement was working on the first 3D printed data-driven model ever created of a supernova remnant, the leftover bits of an exploded star (as mentioned above). 3D models of distant objects in space are difficult to create due to the limitations of the data- they require not only a very large amount of data on the specific object, but also the type of data must provide velocity maps to gauge the depth since we cannot fly to and around such objects ourselves.

The successful data-driven model of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A was the first of its kind and we translated that into a format that can be manipulated in-browser by the user, be printed in 3D, and just recently, be experienced in VR. Such technological applications for astronomical sources have wide applicability for accessibility for users of different needs, for educational purposes for non-experts, as well as new avenues for exploration of data by experts.

One major non-technical moment, however, would be the work we did for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and the follow-up work for the International Year of Light in 2015. These were large-scale public communications efforts to reach out into communities across the world with high-quality science content placed in free or otherwise accessible areas such as malls, metros, airports, cafes, libraries, town squares and even hospitals and a prison.

We worked with grassroots community organizers to translate content into many languages, incorporate local information, culture and perspectives, and ended up reaching many tens of millions of people worldwide. Working with UNESCO, the International Astronomical Union, the international society for optics and photonics, the U.S. Department of State and a number of other groups on these “International Years,” celebrating a common topic, we were able to communicate with so many new people.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

I’m sure I should have some advice for my 10-year-old self, but I’m too much of the mindset that it’s good to learn from your mistakes and it’s okay to fail and learn from that failure. I prefer to look forwards instead of backwards – perhaps that’s somewhat ironic considering how much of astronomy involves looking back in time.

I wanted to save the world when I was young and although I certainly can’t claim that privilege, I have a life of meaning and a career I find worthy of one of the most precious of commodities – time.

Instead, I do tend to think on what my 12-year-old daughter might experience in her possible future career. She currently wants to go into a STEM field, and it’s rather depressing to me that so little seems to have changed since I have been a part of those fields. For her, and all the other children considering how to make an impactful stamp on the world, I would say dream big, think big, look forward, and –when you can – help others do the same. I wanted to save the world when I was young and although I certainly can’t claim that privilege, I have a life of meaning and a career I find worthy of one of the most precious of commodities – time.

Media

Dressing For The Moon: How To Design A Spacesuit At New Scientist Live 2017

22 November, 2017

I was honoured to be speaking at New Scientist Live 2017 in London about how to design a spacesuit for the Moon and the exciting projects being planned by space agencies globally, including the European Space Agency. A big thank you to everyone that came to listen!

The event brought 120+ prominent speakers to London including British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Author Margaret Atwood, Broadcaster & Author Chris Packham, Chef Heston Blumenthal, Scientist & Broadcaster Prof.Alice Roberts and Physicist & Author Sean Carroll to London.

Learn more about my talk Dressing for The Moon: How To Design a Spacesuit here.

Education, Inspiration

Super Cool Scientists – A Colouring Book Celebrating Women In Science

8 October, 2017

Super Cool Scientists Illustration of NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir, by Illustrator Yvonne Page [Super Cool Scientists]

Super Cool Scientists’ Illustration of NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir, by Illustrator Yvonne Page [Super Cool Scientists]

If you’re looking for a birthday present or stocking filler this Christmas, look no further than the brilliant Super Cool Scientists by Sara MacSorley.

Sara has created a masterpiece of stunning illustrations celebrating 22 women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), perfect for your niece, nephew or yourself to colour in! Super Cool Scientists was created to inspire the next generation of science researchers, educators and communicators by showcasing the stories of female engineers, marine biologists, astronauts, artists, entrepreneurs and computer animators.

The book highlights that these incredible women, “travel the world, explore unknown environments and even let fossils take them back in time.” They represent a variety of ages, races, experiences, origins, abilities and orientations; proof that science is for everybody.

Rocket Women talked to Sara MacSorley about how she was inspired to develop Super Cool Scientists!

Rocket Women: What sparked the idea to create Super Cool Scientists, the colouring and story book celebrating women in STEM?

Sara MacSorley: I have a science background – marine biology – and learned in college that I was more interested in the outreach and communication side of science than the research side. Over time, my career path took me further away from science and I missed it. I was looking for a project outside of my day job that brought more science into my life.

I was simultaneously learning how to manage my own issues with anxiety and found coloring was something that helped me relax.

I was simultaneously learning how to manage my own issues with anxiety and found coloring was something that helped me relax. Searching for books that I would like, I found that nothing like this that celebrated current women in science existed.

The lightbulb went on that creating such a book would be the perfect project to bring some science back to my life and also promote the inclusion of diversity in STEM careers.

RW: Name a woman (or women), past or present, whom you admire or look up to?

SM: There are many! Two in particular were my mentors in college that helped me figure out how to continue with a science career when I realized I didn’t want to do research. Dr. Jacqueline Webb was my marine biology advisor at the University of Rhode Island. She guided me to finding work study jobs that focused more on science outreach and communication.

Dr. Sunshine Menezes was one of my bosses at those early work study jobs. She leads the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting and that is where I learned about my interest in science communication and storytelling.

Whenever I’m reassessing my career (to this day), both of these amazing women scientists are there to listen, help make connections if they can, and share their experiences. I am so grateful for their mentorship, and now, friendship.

RW: What is your goal with the second book, which features awesome scientists including astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz?

SM: My goal with the book is to expose young people lots of types of science, technology, engineering, and maths careers. I freaked out in college after I realized I didn’t want to do research because no one had ever told me what else you could do with a science degree.

I want every reader who looks at the book to find something to relate to in the stories and images. The hope there is that by learning more about people who have similar experiences or looks, that young people can also envision themselves in these types of careers.

The original book features the stories of 22 diverse women in a range of careers from astronaut to mechanic to (of course) marine biologist. I want every reader who looks at the book to find something to relate to in the stories and images. The hope there is that by learning more about people who have similar experiences or looks, that young people can also envision themselves in these types of careers.

The second book will feature another 20+ women. This time around, I’d like to feature even more types of careers such as astronomer, software engineer, and climate scientist.

Super Cool Scientists

Super Cool Scientists

Rocket Women: What were your biggest challenges in the development of Super Cool Scientists?

