Friday, April 29, 2016

Next Generation Inspired by Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference

A decade ago as a senior just before graduating with my bachelor's degree, I attended my first conference. I've been loving conferences ever since. But my absolute favorite is the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC). I've been to every NSRC ever held thus far. I'm delighted that the streak continues and I'll be attending this year's NSRC in Broomfield, Colorado from June 2 – 4. I'm so excited I can hardly wait!

NSRC began in 2010 in Boulder, Colorado. I was a graduate student in my second month at a new university pursuing my doctorate in planetary science. My grad advisor, Josh Colwell, was one of the organizers of the conference along with Alan Stern, the man of many hats. Attendance exceeded expectations. Speakers included Lori Garver, Pete Worden, George Nield, Jeff Greason, and Rick Searfoss. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, XCOR, and Masten were present, among others. Research topics included spectroscopy, solar observations, vulcanoids, suborbital observatories, and regolith dynamics.

Posing with Virgin Galactic's model spaceplane. - NSRC 2010

Being so new to the commercial space industry, I really felt inspired by NSRC. This conference came at an important time for me, right after President Obama's FY2011 budget request and the cancellation of the Constellation program when I felt hopeless about the future of spaceflight. I wrote, “This conference gave me a true sense of belonging among people such as these. I feel like the doors are open to me wider than I realized before. I am very optimistic about my future and the future of the space industry. The dream is still alive!”

I was personally involved in NSRC 2011, hosted by my advisor Josh at my university in Orlando, Florida. I was the volunteer coordinator, recruiting and organizing 40 student volunteers helping to make the conference happen. I was even interviewed by a local news station.

Spreading the love of space on TV - NSRC 2011

This second conference was just as magical as the first. I wrote, “I remember feeling this way during the first NSRC last year in Boulder: energized, passionate, enthusiastic, optimistic, and grateful. All of those feelings came flooding back to me today at the start of NSRC 2011.” Speakers not already mentioned included George Whitesides, Robert Braun, Frank DiBello, David McBride, David Masten, Keith Cowing, and Eric Seedhouse. Even more microgravity research was presented than the year before.

NSRC 2012 was in Palo Alto, California. It was there that I met Neil Armstrong after his talk about suborbital spaceflight history. I am forever grateful that I got to shake his hand before he was gone! XCOR gave away a free Lynx ride to a lucky winner. Speakers not already mentioned included June Scobee Rodgers, Andrew Nelson, William Pomerantz, Carissa Christensen, Rand Simberg, and Jeff Foust. One thing that struck me was the diversity of microgravity research presented compared to previous years. So much science!

Meeting Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon - NSRC 2012
Prototype future spacesuit helmet - NSRC 2012

NSRC 2013 was back in Colorado, this time Broomfield just outside of Boulder. One of the first things I did upon arriving was climb into a lifesize model of the XCOR Lynx and pretend to fly. I had just started my new job at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space three months prior and I gave my first public CASIS talk at the conference. Speakers not previously mentioned included Charlie Walker, Mike Lopez-Alegria, Scott Parazynski, Stu Witt, Wayne Hale, Mike Suffredini, Mark Sirangelo, and Jane Poynter.

Flying the XCOR Lynx - NSRC 2013
Where will Alan Stern fly us to in this Lynx ride among the stars? - NSRC 2013

I raced my friend Ryan Kobrick in assembling Lego Lynx models (he won, just barely). I sang Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody with a table full of inebriated professionals. I stayed up really, really late chatting about space with other like-minded dreamers. I wrote, “I really can't believe that all of this is happening to me. NSRC is the best conference ever.”

Legos! - NSRC 2013

And now, NSRC is back after a 3 year hiatus! Originally planned to be an every-18-months conference from 2012 onward, the fifth NSRC was delayed until enough progress in the industry justified the meeting. I'm looking forward to hearing from researchers, flight providers, and everyone else involved! Speakers not previously mentioned include Alan Eustace, Steve Jurczyk, David Miller, John Olson, Jason Reimuller, and Steve Collicott. I'm looking forward to seeing old colleagues and meeting news ones!

And what's sure to convince everyone that I'm crazy, I'll be attending with a baby. This will be a challenge, for sure, but I'm up for it!

For more information, visit

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Take My Kid to Work, and to Work-Related Play, Every Day

Today is Take Your Kid to Work Day in the United States, and unofficial day originally created to expose girls to the workforce. As a work-at-home mom, every day is Take My Kid to Work Day for me. And I do take Josephine everywhere – meetings, networking events, science fairs, even workshops and conferences. Even if I worked outside of the home, I'd still take her with me to work from time to time, no special day needed.

