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?

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Moment of Silence for Swiss Space Systems

Taken September 2015 at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I received the email the same day I got engaged. I had been waiting months for this email, wondering if it would ever really happen. I've had unofficial job offers dangled in front of me in the past, only to become disappointed when they never materialized into paper. Live and learn.

It was a Saturday evening in Florida in May 2013 when I accepted a LinkedIn invitation and struck up a conversation with a stranger in Hong Kong who was part of a team creating a “new space” start-up in Switzerland. It was ambitious and intriguing. He asked me for assistance setting up a meeting in Florida. I was happy to help.

I met the team for a pre-meeting breakfast in July, then again at the Florida office grand opening in March 2014. I met with the man who would head the U.S. subsidiary, my future boss, twice one-on-one. The delays in the start of operations worried me only slightly. I took it as a sign that they were being extra cautious before jumping into the U.S. market.

On August 29, 2014, Swiss Space Systems' US subsidiary S3 USA asked me to run their Florida office. With a shiny new ring on my left hand, I said yes to both the marriage proposal and the job. I finally began two months later. The intent was for me to start hiring employees for the office right away in preparation for parabolic “Zero G” flights that would begin out of Kennedy Space Center's huge SLF runway the following year.

The business plan seemed solid to me. With investments and partners, S3 would purchase and modify a large plane to begin parabolic flights for research and tourism. With that income, funds would be available to build their spaceplane which would fly suborbital flights across the world. Eventually, a small satellite launcher would be added to the suborbital vehicle to launch small satellites into orbit. They even had a smallsat customer lined up. The Swiss are known for their meticulous attention to detail and deep pockets. They sold me on the dream.

Up to that point, I had worked for two space start-ups, both with varying degrees of challenges and successes. I entered into the position eyes wide open. I knew there was a high risk of failure. At that stage of my career, I was willing to take the chance. And I lost.

Hiring a staff never happened. Financial troubles began to trickle down to me in February. It wasn't long before previous months' of paychecks were added to the list of company promises. I was kept out of the loop for the most part. I started part-time tutoring math, physics, and exam prep on the side. I hadn't even reached a year with S3 before being encouraged by my boss to look for other opportunities. The difficulty was, I was pregnant and far along, so beginning a new full-time job at that time was impractical.

December 2015. The sweet front desk administrator at Space Florida's Space Life Science Lab gave me a surprise baby shower gift around the same I was clearing out the S3 Florida office. It wasn't pregnancy hormones that caused me to cry in my empty office. It was only because my immediate boss is a truly decent, protecting, generous human being was I able to give birth with health insurance that S3 HQ had cut off the month prior. As 2015 came to a close, so did my employment with the Swiss space start-up that wasn't meant to be.

With notice of its bankruptcy last week, I'd like to take a moment of silence to reflect on the short life and long decline of Swiss Space Systems. As I unpack my belongs in my new home this month, I find reminders: a stack of holographic bookmarks, a bomber jacket, a spaceplane pin, and a high-quality print-out of a graphically rendered spaceplane that hung in the S3 Florida office. Long gone, S3 will always hold a place in my memory.

Lesson learned. By wary of start-ups. But it's okay to take that chance sometimes. You never know what will happen if the dreamers succeed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Smallsats & Small Launch Vehicles

Space Shuttle Columbia model at NASA MSFC - July 2008

With historical awe over the Apollo Saturn V days and the excitement over a “monster” heavy-lift rocket, large launchers get all the attention. I can understand the appeal. Our ability to put huge payloads into orbit is impressive, almost inconceivable. Watching one of these giant rockets light and ascend to the heavens is spectacular. They deserve the attention they command.

And yet, under the radar, smaller launchers are aiming to revolutionize how we put objects into space. New small satellite launch vehicles (smallsat launchers) hope to deliver small payloads into orbit quickly and reliably for a much lower cost than what is currently available on the market. There is a huge pent-up demand for smallsat (cubesat, nanosat, microsat, etc.) launch and therefore a built-in initial customer base for any new launcher that can deliver as promised.