SM: This was totally a new experience for me and all of that was scary. I had never written a book, never launched a crowdfunding campaign, never started a business around a product. I was researching, asking a lot of questions, and learning as I went all while working a separate full time job.

I’d say a combination of time management and also the self-confidence to remind myself that I could be successful were two big challenges. Surrounding myself with cheerleaders (not just of the project, but also of me) was helpful in the confidence piece. My family and friends were so supportive (still are!) and I love them all for that so much.

Now, I can say that I am a small business owner and an author who has run a successful, international crowdfunding campaign.

Rocket Women: Where can readers learn more about Super Cool Scientists and your goals?

SM: Readers can visit www.supercoolscientists.com or my website www.saramacsorley.com to learn more. You can also find us on social media: Twitter @SuperCoolSci and Facebook Super Cool Scientists.

Readers can also share their coloring pages on social media using #supercoolscientists. Seeing the pictures from our readers is my favorite part of the project.

Volume 1 of Super Cool Scientists is available now!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 4

21 September, 2017
Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

In a special four-part feature Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team. NASA’s Orbit1 team remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts safe onboard.

These amazing individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The fourth and last interview in the series, features Natalie Gogins, ‘CRONUS Operator Flight Controller’ at NASA’s Mission Control.

Natalie’s role in NASA’s Mission Control Center is to monitor and configure systems to ensure the astronauts onboard the International Space Station are safe, and the space station itself. She talked to Rocket Women about the challenges that she overcame to become an engineer, her experience of being in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey and sharing her love of space to inspire others!

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry? 

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth. In high school, I volunteered at aviation museums and took private pilot flight lessons. While researching potential college degrees, engineering drew me in. It required using creativity and knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. I chose a school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I started an Engineering Physics (which is a combination of Aeronautical Engineering and Space Physics) degree before I realized I wanted a major with more hands-on courses.

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth.

I switched to Mechanical Engineering with a Robotics focus and, of course, modeled an International Space Station (ISS) robot arm for a class project. During my time at Embry-Riddle, I had internships with NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and The Boeing Company in my home state of Washington. I also got to float in a microgravity simulating plane twice!

These internships and experiences helped me gain confidence in my ability to succeed in “the real world” and allowed me to make connections for my future position. Before starting my career, however, I wanted to get a Master’s degree, so I attended Purdue University as a graduate researcher. Although my thesis work was in the field of hydraulics, I never lost my passion for space, and gladly returned to Johnson Space Center as a more experienced engineer to become a flight controller.

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

What does your average day look like in your role?

My day-to-day tasks vary as a CRONUS (Communications, RF, Onboard Network Utilization Specialist) flight controller. On average, I spend 7 days a month supporting the real-time ISS mission (known as being “on console”) in Houston’s Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1). I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle is healthy, and the mission is accomplished. I also get to work with people in Alabama (USA), Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia.

I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle [International Space Station] is healthy, and the mission is accomplished.

My group works with the computers and audio, video, telemetry, and commanding equipment. One of the best parts about being CRONUS is getting to control our external cameras to capture all kinds of exciting things such as an astronaut on EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), hurricanes, experiments, or spacecraft.

Natalie's Fantastic College Graduation Cap

Natalie’s Fantastic College Graduation Cap

When I’m not on console, I’m back in the office. Right now I’m training to become an Instructor so I can teach CRONUS flight controllers and astronauts and run simulations. Simulations are critical for training as they give uncertified controllers the chance to practice responding to failures and dealing with problems they’ve never seen before. Things in real life never happen or fail in ways you expect, so you have to know how to think on your feet and make the best decision possible.

I’m also privileged to serve as our division’s Morale, Awards, Recognition, and Social (MARS) Team lead. This gives me specific opportunities to use my creativity and organizational skills. It can be easy to get discouraged in an environment where we always evaluate how something can be better next time, but learning and interacting as a team reminds us why we love working at NASA and why we can’t give up on being our best.

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

I was on a 7-day overnight shift throughout Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Texas. This set of shifts is already extremely challenging, but the hurricane made it seem like an unbelievably long week. Based on the weather reports, I wanted to pack everything I might need if I was stuck at NASA for the full 7 days, just in case the roads flooded. I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising. I brought lots of food and water and towels and blankets and drove to work early Friday morning.

I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising.

It didn’t seem like much of a storm until Sunday night. During our normal LOS (loss of signal) with the satellites, when flight controllers get up to use the restroom and grab food, we instead went down to the first floor to check on the parking lot. That night, the water rose to 6” or about 15 cm below my car. Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive it up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive my car up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

NASA's Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

NASA’s Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey?

As the hours and shifts went on, there were so many friends and co-workers with stories of water creeping in to their homes and vehicles. Harvey was forecasted to keep dumping rain on us for days to come. But, we all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We had cots set up in other flight control rooms and even some conference rooms. It almost felt like camping or being back in a college dorm. When the roads were drained enough later in the week, people brought us homemade bread and meals. One of my co-workers edited the Flight Operations patch in honor of our trying week. Instead of ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulty”, it says ad astra per aqua or aquam, “to the stars through water”.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever. And, when we were relaxing after shifts, it was wonderful to see all the people that donated their time and risked their lives to try and rescue others during the storm and then helped clean out flooded homes. Houston was just the place I lived, but now, it truly feels like home.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever.

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

From a personal perspective, Harvey gave me a tiny taste of what life as a first responder or as a soldier might be like (minus feeling like your own life is at risk). You’re away from family and worried about their well-being, yet the only thing you can do is focus on the task in front of you. It’s not like a movie scene with inspirational music and a montage that gets you through the difficult times in 2 min or less. Instead, you do as you were trained and focus on helping those around you.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site. I knew my husband and third floor apartment were safe and my eye mask and earplugs were helping me get enough sleep, so I continued on.

I will forever be thankful for the sacrifice of those around the world who take care of strangers even on the darkest of days, and I hope my minor sacrifice of working all my overnight shifts so someone else didn’t have to helped in some small way. My thoughts and prayers were with those out in the storm, scared and waiting for help.

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

The most rewarding moments in my young career are the times when I overcame a challenge or when I get to share my love for space with others.