I was invited to a space networking reception yesterday at Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral. It began at 5:00 and my husband wasn't even home from work yet, so I took my baby with me. I still don't know if or how many people may judge me for bringing a baby to a professional event, but at this stage of my life, I just don't care. My baby is well behaved and people love her. She's a natural conversation starter and ice breaker. To date, no one has said anything negative to me about bringing my baby along, but many people have been grateful I did. One other person did bring their kid with them, but she's college-aged!

Mommy and baby at the reception - April 27, 2016

Josephine met her fourth astronaut yesterday, the Director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Bob Cabana. He immediately took her in his arms and cuddled with her, calling himself the baby whisperer. His eyes shone as he talked about his upcoming visit to see his grandchildren. It was so sweet.

Astronaut #4 on Josephine's list: the baby whisperer. - April 27,2016

Unfortunately, no one told me that there would be a very, very long stretch of talking and presentations in the middle of this party! First the reception host spoke. Then Bob Cabana spoke about the workforce at KSC and NASA's Journey to Mars. Then KSC's Director of Planning and Development spoke. Then one, possibly two other people spoke. My baby can be quiet, but not for that long. I eventually had to take her to the next room where we bonded with the catering staff. Josephine had a giggling fit that apparently could be heard in the next room – oops – but no one minded, I was told.

Floor time near the wall before it got crowded. - April 27, 2016

Josephine eventually fell asleep on my shoulder as I wrapped up networking and said my goodbyes. As someone who works from home, it's nice to get out and about to see my colleagues and meet new acquaintances. And so long as I can, I'll take my child with me.

Friday, April 15, 2016

People First, Then Money, Then the Universe

Something difficult has been on my mind lately and I want to put it out there. I don’t want to seem bitter in writing about a negative topic. My intention isn’t to complain, but to spread awareness. In our society, the human element in the workplace can be lost. People’s feelings can be overlooked. Sometimes management needs to pause to consider the people the who company is responsible for by employing.

Since moving back to Florida six years ago, I’ve had a string of jobs that I wouldn’t return to. In all of the positions, I loved the missions and my role in them. I’ve also had a couple really good bosses who I looked to as mentors. But the employers/companies/institutions I worked for left bad impressions ranging from not so good to lawsuit-worthy bad. I don’t know why my luck seems to be so poor. And to clarify, I love my career and I love being part of the space community in Florida!

In the months before and after the birth of my daughter, as my previous position was coming to a close, I looked for other full-time opportunities and even applied to a couple. Even my experiences as an applicant were negative. I’m not an entitled millennial; I’m talking about decent common courtesy such as responding to communication and being honest. If a company can’t treat a potential employee well when they’re trying to woo her, then how will they treat an employee they already have?

Years ago when I used to watch the Suze Orman Show, I admired one of her catchphrases: People first (then money, then things). The financial guru gave advice about money, jobs, spending, and financial planning, but always made sure that the needs of people came before all other. It’s one of the two greatest commandments in Christianity – love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the golden rule we teach our children – treat others as you want to be treated. It seems that many employers have lost this basic tenant.

I stopped seeking full-time employment a couple of months ago when I realized that I was much happier working for myself. Working with individual clients gives me the ability to create and build relationships that remind us that we are people first. It also gives me the freedom to drop a client if I feel that integrity is absent.

A general plea to those in positions of authority and responsibility out there, in any field: Remember why we’re doing what we do. Remember who we’re doing it for. Remember the people who are making you and your company a success. Your greatest and most difficult job as a boss is to serve your employees.

It doesn’t matter how much we accomplish in space exploration and development or what kind of world-changing scientific discoveries we make if we forget that people are the reason why we do it all.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Baby Josephine Congratulates SpaceX!

One more excited and adorable entry today: Baby Josephine congratulates SpaceX on a successful launch, landing, and Dragon deployment to the International Space Station. And congratulations to Bigelow Aerospace for finally launching the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)!

Josephine's a little distracted during the launch. - April 8, 2016

Adding cuteness to your launch experience. - April 8, 2016

As for my close-up launch shots, I need to learn how to properly use my new telephoto lens. A night launch and a day launch have been foiled by my inexperience with it so far! I'll shoot the next one.

