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 extent 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 a client 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. On December 14, my colleague and I will host a free webinar on smallsats and launchers. 

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.

New Client

Starting Monday, I'll be an analyst for a new client. 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!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Impostor Syndrome: When Grad Advisor Relationship Goes Wrong

I’ve just passed a difficult anniversary. Seven years ago, my graduate advisor gave me the curse of science impostor syndrome. A student’s graduate advisor is meant to be a mentor, a trusted authority guiding the young trainee from student to professional. Instead, she crushed me.

Feeling inadequate and an intellectual fraud among superiors is common among women in the sciences. I already had it. But to be told by my advisor that she doesn’t think science motivates me. To be told that she doesn’t think I want to be a research scientist, she thinks I like the idea of being a research scientist. To dismiss my little voice saying, “Yes it does,” and “Yes I do,” as if she could see right through me to my true nature. To be told that I should find a new advisor because I wasn’t as married to research as she was. She devalued me and my chosen career path.

My first graduate advisor is a force to be reckoned with in her subfield. She is well-respected and highly honored. She wins top awards. She’s going to leave a legacy. Someday, someone will name an equation or astrophysical model after her. A widow without children, she was married to her work. She lived and breathed it. Her career defined her life and her life was defined by her career.

I was a student in my mid 20s, passionate about astronomy and space broadly. I’ve never been a specialist, too interested in everything to devote myself to one thing for long. I loved my graduate research, but I also loved so many other things. Since junior year of undergraduate, I’d dedicated myself to the study of our subfield. It was fascinating and challenging, probing the unknown with space telescopes observing the Universe in multiple wavelengths. I learned so much. I spent hours in the lab every day, running models, coding, and plotting (graphs, not schemes). When I wasn’t working on research, I was studying doctoral-level physics textbooks and doing complex homework. I was all in.

But I also had a life. I had no interest in winning the Nobel Prize or scoring a tenured professorship at an Ivy League. I had interests outside of the lab and textbooks. I had a social life. I was converting religions. I wanted to someday marry and have children. The world was open to me. I wanted it all. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t have it all.

By definition, a graduate research assistantship is half time. Ask any graduate student whether they work 20 hours per week and they’ll laugh at you. I never recorded my hours, but I was much closer to full-time on a regular basis. When times got tough, grad school took over my waking hours. At times I struggled to maintain a healthy balance.

When my graduate advisor ordered me to drop all of my hobbies and work in the lab from early morning to late evening and weekends, I fought back. I know my limits. That kind of schedule would have burned me out quickly. Plus, it wasn’t necessary. There was no deadline to meet or urgency in our work. She simply wanted 100% devotion. Anything less, and I wasn’t worthy. She even scolded me for attending a physics guest lecture outside of our subfield.

At this point, I was done with my graduate coursework, straight As except for one B in quantum mechanics. I had passed the insanely difficult exam that proved I knew my physics. I had been researching this subfield for 4 years. I should have been fairly close to finishing my PhD – just another year or so to write papers, publish, and defend. She insisted that I was 3 years away from finishing, dismissing all my previous work.

I felt trapped. I felt like an indentured servant. I had won a NASA graduate fellowship, my own grant money, but it was tied to her. She reminded me that she had paid my previous years, approximately $20k per year, plus healthcare. Her goal was to train an apprentice, the next generation of her. She expected me to be her mini clone. She even had my post-doc location picked out, a university overseas, as if I should have any say in the matter. I should be grateful and work harder. Why wasn’t I grateful? Why was I avoiding her?

A year prior, before she lost my trust, I confided in her that I had career interests in other areas. She was wise and experienced; I had hoped for advice. Instead, I was reprimanded. I quickly learned that I could not have an honest career discussion with a woman entrusted to guide my young career.

I tried to improve in her eyes. I tried to be a model student researcher. I gave it my best shot. It wasn’t good enough. I was told that I needed to be obsessed with work. I was told that if I had any plans to work beyond our subfield in the future, I needed to find a new advisor. It was her way or the highway.

She asked me why I wanted a Ph.D. I said it was because I love my research. She said no, I love the idea of my research, I love the idea of being a research scientist. Can you imagine telling a 10-year-old girl this? “You don’t really want to be a scientist, little girl, you just think you do. Go pursue a career more suited for you.” I may have been in my mid 20s, but her condescension made me feel like a confused little girl.

