Thursday, September 24, 2015

Buried Ancient Worlds Uncovered from Space - Space Archaeology!

Getting to downtown Orlando from the coast is not an easy drive for me, but I wasn't going to pass up the chance to miss this talk, sponsored by my doctoral university. I don't mention it much, but since childhood, I've been an Egyptology geek. I named my childhood cat Cleopatra and my grad school cat (still living) Nefertiti. I even considered ancient Egyptian names for my child. Around my house, you'll a spot Bastet statuette, an ankh mirror, and I just splurged on an Isis wall plaque (the goddess, not the terrorist group). Since childhood, it has been my desire to learn some basic hieroglyphics and visit the ancient sites of Egypt, though the turmoil in that part of the world makes that goal so difficult.

I saw a lecture by Dr. Sarah Parcak at the National Space Science & Technology Center when I lived in Huntsville 7 or 8 years ago. Most lectures go in one ear and out the other, but I remember this one. Her team uses satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques to discover previously unknown archaeological sites. From that talk years ago (unless I'm getting it confused with another), she even described how she can mark how the Nile River has changed position over time.

A Digital Revolution: Archaeology from Space by Sarah Parcak - September 23, 2015

Sarah Parcak began her talk last night by giving us good news: increased number of remote sensing satellites and improvements in the technology to lower costs have removed barriers to entry for her work. Imagery resolution has increased and image processing techniques have been improved, but there are more improvements to be made. Her advice to students: fail continuously to finally learn what works. I can relate to that advice.

Using a combination of image analysis, spectroscopy (I assume that's what's meant by chemical signatures), and lidar via satellites and aircraft, she is able to locate and identify previously unknown buried structures. She displayed a picture of rectangles and called them tombs, easily identifiable by their shape. She described the differences in moisture signatures and topography in Egyptian sites compared to the surrounding environment. Lidar can model the ground terrain through trees. Stunted roots in vegetation are another indicator of a buried structure. Satellite and aircraft work complement ground work.

She pointed to another image and explained that she can identify palaces and other residential areas. From understanding that higher class individuals would live closer to the palace, she can infer ancient class systems and how those people lived and worked.

Pointing out the details from the satellite imagery - September 23, 2015

It's impossible to know how many unknown sites in Egypt are left to discover, but if I heard her right, she estimates that only 0.001% are known! Her map of possible newly discovered sites in Egypt is extensive, far more than she can possible explore. Although her focus is primarily Egypt, she also works in other areas of the world such as Romania, Italy, Jordan, Viking territory, and even Alabama where she's based.

Looting and urban growth are a big problem. Looters use the same technology as she does to identify sites and profit from black market sales. As cities expand, unprotected ancient sites can become damaged in the growth. She advised that anyone who wants to see these sites should go now. I wish that I could!

Her work is inspirational to me. I spent my astronomy research years remotely sensing outward and my latter time at CASIS focusing on Earth observation remote sensing from the International Space Station for terrestrial benefit primarily for business/commerce. Space archeology is an application of space technology to inform of us our own human past. I can totally get behind that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Advocating for Planetary Science Plutonium in 2012 and Now - Fuel NASA's Discoveries!

At the start of 2012, I was just beginning to develop my love for space policy. I had joined the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences' Federal Relations Subcommittee two years prior, but I had played a background role. I was thrilled when I was selected by AAS to participate in their Communicating with Washington program. My focus: restarting production of plutonium-238 for planetary science missions and addressing the proposed planetary science budget cuts within NASA.

Using a combination of AAS and DPS literature, I pieced together a flyer to give to those I met with in our nation's capital. I thought it a shame that the DPS FRS was dysfunctional at the time and therefore did not provide me with any assistance or advice regarding the advocacy visit, looking back, it may have been a good thing. I was forced to learn on my own how to schedule and prepare for congressional visits and how to interact with legislators and staffers. This experience helped me tremendously with my future Tallahassee visits with Florida Space Day, which I joined in 2013.

The leave-behind flyer I made for my Washington, D.C. visit

Pu-238, a radioactive isotope of the chemical element plutonium, is not a product for or from weapons. It is made from an entirely separate process for a separate purpose, a peaceful purpose of scientific exploration. It is used as the heat source in radioisotope thermoelectric generators which power space missions such as Voyager 1 and 2, Cassini–Huygens to Saturn, New Horizons to Pluto, and the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity. Pu-238 will also fuel Curiosity's twin, Mars 2020.