Baby at the Science Fair

For the third year, I was honored to return to my undergraduate alma mater, Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, to judge the space sciences senior projects. Some of these students have been working on their research for just a semester, while others have been learning and refining their project over the course of their undergraduate career. I love meeting the students and learning about their research, which does change from year to year!

I was really rushed in recording my vlog at the event, so I want to summarize the projects here. The nine that I learned about from the students' mouths today were (in the numerical order they were assigned):

The Small Extreme-Contrast Ratio Imaging Telescope which uses the charge injection device (CID) technology that I learned about when evaluating International Space Station science proposals. (A CID was approved to fly on ISS, currently scheduled for June.)

A look at the closest and brightest quasar's quirky jet as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope in optical and X-ray.

A look at why cosmic rays hitting Earth aren't isotropic but instead concentrated in one area of the sky, as seen by two neutrino detectors.

A model to understand the planetary orbital resonances of exoplanets observed by Kepler.

A model to understand the spectroscopy (energy emitted) of regolith (dirt) on planetary bodies without atmospheres, including asteroids, with a particular look at porosity (how densely packed or how many holes there are in the grains). This is one of the many steps in a project I've been assisting with.

An examination of protein fiber growth that returned from flying on the ISS, another project I learned about when I did ISS research evaluation. It was nice to learn about the results of that experiment!

A look at the magnetic field of a massive O-type star as seen from a telescope in Hawaii.

Scale testing of the mirror deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope which should launch in 2018. Got to make sure those mirrors deploy perfectly in space!

A model to understand three-body resonances in exoplanetary systems as observed by Kepler.

My co-judge, baby Josephine, was with me this year. This would be her third time on Florida Tech's campus. We attended the Showcase reception together last night. She was also on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando with me yesterday. We visited the Center for Microgravity Research, my former lab, the group responsible for the payload that flew on Blue Origin recently. Baby Josephine will continue her university tour later this month when we visit Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Josephine and I at UCF visiting my former lab - April 7, 2016

Josephine and I posing with the panther at FIT - April 7, 2016

My co-judge squirming out of her wrap at the Science & Engineering Showcase at FIT - April 8, 2016

Saturday, April 2, 2016

COLLIDE-ing Suborbital Science with Blue Origin

I usually don’t blog on the weekend. I’m usually at the ice skating rink at this time on a Saturday. But amazing feats of science and engineering don’t limit themselves to weekday work hours. Right now, I’m geeking out to the latest successful launch and landing by private rocket company Blue Origin!

After I earned my master’s degree in high-energy astrophysics in Huntsville, I switched over to “experimental planetary science” (my phrasing) at the University of Central Florida with Dr. Josh Colwell as my advisor.

Josh was working on a number of projects, but one that caught my attention was the study of how space and planetary dust (regolith) interact at very low velocities. When the grains or clumps collide, do they stick together, bounce, break apart, or what? Most of what could do in the lab in 1 g (Earth’s gravity) was even faster than we wanted to observe. We built a drop tower in the lab to examine our experiment in microgravity, but our short tower only allowed less than a second of free fall. We wanted more. I flew on two parabolic aircraft campaigns with Josh to gain a few more seconds of microgravity per parabola. But still, we wanted more.

Josh had flown an experiment on orbit on the International Space Station, COLLIDE, Collisions Into Dust Experiment. He was preparing another version of COLLIDE to fly suborbitally on a Blue Origin experimental rocket. I was intrigued by the partnership with an emerging commercial space company. For my first year and a half in the lab, I participated in teleconferences with Blue and worked on preparing the experiment for launch. The engineering students on our team did most of the work, but I was pleased and excited to participate in any way I could.

A COLLIDE box in foreground, the original COLLIDE in background, and me recording something. - February 2011

But in 2011, Blue Origin’s test rocket malfunctioned and was destroyed. Our chance to fly COLLIDE with Blue was postponed indefinitely. We were all disappointed, but that’s the way it works in the space industry. This stuff is hard and set-backs happen.

I’ve been out-of-the-loop with the experiment since leaving UCF. But yesterday, I heard the exciting news that COLLIDE would launch soon. And this morning, it did just that. Blue Origin’s rocket New Shepard launch and landed successfully in Texas.

We’re all currently awaiting the release of the official video of the successful test. I’m awaiting news of how my grad school team’s experiment fared. Knowing first-hand just how tricky those experiment boxes can be, I’m crossing fingers and hoping for the best.

The official Blue Origin COLLIDE video can be seen here:

I will update this entry with the official Blue Origin rocket video once it’s published. But first, ice skating.