Getting an engineering degree was not easy for me; it was the first time in my life that I had to persevere over several years. School had always felt easy to me until I started college. I used to start assignments early so I had enough time to ask the professor questions, go to tutoring, or push through it myself. When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

The other thing I love about my career is that I get to inspire other people. From talking to a 3rd grade class about space travel to volunteering at a career fair, I love to see the look on young faces when they find out I work at NASA. There are so many who want to know about life in space and what’s happening next. I hope that some of them get that same spark of passion for exploration that leads them to STEM fields and maybe even to space.

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

I’m thankful for where my path in life has taken me, but if I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

If I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

Being happy with who you are, or having the bravery to change something for the better, is what matters. It’s worth it to push yourself and fight for what you love, just know that the path toward an extraordinary life is not an easy one. You cannot recognize success without knowing failure.

Natalie’s flight control group also controls the International Space Station’s (ISS) external cameras, and recently supporting this Soyuz docking to the ISS, carrying three astronauts:

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 3

12 September, 2017
Fiona Turett working in NASA's Mission Control Center during Hurricane Harvey

Fiona Turett working in NASA’s Mission Control Center during Hurricane Harvey

Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

The third of this special 4-part series (Part 2 here) features Orbit1’s Fiona Turett, ADCO – Attitude Determination and Control Officer in NASA’s Mission Control. Her job is to manage the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station (ISS) – ‘the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space, what direction it’s facing, and then keeps it where we want it to be’.

Fiona and her colleagues slept in the former NASA Space Shuttle mission control room for days through the hurricane, supporting communication from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants, keeping them safe.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

Both my parents were math professors, and so I grew up with a love for math and for learning in general. We had a small telescope and a few books about stars, but I didn’t know more about stars than the average little kid growing up. The first time I remember specifically being interested in space was in 7th grade. We had to do a project about a topic of our choosing in one of my classes, and I chose the solar system. I found the whole thing fascinating, and ended up going way above the requirements because I was just enjoying it so much – I wrote a short report on each planet and the Sun, and made clay models of each planet to place in a hallway at school to show relative distances and sizes. At that time, I would have said I wanted to be an astrophysicist, though I don’t know I really knew what that means.

My best friend and I spent our spring break at Space Academy in Huntsville, AL. As part of this, we participated in simulated missions. I was an astronaut in one of them, but the one I loved the most was when I was the Flight Director in Mission Control.

The next year, my best friend and I spent our spring break at Space Academy in Huntsville, AL. As part of this, we participated in simulated missions. I was an astronaut in one of them, but the one I loved the most was when I was the Flight Director in Mission Control. As a freshman in high school, I had the chance to join a high school robotics team. We participated both in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and in a local competition where I lived in Michigan called OCCRA (Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association). OCCRA also had a girls-only tournament as one of its competitions, and that was an amazing opportunity to get to be involved in all parts of designing, building, and controlling this approximately 70kg robot playing a strategy game.

I was hooked. I continued to be very involved in robotics throughout my high school career. This convinced me that I wanted to do engineering, not science, but I did still want to connect it back to space. My senior year, I heard about an internship program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD called NASA Robotics Academy. I worked with a team of other interns on improving a therapy robot designed to work with kids with autism at a small company with connections to NASA.

NASA's Hurricane Harvey Operations Team Mission Patch - designed by Fiona

NASA’s Hurricane Harvey Operations Team Mission Patch – designed by Fiona Turett

I then started working on my degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace at Washington University in St. Louis. There, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a nanosatellite project through the Air Force, as well as to fly two experiments on NASA’s Weightless Wonder (also known as the Vomit Comet) airplane. It was an amazing few years of school, with NASA internships each summer. I graduated in 2009 and was offered a job in the Safety and Mission Assurance area of JSC, working with space shuttle propulsion. Two years later, when the shuttle program ended, I was lucky enough to take a year off of work and volunteer in Nicaragua to fulfill some other passions of mine. I came back from there in 2012, and have been working in my current group in MCC ever since!

One thing I love about my job is that there isn’t a typical day! I work with the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station – the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space.

What does your average day look like in your role?

One thing I love about my job is that there isn’t a typical day!  I work with the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station – the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space, what direction it’s facing, and then keeps it where we want it to be. Some days (or nights!) I may be working on console in MCC at the ADCO – Attitude Determination and Control Officer – console, other days I may be teaching astronauts or people who are in training to be flight controllers, and other days I might be running a simulator on the ground. It’s very dynamic. One of my favorite tasks is mentoring our new employees as they work towards their first ADCO certification. Being successful in this role requires both a lot of technical knowledge and a lot of soft skills like teamwork and communication. I love the challenge of helping each individual trainee to achieve their potential, and the joy of celebrating with them when they do.

I actually wasn’t scheduled to be on console for Hurricane Harvey. I was planning for a quiet, wet weekend stuck at my house.

The WFCR (Training Mission Control Room) - now the Flight Control Team's Sleeping quarters

The WFCR (Training Mission Control Room) – now the Flight Control Team’s Sleeping quarters

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

I actually wasn’t scheduled to be on console for Hurricane Harvey. I was planning for a quiet, wet weekend stuck at my house. However, the person scheduled to work Orbit 1 (the night shift) lives about 30 minutes away. He was super proactive and tried to come in over 2 hours before his shift, but the roads were already flooded where he was. I live just a few minutes from NASA, and got a call from my manager at about 9:15pm on Saturday night asking if I could cover the shifts. I had already thrown some clothes in a bag just in case, so I added some food, grabbed my pillow and suitcase, and rushed over to work. The shift didn’t start until 11:30pm, but I could tell the weather was just about to get bad. I am so thankful my coworker was so proactive and tried to come in so early, because I was able to safely get in before the weather got too bad.

With that being the worst night of the storm, no one in Houston slept. Adrenaline definitely kept me awake as we saw more and more reports of flooding around us.

That first night, I was worried about how awake I’d be since I hadn’t been able to sleep shift to prepare for nights. However, with that being the worst night of the storm, no one in Houston slept. Adrenaline definitely kept me awake as we saw more and more reports of flooding around us. FCR-1 (the flight control room we fly ISS from) is in the middle of a big building, and it was a bit surreal because we couldn’t even hear the storm – I never saw it with my own eyes.

That shift, the hardest part was not being too distracted by the surrounding events and being able to focus on ISS operations.