However, Pu-238 stockpiles are very low, so low that the scarcity risks future planetary missions. After the United States stopped making Pu-238 in 1988, we had to rely on the Russian supply, which was also running out. In 2012, there was widespread agreement that Pu-238 production should restart in the U.S. but there was disagreement about which government agency should pay for it and how the supply would be allocated.

Playing tourist at the White House - March 2012

Cherry blossom season at the tidal basin - March 2012

My first meeting in Washington, D.C. was with a recent physics PhD who worked in the Office of Management and Budget. He helped to craft the proposed FY2013 NASA budget and thought it firm and decided. He was most interested in budget allocation within NASA: which programs should be funded and which should be cut. He was very interested in my graduate research and my future goals as well.

I then met with two members of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics. From the House side, the FY13 budget was very fluid compared to the OMB point of view. Their largest priority from what I could tell was maintaining U.S. leadership in space exploration.

Fun times at the House of Representatives - March 2012

My meetings the following day were Florida-specific. I met with a NASA fellow from Senator Bill Nelson's office on loan from Kennedy Space Center. He was very concerned about the proposed planetary science budget cuts and was curious to learn of their extent. He seemed to want to take immediate action to reverse the negative effects of the budget cuts.

Unfortunately, my very brief meeting with Senator Marco Rubio's office was unproductive and the staffer I met with gave me no indication that he or the senator cared about the issue or about NASA. Whether his stance has changed since launching his presidential campaign, I don't know.

My favorite meeting was with Congressman Bill Posey and his staff. Our meeting was extensive and productive. The congressman is undoubtedly very pro-space. Although my conversation with the congressman was NASA-broad and we didn't delve much into specifics, my post-meeting with a staffer in the hallway was very interesting. It was the first of many interactions I'd have with my congressman and his office.

Meeting Congressman Bill Posey - March 2012

My final meeting was with Congresswoman Sandy Adams' office, whose district at the time included Kennedy Space Center. The staffer who I met with was a recent graduate of my university and was even aware of my specific planetary science lab. The office was very pro-space and assured me that the FY13 budget was being massaged.

Although NASA received a budget cut that year in relation to the president's FY13 request, planetary science did receive a tiny budget bump up from the initial request. Planetary science receive even more of an increase in the following year. Although NASA's budget dropped in 2013, it's been on a slight rise since then, though most expect the numbers to continue to fluctuate.

Pu-238 production was restarted to a small degree in 2013, but not nearly enough. A series of articles have been published in the last few weeks about the need for more for the future of NASA's planetary exploration future. New product is expected to be available in 2019, but not as much as the projected demand. The budgets aren't high enough for faster or increased production.

Future planetary missions that can't rely on solar power may be delayed, descoped, or doomed. Otherwise great science missions may be otherwise stuck in limbo without a fuel source. I can only hope that our current legislators take a long view on the need for the Pu-238 program so that we can continue our very successful planetary science missions well into the future. Bring on more Mars rovers, Pluto probes, and other planetary achievements!

Celebrating past space achievements and working toward future ones at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum - March 2012

Friday, September 18, 2015

Swiss Space Adventures in Washington, D.C.

Proud to represent Swiss Space Systems at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C. on September 16, 2015.

On Wednesday, I was privileged to be a guest at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C. with my boss Robert Feierbach as representatives of Swiss Space Systems (S3 USA). The only other time I had been in an embassy was very briefly during my Presidential Classroom program in high school and, to my embarrassment, I can't even remember which embassy it was. I was looking forward to immersing myself in Swiss culture.

Thank you to the Swiss Embassy for welcoming us!

The morning meeting was interesting. It was a small gathering of Swiss-related aerospace companies and aerospace/aviation-related Swiss government officials such as the Swiss department of defense. Aside from my current company being Swiss headquartered, I have no connection to Switzerland and therefore don’t know much about the country and its defenses. Switzerland is a famously neutral country surrounded by European allies; I don’t typically think of the Swiss military at all. I learned quite a bit!

After the mid-morning break, five companies gave short presentations. Swiss technology company RUAG went first, followed by my boss presenting on our company, followed by an American UAV insurance company that works mainly with Swiss clients. Silly me, I didn’t know that Swedish company SAAB doesn’t make cars anymore; mostly they’re into defense-related products now. Finally, Swiss transportation company Panalpina wrapped up the meeting, focusing on their remote shipping services for emergency disaster relief.

Robert presenting S3 to the Swiss representatives at the embassy.

