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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.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Meet A New Generation of Rocket Women: The Astronaut Class of 2017

30 July, 2017

The Next Generation Of NASA Astronauts - Class of 2017 [NASA]

The Next Generation Of NASA Astronauts – Class of 2017 [Image copyright: Robert Markowitz/NASA]

In the summer of 2017, six new women were selected through both the NASA and the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Astronaut selection programmes, along with eight men. Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Kayla Barron, Loral O’Hara and Jessica Watkins, along side Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Robb Kulin and Bob Hines, were chosen out of over 18,300 applications to become the next generation of NASA Astronauts. Canada’s two newest astronauts were announced recently to be LCol. Joshua Kutryk, an experimental test pilot and fighter pilot for the Canadian Armed Forces and Dr. Jennifer Sidey, a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge in the UK. These are names that you should remember. With space agencies aiming to send missions to the Moon and eventually Mars, these remarkable men and women could very well be one of the first humans to return to the Moon and step foot on Mars.

Three of the new NASA astronaut class were selected at 29 years old (Jessica Watkins, Kayla Barron and Zena Cardman), with Canadian Jenni Sidey 28 years old, making them some of the youngest astronaut candidates selected in history. If you think about it, that’s close to 10 years between completing Year 13 at secondary school or sixth form, to being selected as an astronaut!

Trailblazing Canadian astronaut candidate Jenni Sidey at #Canada150 🇨🇦 celebrations at the Canadian Embassy in the UK with The Queen. [Copyright: High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom]

Trailblazing Canadian astronaut candidate Jenni Sidey at Canada 150 celebrations at the Canadian Embassy in the UK. [Copyright: High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom]

For the majority of the candidates chosen, their selection is the culmination of a lifelong journey, as Jenni Sidey describes to the QE Prize, “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist and have always been excited by the idea of exploring the unknown. I remember when I was very young, I wanted to be an astronaut. This dream always seemed unreal until recently! In June 2016, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced that it was looking to recruit two new astronauts in 2017.

This exciting opportunity is pretty rare; although there have been many exceptional Canadian astronauts, including Chris Hadfield, the last recruitment campaign was in 2009. I applied in August but was hardly prepared for an experience as challenging, rewarding, and unique as the recruitment campaign. The CSA received 3772 applications and invited 100 qualified candidates for preliminary medicals. After that, the top 72 were put through intense physical, cognitive, memory, problem solving, teamwork, and survival tests. We’ve been tested on everything from our ability to fight fires and escape from helicopters underwater, to solving complex problems as teams.”

The class will begin two years of Basic Training this autumn at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Centre in Houston, Texas, learning how to fly jets, scuba dive, speak Russian, practice space walks and about the intricacies of the International Space Station. Until their graduation and completion of Basic Training they’ll be referred to as Astronaut Candidates, individuals who have been selected by NASA and the CSA to join the astronaut corps.

The idea of being able to be a face to others who may not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space. I think that’s really important for that exposure, for young girls.

The 2017 class was importantly one of the most diverse selected, with expansive backgrounds in academia, military, geology, marine biology, engineering at Space X and medicine. Representation matters as NASA Astronaut Candidate Jessica Watkins explains to Syfy, “I think the thing about diversity is that it allows for experiences that may not be exactly the same to bring different things to the table. The idea of being able to be a face to others who may not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space. I think that’s really important for that exposure, for young girls. It translates as well into racial diversity, that that type of exposure at a young age and also the stores of persistence become important.”

Here are five things that we can learn from the next generation of Rocket Women as they begin their Astronaut Training.

Prioritise Your Passion & Persevere

Zena Caldman, NASA Astronaut Candidate [Image copyright: Robert Markowitz/NASA]

Zena Cardman, NASA Astronaut Candidate [Image copyright: Robert Markowitz/NASA]

Zena Cardman at 29 didn’t know if she had enough experience to be an astronaut to meet the bare minimum NASA astronaut requirements, but whilst studying for her doctorate she applied anyway and became an astronaut out of over 18,000 applications made. “I’ve got nothing to lose, This will be a really cool experience no matter what.”

As she tells Mashable, “2015 was actually when this round opened. The astronauts who were selected in 2013, I didn’t apply that round because I wasn’t yet qualified. I was barely out of college. You need a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] degree and then at least three years of progressive experience after that, and I did not meet the bare minimum. Even this time, I thought, “Maybe I don’t technically meet the bare minimum requirement. I’m still in school. I’m still a student.” But I applied anyway, thinking, “I’ve got nothing to lose. This will be a really cool experience no matter what.” And then yeah, at every stage along the way, it’s just been, “Wow, what a cool experience, everyone has been awesome. I’ll try again next time.” And yeah, it just kept going!” 

