Friday, May 25, 2018

The Path to Space Consulting




Every once in a while, someone asks me about my decision to become a space consultant. They want to know how I got here and whether my path is a good path for them. I can truly say I have better job satisfaction in my current work than I ever had before. In owning my own company, self-direction and freedom have made all the difference.

I didn't set out to be a space consultant. As with many things in life, our path zigzags. I knew soon after starting graduate school that I wasn't the sort of person to dedicate myself to one tiny niche for the rest of my career. The Universe is too big and my interests too varied. I even had to switch advisors to one who understood this.

I knew starting out in grad school I didn't want to pursue a professor track. I was much more interested in research, especially space research connected with NASA. I worked with NASA for many years as a student at Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. I soaked up everything space. I enjoyed hands-on research in the lab much more than computer programming. But running the same experiments over and over was tedious, especially when I had a little control over of my work and direction. The more I stepped my toe, then my foot, then my ankle in the commercial space world, the more I wanted to jump in.

In retrospect, it's no surprise to me that I jumped on the chance to enter the working world before I completed my dissertation. I needed a fresh challenge and new things to learn. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space brought the diversity of research I craved. I was responsible for facilitating all physical science experiments sponsored by CASIS and occasionally helping with the life science experiments as well. I thrived on learning such a wide collection of science and engineering.

I surprised even myself how restless I became once I was accustom to my work. I wanted more, more than what my managers were willing to give me. When I tried to spread my wings, I found myself caged. Each time I tried to fly, they tried to clip my wings. I began pouring myself into volunteer work outside of my employer such as spaceport development. I knew I needed freedom in order to reach my potential and soar.

I hired a career coach. With her direction, I wrote up my ideal job description. Self-direction, collaboration, and being a member of the community were a part of what I wanted. At the time, working as an independent space consultant hadn't crossed my mind. Looking back, I've been able to give myself a lot of what I was seeking.

My next job offer seemed like freedom delivered on a plate: the chance to manage my own office from the start. Because there were only two employees of my new company in North America, my boss and myself, we wore many hats. I learned that as much as I craved new challenges, I didn't like all new things, such as being responsible for financial reports. But I loved working with local, federal, and foreign authorities and partners to build and operate a parabolic aircraft and a spaceplane. Given the freedom to take initiative, I thrived. The company did not and went under.

I was a couple weeks away from giving birth to my firstborn when I cleared out the office at Cape Canaveral. I wasn't willing to look for a full-time job at that time. I thought, maybe I could consult. I had worked part-time as an analyst for a tiny space consulting firm in grad school. I was already consulting on major projects for free. As I eased into motherhood, maybe I could ease into part-time space consulting as well.

I had two main hesitations related to each other: 1) Was I old enough? and 2) Did I have enough experience? All of the independent space consultants I knew were towards the end of their distinguished careers. I wrote to a few of them to ask their advice. It was discouraging. They echoed my concerns back to me. Imposer syndrome, always lurking in the background, gave me a serious pause. But I had nothing to lose. So I created Astralytical.

Immediately I began diving into the work I was interested in, feeling free to drive my own direction. I set my own hours, set my own rate, decided which projects were worth my volunteer time, and communicated with anyone I pleased on any space topic I fancied. Owning my own company was so liberating, I felt angry that I had ever felt limited before.

But the first year of Astralytical wasn't great. I made two common beginner mistakes: not valuing myself enough and not having the confidence to stand up for myself enough. As a result, I took on two clients who were not easy to work with and who significantly underpaid me. I became bolder, more confident, and more willing to stand up for my own voice and worth. And I never have to work with bad clients again. I can pick and choose. My company's second year was so much better.

I am now in my third year of consulting and feeling pride in what I've accomplished thus far. My initial fears are gone. I do have significant experience with which I can rely on. I find joy in analyzing the space sector as a whole and contributing to the discussion. My greatest job satisfaction is helping individuals on their space career paths. I'm considering applying for larger projects and grants, although I don't know if I'm ready yet. Maybe I should give it a go and find out.

Is space consulting right for you? Maybe. Do you have at least some experience as a foundation? Do you find yourself craving work in a diversity of experiences and areas? Do you enjoy working with a variety of people? Are you okay with a lower salary, at least to start with? Do you have the confidence to believe in yourself and your work and be able to convince others? Do you see the big picture in a multidisciplinary and international industry? Can you dive deep into a topic if you need to? Do you have the self-discipline to manage your time and accomplish multiple projects simultaneously, with or without a boss or demanding client?

