Browsing Tag

Mars

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Tanya Harrison, Director of Research, New Space Initiative, Arizona State University

23 July, 2017
Tanya Harrison Operating Mars Rovers

Tanya Harrison Operating A Martian Rover

From operating NASA’s rovers on Mars, to leading commercial New Space initiatives and even discussing Martian weather on The Weather Channel, Tanya Harrison’s stellar career has been inspirational. She told Rocket Women what inspires her to push further each day.

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

I’ve been interested in space since I was five years old, after seeing the film “Big Bird in Japan”. In the film, Big Bird meets Haguya-hime, a princess from the Moon in Japanese folklore. After seeing that I went outside nearly every night to stare at the stars and the Moon. Star Trek was also a *big* influence as I got slightly older. But the focus on Mars specifically started with the Pathfinder mission in 1997. NASA released an animated GIF of the little Sojourner rover driving off the Pathfinder lander onto the surface of Mars. The thought that we were driving a rover around remotely on another planet absolutely fascinated me.

NASA released an animated GIF of the little Sojourner rover driving off the Pathfinder lander onto the surface of Mars. The thought that we were driving a rover around remotely on another planet absolutely fascinated me.

A couple of years later, NASA announced a program called the Mars Millennium Project. The goal of the project was for student teams to design a colony on Mars in the year 2030. Being an introvert (at the time), I undertook the project alone. Through it I ended up connecting with my local chapter of The Mars Society in Seattle. The folks there were really enthusiastic in helping to nurture my interest in Mars, connecting me with local aerospace companies for job shadowing opportunities and getting me on panels at science fiction conventions in the area.

They ended up paying for me to attend the 3rd International Mars Society Conference in Toronto to present my Mars Millennium Project work. Even though I was super shy and read most of my speech off a piece of notebook paper with hand-drawn transparencies as my slides (this was sort of before the era of PowerPoint), that experience really solidified to me that this was what I wanted to do as a career.

In college, I started out as a dual astronomy and physics major because I thought, “Planets are in space, so I should be an astronomer!” It wasn’t until near the end of my junior year that I learned I should’ve actually gone into geology if I wanted to study Mars.

In college, I started out as a dual astronomy and physics major because I thought, “Planets are in space, so I should be an astronomer!” It wasn’t until near the end of my junior year that I learned I should’ve actually gone into geology if I wanted to study Mars. However, I didn’t want to switch majors so far along in my program, so instead I ended up shifting to geology for my masters and Ph.D.

Tanya Harrison

Tanya Harrison

RW: What does your average day look like in your role?

My time is split between doing research on martian surface geology, participating in planning and operations for the Opportunity and Mars 2020 rovers, and working as Director of Research for Arizona State University’s (ASU) Space Technology and Science (“NewSpace”) Initiative.

My role for ASU NewSpace involves meeting with representatives from commercial space companies (companies like Blue Origin, Planet, Bigelow Aerospace, etc.), often at conferences. Our goal is to create academic-commercial partnerships to work together on space-related projects for NASA, the DoD, Department of Energy, you name it. So, I essentially play matchmaker between professors on campus and commercial companies where I see good fits, and pass along information on funding opportunities as I come across them. I also write proposals for my own research in this vein.

I spend a lot of my day “driving” around the planet in the Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing (JMARS) software package. This is freely available software developed at ASU that lets you browse images from pretty much every body in the Solar System for which we have data!

For Mars research, I spend a lot of my day “driving” around the planet in the Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing (JMARS) software package. This is freely available software developed at ASU that lets you browse images from pretty much every body in the Solar System for which we have data! My area of expertise is geomorphology—a fancy term for looking at the shapes of features to determine how they formed.

When it comes to Mars rover operations, I spend time on telecons at least a couple of days per week. Once a week, there is a roundup of Opportunity’s latest results and our plans for the near future. There’s also a weekly meeting right now for the Mars 2020 rover as we try to develop our operational plans and determine where we want to land. There are currently 4 candidate landing sites, which we’re working to narrow down over the next year-ish to our final site of choice.