Zena Cardman prioritised her passion and persevered.

The morning of the [astronaut] announcement, when myself and my classmates put on our blue flight suits and our families saw us for the first time, the daughter of one of my classmates said, “Mommies can be astronauts too.” I think that really said something important about making sure that kids see that there are people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, males, females, in these fields and it’s something they can do too.

The Importance Of Role Models

NASA Astronaut Candidate Jessica Watkins [Image Copyright: NASA]

NASA Astronaut Candidate Jessica Watkins [Image Copyright: NASA]

As the first American Woman in Space, Sally Ride, said, “”You Can’t Be If You Can’t See.” Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space (1992), provided NASA Astronaut Candidate Jessica Watkins with exposure. She describes to The Atlantic,”Being able to see somebody who looks like you in a position or in a role that is something that you aspire to do, I think is really important.” Being that tangible role model to the next generation is something that she doesn’t take lightly, “I know is an important responsibility. I’m excited about that opportunity, to be that kind of representative, to be able to be somebody that people can look to and see doing cool things, like going to space, and hopefully they will be able to see that that’s something that they can do, too.”

On completing her basic training, Jessica Watkins will become the sixth African-American female NASA astronaut. Of these, only three women have flown to space, with the fourth astronaut Jeanette Epps, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Technical Intelligence Officer launching to the International Space Station in May 2018!

Major Jasmin Moghbeli. NASA Astronaut Candidate [Photo Copyright: NASA]

Major Jasmin Moghbeli. NASA Astronaut Candidate [Photo Copyright: NASA]

NASA Astronaut Candidate Major Jasmin Moghbeli has tested H-1 helicopters, accumulating more than 1,600 hours of total flight time, and has taken part in 150 combat missions!

Talking to CNN‘s Christiane Amanpour, “[My background] was never specifically thought about as some sort of barrier or an obstacle in my way, but now on this side of things I can recognise how important it is to get out and make sure the next generations sees myself and my colleagues of all different backgrounds, all different experiences, so we don’t potentially lose a future brilliant mind because they assumed that only boys do this job, or only people of this ethnicity do this job, so I think now on this end I sense the importance of that…I think it’s very important for people to see.

You know, the morning of the announcement, when myself and my classmates put on our blue flight suits and our families saw us for the first time, the daughter of one of my classmates said, “Mommies can be astronauts too.” I think that really said something important about making sure that kids see that there are people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, males, females, in these fields and it’s something they can do too.”

Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli dressed up as Valentina Tereshkova for a 6th grade project at Lenox Elementary School, in December 1994. Courtesy photo.

NASA Astronaut Candidate Major Jasmin Moghbeli dressed up as Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, for a 6th grade project at Lenox Elementary School, in December 1994. Courtesy photo [Jasmin Moghbeli]

Pursue Something You Love

NASA Astronaut Candidate Zena Caldman believes that to be an astronaut or work in the space industry you have to study something that you love and are passion about. Telling The Verge, “You have to enjoy what you study and the work that you’re doing. Pay attention to what your passion is for.” To be an astronaut you have to firstly complete a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, biology, physics or mathematics. “That’s a really good concrete way to get started for anyone who wants to be an astronaut. But my main advice is just pursue something that you love. Because if you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. You know, I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.”

My main advice is just pursue something that you love. Because if you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. You know, I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.

Find A Mentor

Sometimes you need somebody who you trust and sees your potential, telling you to just apply for that opportunity. You need somebody to push you past that self-critical stage and to say, “Yes, you’re ready.”

That idea of persistence, having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.

NASA Astronaut Candidate Jessica Watkins believes that finding a mentor is essential. As she tells Syfy, “I would say get a mentor, ideally a female mentor, although male mentors are great as well. That is something that has really pushed me to this point in my life. I’ve been really grateful and lucky to have the mentorship support that I’ve received from a lot of my teachers and professors and supervisors. That’s been something that’s really important for me, and I think help with that idea of persistence, having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.”

Maintaining Resilience When Challenged

Jenni Sidey among the top 17 candidates of the 2017 astronaut recruitment campaign are announced during a press conference in Toronto, Ontario. [Image Credit: Canadian Space Agency]

Jenni Sidey among the top 17 candidates of the 2017 astronaut recruitment campaign , announced during a press conference in Toronto, Ontario. [Image Credit: Canadian Space Agency]

Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Candidate Jenni Sidey discussed the hardest challenges she faced during the astronaut selection process during a recent Reddit AMA, “It was probably a combination of tests, actually. The [Canadian] Space Agency was looking at how we would act when things got (really) tough. A lot of resilience [is] required to solve a puzzle underwater for the fifth time when you’re sleep deprived after a day of sprints and sandbag carries.”