Admittedly I still need to work on some of the above, especially completing projects without deadlines! But if this work appeals to you, then consider it. Space consulting might be the job you've been seeking.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Science Talking with Babe in Arms

Baby Leo after the Dahlonega Science Festival, March 24, 2018


When my firstborn was a baby, I made the decision to continue with my career rather than to give it up, pause, or hide. Since I was exclusively breastfeeding and she didn't take to the bottle, this meant taking her out to professional events and activities when she was quite young. I had never seen a professional bring their baby to a business event before, although I had noticed their spouses would sometimes show up with kids. Babies in a professional environment are very rare in our culture, from what I've seen in the space industry.

I started small. At just a few weeks old, I took my daughter to two space meeting evening receptions. Encouraged, I took her to a local conference. At five months old, I took her on business travel with me to an out-of-state conference. Although it was challenging at times, I made it work.

Once she started to become more mobile, keeping her contained became too much for me to handle. But by that point, she also became more independent of me, eliminating the need for me to take her everywhere with me.

Taking my baby son with me wasn't even a question when he was born. I knew I could do it. But a new question arose: could I give a talk while holding a baby?

When I was invited to be a panelist on a panel about space travel for the Dahlonega Science Festival in north Georgia, I knew my two-month-old baby was too young to stay at home. I informed the organizers I would be bringing him. I half expected them to rescind their invitation. I was once uninvited to a meeting when I informed the organizer I would be bringing my baby daughter, so my fear wasn't unfounded.

I was surprised - shocked even - when the response back from the Science Festival organizers was not one of distancing but one of welcoming. Sonny went above and beyond to accommodate me by look into baby changing facilities and areas where I could have privacy if I needed it. He even surprised me by gifting us a "future astronaut" onesie after the panel talk. My fellow panelists also welcomed our youngest contributor. I felt at ease and a sense of belonging.

As for my baby, he was easy. He alternated between nursing under a blanket and sleeping in my arms. Not once was he disruptive. Things couldn't have gone better.

A huge thank you to Sonny and the rest of the Dahlonega Science Festival organizers and my fellow panelist for welcoming a working mother and her baby! These small acts encourage me to continue doing what I do, and they hopefully encourage other women to participate in these events, with or without babies.

Speaking on the space travel panel at the Dahlonega Science Festival, March 24, 2018

Friday, January 26, 2018

Introducing Leonardo Nicholas, Planet Earth's New Space Traveler

Little Leo

Please allow a rare personal note on this blog.

Introducing my secondborn, Leonardo Nicholas, who arrived early Thursday morning, January 25. Although he was born on his estimated due date, his arrival surprised us. I took the time to watch the International Space Station fly in front of the half Moon from our front yard on Wednesday evening before I even knew he was on his way into the world. Before a friend even knew of the birth, he joked the ISS flyover portended the arrival of a new child.

ISS flyover Atlanta - January 24, 2018

I'll be on limited work hours for an undecided amount of time while on maternity "leave". Having done this once before, I know I can accomplish tasks one-handed while holding a newborn with the other. I type this as I balance sleeping little Leo on my lap and arm. Several people were amazed I was tweeting space news and commentary hours after his birth, but there wasn't a whole lot to do while resting in the birthing suite and scrolling on my phone is pretty easy these days. I can't stay away from my space community!

I'm excited to show both my children, Josephine and Leonardo, the night sky and the Universe as they grow.

Dreaming of the stars

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017: Experiencing Space in New Places and in New Ways



This year was a time of transition, adjustment, and growth for me professionally. In 2016 we moved from the Space Coast of Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. We moved 4 times in 6 months, finally settling into our current home in December 2016. Atlanta is a technology hub with a small and growing space community. The year 2017 gave me the opportunity to learn, grow, and find my place within this new space community.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I was at a low in January. I was exhausted from the moves and felt isolated in a new area. I felt stuck in a bad contract with an unhealthy client: overworked, significantly underpaid, and dissatisfied with the direction of my work. Just a year after forming my company Astralytical, I seriously considered calling it quits and finding a traditional full-time position in my new city. I learned some very valuable lessons about valuing myself, standing up for myself, and structuring a contract so I’m not taken advantage of. The experience made me a better professional and small business owner.

The beauty of running my own business is the freedom to change direction. In the second week of January, I celebrated the sweet gift of a blank canvas and refocused my efforts on the direction I wanted to grow professionally. I published a small report predicting U.S. orbital launch rates in 2017 (which I will soon update for 2018). I joined local space-related organizations and met new colleagues.