That shift, the hardest part was not being too distracted by the surrounding events and being able to focus on ISS operations. After that, I set up a cot in the front of the WFCR (where we flew Shuttle from – now we use it for training) and tried to sleep. That’s basically how the 4 days went – work the shift, try to get as much rest as possible, and try to check on friends and family without losing focus on work. I was lucky to have two other people from my discipline also in the building, so we were able to trade off either at normal shift handover times or whenever needed to make sure folks were as rested as possible.

That’s basically how the 4 days went – work the shift, try to get as much rest as possible, and try to check on friends and family without losing focus on work.

The whole experience was a bit surreal. But, as I told my mom on the phone one day during it, I was probably in the safest place I could possibly be, and I was dry. I tell people who try to thank me for what I did that the people who they should thank are the first responders and folks who were out rescuing people. They put their life on the line. I simply did my job in order to make sure ISS was safe, and allow the rest of Houston to focus on the hard work.

Cards with well-wishes from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to the Mission Control Team and Astronauts

Cards with well-wishes from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to the Mission Control Team and Astronauts

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey? 

The hardest part for me was definitely maintaining focus. It’s very important to be focused on the task at hand when on console, because we have to be ready to react in an instant if there is a malfunction in order to keep the crew and vehicle safe. Usually, it’s not hard for me to be focused on console, but it was really hard during Harvey. I constantly had other worries – wondering what the latest alert on my phone would say, wondering the status of my house, wondering if all my friends were safe and dry. It was hard to put that all aside. I was able to do it while on console because that’s my job, but I will say that I didn’t sleep well during the days because my mind was just racing and I kept wanting to check in on people. My roommate did an amazing job keeping me updated on the status of the house and checking for any issues, which was a huge relief. It would have been much more stressful if she hadn’t been home and able to give me updates.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

Probably both. One thing I have always loved about my job is the shared mission and the teamwork, as well as the high standards each person is held to. This experience just made me appreciate that even more. We have a document called the Foundations of Flight Control, which is the basis for how a flight control must act – tough, competent, responsible, etc. I saw my colleagues demonstrate every single one of those virtues during Harvey. Nobody complained, nobody shirked their responsibility. It was an amazing display of teamwork, and just strengthened my admiration for the whole MCC team and my gratitude for having the opportunity to do this job.

Personally, the experience of being at MCC just helped me realize how important each small piece of the puzzle is. In the grand scheme of Houston and what Harvey did, the work I did was miniscule, but it was important and my duty was to do it. I appreciate the importance of doing the task assigned to me well even if it feels insignificant even more than I did before. I also had a really cool experience corresponding with a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL during my time in MCC.

A friend of mine who also works at NASA was visiting her fiancé, and his sister teaches this class. When they were talking about the storm at school, she told her students that people were staying in Mission Control around the clock to keep ISS safe during the storm. The kids wanted to make some cards, which my friend sent to me. I was able to forward them to everyone else staying in MCC as well as the astronauts on ISS, and I think the well-wishes brightened all of our days. I wrote a letter back to them the next day to thank them. I hope that we were able to inspire some of the students, and I am constantly grateful to be in a position to interact with kids and help them dream big.

Messages of good luck from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to NASA's Mission Control Team in Houston and Astronauts on-board the ISS

Messages of good luck from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to NASA’s Mission Control Team in Houston and Astronauts on-board the ISS

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

This is a hard question because I seriously love my job and find a lot of it rewarding. One of the most rewarding, though, was changing the way we did Soyuz undockings in order to be more efficient with propellant usage, and then seeing that be executed successfully and bring astronauts home safely. It’s cool to see the little marks we can leave on the space program, and I hope I’ve been able to make the ISS a little better in the past five years. Of course, working Soyuz undocking and landing shifts is very rewarding because they end with three people safely back on planet Earth.

Working Soyuz undocking and landing shifts is very rewarding because they end with three people safely back on planet Earth.

The former NASA Space Shuttle Flight Control Room where the Mission Control Team slept in cots, to keep the International Space Station flying during Hurricane Harvey

The former NASA Space Shuttle Flight Control Room where the Mission Control Team slept in cots, to keep the International Space Station flying during Hurricane Harvey

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

Oh gosh – I think 10 year old me probably could have used a lot of advice! :) If I had to pick one piece, I’d say don’t lose sight of the people involved in whatever you do. I have found that every rewarding part of my career has involved other people either working with me on a team, working on something to help other people, or helping other people in their own career or life. I love engineering and I’ve always been super curious about the world around me, but keeping the focus on the people is what makes it rewarding and makes you easier to work with and more likely to network with the right people.

I designed a patch (the motto, “to the stars through water” is courtesy of our Flight Director Anthony Vareha) for our Hurricane Harvey Ops Team. NASA’s big into mission patches, and this experience sure felt like a mission. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates for our mission this past week.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 2

8 September, 2017

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA's Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA’s Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

In a special four-part feature, Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

These resilient individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The second interview in this series features Jessica Tramaglini. Jessica’s role is to manage the International Space Station’s Power and External Thermal Control or ‘SPARTAN’ in NASA’s Mission Control Center.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

We have such a diverse group of people who work in Mission Control in Houston who come from a variety of backgrounds. I personally attended college to study aerospace engineering, receiving a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University and then started working here. I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.

What does your average day look like in your role?

One of the best parts about my role is that there is really no ‘average’ day. Each day brings new and exciting challenges, such as training new flight controllers, working with other groups to update procedures and flight rules, and of course, working console.

Our goal on-console [in Mission Control] was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle [International Space Station] working

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan  [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting
Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
[Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

Our goal on console was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle working, minimizing any complicated tasks that could be postponed. The amount of support we received from each other and from people outside checking in on us was amazing.

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from Mission Control in Houston during Hurricane Harvey?