My first report for Northern Sky Research was a look at the smallsat launch vehicle markets. It demanded most of my time for a few months, but I’m proud announce it was published in September. Since then, I’ve published two follow-up articles on the subject: here and here. On December 14, my colleague and I will host a free webinar on smallsats and launchers. If you’re interested, sign up!

I’ve been privileged to watch several types of rocket launches in Florida: Space Shuttle, Delta II, Delta IV, Atlas V, Falcon 1, and Falcon 9. However, I have yet to see a smallsat launcher take to the skies. Most of these small launchers aren't operational yet. In the United States, only Orbital ATK's Pegasus is what I’d classify as a small launch vehicle currently in operation. Pegasus is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on December 12, but sadly I moved away from Florida and therefore will only be able to watch the video The last time Pegasus launched from the Space Coast, it was 2003 and I was a freshman in college not yet paying attention to non-crewed rocket launches.

I had hoped my previous employer would succeed with an air launch to orbit system similar to how Pegasus launches payloads to space. However, I now believe they have a low likelihood of succeeding, which is a shame. I hope I’m wrong. But the truth is, that not many of the nearly 50 smallsat launch systems will become operational. I have my favorites, but I’m not clairvoyant. Right before Firefly announced their financial difficulties that furloughed their staff, I praised their Alpha rocket as having a high likelihood of success. Surprises happen all the time.

The top companies I foresee succeeding in this area are Generation Orbit, Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic. I’d love to see a Rocket Lab launch out of New Zealand someday, but given the distances, I'm more likely to see a smallsat launch from the United States. More than one of these companies plans to launch from Florida. I’d take a special trip down to the Sunshine State to see a future launch of one of these new vehicles! History will be made in the next few years in the smallsat launch vehicle industry.

The last launch I saw before moving - ULA Atlas V, July 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Goodbye Columbus, Hello Atlanta

The busyness of life has swept me away, and just like that, our time in Columbus, Ohio has concluded. We had anticipated staying longer, but my husband's career has taken us elsewhere. I spent two and a half months in Columbus, exploring central Ohio and enjoying the American Midwest.

Our first Ohio home was a hotel in the Polaris area. North of the city, Polaris is named after the North Star. I enjoyed the fun astronomy-themed names such as Pulsar, Antares, Gemini, Orion, Sun Flare, Sirius, and Lyra. Well done, city planners!

The corner of Polaris and Gemini

I met a colleague for lunch at the Ohio State University campus. Even newer to the city than I was, John was just settling into his new role as a professor, and not just any professor, the Armstrong Chair. I knew John in Huntsville, Alabama years ago and loved catching up with him. Rarely do I get a chance to chat about space policy and Chinese relations over lunch. I wish that my time in Columbus hadn't been so short so I could meet up with him again.

While on campus, John showed me the little John Glenn collection in one of the nearby OSU buildings: newspaper clippings, old photographs, childrens' space drawings, a model of the Mercury capsule, and a Moon rock. I can't help but geek out over space memorabilia.

John Glenn's Moon rock plaque at OSU

Space stuff! at OSU

And now I'm settling into Atlanta, Georgia and once again house hunting. There is a larger space community here, including university Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Emory University, Georgia Aerospace, Space Works, and subsidiary companies Generation Orbit, Blink Aero, and Terminal Velocity. Elsewhere in Georgia (around five hours away!) is an effort to create a spaceport in Camden County.

I've been too busy to meet anyone of the space community here yet. Atlanta traffic dampens my motivation. For example, there's an astronomy talk at Georgia State University on Wednesday evening, but with rush hour traffic, it would take an hour to get there by train or over an hour by car. Much closer to where we're currently living is a stargazing event by the Atlanta Astronomy Club on Friday I plan to attend. I also just joined the National Defense Industrial Association and the Space Committee of the local chapter. I'm still looking for locals to meet and things to get involved in!

Monday, August 15, 2016


Even at 16, I was focused on space!

It has been over a month since my last catch-up blog entry. What a crazy month it has been! I started my new position at Northern Sky Research, which I'll write about later because it's awesome. Moving, selling a house, and buying a house have been enormously time-consuming. I am pleased to report that our Florida home is on the market and we're in contract to move into our new home north of Columbus, Ohio in a month. In the meantime, we're living in a hotel room. All of us. My husband, our crawling-and-cruising baby, three cats, a dog, and fish. Life is an adventure.