As a child and young adult, my biggest role model was Stephen Hawking. After a few years of slowly losing some of my ability to walk from crippling pain and joint stiffness, I was diagnosed with a rare degenerative autoimmune disorder called Ankylosing Spondylitis.

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

As a child and young adult, my biggest role model was Stephen Hawking. After a few years of slowly losing some of my ability to walk from crippling pain and joint stiffness, I was diagnosed with a rare degenerative autoimmune disorder called Ankylosing Spondylitis. I spent a lot of time in junior high through my undergrad in and out of wheelchairs or using other assistive devices, and spent a lot of time in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Whenever I would get really down on myself about being able to follow my science dreams, I would think about Stephen Hawking and told myself that if he could be such a high profile scientist with such a debilitating illness, I could definitely keep pushing along.

Donna Shirley was also a big role model once my interests focused specifically on Mars. She led the Mars Pathfinder mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and for a time was the manager of NASA’s entire Mars Exploration Program. I read her book Managing Martians as a teenager and dreamt of following in her footsteps.

Tanya Harrison

Tanya Harrison

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

Sometimes you just need to disconnect and decompress. I’ll shut off my phone, grab a book, and just read for awhile. If I’m at work, I might leave my office and take a walk outside. On the way out of my building, I pass a life-sized model of the Curiosity rover, our Mars mission operations centre, and a huge projection globe where you can bring up any planet. Those things help remind me of why I do what I do for my career.

I finally got to target my first images of Mars for real. When those first images came back, there was this rush of emotion—the feeling that all of my hard work to get to that point had paid off, and I was living my dream of directly working on a NASA mission to Mars!

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

I think from an emotional standpoint, it was when I was working on the targeting team for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Context Camera (CTX). After many weeks of training, I finally got to target my first images of Mars for real. When those first images came back, there was this rush of emotion—the feeling that all of my hard work to get to that point had paid off, and I was living my dream of directly working on a NASA mission to Mars!

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

There weren’t too many deviations from wanting to work in a space-related field. In grade school I was really into marine biology and wanted to study whales. In my undergrad for a very short time, I left my physics major and switched to Digital Media Production because I wanted to work on Pixar-like films. I quickly missed science though and switched back to a physics major after one quarter of media classes. I’ve kept up with an artistic vein though and have a photography business aside from my science work, which is a good creative outlet.

In my first job in the field after getting my masters degree, I experienced pretty bad harassment to the point that it nearly drove me out of the field entirely. I was so demoralized by the time I was able to tell myself that being treated like that wasn’t worth getting to work on a Mars mission, I literally applied for a job at Starbucks just to get out.

RW: Were there any obstacles on your path to working in the space industry?

In my first job in the field after getting my masters degree, I experienced pretty bad harassment to the point that it nearly drove me out of the field entirely. I was so demoralized by the time I was able to tell myself that being treated like that wasn’t worth getting to work on a Mars mission, I literally applied for a job at Starbucks just to get out. But then I decided to go back to school to get a Ph.D. in order to advance my career on the research side, which ended up being a very good decision.

RW: What are your favourite things about your job?

On the Mars side of things, I love being able to just explore the planet and not know what discoveries I might come across on any given day. The chance to see something that potentially no human being has ever seen before is pretty amazing.

On the commercial “NewSpace” side, I enjoy getting the opportunity to interact with so many different companies and hear what they’re working on. Some of them have really lofty long-term goals so it’s interesting to see how they want to get there.

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

It would be to study geology more than astronomy if you want to be a planetary scientist. :)

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Ariel Waldman, Founder, SpaceHack.org & Author

17 June, 2017

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

With a background in design, working at NASA set Ariel Waldman on a mission to empower others to contribute to space exploration. Ariel founded Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration and is the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings people together to prototype with science in 24 hours. Recently, Ariel authored the fantastic book “What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There” and is the co-author of a congressionally-requested National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight. Ariel describes her journey in the space industry to Rocket Women.