Especially working the overnight shift where I had to try to sleep during the day, staying in touch with family to let them know I was safe, and keeping in touch with friends who were experiencing flooding was difficult. Once you sat down to console for your shift, you had to block all of that out and focus on the job.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

This experience has just reinforced what a special group of people I have the honor of working with. They are incredibly supportive, organized, and everyone steps up to help when they are able.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I really can’t pick one single moment, but watching flight controllers you have trained succeed, and working console for Soyuz undockings are extremely rewarding opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it. Goals can’t be achieved without taking a risk. You may stumble along the way, but learn from your experiences and keep your eye on the prize.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Rocket Women In Mission Control That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey

3 September, 2017

The Orbit1 Flight Control Team: Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini [Source: Twitter https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

The Orbit1 Flight Control Team: Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini [Source: Twitter https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

As the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey unfolded in Houston, a dedicated team in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center battled the storm to tirelessly ensure that International Space Station operations continued and that the astronauts onboard the space station remained safe. These amazing individuals showed resilience by literally sleeping in Mission Control for days throughout the storm, ensuring that communications from the ground to the space station remained online. The Orbit1 team (one team of three) pictured consisted of Dorothy Ruiz, Natalie Gogins, Fiona Turett, Jessica Tramaglini and Flight Director Anthony Vareha.

Rocket Women was fortunate to talk to these amazing individuals about the challenges they faced to keep Mission Control online. The first interview in a series featuring the resilient Orbit1 team highlights Dorothy Ruiz, Ground Control, whose cruicial role it is to keep Mission Control connected to the International Space Station through satellite communications. Dorothy’s story is particularly inspiring. She chased her dream to work in space, coming from a family of migrant workers, overcoming obstacles that took her from a small town in the desert to Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry? 

I grew up with my Grandparents in central Mexico in a small town of Matehuala, located in the desert of state of San Luis Potosí.  At that time, the town had about 140,000 habitants. Almost every night, I would admire the stars in the sky from the roof of my Grandparent’s house.  We were a family of migrant workers, so we would travel to the U.S. every summer to work on the fields of North America.

Every night, I would admire the stars in the sky from the roof of my Grandparent’s house.  We were a family of migrant workers, so we would travel to the U.S. every summer to work on the fields of North America.

One day, someone came to speak to us about space at the school for kids of migrant workers, and even though I didn’t understand much of what was going on due to the language barrier, I did get to see some space objects. Even though this was a limited exposure to what NASA was all about, I became more curious and intrigued about space.

Working in the fields, there was not much hope for ever launching a career in space, or any career at all.  My Grandma only went to 3rd grade, and Grandpa was only able to finish elementary school.

Working in the fields, there was not much hope for ever launching a career in space, or any career at all.  My Grandma only went to 3rd grade, and Grandpa was only able to finish elementary school. So the outlook for me as far as reaching a higher education, was not that great. However, there was an event that changed my destiny in 1986: the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. I was standing in front of the TV watching the replayed images of the failed ascent and the explosion.  I had many questions in my mind, such as how does the space shuttle work, how does it take men to space, why did it explode?

Back in my hometown, I didn’t have many answers to my questions from the people who surrounded me; this became a personal quest to search for these answers. I was determined to one day, pursue a career in space exploration.  My interest in math and science deepened in school. I finished 9th grade in Mexico, and moved to Houston.  I started at McArthur High School, and graduated from Humble High School with honors. I was offered scholarships at the University of Oklahoma and started pursuing a degree in Aerospace Engineering, however, the school of Aerospace Engineering was canceled due to lack of interest and funding (there were only 20 men enrolled, and only 1 girl, me).

I landed my first job at NASA as an Astronaut Instructor for the Guidance Control and Propulsion Systems of the Space Shuttle. As I certified in my first lesson as an Instructor, I realized, I had already found the answers to all the questions I had as a little girl.  It was the closing chapter of a journey of curiosity and exploration.

We were given the choice to merge into Mechanical Engineering, or transfer to another school.  I transferred to Texas A&M University, and graduated with the class of 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering. During my college years, I was an intern with the NASA Langley Aerospace Scholars, and then I started a co-op rotation with United Space Alliance at Johnson Space Center.  The funny thing is, I landed my first job at NASA JSC as an Astronaut Instructor for the Guidance Control and Propulsion Systems of the Space Shuttle.  I am not sure if it was coincidence, but as I certified in my first lesson as an Instructor, I realized, I had already found the answers to all the questions I had as a little girl.  It was the closing chapter of a journey of curiosity and exploration.

We keep the ground connected to the International Space Station via satellite communications.

Dorothy Ruiz in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center during Hurricane Harvey. (Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072)

Dorothy Ruiz in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center during Hurricane Harvey. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

What does your average day look like in your role?

I am currently Ground Control, better known as Houston GC. We are the house keepers of the Mission Control Center (MCC), and we monitor the integrity of the signal communications processed between MCC Houston to White Sands, and to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). Big picture, we keep the ground connected to the International Space Station via satellite communications.  We usually support console operations one week and one weekend per month, including shifts requiring extra support, such as space vehicle docking/undocking, space vehicle launches, and step-ups (we disconnect the ground from the International Space Station (ISS) for software upgrades).

Other routine tasks include: processing and routing all video and audio coming from the ISS, privatizing video and audio crew conferences, routing ISS telemetry to the rest of the flight controllers, routing data to our international partners, and supporting simulations. The rest of the time is spent in the office, working on projects, although to be honest, this is quite a luxury, GCs are hardly in the office, since we are so busy all the time.

Only essential personnel and Flight Controllers were riding out the storm in MCC supporting space operations, and most of us were camping out due to the heavy rains and the flooding. I decided to camp out since Sunday morning to start to sleep shift, so I brought pillows, covers, toiletries, extra clothes, and extra food.

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey? 

I started to support Orbit1 console operations in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey on Sunday night of August 27th. Only essential personnel and Flight Controllers were riding out the storm in MCC supporting space operations, and most of us were camping out due to the heavy rains and the flooding. I decided to camp out since Sunday morning to start to sleep shift, so I brought pillows, covers, toiletries, extra clothes, and extra food.

Prior to the hurricane, we were given access to the crew sleeping quarters in case we needed to sleep there, however, hardly anyone went there due to the heavy rain on JSC campus (the crew sleeping quarters are not nearby MCC). Instead, cots were placed all over MCC: Simulator rooms, other MCC control centers such as the Blue FCR and the White FCR, and ground control support areas for maintenance personnel and other controllers who support Houston GC.

I live close by, but it wasn’t safe to drive back home. I can say it was not the most comfortable thing to sleep in the cots, however, I was grateful to have a place to stay while others were not so fortunate.

