Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Banned from NASA for Life

I'm surprised and honored that my little blog got some attention yesterday! This blog isn't even two weeks old and I expected a readership of 10 people. You all blew me away. I learned a few things from the comments and feedback. Thank you all for your support and thank you for returning.

I'm going to switch gears quite a bit and go back in time a dozen years to when I was first starting out in this industry. I mentioned this story to some colleagues in passing the other day and it deserves elaboration. Five words nearly killed my dreams. Five words took my breath away, knocked me off my game, bumped me to a new level of professional awareness, and forced me to reevaluate my goals. The experience taught me a lesson in when rules matter, and when bygones are forgotten.

“Banned from NASA for life.”

I was a sophomore in college (second year in university, if you prefer) at the Florida Institute of Technology, an hour south of Kennedy Space Center. I was the new Editor-in-Chief for the student newspaper. This may seem unusual as I was an astrophysics major, but they needed someone to fill the role and I had done a decent job as the News Editor the year before, so they appointed me in charge. I threw myself into the position.

On September 26, 2003, the Science & Technology Editor and I attended a press site tour at Kennedy Space Center. We were to see one of the orbiter processing facilities where Atlantis was being refurbished. My colleague and I noted that we were the only female reporters present. At 19, we were also the youngest reporters present.

Working at NASA was my dream since childhood. I moved from Pennsylvania to Florida without knowing a soul down south because I wanted to get somehow involved at Kennedy Space Center. I wanted to be near the action and the excitement. I wanted to learn it all. I was still young. All I had done up to that point was take a couple astronomy and mathematics courses, tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, see a few shuttle launches, witness the aftermath of the Columbia accident, and spend a summer as a low-level astronomy research assistant at a university. I was eager to get into the game!

Two NASA officials escorted us to the OPF to brief us and answer questions. We walked under the orbiter and support structure, a jungle of platforms and pipes. I swear it took me three full minutes before realizing that we were under Atlantis! I snapped one picture after the other of everything I could, ignoring the distrustful glares of our escorts. I was acting as photographer for the story and I had a job to do.

We were ushered to the back of the high bay where we could see a massive wall of construction and not much else. We took turns climbing up a short set of stairs to see a low platform better. I climbed up to see for myself what there was to see, and was pleasantly surprised to actually see part of the side of the orbiter visible. This was my first time seeing space hardware up close!

Much to our delight, a familiar face appeared. One of our recently graduated space news reporters had gotten a job as an engineer for a space shuttle contractor and we were so proud of him! He had known that we would be in the area and found us. We chatted with him for a little while about the job and the space program.

We followed the group back under the shuttle tiles. To my embarrassment, I hadn't heard what it was that the tour organizers were pointing at, so I asked our friend the new space shuttle engineer. One of the NASA escorts broke in to our conversation, yelled at us for talking to an employee, threatened our colleague with the possibility of being fired, and pushed us towards the exit.

We returned to the press site where we picked up some informational packets and press photos before leaving. As we drove home, my Science & Technology Editor and I discussed how startled and distressed we were by the unexpected interaction. Our space shuttle engineer colleague assured us that he was not under threat of being fired because the NASA escort didn't have authority over him, but I was still unsettled by the experience.

Two weeks later, right about when I put the incident behind me and moved on, I was called into the office of the director of communications for the university. He informed us that the NASA press office had threatened to revoke the university's press privileges for talking to an unauthorized employee, but instead that had just banned my reporter colleague and I from NASA for life. My heart dropped and I was shocked speechless. Banned for life? NASA was my dream! This couldn't be, this just couldn't be.

It turned out that it wasn't to be, and “for life” had a short lifespan. I never saw or heard from the scolding NASA escort again. It wasn't even two years later that I got my first NASA internship at Marshall Space Flight Center and my banishment never came up during the selection and badging process. My banishment has also disappeared from Kennedy Space Center's records, never once stopping me from getting badged in all these years.

In my personal journal, I wrote: “I know that twenty years from now I am going to look back and laugh, but I admit I’m still in shock and will be for a while.” It hasn't been 20 years and I can laugh at it already and share it with you. I did learn some important lessons about how to conduct myself in a professional environment when hosts are particularly jumpy.

I don't know if the lifelong banishment mark was a scare tactic meant to frighten us straight or if it really was a black mark in the file of a NASA press official who has long since retired (for she was of retirement age 12 years ago). Whatever the case, I'm grateful that the banishment never stuck. Not knowing what I'd be allowed to do, I still moved forward with my dream of working for NASA, determined not to let one negative experience stop me. My dream was too important to me to let anything stand in my way.

19-year-old Laura standing under Atlantis


  1. I suspect this was one person acting a bit big for his britches. Who there would have the authority to ban someone for life? Not some NASA PR person, for sure. Much less taking the time to file that information with the badging people.

    1. As a 19-year-old, I was too scared to ask! I just assumed that whoever at NASA who issued the decree had the authority to do so. The university communications director took it seriously, and therefore so did I. But it appears you're right, they couldn't ban me after all.

  2. Replies
    1. I'll try my best not to get banned, but i do have a big mouth.
      With all respect for all years of your fight, thank you.

  3. I just recently got banned from

    I thought it was about expanding conversation ..
    Well, i'm still young, not even 100 ;)

    1. It happens. Ah yes, I read that piece. Can't say that I've heard of anyone getting banned from SpaceNews before, though I admit I usually avoid commenting on articles unless I feel very compelled to do so. There's no banning of anyone here on this blog except for internet spam.

    2. Thank you for that. I do my best to avoid too much repeating, but at times, it's required.
      I'm not hiding much but my identity (not that hard to find), so if you have any questions, that would be a good start.
      I'm not yet ready to connect my real name with that alias, i don't feel very secure at the moment, if you excuse my paranoia. That can change.

    3. I'm also offering an apology to editors of www.spacenews.com, but i really couldn't take it any more.
      If that banning was intended to provoke me, it was a nice trick, thanks Jeff, your armour is covered with blood too, thank you for your trench fight, it will be remembered.