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.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Spectacular Spacey Independence Days

"I Need My Space" - Awaiting the scrubbed space shuttle launch on July 1, 2006

The most space-intensive summers I ever had were my two NASA Academy summers, as an intern in 2005 and a co-leader in 2006. Those two summers produced awesome and awe-inspiring space memories and two memorable Independence Days. Traditional fireworks aren’t the only things that flash, burn, and bang!

In 2005, my NASA cohort of interns based at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama traveled to the Washington, DC area for tours of NASA Headquarters, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Maryland. We also hit up various monuments, the zoo, and museums such as both Smithsonian Air & Space locations while we were there.

Late evening July 3, 2005, our group gathered at a University of Maryland auditorium with other students and invited guests. We heard a talk by University of Maryland professor and NASA Deep Impact mission PI Michael A'Hearn and a few other scientists on the team. We crashed the VIP section of the auditorium to fill up on snacks and grab free mission swag (pins, posters, etc.).

At 1:45 AM on July 4, three large screens showed a live view of the Deep Impact probe approaching comet Tempel 1. We could see the comet clearly. As the minutes went by, we could see craters getting larger as the impactor got closer. Finally the images stopped coming. Cheers erupted from the team at JPL in California. Finally, we could see why. The bottom of the comet had been smashed! A bright flash could be seen from where the impactor had hit, and the images that followed showed the flash growing larger and brighter. It was a spectacular Independence Day explosion, even better than the fireworks we watched at the National Mall later that day.

Americans smacking into a comet on July 4, 2005.

I was a student at Florida Institute of Technology on the Space Coast when the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon returning to land at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. We were all devastated. The space shuttles were grounded for two and a half years. Finally, in July 2005, Space Shuttle Discovery launched its return-to-flight mission. Our NASA Academy group was able to witness that spectacular piece of history from the VIP bleachers at Kennedy Space Center.

However, all was not well with the shuttle program, and the space vehicles were grounded for another year. My NASA Academy team in 2006 was able to travel to Kennedy Space Center in July 2006 to see the second Space Shuttle Discovery return-to-flight launch on July 4.

We spent much of that day having fun at the KSC Visitor Complex, which I highly recommend. As launch time approached, used our free-access passes to drive to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Some of our team watched from the ground around the VAB. I followed a few others to climb an unused mobile launch platform to get a view above the trees. Of all the spots I’ve seen a launch, it was one of the best views!

At T-4 minutes, a security guard climbed the mobile launch platform, and there was a collective gasp. “You all have to go,” he said. I stared in shocked disbelief until he said, “Just kidding!” and joined us. From then on, I was in a world of happiness and awe. Apparently some people were chanting the countdown, but I couldn’t hear them. I was in my own world where only me and Discovery existed.

A rocket ignition is the best type of firework there is!

My view of the Space Shuttle Discovery launch from atop the treeline on July 4, 2006.

Although we’ve been waiting patiently the past two days for the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Intelsat 35e, we will not get a rocket launch firework display tonight. But here’s to hoping for a future SpaceX launch success and future spacey Independence Days to come!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Space Art Around the House

Six months settled into the new home, and I decided to finally finish hanging pictures and decorating (mostly). I thought it would be fun to show you most (but not all of) my small but dear collection of space art and memorabilia. I am by no means a collector. I indulge in a few meaningful pieces from time to time. And sometimes the artist in myself comes out. I almost made a piece last weekend, but with all the decorating, creating will have to wait for another day.

I was the photographer of that collection of photos, some of my older work. I need another picture frame for my newer photos. The little moon in the center left is a Moon stamp issued by the US Post Office. The solar system model in the center is based on a Harry Potter film prop.

I made the sun and star stained glass piece during an art class hosted by Hobby Lobby a few years back. The two stars on either end are actually Christmas tree toppers. The shooting star box contains little origami stars I folded once. The globe is a 3D puzzle I put together as a teenager that somehow survived many moves.

My husband gifts me Celestial Buddies planets and planetary bodies. I don't have them all yet but I have a good bundle. My husband also gave me the space shuttle. I won the Cylon ship during Yuri's Night trivia once. The capsule is a foam Boeing Starliner CST-100. I have various foam rockets and astronauts I gave to my toddler to play with around the house.

Pins! Some of them space-related, some not. Some missing from the move. Hmm.

Space coins and memorabilia. The Space Shuttle Atlantis items in the front are from the VIP opening of the Atlantis exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. My husband gave me the Russian coin featuring Yuri Gagarin in the blue case. The two Florida space quarters are from Space Florida. The two Cape Canaveral coins are from some experienced old rocketeers. The ULA coins are from special launch events. The pyramid is a National Space Society award. The laser-etched space shuttle is on a base that can illuminate and spin the glass.


Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night and Starry Night Over the Rhone canvas prints hanging in the family room.

My grandparents' grandfather clock. It tracks the Moon's phases! I've just got it back from servicing so I haven't set the phases yet.

I found the half stained glass Moon from the Morse Museum gift shop in Orlando (I highly recommend it if you enjoy Tiffany art). Just on the other side of the door hangs a Moon-Sun spinner that spins in the wind.

I made the shell Moon and stars for my daughter just before she was born. I can't remember where I got the post cards from, but I liked them so much, I framed them for my daughter's room.

My aunt Jeanne made this beautiful work of art for my daughter upon her birth.

This light switch case is perfect for a peacefully snoozing baby (in theory).

I painted this one last year under the instruction of a talented artist friend of mine Rachel. It proves the paintbrush is not my best artistic medium.

My husband found this picture frame recently. The words are illuminated from behind. It's perfect!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Welcome to Adult Life where Everything’s Made Up and Grades Don’t Matter

(Props to you if you're an improv fan and recognize the quote style.)

“Grades are so important.”

How many times was that said to you over the course of your childhood by parents, teachers, and authority figures? You may have even said it yourself, especially if you have kids or have worked with kids.

And it’s a lie.

Oh, it’s true to a certain point. In order to embark upon a decent career, a student needs to earn decent grades. Grades are gatekeepers to the next level. In order to advance and gain certain privileges, a certain threshold must be met.

How important it is to receive straight As? A 4.0 (or higher!) GPA? Top marks in the class? Valedictorian? Not in the slightest. These accomplishments are heralded as so important to students and their parents and are of no significance at all in the adult working world. None.

Grades are a horribly subjective way to measure a student’s ability to memorize, repeat, conform, and obey authority. A student’s marks bear little resemblance to their intelligence, interest, effort, attitude, enthusiasm, work ethic, creativity, and true learning of subject matter. The latter traits matter far more in a person’s career.

I was always a good student. But I was never a straight-A student, usually As and Bs with the rare C. I have a poor memory. Some lucky people have excellent memories which produce excellent grades with little effort. I extended a large amount of effort with mixed results.

Almost all tests I took in math and science courses required extensive memorization. This is an outdated model of teaching that presumes students won’t have access to information, calculators, or peers when they work in their careers. With information, calculators, and peers with us at all times in our pockets, it’s hard to see how traditional testing methods assesses a student’s true ability to perform in their future science careers.

In my case, they didn’t. I remember being so frustrated with this contradiction in undergraduate physics that I decided to program a few physical constants and basic equations in my calculator, essentially cheating. Because I knew never in my life would it be important for me to know a physical constant off the top of my head. Instead I focused on knowing when and how to use which constants and equations to solve physics problems.

Grades are also highly subjective. I’ve always been an okay writer, but in tenth grade, an English teacher disagreed with me. She disliked my writing style, graded me harshly, and wanted to prevent me from advancing to honors English. And yet my eleventh grade honors English and twelfth grade AP English teachers graded me well. I highly doubt my writing quality improved significantly in such a short time. More likely, my English teachers were human and my grades were a reflection of their own biases rather than my true writing ability.

Even STEM fields fall victim to this subjective evaluation. Some teachers expect one result and are close-minded to alternate solutions. I once got into a disagreement with a physics professor who wrote a lab question ambiguously. I answered it in a way he didn’t intend. I was correct. But he marked it zero and refused to let me rewrite it. The situation escalated. I had to take my argument all the way to the department head and get transferred out of his lab in order to be graded fairly. My theory is that he was offended I had alternatively interpreted his “perfectly” written question and his pride got in the way of evaluating my work objectively.

College admissions counselors know this concept well. Grade disparity exists not only from teacher to teacher, but from school to school. Some top schools are well known for grade inflation. Students show up to class, do the bare minimum, and earn As because that’s what they and their parents expect. It is very difficult to compare school to school, and sometimes difficult to compare student to student within schools if their teachers differ. Grades become an almost meaningless measure beyond a certain “passing well” threshold, defined differently by each university admissions office.

Within college/university, the pressure to earn good grades within one’s major courses intensifies. Higher education grades are seen as a reflection of a student’s ability to work in their chosen career. Students are “weeded out” or discouraged from continuing in their major if their grades don’t reflect a certain standard set by their advisor or department. Otherwise good students, trying to succeed in their chosen fields, are told that their self-worth as professionals in their careers is determined by the subjective evaluation of a few imperfect individuals.