Meeting breakfast spreads in the United States are pretty standard pastries, coffee, and sometimes fruit. The breakfast spread at the Swiss Embassy (legally Swiss soil) had lots and lots of chocolate! Lunch was just as yummy with amazingly delicious chocolate pastries from a local Swiss bakery. My baby gave me the perfect excuse to go back to the table for second and third helpings.

Present was Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier who flew in space four times. He also has an astrophysics background as I do. He is also the chairman of the expert team for our company. He is astronaut #44 that I've been honored to meet. He talked to me for a few minutes about suborbital spaceflight dynamics and the challenges of human spaceflight.

Robert and me with Swiss/ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier.

We returned later in the day for the evening activities. I had never been to an embassy party before. I had no idea that it would be so extravagant and huge! The embassy was full of Swiss-related space displays, including our own lined up outside along the red carpet leading to the party.

Next to our display out front was a model of the Mars InSight rover which will launch next year. There was a large printout of the Lagoon Nebula as observed by a telescope in Chile for a European Space Agency project. There were mock-ups of Switzerland’s first cubesat, a larger small satellite, and the Rosetta observatory. They had a rotating exoplanet detection model which showed a large planet transversing a star. There was a photo booth with a green screen to display spacy backgrounds.

A huge printout of the Lagoon Nebula greeted us and beckoned the astronomy geek in me to pose.

Posing with the alphorn players and flag waver.

Check out the Mars InSight lander model! Insight will launch in 2016 to study seismology on Mars.

Hello Rosetta! A model of the comet explorer.

Robert and me posing with the photo booth astronaut.

Dinner was well worth the wait. I don’t know what I ate but it was all delicious and I later went back for seconds. Swiss chocolate was aplenty, especially near the Swiss travel and tourism displays. Amongst the crowd of 1,200 people, I ran into astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria who I knew from previous interactions. You never know who you'll meet at a Washington gathering!

Six months of pregnancy has taken its toll on my feet and I discovered the hard way that my pumps no longer fit me as they did. As we exited for the evening, I walked the red carpet barefoot. I'm classy like that. Thank you to the Swiss Embassy and Ambassador for being such gracious hosts and showing us a time to remember!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Yes, I am a Woman: Sexual Discrimination in the Space Industry

This topic has been in my head since my friend Talia bravely published her story a couple of months back. As a woman in a male-dominated career, I have experienced sexual discrimination. Most women have. My experience hasn't been as dramatic or damaging as others', but it has had a small impact on my career and the way I conduct myself. I don't have a jaw-dropping story to share, just little experiences that have added up over the years.

This is a delicate subject to write about. The vast majority of the people I've worked with have not treated me unfairly because I'm female. Only a select few stand out in my mind as examples of sexual discrimination to share. I still have good working relationships with the majority of the men I will write about here, which makes life all the more interesting.

I've learned that older men either lose their inhibitions or have lived most of their lives in a world where being openly flirtatious with women in a professional environment was normal. I can't count how many older men (usually above 70) have called me terms of endearment such as sweetie and commented on my appearance. These comments and mannerisms are often easily dismissed as being cute, even if inappropriate.

I was a leader in a professional organization with a much older man (somewhere around 90) on the leadership team. I don't believe that he meant any harm, but he was so flirtatious in his emails, phone calls, and in-person interactions that I ended up blocking his phone number, deleting his non-business emails, and limiting my interactions with him in person. The bombardment of unwanted attention only stopped when I left the organization.

A recent encounter with a flirtatious older man in a professional setting annoyed my husband a great deal, reminding me how much I encounter this kind of situation and shrug it off. In our few hours together, this man repeatedly commented on my looks and lightly suggested an intimate encounter with him and his wife involving me, while standing next to his wife, which made me uncomfortable for her sake as well as mine. When I shared this story with my husband, he was disgusted and asked me how a man could take me seriously as a professional when making comments like that.

Powerful older men are the boldest. One such man came on directly to me for several months, holding the promise of job prospects over my head, suggesting that we have dinner together at some point, just the two of us. I very much wanted the job and I respected the man professionally, viewing him as a role model. It wasn't until he consumed a little too much alcohol at an industry party, asked me why I hadn't yet found “Mr. Right” (I was single at the time), and made me promise to go out with him sometime to tell him my story did I realize that I needed to step back. Dinner never happened and the job never happened. Although I still see this man fairly regularly and still respect him professionally, I know that I could never work for him. A year later, when he commented to me that a colleague and I were “two beautiful and talented young women” who got away from him because he didn't hire us, I had to roll my eyes and inwardly laugh.