In December I joined the local NDIA chapter’s Space Committee and attended their annual space breakfast with guest speaker George Nield of FAA AST. In January I began attending space advocacy briefings with state-level elected representatives and other state government officials with the NDIA Space Committee.

George Nield, Dec. 7, 2016

Posing at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta - Feb. 1, 2017

In mid January I had the pleasure of getting a tour of SpaceWorks and their related companies with John Olds. I was so grateful to feel so welcomed in my new community.

Hello SpaceWorks! Jan. 10, 2017

In February I began a new area of business: space career coaching. This has been a very rewarding direction. I truly enjoy assisting students, recently graduates, and mid-level professionals in their space career journeys. This has also been a more popular service than I intended, demonstrating the strong demand for guidance while pursuing a space career.

Also in February I attended my first Georgia Space Working Group meeting. This group quickly turned into the planning committee for the first annual Symposium on Space Innovations hosted here in Atlanta in October.

By the end of February, I set up the Astralytical laboratory for space resources, focused on lunar and Martian regolith (dirt) simulant.

Measuring lunar regolith simulant - Feb. 17, 2017

In March I joined my local astronomy club and started attending monthly meetings. I also took my daughter to a local science museum with fun space exhibits and to the Atlanta Science Festival dressed as a mini astronaut. In connection with the science festival, I attended a talk by astronaut Mark Kelly.

Astronaut Josephine and me at the Tellus Museum - March 5, 2017

Posing with the Atlanta Science Festival mascot at the Mark Kelly talk - March 14, 2017

Atlanta Science Festival - March 25, 2017

In March, after the release of the Trump Administration’s proposed budget, I passionately fought against the cuts to the NASA Education office, an office which has significantly helped me and so many others in starting my space career. Thankfully, these cuts were reversed by Congress.

I was the guest speaker at the AIAA Atlanta chapter dinner in March, which I joined back in January. I gave some preliminary results from my to-be-published book about millennials working in the space industry. I got some enthusiastic and colorful responses from the older generations, the most feedback I’ve ever gotten from a talk.

AIAA Atlanta talk - March 28, 2017

Atlanta is home to several broadcasting companies. In June, I got a tour of the Intelsat facility, including their antenna dish field and control centers.


Intelsat - June 7, 2017

In June I presented preliminary research regarding Spaceport Camden to a group hosted by Camden County, Georgia. A few days later, I was a guest speaker in the Camden Roundtable on the same topic. I had been working on the report for a few months at that point and was ready to discuss some of the findings with the community that would be most impacted by the spaceport.

Spaceport Camden presentation - June 15, 2017


In June I was a speaker at the first annual We Rise Women in Tech conference in Atlanta, highlighting NASA’s coding projects and needs. I was also interviewed by the Women Who Code organization for their blog.

We Rise conference - June 24, 2017

I crashed the July AIAA Propulsion conference networking events and got to reconnect with some colleagues. I had the pleasure of meeting astronaut Sandy Magnus again.

AIAA Propulsion conference - July 11, 2017

Also in July I traveled to the new Braves stadium in Atlanta to check out the traveling Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex exhibit on a Mars concept vehicle. The Batmobile design isn’t at all what a Mars vehicle would look like but it’s fun for the public.

Mars concept vehicle - July 16, 2017

Also in July I took a trip to my old stomping ground: Huntsville, Alabama. Thanks to my friend Yohon and a few other friends and colleagues, I got some great tours of old and new sites at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, including accidentally stumbling upon a lab where I used to work.

So many historic sites at Redstone Arsenal and MSFC! - July 14, 2017

While in Huntsville, I attended the 10th annual Space Camp Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. I worked as volunteer staff for the first event a decade prior, and I’m a 6-time Space Camp alumna. It was fun to reconnect with Space Camp and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center! I also met astronauts Charlie Bolden and Hoot Gibson again.

Posing with the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center - July 14, 2017

In August I traveled to the beautiful town of Helen, Georgia to see the total solar eclipse. It was one of the most beautiful and emotional events I’ve ever witnessed, surprisingly so. I’m now hooked and so excited for the next total solar eclipse!

Solar eclipse totality from Helen, Georgia - Aug. 21, 2017


All smiles after the solar eclipse totality - Aug. 21, 2017

In September I was a guest speaker for two talks in the Space Track of the huge DragonCon in Atlanta. It was a pleasure to speak with my fellow panelists on the topics of commercial space and NASA’s Deep Space Gateway. It was fun re-meeting private spaceflight participant Richard Garriott.

DragonCon! Sept. 2, 2017

Finally in October, the conference planning team was able to celebrate the successful first Symposium on Space Innovations! A lot of work brought us all together and it was a hit. I was especially thankful to moderate a panel on Launch, Landing, and Spaceports.