Some students understandably quit prematurely when they’re told that their grades have damned them to a career of failure. This is almost always untrue, and yet it's so common it's joked about. A poor or even failing grade translates to the mindset of never being able to master the material (in the way the professor expects) and therefore never succeeding in the field, so why continue trying? Combine poor grades with social discouragement (presuming a student will fail because of their sex, ethnicity, background, physical abilities, etc.) drives away many students who would likely succeed with more support.

As I said, grades are only important as a gatekeeper. A certain threshold is needed to advance from grade to grade, to college/university, to advanced degrees, to gain certifications and credentials. A certain threshold is needed for scholarships, fellowships, grants, and awards, sometimes the very funds that allow a student to continue their education. Grades are important only because we as a society have made them important in our education system.

Grades are unimportant overall. Grades are not important in one’s career or job. Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth.

I’m going to repeat that last statement, because I fell victim to believing it for so long: Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth.

Because I was never a straight-A student, I suffered from impostor syndrome throughout my 12 years in higher education. I internalized the evaluations as my innate ability to learn and conduct science. I assumed that because my grades were okay but not excellent, I was doomed to be an okay but not excellent scientist. I hesitated to promote and advocate for myself as a student scientist. I mistook my grades for my professional worth. And no one corrected me.

Only my experience working as a professional has taught me how wrong I was and how I wronged myself for so long. In the adult world, no one asks what your grades were. I honestly don’t remember my GPA at any level, nor my SAT, nor my ACT, nor my GRE, etc. I’ve never asked anyone what their grades were, not even during the hiring process. Only browsing resumes will you sometimes see a GPA. I’ve never heard any colleagues ask what anyone else’s grades were. I've never heard a colleague spontaneously offer their grades. Those numbers have no power over us once we leave behind studenthood. 

Because grades don’t matter in the adult world. Yes, some companies require a certain threshold GPA for entry-level positions. But that’s uncommon, and only limited to entry-level positions. Beyond that, no one cares. In your entire adult working life, your grades as a student don't matter.

What matters in the adult world? Competency. Ability. Responsibility. Professionalism. Cooperation. Dedication. Creativity. And so many other traits that are not assessed on student tests. My ability to do great work in the profession I’m passionate about was never represented by the grades I received as a student.

Grades are not important in one’s career. Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth. You are worth so much more than your GPA.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

NASA Education: Funding Student Dreams

A week ago, the Trump Administration released a draft of the proposed FY2018 budget. My first instinct was to shrug it off. Congress creates the budget and usually ignores anything in the president's budget it doesn't agree with.

But then I saw a proposed cut within NASA: the entire NASA Education office. And I was up in arms. NASA Education initiatives and funding are what kick-started my career in the space industry. It's the reason I am where I am today. NASA Education, just a measly 0.000225% of the FY2017 budget, has wide-reaching results around the country for countless numbers of students and the general public.

The NASA Space Grant Consortium is under the NASA Education program. In all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, students are given opportunities they wouldn't normally have, especially if they don't live near a NASA center. US taxpayers pay for NASA's $19 billion budget, and NASA gives back to taxpayers in so many ways. NASA Education with its many programs such as Space Grant is a way to reach back to all regions of the country.

For this Philadelphian, NASA Education gave me my first two research opportunities. After my freshman year of college, Delaware Space Grant funded my astronomy research at Villanova University. (I'm not sure why Delaware and not Pennsylvania; I didn't ask.) Pennsylvania Space Grant approved my application for my first internship, NASA Academy at Marshall Space Flight Center, which Florida Space Grant ultimately paid for because I was enrolled in a Florida university. With those two summers of research experience, I was accepted into my top choice graduate school.

NASA Education funds more than just internships. In grad school, I was awarded a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) fellowship. Being a NASA GSRP fellow meant I could continue my studies in high-energy astrophysics and continue to work with the team at NASA MSFC.

I also have Space Grant to thank for giving me the opportunity to take one step closer to my dream of becoming an astronaut. Florida Space Grant funded my scientist astronaut training at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center where I received my Suborbital Scientist Astronaut Training wings.

Space Grant also sponsored my unofficial internship at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works. I conducted work beneficial to NASA's goals and related to my doctoral research with Florida Space Grant's support.

And then there are NASA programs I participated in that NASA Education may have had a hand in, I'm not sure. As a high school sophomore, I job shadowed scientists and engineers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and attended a workshop for high schools about women in science, including NASA satellite engineers. I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, which is privately funded but also benefits from NASA Education. Astronaut Sally Ride visited my high school when I was a senior to speak about inspiring children to pursue their dreams. Who knows what else NASA Education has touched in my life.