Mine was in a GC backroom, where we schedule the satellite time in support of ISS operations, so I decided to make it my sleeping quarters for privacy. I live close by, but it wasn’t safe to drive back home. I can say it was not the most comfortable thing to sleep in the cots, however, I was grateful to have a place to stay while others were not so fortunate. I did get to go home once it stopped raining to freshen up, but I heard other Flight Controllers were using the showers in a building next to MCC. Some of my colleagues who support Ground operations didn’t get to go home at all because they live across town; it was too unsafe to navigate through flooded roads.

Other Flight Controllers were not relieved, because the Flight Controllers coming to support the shift, got stuck on the roads or their houses got flooded. So, you can imagine how tired everyone was.

Other Flight Controllers were not relieved, because the Flight Controllers coming to support the shift, got stuck on the roads or their houses got flooded. So, you can imagine how tired everyone was. Also, some etiquette rules were lifted for frozen foods in the refrigerators– all the frozen food there was fair game if someone didn’t have any food to eat. Is that considered looting? Ha, ha. Luckily, we had potable water all the time, backup electricity, internet, and the most important thing:  coffee!!!

During my down time, while I was not supporting console operations, I would check on my family by phone to make sure they were okay, provide statuses to friends and family members who were worried, catch up on work, do walkthroughs of MCC [Mission Control Center], check on our support personnel and, of course, watch the news over the internet.

It was hard to see how people were flooding out there, the rescue efforts, the stories; it was quite an emotional time to be there and not be able to go out to help others; there was this feeling of impotence.  However, we had a mission of our own to accomplish, and a darn big one: to keep MCC safe, and to keep supporting human spaceflight.

It was hard to see how people were flooding out there, the rescue efforts, the stories; it was quite an emotional time to be there and not be able to go out to help others; there was this feeling of impotence.  However, we had a mission of our own to accomplish, and a darn big one: to keep MCC safe, and to keep supporting human spaceflight. On the bright side of things, there was time for bonding between all of us, some stories to share, and an opportunity to know people through their personal stories. We also witnessed the generosity from others, who cooked meals in their houses, and brought the food to MCC so we could eat home-made meals and fruit. We saw messages of encouragement from Astronaut Peggy Whitson, and from kids in Chicago who sent us drawings thanking us for the time and sacrifice riding out the storm at MCC.

Dorothy Ruiz in her sleeping quarters during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom, where satellite time is scheduled in support of ISS operations. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Dorothy Ruiz in her sleeping quarters during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom, where satellite time is scheduled in support of ISS operations. [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Did you volunteer to be on-console for the weekend or were contingency plans in place?

It just happened it was the week of the month for me to support graveyard shifts in MCC.  Oh lucky me!

The crew [onboard the ISS] was updated on a regular basis.  However, I don’t think they realized the Flight Control Team was riding out the storm –not until they somehow found out we were sleeping in cots.  That’s when we got a message from Peggy [NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson].  Certainly, the message was encouraging to read.

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey? Were the onboard crew given regular updates as to the situation in Houston?

The crew was updated on a regular basis. However, I don’t think they realized the Flight Control Team was riding out the storm –not until they somehow found out we were sleeping in cots. That’s when we got a message from Peggy. Certainly, the message was encouraging to read. As Houston-GC, the hardest part about this was making sure the MCC building was in good conditions. At some point, we had to keep track of all the leaks going on in MCC. This was a concern, because some of the leaks could affect our equipment processing the signal coming into MCC, or going out to the ISS for that matter.

We lost some power in MCC at some point, so the hallways were dark. We also had to improvise and plan-ahead in preparation for the Soyuz undocking, since we lost some of our video routing capabilities due to flooding in the building that processes video.

We had to make a list, and revise the list every few hours to provide update to Flight and the whole team.  We lost some power in MCC at some point, so the hallways were dark. We also had to improvise and plan-ahead in preparation for the Soyuz undocking, since we lost some of our video routing capabilities due to flooding in the building that processes video.

I must say, I feel proud of the Ground Control Team, such as the Network Communications Officer, the Communications Technicians, the Support Center, the Security Officer, the Johnson TV crew, and the maintenance personnel who were making round checks all over the building, vacuuming out water, reporting to us on the status of the building, and sleeping between breaks; these are the folk who didn’t get to go home.

I never heard them complain about anything, they were just proudly doing their jobs with much dedication despite the circumstances and despite being away from their loved ones. They are the real heroes of this story.

I never heard them complain about anything, they were just proudly doing their jobs with much dedication despite the circumstances and despite being away from their loved ones. They are the real heroes of this story. The maintenance personnel were making sure the MCC building was safe so we could do our jobs, along with the security guards at the JSC campus, and others who stayed to protect other facilities. These guys are the epitome of what ground control operations is all about: dedication and toughness, especially in tough times.

These guys are the epitome of what ground control operations is all about: dedication and toughness, especially in tough times.

Dorothy Ruiz's sleeping quarters at Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom where satellite time is usually scheduled [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Dorothy Ruiz’s sleeping quarters at Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey, a Ground Control backroom where satellite time is usually scheduled [Copyright: Dorothy Ruiz. Source: https://twitter.com/DorothyRuiz/status/903259274004099072]

Did the MCC-H [Mission Control Center Houston] team consider to activate the Backup Advisory Team (BAT) [a way to remotely connect to Mission Control] or transfer operations to Hunstville [where the Backup Control Centre is based] during this period? 

It was considered at some point, but it was a difficult decision to make due to the uncertainty of the path of the hurricane.  In retrospect, no one could foresee the great impact of the hurricane in Houston, especially with the flooding. This has been a one in a lifetime event. However, part of the Backup Control Center (BCC) was activated due to damage to the building that processes the ISS video coming to MCC.  We configured some of our equipment in MCC so the video could be archived in Huntsville.

We are not just the House Keepers of MCC, but also a life boat.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

This experience has changed me in both ways. I appreciate even more the job we do as Ground Controllers, now I can really say, we are not just the House Keepers of MCC, but also a life boat. Those who underestimate the contributions of ground control operations as a team to manned space flight and space exploration should seek a different perspective, and take a closer look at what we do to keep MCC safe and operational so everyone can do their job.  We not only keep the ground connected to the ISS, we also keep it floating.

I would never imagine one day, I would be here sleeping in cots, making sure MCC is safe and Mission Operations are safe, to keep human spaceflight going.  This for sure will be a story to tell my grandkids one day, what a story.