I chose the highway. And I never looked back. I found a fantastic graduate advisor at another university. I have a successful career in the space industry spanning multiple disciplines. I’m writing proposals to be a principal investigator in my own research. I’m married with a family. I have hobbies and interests outside of my career. Success is the best revenge.

But she planted doubt in my mind for a long time. Was I really good enough to be a scientist? Was I dedicated enough to succeed? Am I really meant to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of being a scientist? The question itself is nonsensical because I was a scientist long before I went to school for it. It’s who I am at the core. And yet the doubt persists.

The damage was done. Impostor syndrome is why I tolerated a workplace bully in my new graduate lab, a jealous lab manager who mocked my research progress. Impostor syndrome is why I’m still hung up on the fact that I left my PhD program ABD, despite being just as competent at physics as any physics PhD. Impostor syndrome is why I let colleagues at my first full-time job treat me as if I was fresh-out undergrad instead of respecting my well-educated scientific opinions at the level they deserved. Impostor syndrome is why I still let some academics get to me when they insist that I need to go back to school to finish my PhD in order to be equal to them.

Impostor syndrome still haunts me. I hesitate to take certain risks or pursue certain opportunities because of it. And in the back of my head, a little voice asks, “Do I really want to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of it? Do I really want to be a space industry analyst, or do I just like the idea of it?” Never mind that I’m living and doing both. I keep fighting it. I’ll likely be fighting it until the end of my career.

The advisor/student relationship is one of the most important factors in a grad school success. If it goes wrong, get out of there – fast! Leaving my NASA fellowship and university was a tough decision, but it was the right thing to do. I’m better off for it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Frank DiBello's Vision for Florida at the National Space Club

“Florida is hot!” That is how Frank DiBello, Space Florida’s President and CEO, started his annual update at today’s National Space Club luncheon. And he’s not kidding. My phone app gave a temperature of 90 degrees as I left the talk this afternoon but my car thermometer read 97 degrees – and it’s not even summer yet! “And not just because of our weather,” he continued. The aerospace market in Florida is hot.

Although technology failed us when he attempt to show this promotional tourism video, he got the point across: space is important to Florida’s past, present, and future.

A lot of Frank’s talking points were familiar: Florida has a talented workforce, space infrastructure, and a great history of achievement. The Cape Canaveral Spaceport (Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station combined) is a jewel of the state. There’s no denying that so many in the space business (such as myself) love working in Florida.

Frank discussed some of Space Florida’s big recent successes: the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) hand-over from NASA to Space Florida, Blue Origin’s decision to launch and manufacture at the Cape, the OneWeb and Airbus decision to open a factory here. So many big news items, so little time to discuss them all in detail!

Frank’s main focus was the future. Ever since 1989 when the state created Florida Space Authority, Space Florida’s predecessor organization, the state’s goal has been to attract and retain space business. Space Florida’s goal is to become a global leader in space, but there is and always will be competition. “The marketplace can and will speak with its feet,” Frank warned, as he has in the past. But joyfully he added, “ And many are speaking with their feet by coming here.”

Frank spoke of his vision for Florida’s spaceport in 2025 (a bit of an arbitrary date, generally meaning “the future”). His vision is to create an independent spaceport authority to handle routine launches and is tailored to handle commerce. Federal institutions such as NASA and the DoD have their charters. But with academic and private sectors, the space industry will grow. He emphasized that this agency may not be Space Florida; it may be a federal, state, or quasi-government agency.

To assist with the evolution of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport, Frank plans to create a Commercial Industry Task Force to assess whether Space Florida is truly achieving the goal they’ve set for being global leader. At this time, he didn't have a lot of details to reveal about this task force, just the general idea that there's work to be done.

Work that needs to be done, for example: space infrastructure is being modernized and continues to be upgraded. Right now, there is a capacity problem in nitrogen and helium pipelines at the Cape. ULA and SpaceX both require use of these pipelines. If one user needs it, another user must wait. Businesses shouldn’t have to wait on their competition. There's also old, outdated infrastructure. Every piece of infrastructure needs to have a function or create revenue, or it will be disposed of.

