Friday, September 13, 2019

The Long, Uncertain Path to Influencing in the Space Community

Having Fun at the Brooke Owens Fellowship Summit, July 2019

For as long as I can remember in my adult life, I’ve been trying to prove myself. My constant effort balancing multiple projects, most unpaid to gain experience, recognition, or networking. My all-too-frequent battles with impostor syndrome, a war within myself to conquer self-doubts and dismiss undue self-criticisms. The hunts and races seeking admission into projects or meetings or circles I felt I belonged in or could belong in if given the chance to grow. The unresolved questions following rejection or disregard: Is it me? Is it my age? Is it my gender? Is it my reputation? Is it something within my control to change or maddingly outside of my control? Despite earning and pushing my way through many doors, I too frequently feel as an outside looking in, striving for more acceptance and more opportunity to prove I can do this.

I was largely ignored by my professors as an undergraduate student, as most undergrads are, only gaining recognition and acceptance by them after I had graduated and proved myself with additional successes. I was ultimately rejected by my primary advisor in my first graduate school, being issued an “it’s my way or the highway” ultimatum and choosing the highway, boldly and unabashedly choosing my own path. I was bullied by a peer in my second graduate school and my self-confidence plummeted despite my more advanced successes. My first full-time job kept me locked in a cage, refusing to allow me the space to grow despite my frequent cage rattlings and occasional breakouts. It was only in my second full-time position when, given the title of Manager and the freedom of flexibility and responsibility, I began to feel myself thrive. Unfortunately, that position didn’t last when the company declared bankruptcy.

My true acceptance of my career success and space community membership didn’t come until I started my own company Astralytical nearly 4 years ago. But it didn’t come immediately. That first year I felt as though I was grasping at straws, pursuing any potential path forward, frequently ignored or worse: being led down rabbit holes by insincere promises and exploitations. The pride I felt signing my first two clients was quickly deflated when the first could not pay me as promised and the second took advantage of my naivety and lack of internalized self-worth.

A constant theme throughout: I was worth more but didn’t realize it.

It's a strange feeling to realize I've operated for so long under the motivation, “I want to make a difference,” to then realize: I am making a difference. It's turning the tables on my career position, my level of accomplishment, my age, my very purpose in what I do every day. I tend to carry with me the ever-illusive question, “What can I do to become successful in my field?” when I really should be carrying with me, “I am successful in my field. What do I want to do with my success?” It's a difficult change in mindset to grasp.

Only now, in my mid 30s, growing my company, feeling the ease of acceptance and belonging (most of the time), do I feel this success. I have moments of doubt which are squashed by someone or something reassuring me. Earlier this year, a colleague reached out to me in concern with a, “What are you doing? You've made it. You're great. You're on the right track and you've got potential to really influence things. You don't need to make this tangential move.” Sometimes an outside perspective can really help breathe fresh air into my lungs.

A blast of fresh air came this summer with 38 impressive, inspiring young professionals I was privileged to meet as part of the Brooke Owens Fellowship. This year I served as a mentor for the program, a position I felt wholly inadequate to fulfill, but I did my imperfect best.

The Brooke Owens Fellowship Summit (along with the adjacent Future Space Leaders conference which I was pleased to volunteer my time to help run) was a series of events and a collection of people who touched my heart and motivated me to become even better at what I do and what I strive to do. The Brookies are a sisterhood who shared deep parts of their heart with us fortunate to be in the room. I have never seen anything like it and I doubt it could be replicated at another event. As I walked back to my hotel room that night with one of the other mentors, my heart felt so full. I did not know I could feel so emotionally connected at a space event.

The strength, passion, enthusiasm, ambition, and encouragement of the Brookies brought me back 14 years to my first NASA internship during my junior year of undergrad, a program called NASA Academy which focused on leadership and the “one NASA” experience. I didn't feel inadequate during my two NASA Academy summers. I felt on top of the world! I had my whole career ahead of me and I knew it was starting off well. I could have never guessed the twists, turns, falls, and heights I'd experience in my early career which carried me to where I am now.

I feel a different kind of pressure now: the pressure to live up to the expectations and admirations of those who are now where I was then. I am making a difference right now, and people are watching. What do I do with this responsibility? What direction do I focus my efforts? Where can I make the most impact in the community I love? What kind of difference do I want to make? What future do I want to help create for those who will carry the torch for us when we're gone?

I don't know where I'll go from here. I'm not sure how I'll do my part to progress space exploration forward. I have some ideas. I hope I'm in for a wild ride!

Friday, June 21, 2019

What it's Like to Talk about Space on a CNN TV Broadcast

My love of journalism goes back as far as high school when I really started paying attention to the news. CNN was always my favorite. Back before mobile technology made it easier, I had CNN videos streaming in the background on my school's library's computers during study periods. I still dream of meeting Christiane Amanpour.

At some point during my higher education, I considered becoming a space or science journalist. But as you may have gathered from how long it’s taking me to publish my book, I'm an exceedingly slow writer.

Five years ago over July 4th weekend, I visited my best friend who had recently relocated to Atlanta. The very first place I wanted to see was CNN Headquarters. Because it was a Friday, we were able to watch a live broadcast during the VIP tour. I hoped to someday see myself behind the camera.