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough at the Symposium on Space Innovations - Oct. 19, 2017

In partnership with the conference, we kicked off the Georgia Space Alliance, a nonprofit I had been working with a team for months to create! The kick-off party was a great success, a larger turn-out than expected with great enthusiasm for the future.

Georgia Space Alliance kick-off space party with space art - Oct. 17, 2017

The Mission Possible report on Spaceport Camden was finally published in November! After many months of effort, it was so rewarding to release it to the public and get such positive feedback. And a thank-you to those who made the report beautiful with images and graphic art.

I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation when he came to Atlanta to be the guest speaker for the NDIA annual space breakfast in November.

Eric Stallmer of Commercial Spaceflight Federation - Nov. 9, 2017

Earlier in the year, I connected with another space-related organization SSPI. In November, I attended their program on NASA broadcasting from the ISS and elsewhere. I also got a tour of the Encompass facility which included their antenna dish field and control centers. I was surprised to learn all of NASA TV’s broadcasts go through that facility.

In December, I almost made my space movie premier! I arrived at the studio for a fitting for the movie First Man about Neil Armstrong, but was cut due to being visibly pregnant. Next time.

My First Man costume tag - Dec. 2, 2017

I wrapped up the year with the 6th Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado – one of my favorite conferences! I’ve attended all six since 2010 and I’ve been on board as conference staff for the past two. Although I got caught in the Great Atlanta Airport Power Outage of 2017 and therefore missed the first day of the conference, I was still able to enjoy two days of suborbital spaceflight and space science fun.

Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, Broomfield, Colorado - Dec. 18, 2017

I'm ending 2017 on a high. I've met so many great people and participated in wonderful spacey things in the past year! I'm grateful for where I am right now. And I suspect 2018 will be even better with more spacey plans in the works! I look forward even more to the surprises to come.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

STEM Education Initiative: Inspiring Students to Fall In Love with Our Universe

Speaking with 7th and 8th graders in Pennsylvania

My favorite part are the questions. Some of them ask me to repeat information I already gave, some of them are absurd, and some of them are truly insightful for such young students. Eyes light up and imaginations expand when these kids learn of what’s going on with human spaceflight now and imagine themselves as space travelers. These dreamers make my time and effort worth it every time.

Once or twice per month, I get a chance to speak with students of multiple ages and in many locations. Sometimes I can travel in person and speak with these young learners face-to-face. Sometimes I’m unable to travel to speak in person because of the distances involved, as was the case with an aspiring group of engineers in Iraq, and we use internet video instead. I’m still able to converse and show off lab props over a screen, sometimes even better than in person.

Most of the students I speak with are late elementary school, middle school, and early high school aged, interested in many areas but most likely undecided about their future career paths. I often start out the conversation by asking them what they want to be when they grow up and if any of them want to be scientists. The range and complexity of answers I receive is astounding. These kids, as young as some of them are, are already forming images of themselves in careers. How many of them have pictured themselves doing space-related work, whether they’re an aspiring aeronautical engineer or an artist?

A couple years ago, I spent some months tutoring a group of high school girls living in a foster home. They were normal teenage girls living through extraordinary circumstances. In some cases, the lack of positive role models or complete information put them at a disadvantage as they prepared for adulthood. I was struck by one girl who informed me that she’ll probably become a stripper when she graduates high school because she likes to dance. Only by continuing the conversation did she begin to realize her job options were much larger and less limiting than she had previously concluded.

How many students are not even aware of their potential because they haven’t been exposed to information that can open their minds? How many students lack positive and relatable role models despite being surrounded by teachers and other potential mentors? How many students know that they really can achieve a STEM career if that’s what they want to do? How many students know that they can write space stories (fiction and nonfiction), draw space art, make a profit through space businesses, develop government policies and international treaties related to space, and dance in the microgravity of space, without any STEM inclination at all?

My hope is that by volunteering my time to speak with these students, I can open their minds and help them picture a different world, a world where they can be involved in space if they want to be. I do not charge for these speaking engagements. My company Astralytical does not pay for my time nor travel costs. My volunteer STEM education efforts cost me money, which I consider to be worth it.

If you so choose, you can help me in my goal of inspiring students to fall in love with the Universe. Your donation can help offset time, travel, and supply costs. You can be right there in the classroom with me, so to speak. Please give me and these students a little boost if you’re able.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sprouting the Seed of Georgia's Space Community



I’ve been very fortunate to spend almost all of my adult life living in space hubs: the Space Coast of Florida, followed by Huntsville, Alabama, then back to Florida. I’ve immersed myself in the space community by choosing to live where space activity happens. (Also, where it’s warm most of the time.) I naturally feel connected to “my people” - fellow upward-looking forward-thinking space enthusiasts.