“Our job as a spaceflight authority is to think outside the fence,” Frank joked. Within the Q&A, he wrapped up by advocating that we support Space Florida’s efforts by advocating for NASA and DoD programs and budgets. It’s hard to do long range planning with short term politics that are questioned every few years.

Frank and I may disagree in regards to the need for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion for programmatic and political stability, but I agree with his desire for sustainability and long-term planning. Florida has come a long way since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program five years ago and will continue to grow as NASA, DoD, and private industry make long-term plans and continue to do them.

This is how baby Josephine and I do NSC luncheons - in style! - June 14, 2016

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What I Learned Taking a Baby to a Professional Conference (Part 2)

I took 5-month-old Josephine to an informal professional networking event last night and reminded myself that I still had yet to write about our adventures at an out-of-state conference together last week. Rest and catch-up are top priorities after returning from travel. Now I can reflect on the positive and negative of bringing a baby to a professional conference.

Working and playing, as well as we can together.

Community Support

I had a lot of fears about being a working mother after I gave birth to my daughter and it became clear that she was too young to be away from me for long. I worried that I would be seen as less than professional if I brought her with me. I expected negative or inappropriate comments. I would not have been surprised if people had asked me to leave when they saw me with a baby. Babies don't belong in work environments, right?

My fears were the furthest from the truth. Every time I brought my baby, I was welcomed with open arms. Colleagues and new acquaintances loved meeting her and watching her grow. Young women and older men thanked me for bringing her. Only once was I asked not to attend a meeting with her, a rare exception to the warm welcome she's received. She's an instant star no matter where I go. The one downside is that on occasion, colleagues are more interested in talking about her than about business!

The way I saw it, I could either bring my baby with me or stay home, out of sight. Bringing her to one day of the local Space Congress was a test. Taking her on a plane to Colorado, without my husband, for a 3-day conference to the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado was the real deal! How would she behave? How would others react? Would I be able to attend the conference talks at all?

I was overwhelmed with the generosity, encouragement, and support from the conference staff and attendees! From the moment we arrived, others offered to hold her, play with her, give her toys (conference swag), and take care of her. Conference staff made her a special name badge. She attracted conference attendees like a magnet. One man thanked me for bringing her because her sounds during the talks lessened the seriousness of the atmosphere and reminded him of home and humanity.

Baby Genius - All Star!

The Noise

There's no way around it: babies make noise and there's no quieting them. I knew that I would be in and out of talks. I just hoped that I would be in more than out.

I lucked out with a relatively mellow baby. She doesn't cry all that much, but she does have her moments. She wasn't feeling well on Friday afternoon, so I hid in the bathroom for a long time, hoping the thick doors would dampen her screams. But worse, I didn't have my phone or laptop because I couldn't return to the conference ball room with a screaming baby to retrieve them, my feet were hurting me in brand new dress pumps, and there were no restroom chairs, so I sat barefoot on the floor not even knowing the time while she screamed and screamed. Eventually she did calm down and we reemerged. Aside from that outburst, screaming fits were rare.

More common were little baby grunts from learning to crawl and play and “songs” from learning to use her voice. When those got too loud and persistent, I needed to leave the room. Sometimes I would walk with her along the back wall by the door, leaving when she was loud and returning when she had quieted. In and out, in and out. While this certainly is not an ideal way to hear talks, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of conversation this way.

Most of the time, she was quiet enough for me to be in the room. Especially when she napped in my lap! During those periods, I could focus on the speakers and pretend I was attending a conference as usual. Except that I was in the back of the room sitting on the floor next to toys, usually.

Conference swag makes for good toys.

Baby Wearing

I wore my baby in her wrap less often than I expected to. There were times when it made sense, such as during a tour of a nearby company's facilities where we'd be walking a lot. I opted not to bring a stroller to the airport, instead wearing her around the terminal. However, during the conference talks, mostly we were sitting down. I tried sitting with her in my lap, but she got bored quickly. Instead, I laid a baby blanket on the ground and let her play with toys independent of me as much as possible. Outside of talks, she would be passed from person to person so much that it didn't make sense to attach her to me. I'm glad I brought the wrap and I did use it frequently, but she wasn't attached to me at all times.

Baby hanging out on the tour.

Hotel Sleeping

I have difficulty sleeping in a strange place. So, it seems, does my baby. We didn't have our normal routine and sleep aids such as her swing, so sleep didn't come as naturally to her. It was a struggle each night to get her to stay asleep. Usually I succeeded an hour or two after her usual bedtime.