Recently, there was a trending Twitter hashtag (with variants): #firstsevenjobs. I've always found people's journeys fascinating. I had to really think about my life, where I started and how far I've come, in order to write my first seven jobs progression. It's difficult to remember life as a 16-year-old just starting out making minimum wage. A high school student with dreams, plans, and potential! It seemed that each job represented another step in my journey, another chapter in my life.

It was just as interesting to read others' journeys, posted in fewer than 140 characters. Some posters, early in their careers, shine potential and hope. Others, later in their careers, embody calm satisfaction with where they are. Surprisingly, some successful careers took fewer than 7 jobs to achieve, especially military careers. Great for them! Some successful careers were preceded by so many lower-level jobs that 7 wasn't enough to paint a picture of success. But they got there. Or they will.

The diversity of paths is what fascinates me the most. Everyone's first seven jobs were completely different and mostly unpredictable. We do a disservice to kids by implying they must choose their careers young and not diverge from their (or someone else's) chosen path. No one's path is straight and plan-able. But we all end up going somewhere.

From an early age, I fell in love with space and decided that what I wanted to dedicate myself to. But that's not a job title nor a job path. I had to feel my way through it. In high school, I felt lost, not knowing how to get there or who to ask. Authority figures were supportive but just as unknowing. We all knew college was a good place to start!

Even before college, I had a first job: babysitter. Based on my high school circle, I would have thought babysitting was a common first job. This doesn't seem to be the case based on what others tweeted. I had brief side gigs selling things and tutoring, but for the most part, I watched other people's kids. I babysat under-the-table, then obtained my first official job at age 16 in childcare at the local YMCA making minimum wage.

I'm grateful to the professors and administration at my undergraduate university emphasizing the importance of internships and career-relevant experience. The summer after my freshman year of college, I sought my first astronomy internship. I had no idea how to get one. With cold calling, I obtained a volunteering astronomy research position while also obtaining my second official job: selling shoes in a mall department store for minimum wage plus commission. I was terrible at it. Thankfully, my volunteer position ended up being paid, leading to job #3 and my first career-related job at age 19: astronomy research assistant.

I'm so very grateful to the professors who gave me a chance. Many people's third jobs aren't positions related to their intended career. This position led to every other step and success in my career. Without this starting point, I wouldn't be where I am today. From them, I learned about scientific research, programming, data analysis, and technical writing. I was officially a scientist-in-training.

I returned to that job for a second summer, but not before beginning job #4: student newspaper editor-in-chief. I've held numerous volunteer position, including some career-related, that I don't consider to be official jobs. After a year of voluntarily serving as news editor, I was paid (minimally) to lead the student newspaper for two years. It was a time-consuming, thankless job, but I learned quite a bit about communication, language, marketing, and layout. And I was "banned from NASA for life" - ha!

I landed my first NASA internship at Marshall Space Flight Center during the summer after my junior year. Job #5 had a similar title as job #3: astrophysics research associate. I spent a second summer with that same position before transitioning from intern to graduate research assistant, job #8. But not before taking on job #6: grader for a freshman physics class. During that summer between undergraduate and graduate school, I also helped run the internship program as an assistant operations manager, job #7. The summer ended and grad school began.

From high school babysitter to astrophysics graduate student in seven jobs and six years. That's a long way! In the following decade, I've become a chemical engineer, a planetary science graduate research assistant, a space industry analyst, a scientific research analyst for International Space Station payloads, a regional operations manager for a space start-up, a high school tutor, and an independent space analyst and scientist.

By my count, I'm up to jobs #15 and #16 (simultaneously). And I provide full-time childcare for my infant, but I'm not paid for that. Sixteen paid positions, and I'm still early/mid career! Insert millennial joke here.

Each person's path is unique. Very rarely is it straight and predictable. Very rarely do first (or second or third) jobs indicate someone's career path or potential. From the start I had a goal – space – but not everyone does. And that's okay. We keep on trying, keep on going, keep on reaching and exploring. I'm looking forward to seeing where my journey takes me.

How's your career journey going?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

New Jobs, New City, New Adventures!