And this is just my experience! So many of my colleagues have similar success stories thanks to NASA Education. Just ask around.

Students younger than college-age also benefit. I participated in FIRST Robotics in high school, which is partly sponsored by NASA Education. Kindergarteners through postdocs and educators benefit from NASA Education programs. A full list is on the NASA Education website.

Is NASA Education important to you? Contact your elected representatives to tell them why. Ask them to fully fund NASA Education.

Thank you to the Washington Post for covering this important issue and including my perspective regarding the importance of the NASA Education office. “A lot of times the only way women or minorities can actually succeed is through these grants. It's the only way they continue getting funding.” Support NASA Education for the next generation.

Monday, February 27, 2017

My First Science Lab: Freedom, Confidence, & Proving Them Wrong

A week ago, the Astralytical space resources laboratory officially opened. My lab. This was an unexpectedly emotional moment for me. There were people in my life who planted the seed of doubt in my head. To prove them wrong about me was a moment of triumph that I celebrated as a small achievement in practice, but symbolically meant scaling my imposter syndrome mountain.

I ran a science lab periously, but it wasn't my lab. As a doctoral student in planetary sciences and my advisor's first grad student in this lab, I assisted him in getting the ball rolling and managing the undergraduate students. I gained experience running a science lab and conducting experiments. Even though I directed the day-to-day activities in the lab, I didn't direct the science. I wasn't in charge. Worse, I was bullied by a fellow lab manager, which added to the imposter syndrome mountain.

I've previously written about my decision to leave grad school all-but-dissertation (twice!), meaning I've twice taken all courses needed for a doctorate, passed major exams, and completed a substantial amount of new, independent research in high-energy astrophysics and experimental planetary science, but I left before completing and defending my dissertation. I've had academics as recently as a year ago tell me that I'd never be able to direct my own lab, apply for research funding, or become a principal investigator (PI) on a mission without the Doctor title.

Directing my own lab is the first step in proving to them that their academic path is not superior to my path and in fact my path is best for me. A well known flaw in academic advising is the bias professors have when guiding students in career planning. Academia was best for the academics, so they assume it's best for everyone. Academia has never been my goal from the start. In undergrad I decided to pave my own way, regardless of what others think. This professor who doesn't know me thinks I need his credentials in order to direct my own research? Watch me prove him wrong.

In 2015 and early 2016, I contributed to the beginnings of a research group focused on using fake Mars dirt (regolith) to grow plants, inspired by the story The Martian. I attended meetings and a workshop, contributing what little I could, but I could not get involved in the actual research. The group couldn't afford to pay for individuals outside of NASA KSC and the partnering university. I was told that they may get funds in time. So I waited and waited, delaying my own research with the hope of joining their group. The funds never arrived, at least not before I moved out of state.

Around that same time, I was collaborating with a former NASA colleague who had started his own business to mine and use space resources. He didn't want to get me involved until he had funding. He had planned to apply for NASA funding, but the call for proposals was repeatedly delayed. And so I waited and waited while my colleague was delayed in even applying for potential funds.

Waiting, waiting, waiting to work on others' research and not working on my own research.

The biggest piece of advice I'd give to my past student self would be: Don't wait to ask for permission. A consequence of our outdated educational system is the constant pressure to obey, conform, raise hands, ask permission, don't move forward until authority figures give the okay. That thinking held me back in undergrad and early grad school as I struggled to define who I was and who I wanted to become. I could have and perhaps should have gone farther, faster, if I had been empowered to move at my own pace in my own direction instead of waiting and seeking approval.

My first full-time career position was short-lived because of this constraining culture. As I quickly learned and excelled at my job, I felt the pull to learn and do more. I tried repeated to assist in other ways, collaborate in other departments, be innovative and self-starting. I asked permission, even gained it in some cases. But at every attempt to act, I was ignored, discouraged, even reprimanded. By the end, I was greatly underutilized, caged in my box, and disheartened. It's no surprised that when I finally gained freedom in my next position, I grew and soared.

That's what the Astralytical scientific and analysis work means to me: freedom. I no longer have to ask permission from anyone to pursue what's interesting and beneficial to me and to the space community I'm a part of. As recently as last month, a client tried to dictate what I can and can't do in my own business (unrelated to his business). I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. Not only can I run my own science lab, write my own industry reports, conduct my own research, dive into space policy initiatives, and assist various clientele, I no longer have to ask permission from anyone to do so. I'm free to be an American entrepreneur.