RW: Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are today? 
AW: My journey has been an unexpected one. I don’t have any childhood stories of wanting to be an astronaut or a scientist. I don’t blame that on my schooling (I was an A student who always found math to be a breeze while my schoolmates struggled), I just personally wasn’t very interested. As a young teenager I found myself entranced by art and design and pure creation. I suppose I actually found it to be more challenging.

My art classes were certainly more intimidating to me than any math class I ever attended. So, I went to art school and got my degree in graphic design. I had a job I loved that I can only describe as being like what I imagine it’s like to work at Pixar. But I hit a glass ceiling and ultimately left, not knowing exactly what I was going to do next. In the spirit of continuing to want to be around creators, I moved from Kansas to San Francisco to be alongside the freshly reemerging tech scene.

A few months later I was at home watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel called When We Left Earth. It was about NASA during the early days, when they were trying to figure out how to send humans into space. The documentary interviewed a number of the guys who worked in mission control in the 1960s. They spoke of how when they joined NASA that they didn’t know anything about rocketry or spacecrafts or orbits! They had to figure this stuff out as they went along. That sparked something in me. The idea that you could work at NASA without knowing anything about rocket science.

I said to myself that I knew nothing about space exploration but I’d love to work at NASA. I then told this to a friend who had just met someone who worked at NASA at a conference and he agreed to give me their email address. So, I sent this person at NASA that I had never met an email about how I was a fan of NASA and offered myself as a volunteer if they ever needed someone like me. It was a piece of fan-mail that I didn’t expect would get a response.

Serendipitously, the day I emailed the person at NASA was the day they had just created a job description that they sent back to me. They specifically wanted to hire someone who had no experience with NASA who could help bridge the gap between communities inside and outside of NASA to collaborate. They also wanted someone with design and agency experience who knew how to effectively communicate/translate concepts between different communities, as well as someone who was connected to the tech startup scene. I applied and ended up getting the job! It’s fair to say I was over the moon.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration.

Never had I expected that someone like me could work at NASA. Even though I hadn’t considered myself a space geek, if at any point in time someone had asked if I, as is, would like to work at NASA, I would’ve said hell yes. And I think most other people would, too.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration. My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways. That’s what spurred me to create Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration, and later to be the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings all different types of people together to see what they can prototype with science in 24 consecutive hours. My projects are all about infusing more serendipity and ingenuity into science through what I call “massively multiplayer science”.

My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways.

Since my unexpected beginnings, I’ve had the honor of serving on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Spaceflight, which reported on how to build a sustainable human spaceflight program out to the 2050’s. I currently sit on the external council for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a NASA program that nurtures radical, science-fiction-inspired ideas that could transform future space missions. I’ve had fun appearances on Syfy and the Science Channel. Last year I published my first book. I’m independent, so I also continue to do consulting work and create fun side projects like Spaceprob.es and my YouTube channel.

I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Congratulations on your new book, ‘What’s It Like in Space?’. How were you inspired to write the book?
AW: Thank you! It was so much fun to make. Throughout my time on the NRC Human Spaceflight Committee, I got to meet a number of astronauts who had so many great and hilarious stories to tell in their downtime. I’d often retell their stories at parties and I eventually decided that it’d be great to collect them all in a book as bite-sized vignettes about what it is like to be in space. I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

AW: I’d be hard-pressed to say I’ve had any expectations since beginning a career in space exploration!

Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level.

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman  [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

RW: In your opinion, what are the main challenges that human spaceflight faces in the near future?

AW: There are a number of challenges in the near future for human spaceflight that are both intimidating and exciting. Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level. It’ll also cost hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, which requires strong political will.

Much of the technology needed to land humans on Mars, while it’s foreseeable, doesn’t even exist yet. It’s estimated that NASA’s budget needs to be increased to be 2-5% above inflation for several years in order to reasonably land humans on Mars. With NASA’s current trajectory of flat budgets, it will be unable to conduct any human space exploration programs beyond cislunar space. Landing humans on Mars, no matter who does it (and the most likely scenario is that it’ll be an international collaboration of countries and companies working together), requires a number of facets across politics, money and technology to work in harmony at the same time.

Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together.

It is far from guaranteed to happen in your lifetime. While one could look pessimistically at this monumental challenge of getting all of these factors to come together at the same time, I think there is something to genuinely be excited about. Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together. In this way, compared to the Moon landing, a Mars landing will an achievement owned by humanity more so than any one nation or organization.

Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment. Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce.

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

AW: I have personally been extremely disappointed with much of the commercial space industry which actually has worse racial and gender diversity percentages than NASA does, and I don’t see much signaling to say that will change anytime soon. It’s sad that the commercial sector is doing worse given that NASA can not as easily recruit or refresh their workforce as commercial companies can. Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better.

Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t get better and many times it gets worse. You’re often gaslighted every step of the way by colleagues and made to feel isolated in these situations. The only solace I find is that I continue to meet and hear about more women who have been through these situations and that helps verify that you’re not alone, that what you experience is extremely common, and there is a network of people you can confide in.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better, I’m just skeptical that disruptive change will come from the inside.

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

AW: It’s okay to be interested in a lot of different things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s also okay to be obsessive about one thing. Focus is not a virtue, it’s just an option.

Science Spotlight

Science Spotlight – 50 Years of Spacewalking

3 June, 2015

NASA Astronaut Edward H. White Conducting the First US EVA on June 3, 1965

50 years ago on this day, Edward White stepped out of his Gemini spacecraft into the vacuum of space and made history, becoming the first spacewalking American astronaut. Spacewalks are inherently risky endeavours summed up by NASA Astronaut Butch Wilmore as simply “being in the vacuum of space and attached by a little metal tether”, all the while orbiting the Earth at 17,100 mph exposed to Micrometeroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD). Ed White’s spacewalk,  taking place 77 days after the first EVA (Extravehicular Activity) by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, could possibly be described as one of the riskiest of all and set the precedent for the future of the space program. A spacewalk is performed outside the protective environment of a space habitat or vehicle. To survive the vacuum environment, the human body needs to be in a pressurised enclosure, which is precisely what an EVA suit (spacesuit) is, alongside a life support system. It’s essentially an anthropomorphic, mini spacecraft with the complexity of a large spacecraft. The design of an EVA suit may seem simple at first sight since they are covered with a fabric thermal micrometeoroid garment, but it is in fact one of the most complex technological developments to carry out.

Future spacesuit designers need to provide crew members with a comfortable interior pressure, sufficient flexibility, mobility and microclimate for a range of EVA activities, whilst minimising the risk of suit decompression. In case of an emergency, the suit needs to be able to be worn and removed with ease and rapidly whilst protecting the crewmember from micrometeoroid penetration or puncture. As NASA says when it comes to spacesuits, “understanding the past and learning from mistakes is the only way to progress”. Once on the surface, the environmental challenges faced on Mars and near-earth asteroid surfaces along with potential EVA durations likely exceeding the cumulative length of every Apollo EVA and would require the design of a versatile and rugged suit.

NASA’s Apollo suits were the first to have plaster hand casts and full body casts created for the crewmembers, improving suit fit. Astronauts today have custom-made EVA gloves only, developed using laser scanning, hand casting, 3D computer modelling, stereo-lithography, laser cutting and CNC machining. To allow mobility, the Apollo suit design ensured that the astronaut could easily translate and flex his fingers even with the tendency of its internal pressure to make it a rigid balloon. This still required significant effort and forearm fatigue due to the glove pressure limited productivity. The Apollo suit was redesigned for the Apollo 15-17 missions to allow the number of lunar surface EVA periods to increase to three and an extension of each EVA to eight hours. Improvements were made in the Apollo suit gloves introducing more bonded and moulded components with an increase in the diameter of the glove wrist disconnect to provide greater wrist comfort and making them easier to wear.  With the lunar rover vehicle (LRV) used for the first time during Apollo 15, the spacesuit needed additional waist mobility and improvements to the integrated micrometeoroid garment (ITMG) in its abrasion resistance against the effects of lunar dust.