I've been mum on my life's happenings recently. Now that it's all settled, I'm going to share with you what's going on. Comments and suggestions welcome!

STEM & Social Media Outreach

As someone guilty of taking on too much at once, I'm pleased to have I wrapped up two projects. At the start of June, my favorite conference returned from a three-year hiatus: the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference. I ran social media for the conference activities. I wish it wasn't over because I had a blast, but I'll be back next year.

I spent some time assisting Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating students, especially girls, in developing countries and underserved areas. So inspirational! There are many potential opportunities for grants, fundraising, partnerships, collaborations, and projects for a new STEM nonprofit. The process can be daunting. I helped to point them on the right path.

Commercial Spaceflight Federation

I've been searching for a new space organization “home” for a few years now. When I attended the CSF spring members meeting last year, I felt it! But my former employer's membership dissolved along with its existence. I didn't let that stop me! I'm excited to be working with CSF again in whatever small ways I can. Right now I'm helping them identify sponsors and prepare for an upcoming FAA AST conference.

Northern Sky Research

Starting Monday, I'll be an analyst for NSR, a satellite research and consulting company. I love how global this company is, with colleagues around the world providing different perspectives. My first project will be a cool (and hot!) topic to start with! I'll write up a more detailed blog entry once I start work.


One of my biggest professional mistakes this year has been relying on others to conduct science. As a result, I waited and waited, and still haven't gotten my hands dirty. Either projects were delayed or I simply wasn't included. This is a poor way to do science collaboration. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I finally allowed myself time to brainstorm science recently, and an idea came to me.

How I wish I could tell you about the proposal I'm writing via Astralytical! I read an article explaining that science bloggers are hesitant to write about their unpublished work because they fear being scooped. I can tell you that's true. It's related to my expertise in planetary regolith and it touches upon human space habitation in a way I haven't seen before. I still need to complete a literature review to put this experiment in context. I may reach out to potential collaborators, but on my own terms.

Book Writing

I wrapped up the millennial panel interview process last month! But Adventures in Book Writing is on hold for now because I'm crazy busy and there's no deadline. Sorry! I'll get back to it by the end of the summer for sure.

Ohio, Here I Come

Coincidentally, my husband has been going through a job search as well. He just accepted a position at JP Morgan Chase in Columbus, Ohio. I've never even been to Ohio, but I grew up in the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania, so I'm familiar with four seasons. We'll be moving within the month.

This is so bittersweet for me. I love Florida! I love living in this area so much that I moved here for undergrad, moved away to Huntsville, then moved back. I love the warm weather and the lack of snow and “real” winters. I love the beach, the water, the greenery, and the wildlife. I love the rocket launches and the space happenings. I love my friends and close-by family. I love the space community I've built here. It's going to be very hard for me to leave!

Glenn Research Center is one of the few NASA centers I've never been to, and it's only two hours from Columbus. Ohio State University is gigantic and has not only a physics department, but also an astronomy department, a cosmology & astroparticle department, and a planetarium, so I may find like-minded researchers and enthusiasts there. Ohio Aerospace Institute seems to be a smaller equivalent to Space Florida. I'll find my space peeps in Ohio, somewhere.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Sparklers & Rocket Launches

My husband holding the sparks

My husband and I were playing with sparklers last night in anticipation of the American Independence Day. Being the scientist I am, I immediately wondered about the shapes, colors, and chemical reactions of sparklers. I was able to find out a lot of information about the chemistry of these simple fireworks, which is so interesting! But I'm a physicist, I want to understand the physics.

In general, sparks are created when a strong electric field accelerates free electrons, creating ions and freeing more electrons. This creates an electrically conductive area, allowing for a sudden flow of electricity. However, this is not the kind of sparks that sparklers create.

Pyrotechnics, fire caused by chemical reactions, is what fuels sparkler fun. Sparklers burn metallic fuel explosively, producing branching sparks. Common sparkler fuels include aluminium, magnesium, magnalium, iron, titanium, and ferrotitanium. I don't understand the physics of the branching process and I was unable to find a resource describing it. If anyone reading this knows more, please comment below!

Fireworks are fascinating and beautiful, but fireworks of a bigger kind are even better. I'm still learning how to use my new telephoto lens, but I still managed to capture the powerful fireworks below. Happy birthday, America!