When my husband’s career took us to Atlanta a year ago, I naturally began to seek a new space community. I didn’t need to look hard in Florida or Huntsville – space is everywhere. But the Atlanta area, and more broadly in the state of Georgia, is not known for space activity. There is no solid space identity here, not yet. I didn’t find the space community I sought.

I did find space activity and groups, pockets of people here and there, all over the state. Groups that didn’t talk to each other, didn’t coordinate, didn’t even know of each other’s existence in most cases. There was little to no collaboration or communication between the academic space pocket, the military space pocket, the satellite broadcasting pocket, the entrepreneurial newspace pocket, the AIAA chapters, the variety of amateur astronomy and rocket clubs, the tiny space law student club, the small space policy pocket responsible for 2017’s Georgia Space Flight Act, and the proposed Camden Spaceport in southeast Georgia.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Georgia Space Alliance was conceived in my mind. It could have been as early as last December at a holiday party when I learned the local National Space Society chapter was inactive. It could have been in January when I toured one of Atlanta’s space companies and was encouraged by the CEO to take the reigns in leading an organization. It could have been in February when I began attending meetings with state elected officials and realized the need for a unified space organization. And, most importantly, that no one else was motivated enough to start one. Later in February, a colleague and I met with two state economic development employees about promoting space and was told, “You’re just two voices. You need an association behind you.” At that point, Georgia Space Alliance was an inevitability. And I was the one get it off the ground.

The name was carefully chosen. Georgia Space Alliance is state-wide, not just focused on Atlanta. It’s an alliance of the existing groups, companies, organizations, and individuals. It’s not meant to replace or compete with any existing space-related effort. Its goal is to unify, to bring people together, to encourage communication and collaboration, to promote what is already happening and what is to come. Even the word “space” is meaningful. Georgia already has a very strong aerospace industry and aerospace community, aerospace primarily meaning aviation. The focus of Georgia Space Alliance is not aerospace – it’s space –the much smaller but growing branch of aerospace in the state.

Georgia Space Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This, too, was carefully chosen. The organization’s focus isn’t economic development, political lobbying, or providing an income for its leadership. In fact, the organization is entirely volunteer-based at this time. There may be GSA activities that promote economic development and advocate for space within local and national governments, but GSA is so much more.

GSA is first and foremost educational: educating its membership, educating students of all levels, and educating the wider community. It is community development. It is social and professional networking. It is multidisciplinary; it’s an alliance of Georgia’s existing strengths, space-related and otherwise.

In the months from March to now, I’ve worked in the background building an organization and a team. Having to balance this effort with my existing work meant that I worked slowly, working toward an October public kick-off. I’m very grateful for the great leadership team who stepped forward to work toward this common goal! I could not have put this all together in time without their efforts.

We still have much work to do spreading the word, registering members, gaining corporate sponsors and partner organizations, and planning future activities. We have many ideas! How much we’re able to do depends on the number of people who volunteer to assist and the number of sponsors who can chip in funds.

An October kick-off is also meaningful. This evening (Oct. 18) starts the first Symposium on Space Innovations, a new space conference hosted by Georgia Tech and Georgia’s Center of Innovation for Aerospace. The state hosts a Space Working Group which I joined at the start of the year, which quickly morphed into the organizing committee for this conference. We of the organizing committee are all very excited to put together and share it with you all! We wanted to showcase Georgia’s space achievements and bring to the state some excellent space speakers and topics, and we’ve succeeded in both goals.

The Georgia Space Alliance’s kick-off Space Party is the conference after-party on Thursday evening, open to the public. It’s a way for everyone to get together to network, socialize, and relax, the busyness of the conference behind them. There will be space art on display. There will be an optional costume contest with space prizes. I’m looking forward to connecting with existing friends and colleagues and meeting online space friends in person for the first time.

Georgia Space Alliance will take the momentum and energy of the conference and the networking and community-forming of the kick-off party and carry that into the new year. GSA will participate in February’s Georgia Aerospace Day and encourage our members to engage with our elected officials. Yuri’s Night will come to Georgia in April (for the first time?), potentially with a professional development event for students and young professionals. GSA’s Education Committee will plan a charity activity for Georgia STEM education. We may start a lecture series meant for the general public, illuminating connections between space and other fields. We may host an amateur rocket launch activity. We may restart the tradition of hosting an annual SpaceUp unconference. We will organize launch parties for Camden Spaceport’s first public rocket launches. As Georgia’s space community needs evolve, so will GSA.