A well-known powerful man I still regularly interact with and respect a great deal as a role model gets the award for being the boldest. I was able to laugh this one off pretty much immediately. Alcohol was involved, as was a late night, as was my naivety. We were attending a conference and deeply involved in a conversation late one night. Others kept approaching us and interrupting, so we decided to call it a night and walked to the elevators together. Once in the elevators, he asked if I wanted to continue our conversation, and I very much did. So we went into my room. Yes, I'm very naive about men. I was in a “professional at a conference” mindset, not in an “inviting a man into my hotel room” mindset. He immediately tried to kiss me. I stopped him with a knee-jerk, “No, you're married,” response. And then we sat down and continued our professional conversation! And we never spoke about it again.

More serious is the sexual discrimination that affects my career negatively. A previous job had an “old boys” network that would have held me back had I stayed there longer. I noticed how it affect a coworker before I noticed how it affected me. She's a highly intelligent, highly educated, hard-working woman who had been around for a while. I couldn't understand why she wasn't more highly respected and promoted. Management seemed to treat her one step up from a new-hire, a much lower status than her skill set, work ethic, and longevity merited. And then my eyes opened, especially after she confided to me a story of sexual harassment by a professional VIP who we worked with: she wasn't treated with as much respect as she deserved because she is a woman.

Then I began to note how I was treated, especially compared to male colleagues. The contrast was striking and disturbing. In one small instance, I spoke up about how I felt. I had given my professional opinion on a topic a few times over several months and had been ignored. An older male colleague brought up the same topic, though he knew nothing about it, and suddenly it was a shining idea that no one had ever thought of before. I mentioned that I had brought it up several times already and was surprised that no one remembered, and I was treated like a little child with a “there there” pat on my head. I began to notice that my opinions, ideas, and aspirations were widely ignored or belittled. I can't say for certain that this was due to sexual discrimination versus culture, but regardless, I needed to move on.

And then there's the inappropriate language that pops up in professional conversation. I recently had a lunch meeting with a man who others regard highly. (For the record, I don't see what they see in him.) I do not get offended by the use of colorful language, but I do note people's choices in using such language. Early in the conversation, he stated that he hates space “with the passion of a thousand burning cunts.” My internal reactions were: 1) Why are you working in the space industry if you hate it so much, and 2) Why would you think that it's ever appropriate to use that kind of language in a professional conversation?

Although my experiences thus far have been relatively tame compared to some, I still felt the need to speak out. Small-scale sexual discrimination in the space profession is the norm and those who experience it needn't be embarrassed to admit it. This will continue to change over time. It's better now than it was, and it will improve in my daughter's generation. I will note with surprise that I can't think of an example of outright sexual discrimination in professional circles with men of my own generation, which is an impressive statement. Kudos to the men of all generations who treat professional women with the respect and dignity that we deserve.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Student's Life Changed at NASA Academy MSFC

I was accepted into my first official NASA internship during the summer of 2005 after my junior year of undergrad. There are many amazing internship programs to choose from, but the one that caught my attention was NASA Academy. I loved the combination of research and leadership training. At the time, there were only three NASA Academy programs, and I was thrilled to have been accepted to the one at Marshall Space Flight Center. For ten weeks, 13 students (including 10 females – very unusual!) lived, worked, and played in Huntsville, Alabama, Rocket City USA. I had reached my dream of semi working for NASA! I was thrilled.

I was so excited to work at NASA, I took a screenshot of my listing in the NASA directory. All contact info is long expired.

The majority of my time was spent researching gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) with a MSFC team at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) located adjacent to the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Along with the rest of the students, I was also badged to access NASA MSFC located in Redstone Arsenal. We also spent a surprising amount of time traveling to different NASA centers and places of interest. We also had the privilege of privately meeting and hearing talks from several top people in the area. It was a packed summer!

I worked with one other student researching GRBs with our two mentors, Chryssa and Sandy. We analyzed X-ray and gamma-ray data from the Swift space observatory. Perhaps because of my prior research experience, I seemed to pick up on the work quickly and enjoyed teaching my fellow research student. As is typical with short-term internships, there was only so much that we could accomplish in the 10 week program. I ended up returning the following summer to continue my research and obtain my master's degree at UAH working on GRB research. I will write more on this later.