Of course, I have my husband to thank for supporting me in my endeavors. Without his encouragement and support, I couldn't have gotten Astralytical to where it is today.

Regolith - pretending I have dirt from another world.

Shifting gears, I'll give you an overview of what the modest Astralytical lab will focus on initially. I'm returning to my planetary science roots. My current research is a derivative of my doctoral research at UCF, but with added components that I didn't get a chance to study previously. I'm currently resource limited, so I don't have all the lab equipment that I'd like, but I'll build it up over time.

Regolith (dirt, dust, and soil) on other planetary bodies is different from regolith on our own planet Earth. But we can use Earth regolith to simulate what the surfaces of other worlds look like, move like, and contain. I'm using regolith simulants to explore the physics of other worlds without physically being there, focusing in particular in Earth's Moon, Mars, Martian moons, and asteroids. Additionally, I'm adding different amounts of water ice to the regolith, because the worlds I'm interested in are cold and contain trace amounts of water.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) means using the resources of a location instead of bringing resources to that location from elsewhere. It's widely believed that ISRU is the key to sustained exploration and settlement of space and other worlds. But ISRU has not been as widely studied as it needs to be in order to prepare us for a sustained space presence. My research studying icy regolith is a step in determining how we can use the dirt on other worlds to our benefit.

My lab is under Earth's gravity (1 g), but eventually I'd like to explore how the icy regolith acts in reduced gravity (analogous to Moon or Mars gravity) and microgravity (close to 0 g, analogous to space). I've flown two “zero G” parabolic flight campaigns and, when I was pregnant, I worked ground operations for a third. I'd love to fly my own experiment on a parabolic flight and perhaps even in low Earth orbit someday. If all goes well, I'll apply for funding to do so in the next couple of years.

The research possibilities ahead of me are endless, and even more inspiring to me because they are my possibilities. With my own research, I don't need to wait for or ask permission from another to do what interests me. I can even do something completely different without having to explain myself. I want to fly my own high-altitude balloon flight and carry a payload up to the stratosphere, but for what scientific reason, I'm not sure yet. I'll figure it out in time. I don't need to justify it to anyone (unless I apply for funding, of course). This is my research, my career, my life. Imposter syndrome, be gone.

Icy regolith up close.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December 21, 2015: New Life For Rockets & Humans

This is not the SpaceX launch on Dec. 21, 2015; this was July 18, 2016. But still pretty.

I remember the evening of December 21, 2015 well. The winter solstice brought new life into my world with the birth of my daughter Josephine on December 20. As I stepped foot into motherhood, the space industry stepped foot into a new era of reusable rocketry.

It has been a guessing game for spectators up to that point: will SpaceX succeed in launching a Falcon 9 rocket to orbit and successfully land a spent booster back on the ground, upright, asking to be refurbished and reused? Before each launch, probabilities were discussed and bets were taken. And each time, we watched with disappointment as our collective hopes ended in a fiery collapse.

But maybe this time was different. Past technological successes proved that it was feasible. Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, NASA, and others had demonstrated launch and landing of a vertical rocket. But this was the first orbital attempt of its kind, the first time a rocketeer dared to direct a spacecraft to circle the Earth, make a delivery, and return intact to Earth where it left minutes before.

Space is always in my heart and on my mind. I had not forgotten about the rocket launch in my sleep-deprived new mom hustle. I barely knew what day it was, but I knew the exact time SpaceX was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, from my hospital room in Melbourne an hour south from the launch activity, I was barely aware of what time it was! Exhausted and in love, I cuddled my newborn and counted down the hours until the hospital would release us home.

A passenger in my husband's car as we drove north on US-1, my primary concern was comforting my passionately upset daughter who I would soon learn hated everything about car rides. Through the baby's screams and my brain's own screams for rest, I noted the time and looked east. There was the fireball rising in the dark night sky, ascending more quickly than I could capture it with my phone's camera. The result was a blurred image with an equally bright streetlight detracting from the photo's brilliant subject. Normally I would have been bummed to miss photographing a launch, but at that moment, it was far down on my list of priorities.

Time was lost to me again as we arrived home. I unbuckled my tiny daughter from her car seat and lifted her above the driveway of her new home. And I heard it: two sonic booms. I quickly checked the news on my phone and cheered – they had done it! The SpaceX team had successfully landed the first stage Falcon 9 booster back down at Cape Canaveral. I, and to a limited extend my one-day-old child, had witnessed history being made. Knowing me, I probably cried a little at the beauty.

I ask you, is it too much to call this new era of rocket reusability the era of Josephine?