I’m looking forward to seeing the seed of Georgia’s space community form, a seed that will grow into something much larger. I don’t yet know what that will look like, but I’m excited to find out!

Georgia Space Alliance: georgiaspacealliance.org
Symposium on Space Innovations: spaceinnovations.org

Friday, October 6, 2017

Is this a Spaceman or an Astronaut? Gendered Language


On Wednesday, the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, I was reading a Space News article about the event. One line stood out to me: “Space would be a place where the new man of the future, the communist man, would live, explore and create.” I immediately pictured a towering, heroic man resembling Yuri Gagarin preparing humanity’s way to explore the cosmos.

I realized something about myself just then. My initial instinct is to take words literally. If the word is “man”, I picture a man. If the word is “manned” as in manned spacecraft, I picture a man or men in a spacecraft. An instant later, I correct myself. I know better intellectually. The speaker or writer didn’t literally mean man the majority of the time, they meant human. But by that point, it’s too late. The image of a male has already formed in my head.

Am I the only person who thinks this way, I wondered? Does everyone else in the world instantly translate “man” as “human”? Or are there others whose first instinct is to literally imagine or interpret “man” or “manned” as a man or men?

I took to social media for an unscientific poll on the matter. I asked my mostly-space-involved Twitter audience and mostly-not-space-involved Facebook audience the following question and offered the following choices:

If I say "manned", what is your IMMEDIATE 1st impression/image?
1) a man
2) a woman
3) men and women
4) gender-neutral human

Of 106 responses on a 24 hour poll on Twitter:
42% voted gender-neutral human
32% voted a man
26% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

Of the 11 responses on Facebook, 100% voted gender-neutral human.

So altogether, with 117 votes:
47% voted gender-neutral human
29% voted a man
24% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

From this (unscientific) poll, I came to two conclusions:

First, I’m not the only one who literally thinks “a man” as an immediate first impression. A bit more than a quarter of the respondents think the same way I do. Unreasonably extrapolating this out, it’s possible a quarter of the English-speaking population forms the image of a man in their minds when reading about manned spaceflight, spacemen, unmanned, man-made, and other gender-specific terms.

Second, the majority of people don’t think this way. This may explain why transitioning from gender-specific terms to gender-neutral terms (e.g., manned spaceflight to human spaceflight or crewed spaceflight) is unimportant to some people. For most people who use gender-specific terms when they mean the gender-neutral equivalents, it’s a habit from years past, a slip of the tongue, or a concept that never occurred to them. But for some, they just don’t see the big deal in using gender-specific wording. Maybe in their minds, everyone automatically knows “man” means human. They may even think the emphasis on gender-neutral language is overly politically correct.

This week, I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend whose first-grade-aged daughter wants to be an astronaut. But for some reason, despite knowledge of female astronauts, this girl thinks only boys can be astronauts. The mom said when they search for astronauts online, they find mostly male images. This could be because most astronauts have been men. This could also be because the general perception of “astronaut” in popular culture is male or for boys.

Since becoming a mother two years ago, I see the deep and widespread sexism in baby and child marketing from birth onward. Space-themed baby or children items are almost always labeled for boys. What impact does this gender-labeling of space, combined with gender-specific terms such as manned spaceflight and spaceman, have on the quarter of the population who literally forms an image of a male astronaut in their minds when hearing these terms? Is it enough to turn off a space-loving first grader who may go forward in life thinking a space career isn’t for her because she’s a girl?

Words matter. Word choice may not matter to you or to the majority of the population. But it may make a difference to others who think and process language differently than you do. I caught myself just today saying “congressmen” when I meant “members of congress” as a slip of the tongue. I recognize the changes I need to make within myself to be more accurate and inclusive in my language. Change comes from within ourselves first.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Space Baby #2 Coming Soon



This space is dedicated to my adventures in space, but I also have adventures in other areas of life. Today I'd like to introduce you to our second child, Leonardo Nicholas, expected to enter this world in late January.

Leonardo is inspired by brilliant scientist, inventor, and artist Leonardo da Vinci. And because I worked on International Space Station research, the ISS multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo also came to mind. Only after my husband and I agreed on the name did I learn that Leonardo is my husband's favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Nicholas is in memory of a family member gone but not forgotten.