I opted not to bring her crib, instead allowing her to sleep in the king-size bed with me. At home, her crib is right next to our king-sized bed so she spend half the night in her bed and inevitably half the night in ours. Co-sleeping works well for us. I didn't even think twice about keeping her in the bed with me while on travel.

Sleeping on my lap.

Brave, Hero and Supermom

I was called all these things for bringing a baby to a conference. I am none of them. I am simply a working mom who loves my career and loves being with my child. I find it interesting that in our culture, we would see this behavior as something to be praised highly with descriptions such as brave, hero, and supermom. In my opinion, this only points to the need to combine maternity and career for new moms and make what I did common.  

Thanks for bringing me along, mom!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lessons Learned Attending a Professional Conference with a Baby (Part 1)

I will be writing a separate entry about the science and updates learned from Space Congress in Cape Canaveral this week. But I felt it was important for me to write on this topic first. 

I've never seen a baby at a professional conference before. Prior to having my own baby, it never would have occurred to me that a mother would choose to take her child with her. Now that I have a baby of my own who refuses a bottle, my only choices are to participate in my profession with the baby or not participate at all. Yesterday, I chose to stand out from the crowd.

I didn't know how anyone would react to my presence with the baby. Worst case scenario, I thought I'd be denied entry or asked to leave. Second-worst case, I thought the baby would scream, causing me to miss most of the conference I paid for. I didn't know if anyone would stare at me or make a negative comment about how unprofessional or disruptive it was to bring a baby. I prepared to defend my choice, if necessary.

Fears are usually all in our head. Not only was I welcomed with the baby, I received so many compliments! By the end of the day, at least four people told me that they hadn't heard a peep from her and she was the most well behaved baby they had ever seen. It's not that she didn't make a peep, it's that I contained her well. She kept me on my toes!

I learned a new wrap style for the occasion: outward facing carry. I still wrap her in a sling style when nursing discretely, but my 5-month-old no longer wants to face my chest. She wants to see the world! The outward facing wrap is the most secure wrap style I've learned yet and was truly hands-free. It was perfect for times when I needed to walk around and mingle such as during the talk breaks and exhibit hall networking.

To my surprise, I did not spend all of my time standing and bouncing her along the wall. Instead, I found a back corner away from foot traffic and closest to the bathroom. There I laid out a small blanket and some toys, plugged in my laptop, and sat on the floor to listen and work. It was ideal! I may have looked silly to others, but this really was the best possible arrangement. The baby kept herself well occupied, I could work without holding her or constantly moving her active hands away from my laptop, and we were completely out of the eyesight of all conference attendees except those walking along the back of the room.

Playing with the conference swag on the floor. - May 25, 2016

In retrospect, it was a wise move on my part to wear pants instead of the cute pencil skirt I had wanted to wear. Sitting on the floor with legs in any direction would not have worked well in a skirt or dress. It was also smart of me to wear a cowl neckline.

Listening to the conference speakers uninterrupted only happened when the baby was napping. Unlike a normal day, she only dozed off for short periods of time – no long naps. Applause would wake her, usually just for a moment, but sometimes stirring was enough to snap her out of her slumber. As a result, at no time was I away from my baby and able to attend the conference as a normal professional except when two of the college-aged conference volunteers asked to hold her.

I was able to attend all of the conference talks (except when I stayed in the exhibit hall for too long during a break). Even though I was in and out a lot, I was able to get a lot out of attending. I live tweeted and I took notes. I got the gist of the conversation. I was surprised at how much of the conference I could actually attend.

As someone put it yesterday, a baby and a dog in a crowd have similar outcome: people flock to you for the cuteness. A baby is an effective networking aid. Colleagues and strangers alike approached to meet the baby and, secondarily, me. She was a natural conversation starter. The one negative was that because time was short and the baby was easy to talk about, I didn't talk as much “shop” as I would have liked. Part of that was also the fault of the conference schedule: too few and too short breaks. I had hoped that the 6:00 networking session would make up for it, but by that point, the baby had had enough and it was time to go home.