Personally, I appreciate getting to know other colleagues while sharing the stories of strength and struggle during such turbulent days. I would never imagine one day, I would be here sleeping in cots, making sure MCC is safe and Mission Operations are safe, to keep human spaceflight going.  This for sure will be a story to tell my grandkids one day, what a story.

It is my personal quest to inspire those who like me, had life struggles growing up, and could never imagine becoming an Engineer or working at such a great place like NASA. However, with this recent experience, it is my hope, we inspire others with our work ethic:  Dedication, Toughness and Competence.  That’s what we embody, that’s who we are.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

The most rewarding thing in my career has been to inspire others with all the work we do at NASA, and it is my personal quest to inspire those who like me, had life struggles growing up, and could never imagine becoming an Engineer or working at such a great place like NASA. However, with this recent experience, it is my hope, we inspire others with our work ethic:  Dedication, Toughness and Competence.  That’s what we embody, that’s who we are.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Record-Breaking Rocket Woman NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson Returns To Earth

3 September, 2017
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson During A Spacewalk or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) (Source: NASA)

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson During A Spacewalk or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) (Source: NASA)

Rocket Woman NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth on Sunday 3rd September, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months – 4 months longer than most astronauts assigned to missions onboard the International Space Station. With today’s culmination of her third long-duration spaceflight, the biochemist has now spent a record breaking 665 days in space!

Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008 and her cumulative time in space now makes her the most experienced NASA Astronaut ever, smashing NASA Astronaut Jeff Williams’ 534 day record and NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly’s 520 days in space. Only seven Russian men remain ahead of Peggy Whitson in the space experience stakes, with time onboard both the ISS & the Mir space station.

During her recent mission she additionally completed her 10th spacewalk, collating over 60 hours of spacewalk time, making her the third most experienced spacewalker ever (and surpassing Sunita Williams’ record as the most experienced female spacewalker). Two astronauts remain ahead of her: Russian Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez Alegria. Peggy Whitson is also the oldest woman to fly, at 57.

Peggy Whitson, her crewmate Jack Fisher along with any returning ISS science samples will travel to the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne from Kazakhstan for a stopover, before travelling directly to Houston on Sunday evening.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returning to Earth, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months (Source: Still image taken from NASA TV)

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returning to Earth, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months (Source: Still image taken from NASA TV)

Peggy and her colleagues undocked their Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft at 5:58 pm EDT & landed in Kazakhstan at 9:22 pm EDT (7:22 a.m. 3rd Sept, Kazakhstan time). Watch Peggy’s return to Earth again at NASA TV. At Rocket Women we’re excited for Peggy’s return to Earth today!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Elizabeth Jens, Propulsion Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

29 August, 2017
Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

From stepping out of her coastal home in Australia, without a national space agency or obvious space centre to contact, Elizabeth Jens forged her own path to reach her goal of working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. She talks to Rocket Women about how she was inspired to begin her journey to NASA and the challenges she overcame along the way.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

The path to where I am now was a little circuitous. If you had asked me where I wanted to work as a child I would have told you NASA, and by the time I was an undergraduate I would have told you the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). So, the twists and turns that I had to take were not for lack of a vision, but more from lack of a clear path to get there.

This lack of a clear path meant that after completing two undergraduate degrees I spent some time travelling, some time working full time in my local sushi shop, some time working as a management consultant, and some time attending the summer space studies program of the International Space University before eventually commencing my graduate studies at Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

During graduate school, I was initially disheartened by the difficulty applying for any USA space-related job as a foreign national. On a whim, and knowing that foreigners were unlikely to be allowed to apply, I attended a recruiting event for JPL. It was that event that allowed me to secure an internship at JPL in the same group with whom I currently work.

The path to where I am now was a little circuitous. If you had asked me where I wanted to work as a child I would have told you NASA, and by the time I was an undergraduate I would have told you the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). So, the twists and turns that I had to take were not for lack of a vision, but more from lack of a clear path to get there.

What does your average day look like in your role?
My days are actually pretty varied. At work, I share my time between working on a subsystem for the next Mars rover and developing a small propulsion system to enable stand-alone interplanetary SmallSat missions. For the rover, I work with a broad range of people, a lot of my time goes into system engineering and communicating between various teams.

I share my time between working on a subsystem for the next Mars rover and developing a small propulsion system to enable stand-alone interplanetary SmallSat missions.

I’m also responsible for understanding and modelling the physics of my subsystem so I spend some time coding as well as some time with hardware running tests. My work on the SmallSat propulsion system is with a much smaller team. Together we work on designing the rocket (both at a high level conceptually and then all the way through to detailed design), running tests where we hot-fire the rocket to understand how it performs, analyzing test data, modelling the performance under various operating conditions, and integrating our results into high-level trades for various potential missions.

On any given day I might be sitting at a computer with a screen full of code and surrounded by text books, working to assemble hardware, talking to vendors about flight components, in a series of meetings with teams working on the rover, or running rocket hot-fires.

Thus, on any given day I might be sitting at a computer with a screen full of code and surrounded by text books, working to assemble hardware, talking to vendors about flight components, in a series of meetings with teams working on the rover, or running rocket hot-fires.

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?
I think role models are hugely important to everyone, regardless of age or gender. I was lucky enough to have great parents and siblings as role models, and then as I got older to have great teachers, coaches, and professors.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?
The most rewarding moment was when I received my PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University. The process to be admitted to the PhD at Stanford involved some grueling qualifying exams so making it through them, and then going on to achieve my research goals was extremely rewarding.

What I find helps me when I’m really stressed is carving out time on the weekend to get away on some adventure by the coast or in mountains.

When you’re having a stressful and bad day, what helps you get through it?
A good latte… Actually, what I find helps me when I’m really stressed is carving out time on the weekend to get away on some adventure by the coast or in mountains. I am into whitewater kayaking and I love the fact that when you are in the middle of a rapid you have to be completely focused on the moment, there is no time to think about whatever else might be going on. I find that really beneficial when I’m stressed as a day on the river is a day completely disconnected from my worries; I always return to the city feeling refreshed.

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

What else did you want to be when you were growing up?
An astronaut. I was pretty set on wanting to go to space from a young age.

I found it really challenging trying to navigate a path to the space industry from my coastal hometown in Australia. There was no clear path to a career in the space industry back then, as Australia had no space agency or obvious center to contact.