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch on May 27, 2016

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch on June 15, 2016

ULA Atlas V launch on June 24, 2016

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Juno's Journey to Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and the planet most responsible for our current planetary orbits and orders. I once coded a model of our solar system that included and then removed Jupiter, and what a difference! Jupiter keeps everyone in line. My favorite feature of Jupiter is its colorful cloudy atmosphere with huge, long-lasting storms. Seven space missions over the course of 43 years thus far have contributed to our knowledge of this gas giant.

Nearly 5 years ago: August 3, 2011. I was on the guest list for the Juno launch to Jupiter on a ULA Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral. As local planetary scientists and members of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Science, my graduate advisor Josh and I were invited to participate despite having no direct connection to the mission. I do love living in Florida!

The festivities began with an evening welcome reception. Visitors from all over joined in to mingle and feast. The next day, I enjoyed a tour of Kennedy Space Center. Even though I had toured KSC facilities before, it's always fun to see the new happenings!

The first stop was the International Space Station Processing Facility. It's a large high bay of ISS module pieces, similar to the ISS training mock-up displays that I once saw at Johnson Space Center, but larger. We saw one of the Italian Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules named Raffaello, a docking hub, and a payload canister the same size as the space shuttle payload bay. There was also an early mock-up of the Boeing crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner.

Raffaello - August 4, 2011

An early Starliner mock-up - August 4, 2011

The next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building. It doesn't matter how many times I've been in the VAB, its sheer massiveness takes my breath away each time. Parked inside, I was so excited to see space shuttle orbiter Discovery, slightly disassembled, done with its space-flying lifetime and preparing to be a museum piece at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Dulles. Seeing it up close and uncovered was amazing! But I almost teared up, because seeing a retired space shuttle like that is heartbreaking.

Retired Discovery in the VAB - August 4, 2011

Finally, the tour bus took us to the Air Force Station side of Cape Canaveral to the Atlas V rocket sitting on the launch pad with the Juno spacecraft tucked inside, waiting to be launched. I've never been that close to an active rocket. It was really cool! We went around the back first, then after the ULA safety officials deemed it okay, we drove around to the front. It's remarkable how little structure there was for the rocket compared to the huge rotating service structure that used to surround the space shuttles on the pad, which is what I was most used to seeing at the time. In comparison, the Atlas V looks so simple and uncluttered. It was beautiful!

Atlas V on the pad - August 4, 2011

Posing with the rocket - August 4, 2011

Bright and early on the morning of Friday, August 5, I arrived at the designated hotel to catch the KSC bus. When pulling into the hotel's parking lot looking for a parking spot while trying to get around the buses, I nearly ran over a man picking up his car at the hotel entrance. It was Charlie Bolden, the NASA Administrator!

We were taken to the Operational Support Building II (OSB-II) near the Vehicle Assembly Building to watch the launch from the fifth floor terrace, a location I had never seen a launch from before. Just prior to the morning briefing, I got a chance to meet Charlie Bolden and get a picture with him. He laughed when I apologized about nearly running him over. The briefing was pretty basic, just a general overview of the Juno spacecraft and mission as well as inspirational and good vibe messages of support. The head of the Italian Space Agency was there as well as a lot of other foreign delegates.

Meeting Charlie Bolden - August 5, 2011

After the briefing, we went outside on the terrace to wait. It was so hot out! We sat in the shade when we could, but that only helped a little. After they kept announcing countdown holds because of various problems (a ground helium leak and a boat in the restricted waters), we went back inside to cool off. Once the countdown resumed, we got a good spot at the balcony. I counted down the last ten seconds. It was so cool to see an Atlas V rocket launch from that close! I was surprised that the rocket lifted off so quickly compared to space shuttles. That rocket in particular has a lot of thrust, but the weight of the payload is light so it can get to Jupiter in a reasonable amount of time.

Juno lift-off! - August 5, 2011

Juno on its way to Jupiter - August 5, 2011

Next week, on July 4, 2016, Juno will “arrive” at Jupiter at long last. Congratulations to the Juno mission team, the scientists who are awaiting this data, and the ULA team that launched it safely there!