Josephine on a Journey to Mars. - May 25, 2016

Overall, taking my baby with me to a professional conference was a success. I tear up when I think of how supportive my space community is. So many positive comments and words of encouragement! I want to thank every one of you who helped me to get over my fear of negative judgment and do what works best for us. I feel so blessed to have such beautiful people in my life.

This local conference was practice. The test is next week's three-day out-of-state conference. Stay tuned!

Also, Josephine got to meet her fifth astronaut and take additional photos with ones she had already met. And she went to Mars!

Curious Josephine hanging out with Curiosity rover. - May 25, 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016

Am I Building My Dreams, or Someone Else's?

“If you don't build your dream, someone else will hire you to help them build theirs.”

This quote, attributed to several sources, struck me when I read it last week. I've been going through a period of self-evaluation lately. What am I doing? Where do I want to go? What should I be doing to get there? This quote struck at the heart of my inquiry. What are my dreams, and am I building them or simply helping others to build theirs?

A lot has changed in my life in the past six months. The company I worked for closed its doors. I gave birth to my first child. Naturally, my life has adapted to changes beyond my control. My work has shifted away from a traditional 9-to-5 office job and toward a flexible schedule around my family life. While I've always been a multitasker, I'm even more so now as I balance multiple clients and projects as well as seek new opportunities. I've never been happier, more satisfied, and more at peace with my work-life balance than I am right now.

Am I building my dream, or am I simply for hire to build others' dreams? Does it matter? Can't it be the same thing?

My dream since childhood has been to do work involving space. I especially wanted to be an astronaut! I still do, not a NASA astronaut but instead a private one. The path forward for private spaceflight is still unclear, so I wait and watch for the right opportunity that doesn't cost as much as my house.

As for doing work involving space – check – been doing that for 13 years now. I defy advice to specialize and instead have collected skill sets, experiences, and interests like a hoarder: astronomy, astrophysics, space telescopes, telescope manufacturing, planetary science, experimental dust dynamics, in-situ resource utilization, space industry analysis, space policy, microgravity payloads, ISS operations, physical sciences and technology development research, proposal evaluation and review, parabolic aircraft operations, event planning and promotions, social media and communications, STEM nonprofit education and outreach, and business development. Where do I fit? Everywhere; all if it.

Each job I've had has brought me closer to where I want to be. Each job I've had wasn't a perfect fit and had its flaws, but it gave me experiences, insight, and opportunity to move forward. Each move has helped me to build a great career and bring me to where I am today.

An opportunity was presented to me two weeks ago, another potential path. It was a path from my past, one I rejected but always wondered if I shouldn't have. The opportunity presented seemed too good to be true. And I wanted it. I thought of it as a way to jump back on a path from the past and ride it to wherever it would go. I got my hopes up. But as it almost always is the case, this too good to be true opportunity was too good to be true. Reality was less appealing. In fact, it was a giant step backward. I closed that door once more.

Building my dreams requires me to identify my dreams. I couldn't detail them for you. I have vague notions. I'm pressing ahead with them, defining them as I go.

In truth, I miss science. I don't get to do it much these days, just bits here and there as I consult others. I miss getting my hands dirty. I miss conducting new research that no one else has done before in order to progress our understanding of the world. A well-meaning colleague recently told me that I'm not qualified to do independent research with just a master's degree and ABD on my PhD. I completely disagree, and I find that attitude insulting to the scientists and engineers out there who conduct independent research and move their fields forward without the title Doctor. Of course I can do my own research. Of course I can write and win my own proposals. I just need to identify what I want to pursue first, then go for it.

I have various projects that are of my own creation. I'm writing a book about millennials in the space industry, telling their stories, because it interests me. I've just resurrected the idea of a survey of emerging space (newspace) companies, because it interests me. I'm active in advising and promoting state and national space policy issues, because it interests me. These aren't dreams I'm building. These are tiny building blocks of a dream to normalize space happenings to make it relevant to everyone and anyone.

That is my dream. It's big and it's broad. It requires countless people working on countless projects, big and small. It doesn't have a definite end or time frame. It's wide-reaching and global. It's an honor to help build others' dreams, if their dreams coincide with mine. It's fun, it's exciting, and it helps me to see our mutual dreams in a new light. I love working with clients who can help me to build my dream as I help them to build theirs. It's symbiotic and harmonious. And I've only just begun!

Aside from the financial side, I'm working the best job I've ever had. Will you build your dream with me?