Assuming all goes according to plan, I'll be taking a few weeks off in January and February, to be determined. I'll also have more take-a-space-baby-to-work stories to share next year. We're so excited for our next adventure with two space youngins!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Made Speechless By The Sun



One coincidental benefit of moving to the northern Atlanta area last year was the relatively short distance needed to travel to the totality zone of the so-called Great American Eclipse of 2017. Some people planned their trip years in advance. I got in my car at 11 AM and drove 60 miles northeast to Helen, Georgia, known for its German Alpine design and atmosphere.

Hello Helen, Georgia! I parked temporarily to take this photo.


I had intended to leave a little earlier in the day. But life happens. Specifically, some wild animal was trapped in between our first floor and our basement ceiling and our cats were flipping out, so naturally I needed to investigate. Finally, I decided to let the cats sort it out and hit the road.

 


I had also intended to arrive in Helen in time for the start of the eclipse at around 1:00. However, I got hungry. We stopped for lunch just short of Helen. I allowed myself a, “That’s so cool!” moment when I peered at the Sun through my solar glasses in the parking lot before getting back in my car.

My daughter's cracker snack became a solar eclipse projector.


I had no specific destination in mind. Because the Sun was so high in the sky, any spot gave as good of a view as any other. But my 20-month-old daughter had taken a nap in the car and I wanted to give her space to run around. Thankfully, the town of Helen was crowded but not the park. I found a bench on the grass to set up my camera and take my initial telephoto shots. A fellow sky-watcher with a similar aged child commented how independent my Josephine is, entertaining herself with rocks. It’s a good thing, too, because I didn’t want to take my eyes off the sky for long.



Eventually Josephine noticed the narrow, shallow stream. For the next hour, nothing distracted her from the sheer joy of picking up river rocks and throwing them in the water. I relocated to the stream bank where I sat with my equipment, in disbelief of what I was seeing.



No photo I’ve taken or seen captured what I saw yesterday. It goes beyond imagery. The darkness, the senses, the emotions, all too complex to be summed up in a picture. I’ve never had an experience like that before. The total solar eclipse was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Solar eclipse in the lens flare.


In the minutes before totality, it dawned (or dusked) on me that the darkness was descending as if it were sunset. So much about the atmosphere, except the position of the Sun in the sky, felt like dusk. I even had the instinctual maternal thought of, “My 20-month-old is too young to play in a stream in the dark!”



As for my eclipse watching partner, the Sun didn’t hold her interest at all, and she kept throwing rocks into the water as if nothing else in the world was more important. I even tried to guide her head upward during totality, but she fought me and won, returning to her water play.

As the tiniest slivers of light shined, dimmed, and disappeared, cheers erupted all around me. I didn’t expect this. I was not in a crowded place. But in the distance in every direction, shouts and claps echoed. Complete strangers, completely different people, all united as one to admire the beauty of our Solar System and our place in it. I couldn’t help but cheer as well.



I have degrees in astrophysics. I am a space professional. In the minutes of solar eclipse totality, all intellectual thoughts left me. No word left my lips other than “Wow” and “Oh my God.” I don’t know when I started crying, but water filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. I didn’t expect to cry. And I didn’t let tears stop me from continuing to stare in awe as our closest planetary neighbor blocked out the light of our closest star.

I still can't believe I took this shot without a tripod.


As the light returned, I felt as though I had taken part in something much greater than myself. In reality, I took no part in it at all. The motions of the Earth, Sun, and Moon are all set in predictable clockwork, and we humans just observe. But by gathering together for this single purpose, we were a movement of another kind. I had a huge smile on my face.

Post-totality smile!

We stayed a little while longer. I put the solar glasses on my face and leaned back on the stream bank, not caring about capturing photos or missing totality. Josephine kept playing with rocks and water as if nothing else was happening. Eventually I dragged her away and set off for home.

It took much longer to get back than it did to get there. The park road was at such a standstill, I put my car in park, opened my car door, and watched the eclipse on and off for another half an hour more. Eclipse traffic combined with commuter traffic to create a mess on the road to home. But it was worth it. Seeing a total solar eclipse was worth every minute I spent sitting in traffic while my daughter screamed.



I experienced the eclipse many times over since then, processing my own photos and browsing others’ postings. What strikes me is how much this astronomical alignment brought us all together: space enthusiasts and regular people, friends and strangers alike. People who otherwise wouldn't care about celestial objects were staring in wonder. The solar eclipse brought rare unity to our country, centered around the Sun and the Moon. Thank you all for sharing in the astro love!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mission Failure


There are many topics on my backlog to blog about: fun space things I’ve seen, new space things I’ve accomplished, my plans for the future. But what’s on my mind today is a matter of heart: mistakes, scapegoating, and team discord.