An astrophysicist-in-training at work - NSSFC, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

One of the first special activities we did was weekend adult Space Camp at the US Space & Rocket Center. I had attended Space Camp twice in middle school and twice in high school, so I knew what to expect, but this was an abridged and more advanced version! For our first mission, I served as CAPCOM in mission control. For the second mission, I was an astronaut on an EVA to fix a broken satellite. We used the Aviation Challenge flight simulators to dog fight. We participated in a mock helicopter rescue from a lake. It was so fun!

Spelling out NASA in our flight suits - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

Working mission control - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

EVA wave - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

Next we traveled to Houston to visit Johnson Space Center. We met the JSC director, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and a few flight directors. We were taken on tours of the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, the Robonaut lab, the International Space Station training mock-up, the Mission Simulator and Training Facility, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket lab, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and the X-38 high bay. We watched the movie Apollo 13 on the big screen in the Apollo Mission Control room.

Apollo Mission Control Room, JSC, Houston, TX, June 2005

We traveled to Washington, D.C. and Maryland to visit NASA Headquarters and Goddard Space Flight Center. There we attended a series of lectures by professionals including NASA exploration, legislative affairs, international programs, NASA's values, the James Webb Space Telescope, and various science topics. We toured GSFC and visited the National Zoo and some of the Smithsonian museums. We witnessed the Deep Impact collision of the comet Tempel 1 at the University of Maryland where the mission PI was from. We watched Independence Day fireworks at the National Mall.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles, VA, July 2005

Group shot at NASA Headquarters - Washington, D.C., July 2005

Astronaut Laura - GSFC, Greenbelt, MD, July 2005
Before and after the Deep Impact comet collision - University of Maryland, July 2005

As the resident Floridian, I organized a trip to Kennedy Space Center around the time of the Return to Flight space shuttle launch. We saw Space Shuttle Discovery on the launch pad, got a tour of the SRB Assembly Refurbishment Facility and the historic sites at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and watched Space Shuttle Atlantis roll into the Vehicle Assembly Building. We met with KSC director Jim Kennedy. We relaxed on the beach. We watched the space shuttle launch from the VIP section of Banana Creek along with several secret service agents protecting First Lady Laura Bush who was watching with Governor Jeb Bush.

Group shot at Pad B with Space Shuttle Discovery - KSC, Florida, July 2005

One of the best launch shots I've ever taken - Discovery Return to Flight STS-114, July 2005

We toured Huntsville locations of interest as well, of course. At MSFC we toured the Propulsion Research Laboratory, the Space Environment and Effects lab where I held a piece of solar sail material, the X-Ray Cryogenic Facility where the James Webb Space Telescope was being worked on, the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab, the Robotics Flat Floor facility, the International Space Station Science Control rooms, and the NSSTC where I worked. Outside of MSFC we toured the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the the Von Braun Observatory on top of Monte Sano. We went also ice skating, sky diving, and cave exploring.

I jumped out of a plane and survived! - Cullman, AL, summer 2005

We met with a number of great locals or visiting professionals as well, such as MSFC director David King, astronauts Owen Garriott, Leroy Chiao, and astronaut Tony Antonelli with his T-38. We attended a number of lectures on rocket propulsion, NASA administration, lightning research, environmental control and life support systems, in-situ resource utilization, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and space weather monitoring.

Checking out the T-38 with astronaut Tony Antonelli - Huntsville, AL, summer 2005

By the middle of the summer, we gave poster presentations of our research for all of MSFC to see. By the end of the summer, we gave short talks on our research. By the end of the summer, I had analyzed six GRBs by modeling their lightcurves and spectra and discovering a few flares. As a group, we created educational documents for the US Space & Rocket Center. I was awarded the Von Braun Leadership Award.

Research presentation - MSFC, Huntsville, AL, August 2005

Group shot in front of the Wernher von Braun bust - MSFC, Huntsville, AL, summer 2005

My NASA Academy experience was one of the best in my life and I'm so grateful to all who were a part of it. I returned to Huntsville the following summer to help staff NASA Academy and continue my research. I also joined the NASA Academy Alumni Association, which unfortunately is currently inactive, but I hope that one of the newer classes will restart it. I still occasionally keep in touch with some of the NASA Academy alumni who I met during those two summers who are still involved in the space industry. My NASA Academy summer had a tremendous influence on my career goals and direction and inspired me to keep moving forward no matter what it took. I highly recommend the program to interested undergraduate and graduate students.