 

Astronaut Jack Schmitt conducting EVA activities at the Apollo 17 landing site. Note the heavily dust covered suit especially near the boots and lower arms. [NASA, 2002]

Lunar dust proved to be a significant problem for the Apollo missions due to it’s highly abrasive nature and caused problems including coating the suits causing seal failures, abrasion and irritation when inhaled by the crew. Lunar dust compromised the ability of the astronauts to re-seal their suits after an EVA, with Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad’s suit after his EVA developing a leak rate of 0.25 psi/min, just below the safety limit of 0.30 psi/min. A 3rd EVA would likely not have been possible if needed. The environmental lunar sample seals also failed resulting in sample contamination. The lunar dust was so abrasive that the astronauts’ suits were worn through the outer layer and into the Mylar multi-layer insulation above the boot. Dust scratched the Apollo 16 suits’ gauge dials to leave them unreadable. The abrasive effect of lunar dust on spacesuit and seals is a major problem for long-duration missions where habitat airlocks or spacesuits will be sealed on a regular basis and needs to be taken into account during future suit design.
ISS shuttle.png

The enhanced EVA suit (left) currently used on the International Space Station (ISS) was developed with the requirement that the number of EVAs required for ISS construction would be greater than all of the previous spacewalks conducted by all of the world’s space programmes. The financial constraints relating to the U.S.’s contribution to the ISS program meant that the Shuttle EMU was upgraded rather than developing a new concept. The new enhanced suit provided easier on-orbit sizing and improved custom glove fitting with a heating system.

Lessons are still being learnt to this day, with a major issue discovered within the suits recently. During an EVA on 16th July 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano felt water inside his helmet on the back of his head. The amount of water in the helmet increased migrated from the back of his head onto his face. The EVA was terminated early and the crew re-entered the ISS allowing the suit to be removed. Luca also reported impaired visibility and had to breathe with water covering his eyes, nose, and ears. He also had audio communication issues because of the water and had to rely on manually feeling his safety tether’s cable, attaching him to the ISS structure, for pathway directions back to the airlock rather than relying on his sight. It’s the closest call to this date during an ISS EVA with the amount of water in the helmet estimated to be 1-1.5 litres. This particular issue had been caused by a failure of the fan/pump/separator component within the spacesuit, which was subsequently replaced. Astronauts also now install a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) inside their helmets to absorb potential water that may enter their helmet. Along with regular glove inspections during an EVA, astronauts will also carry out HAP inspections to feel whether the HAP is “squishy” (A NASA technical term) indicating that it may be holding 200 milliliters of water at the minimum. Up to 600 to 800mL of water can be held by the pad, giving the crew time to return to the safety of the airlock. Water Line Vent Tubes or snorkels have also been installed inside the suit using velcro allowing the crew to breathe from the drier Torso Section of the suit in case of a serious mishap .

EVA30 water.png

Water visible in NASA Astronaut Terry Virts’ helmet post his 25th February spacewalk [NASA TV Screenshot]

In February this year, astronaut Terry Virts also reported water in his helmet when back in the ISS airlock post-EVA, during repressurization caused by sublimator water carryover. Water present in the suit’s sublimator cooling component can condense as the suit is repressurized after a spacewalk. This caused a small amount of water to push into Virts’ helmet however this is now a known and NASA accepted EVA risk. Tackling these issues related to EVA suit design including the effect of lunar dust and glove design will be a challenge, but is currently being investigated.

EVA is a proven capability for meeting mission objectives and is critical to the ISS, with a current total of 1159 hours 8 minutes of EVA having been completed in ISS maintenance and assembly. The lessons learned over the last 50 years of spacewalking are essential to develop a future EVA suit for long-duration human exploration missions including a mission to Mars, needing to withstand the deep-space and Martian environments.