Bullying, which causes psychological harm to children everywhere, also affects adults in the workplace. I was victim to a workplace bully in graduate school who harmed my perception of myself, slowed my research progress, and exasperated my sense of impostor syndrome in the laboratory that took me years to overcome.

Preparing for my first ZeroG Corporation parabolic microgravity flight in grad school was a joyful, if exhausting experience. Finally, I would be able to float in free-fall – just as astronauts do – even if for only 30 seconds at a time. And I would be accomplishing real science as I soared, science I needed for my PhD. I wanted to have a blast, but I also wanted the experiment to be a success.

Which makes the outcome of that experience all the more frustrating.

Each team member was trained to handle a specific role during the flight. We had four team members and four roles. All four tasks needed to be accomplished during each microgravity-creating parabola in order to make the experiment a success. We had four experiment boxes to run the experiment four times, but only one laptop and camera setup.

My task was to press a button at the right time to release an impactor (a marble) to shoot at a very slow speed into a container of sand (fake Moon or Mars dirt/regolith simulant). But I couldn’t do my job alone; I relied on another team member with a better viewing angle to tell me when to fire the trigger. Our jobs depended on each other. We all needed to work together.

The first two tries were a flop. The trigger didn’t fire. Something must have been loose in the wiring. The third try worked! But my team member got too excited and told me to press the trigger too early. We weren’t having the best luck with scientific research.

At this point, we were losing team members. Two of the team had tapped out by then, victim of the Vomit Comet. We prepared for that eventuality, although admittedly not well. Each member of the team had spent a few minutes in the lab learning all the other team member’s tasks in case we needed to take over for a sick teammate. Had we thought a bit more ahead of time, we would have realized a few minutes of training would not cut it in a high-pressure quick-paced floating environment where it was hard enough to control limbs, let alone the experiment. But at the time, I had no choice. I took over the camera operation as well as my triggering duties and hoped for the best.

The best is not what happened. I don’t know how, but instead of recording 30 seconds of data on our forth and final experiment attempt, the video recorded a fraction of a second that looped for 30 seconds. I had never seen that happen before and had no idea the software even had that feature. I wasn’t sure if it was something I had done wrong, something the previous camera operator had done wrong, or just a very odd glitch in the camera software. But I was the one who pressed the camera buttons, so I accepted blame.

Up until this point, my workplace bully (the lab manager) had no legitimate complaints against me. She was envious of my educational success beyond her own, frustrated she had no authority over me, and infuriated that she couldn’t get under my skin, at least not yet. But the camera failure gave her the perfect opportunity and she jumped on it. Despite the fact that three of the four experiments failed for other reasons and the forth failure may or may not have my fault, I became the scapegoat for the whole mission failure.

With my own admission of possible guilt and no useful data to show for the ZeroG flight, she successfully turned half the lab against me, impressionable undergraduates who depended on her opinion for a job and who she also bullied to a lesser degree. The lab was a dysfunctional mess and a toxic work environment. I accepted increased isolation in the lab for my own mental health, trying my best to avoid contact with her.

My biggest failing was to internalize her lies about me. I began to see my labwork and my aptitude as a scientist in a more negative light, wondering if I really was a failure. This doubt hindered my success for years.

My bully petitioned hard to prevent me from flying during our next parabolic flight opportunity, this time with NASA in Houston. But with multiple flights over multiple days, we needed a larger team of flyers. I did fly for one of those parabolic flights. This time, it was me who got sick halfway through the flight and had to pass off my job tasks to another team member. And this time around, despite the multiple flights, our experiment failed for other reasons. I could not be blamed.

Despite the research failures, the team disharmony, and the eventual vomiting, I did have a blast during those parabolic flights. They remain one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.

Floating around in microgravity - Nov. 2011


When I read about today’s Rocket Lab test flight failure because someone on the ground forgot to tick a box in ground control software, I feel for that person. The weight of failure on his/her shoulders must be very heavy right now. It is my deepest hope that whoever was responsible for the software mistake which doomed the Rocket Lab launch feels supported by his/her team, not isolated or ostracized.

Poor coworkers might scapegoat an employee who makes a mistake. But in reality, mistakes like that don’t happen in isolation. A unified, well-working team would work together during preparation to ensure easy mistakes don’t happen, but when they do, they would band together to accept fault as a group and seek solutions for the future. Mission success depends on the efforts of all, working together for a common purpose, holding each other up, working past failures, and celebrating successes. Mission success depends on everyone.