The next generation of Rocket Women are set to fly Space X and Boeing‘s commercial vehicles to the International Space Station (ISS) and even explore the Moon and Mars in the coming years. In the words of NASA Astronaut Candiate Major Jasmin Moghbeli, “Right now, we’re talking about going further in the solar system as we’ve ever gone before and to me, at the end of the day, the Earth is just a tiny planet, and it’s necessary for our survival to go somewhere further. This won’t last forever, and so in any way I can contribute to that, whether it’s to go to the Moon, Mars or somewhere else, I’m eager and excited to do so and it would be an honour for me.”

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.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Madhurita Sengupta, Program Manager, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA)

10 June, 2017
Madhurita during a flight on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft

Madhurita during a flight on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft

At the age of 8, Madhurita Sengupta was transfixed during a visit to NASA’s Mission Control Centre and declared that she would work there some day. Seventeen years later she did just that, going on to train astronauts and work on commercial launch activities. Madhurita tells Rocket Women about her passion for human spaceflight and her impressive career journey.

On how she was inspired to consider a career in the space industry:

I’ve had a passion for space since I was very young – I still remember peering through astronomy books I brought home from the library and deciding I wanted to be an astrophysicist after I learned more about Sally Ride. At age 8, my family and I visited the NASA Johnson Space Center, and as we visited the Mission Control Viewing Room, I remember sitting transfixed by the hustle and bustle of our nation’s human spaceflight program. I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

On the education and training needed to qualify for her current role: 

I began my career at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a Space Station Robotics Instructor, where I taught astronauts how to operate the robotic systems on the International Space Station (ISS). In this capacity, I trained the crews of Expedition 21, STS-132, and STS-135 (the last Space Shuttle flight)

For this role, I completed a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and participated in the Cooperative Education Program, while I was pursuing the degree. This program enabled me to take semesters off from school to gain real-world experience in various parts of NASA JSC.

Through this period, in the U.S., our nation’s space policy was shifting slowly over the previous few years, and I began to take an interest in understanding the changes and their effects. In 2011, upon the completion of the Space Shuttle Program, I decided to go to graduate school to study public policy, to specifically learn how policy is developed and implemented, so I could bring that knowledge back to developing future space policy. As space has traditionally been used as a foreign policy tool, I decided to concentrate my studies on International Relations.

Upon completion of my graduate work, I began working for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which is responsible for ensuring public safety during commercial launch and re-entry activities and, more broadly, promoting the commercial space industry in the U.S. This role allowed me to combine and apply my technical and policy backgrounds and contribute towards developing strategy and policy for my organization.

After some time in AST, I began my current role at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), as the Program Manager responsible for the planning and execution of the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Washington, D.C., in October 2019. This role has been the perfect culmination of the knowledge and skills I’ve developed thus far in my career, as I’ve been able to use my experiences within different parts of the space industry, as well as my academic work in international relations.

I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

Madhurita with astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

Madhurita with NASA astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career.

On her career journey and unexpectedly leaving the world of NASA behind:

Given my consistent interest in human spaceflight through my formative years, I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career. I think the most unexpected thing in my journey thus far was leaving that world behind. To be sure, I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

On growing up with an Indian background and how her family helped to shape her career path:

My parents instilled values shaped by the dedication and perseverance they displayed as they raised my brother and me. Education was of course highly regarded, and math and science was seen as a cornerstone of that education. They supported my interests from the very beginning, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had because of their support.

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis's Flight Deck

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis’s Flight Deck

On what helps her get through a stressful and bad day:

It will sound a little clichéd, but I tend to gravitate towards reminders of my passion and why I’ve pursued the career I’ve chosen. Something as simple as a picture from crew onboard the International Space Station, a recording of a conversation I had with the very first Space Shuttle crew I trained, or just stepping outside at night to look at the Moon (something I loved doing when my family and I would take road trips, and I could see the Moon out of my window). My passion in life is and always will be human spaceflight. When I’m having a bad day, I just have to take a few moments to remember what I’m grateful for and appreciate the journey I’ve been fortunate enough to take.

On the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self:

Be open to change. Life is never a series of events planned on a particular timeline. Embrace the unexpected. Life’s too short to worry about what can’t be controlled.