Were there any obstacles on your path to working in the space industry?
Absolutely, I found it really challenging trying to navigate a path to the space industry from my coastal hometown in Australia. There was no clear path to a career in the space industry back then, as Australia had no space agency or obvious center to contact.

It was particularly difficult as I did not have dual-citizenship so moving to another country to work in the space industry was not an easy option. In the end, it worked out for me largely because of sheer determination mixed with a good dose of luck and a lot of support from colleagues. The challenge is that the technology used for space exploration can also be applied to the military, so it is very difficult to work in the field as a foreigner.

What are your favourite things about being a Propulsion Engineer?
I love the variability in my job. I like the fact that I continue to learn, have challenging problems, and believe in the projects that I am working on. I am passionate about space exploration and I love contributing to that effort.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
Don’t let the set-backs worry you, it will all work out.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sarah Cruddas, Space Journalist, Broadcaster & Author

20 August, 2017
Sarah Cruddas with SpaceShipOne, the spaceplane that won the Ansari X Prize

Sarah Cruddas with SpaceShipOne, the spaceplane that won the Ansari X Prize

Sarah Cruddas has been passionate about space since she was young. With a background in astrophysics and experience as a Weather Presenter and Science Correspondent for the BBC, Sarah now aims to communicate her advocacy for space to the public. Sarah is the face of space on British TV, featured on channels including Sky News, ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, along with National Geographic and the Discovery Channel in the US. Sarah is also an author and recently published her first children’s book ‘Find Out! Solar System’ [Solar System (DKfindout!)], with her second book, ‘Did You Know? Space: Amazing Answers to More than 200 Awesome Questions!‘ to be released next month! She talks to Rocket Women about her journey in the space industry and how she was inspired to communicate the importance of space exploration.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now? 

I cannot remember a time when space was not my passion. From looking up at the Moon as a child, to learning about the Apollo missions, watching shuttle launches and gazing at the stars. For me I cannot understand how you cannot be interested in space. My degree is in astrophysics, but I decided I wanted to tell stories about space as that’s where my skills lie.

I worked as a Journalist, Weather Presenter and later Science Correspondent for the BBC, before venturing back to space in my current role. The official title of what I do now, is Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author. This means I wear many hats, writing about space, working on screen on various TV channels talking about space and also travelling the globe giving talks about why space exploration matters.

Sarah Cruddas with her second book, 'Did you know? Space!'

Sarah Cruddas with her second book, ‘Did you know? Space!’

Congratulations on the publication of your children’s book ‘Find Out! Solar System’ [Solar System (DKfindout!)] and the upcoming second book Did You Know? Space: Amazing Answers to More than 200 Awesome Questions! How were you inspired to write the books?

I have always wanted to write books about space, but about a years ago Dorling Kindersley approached me to write a kids book. That book did really well and featured the likes of Alan Stern, the man behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and Piers Sellers – if you haven’t heard of him, look him up and be inspired! I was then asked to write a second book, which is released in September 2017 and now I have a lovely agent and am working on some very exciting book projects, which I can’t talk about just yet.

But the goal is to inspire people about space and why it all really matters.

We have to remember that to date fewer than 600 people have been to space. 600 on a planet of 7 billion.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges that human spaceflight faces in the near future?
Great question. There are many challenges. Not least of which, what will happen next after the ISS.

We have to remember that to date fewer than 600 people have been to space. 600 on a planet of 7 billion. One of the biggest challenges is cost. It is still hugely expensive to travel into space. That makes space less accessible. We are seeing private companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX work to develop rocket reusability. This will help to reduce the cost of going to space.

But money isn’t the only issue. There is the impact on physical and mental health for astronauts, as we look towards missions to Mars we need to know more about how the body can survive in zero gravity for a long amount of time. As well as the impact psychologically of being in confinement on a long duration mission. There are also issues such as food and water, even clothing for longer duration space missions. However, there are a lot of smart people working the problem. Just because it seems impossible now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way.

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

I had so many role models when I was growing up. I was a child in the 1990s, but I read so much about Apollo, that I was completely inspired by the astronauts. Gus Grissom and Pete Conrad were always my favorites. They might not have been as well known, but both played a huge part in getting America to the Moon. Also female astronauts such as Judith Resnik and Rhea Seddon were a huge inspiration to me. I think role models are important for anyone growing up. They inspire you to strive to be the best you can be.

Sarah Cruddas, Space Broadcaster & Author

Sarah Cruddas, Space Broadcaster & Author

I left a steady job at the BBC to follow my dreams for space. I think taking risk is a good thing and you never know what is going to happen on the way. I have worked with astronauts and billionaires and have met some of the most powerful people in the world.

What else did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be an astronaut. I still do. I was convinced I would be on the first crewed mission to Mars, but I think the timing is wrong with that one. One thing for sure it that I don’t think you should ever count yourself out – I learned that from working with Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the Moon, so who knows what the future holds!

I like to follow Jeff Bezos’ moto of ‘regret minimization’ when thinking about my next step. But don’t get me wrong it’s hard to forge your own path and go against the norm, but that’s also the excitement!

What are your favourite things about your job?

That it has enabled me to take risks in my life. I left a steady job at the BBC to follow my dreams for space. I think taking risk is a good thing and you never know what is going to happen on the way. I have worked with astronauts and billionaires and have met some of the most powerful people in the world. I have also been to the Congo, North Korea and Tibet (to name but a few) and have seen the diversity and often unfair balance on our own planet.

I like to follow Jeff Bezos’ moto of ‘regret minimization’ when thinking about my next step. But don’t get me wrong it’s hard to forge your own path and go against the norm, but that’s also the excitement!

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

I think the Space Industry is making some hugely positive strides. Of course there is still more to be done, but it is getting there.

Of course I have things I wish I had done differently, I have highs and lows just like the next person. But my number one piece of advice would be not to worry. I am a terrible worrier. Yet things always seem to work out, even when you don’t think they will. Something will just come along and surprise you.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

That’s an interesting question. Of course I have things I wish I had done differently, I have highs and lows just like the next person. But my number one piece of advice would be not to worry. I am a terrible worrier. Yet things always seem to work out, even when you don’t think they will. Something will just come along and surprise you. That is the beauty of life!