CNN Center in Atlanta, July 4, 2014

(A few weeks later, my best friend and I became an official couple. We married the following year. He’s the reason I relocated to Atlanta nearly 3 years ago.)

Founding my own company gave me the opportunity and freedom to speak out and speak my mind more than I ever had before. My job became to analyze the space sector every day, living and breathing space news and progress. Journalists began reaching out to me as a source of information.

I have never been paid for a news interview. Journalism ethics doesn’t allow it and I’ve never expected it. There are great resources out there for people who want to negotiate compensation when being interviewed for documentaries and other entertainment productions, but I have yet to be asked and therefore have no personal experience regarding entertainment interviews. I speak with journalists and podcasters because I appreciate the work they do. And because it’s fun.

When I got the interview request, I dived into research. Not space research, TV broadcast research! I wanted to understand what clothing, jewelry, styles, colors, and patterns work best on camera. Blazer or no blazer? A simple necklace or no necklace? Earrings? I studied the women on CNN and noticed the current style seems to be solid colored boatneck dresses, but not owning one of those, I opted for my navy star-patterned wrap dress with simple jewelry.

Hello CNN! June 4, 2019

I arrived at the CNN Center 45 minutes early. I didn’t need to wait in the lobby long before an assistant producer picked me up and escorted me through the maze of hallways. My first stop was hair and makeup. Because I wasn’t sure about timing and expectations, I did my own makeup that morning. The friendly makeup artist said I looked all set and then proceeded to do my makeup for the next 20 minutes while the hairstylist worked behind me. I couldn’t even tell you what they did other than to add more of everything and then some. This was the first time I had gotten my hair and makeup done professionally since my wedding and I looked great!

Couldn't resist a selfie while I waited!

The assistant producer then led me to a small studio. I was positioned in a chair in front of a collection of fuzzy blue screens for background. Because the journalist I would be speaking with is based in New York City, I was directed to speak to a black screen. I had done this only once before being interviewed by HLN in a tiny Orlando studio in 2011 about NASA's planetary science budget, but admittedly I need practice. A woman clipped a microphone to my dress and adjusted the connection between Atlanta and New York.

Hello Rachel!

I know space current events backwards and forwards so I usually don’t need to prepare much for an interview. But because I am new to TV, I wrote up a script based on the type of questions I expected to be asked and did my best to repeat those thoughts in front of the camera. I had a lot to say! I took the advice I'd read about speaking in short soundbite statements to heart and made sure my prepared remarks fit within 12 seconds each, although I’m sure I spoke longer during the interview.

The gift at the end was what a CNN employee said after the interview. As he unclipped my microphone, he told me he was so excited about astronauts returning to the Moon and we should pour all our money into NASA! I advised him to tell that to his elected officials. This is the American taxpayers’ space program and every American has a say.

Of the approximately 20 minute interview, I get a few seconds of airtime during the 3 minute segment, enough for one line. I expected that, especially since one of the other interviewees was NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. It was a blast and I can’t wait to do it again someday!

The segment airs live on CNN this afternoon at 3:50 Eastern. You can watch the video on CNN’s website:

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Vision of Space For All

I had an emotional conversation with a colleague last week, He confessed he saw great potential in me and advised me not to lose sight of my purpose or settle for less than what my values are. One thing he was particularly alarmed about is that I might someday lose my outspoken, independent voice in the space sector. Rest assured, readers, I will not. But the conversation did get me thinking.

When I started my company 3 years ago, I didn't know what I was doing. I had no compass, no map, no guidebook. I accepted any space-related work, even work that was only of marginal interest to me. I focused on my clients' missions and goals to the determent of my own. I was overworked (and significantly underpaid), pouring my time and energy into others' visions for their companies. I quickly realized clients aren't my compass. My company is a reflection of my values.

And so, yesterday I created a vision statement for my company. I usually ignore company mission, vision, and purpose statements, full of corporate prose but empty of substance. But it was time for my tiny company to grow in vision.

Astralytical's vision is space access and use for everyone. This is a reflection of my own values and goals.

I took the slogan “Space For All” from my now-defunct previous employer. I truly believe in that mission. With Astralytical, I strive to make space accessible to any person on this Earth, in my own little way.

I take on clients in a wide variety of backgrounds to assist them in making space more accessible to them. Later this year, I will release a project to do so more broadly. I don't want anyone to think space is off-limits to them.

I'm not building mass transit to space. I'm not bringing internet to the masses via satellites. I'm not creating space infrastructure for thousands. I'm simply doing my small part to bring about the future I wish to create.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Do I Prefer Speaking about Science over Women in Science?

Presenting at the Ivy Space Coalition, April 6, 2019

“Would you prefer speaking about science over women in science?”

The question was posed to me at the the Ivy Space Coalition conference two weeks ago immediately before giving a keynote talk on women in STEM. I knew the answer, but the question surprised me and I didn’t know how to articulate it. I had been invited to speak about women in STEM and I had written a passionate speech about my own experiences as well as the experiences of other underrecognized women in space. I was gearing myself up to give the talk and was determined to do an excellent job.

But yes, I would prefer speaking about science. I wish I didn’t have to speak about women in science as a separate category from all people in science. But that’s not the world we live in.

I used to believe the categorization set us apart and contributed to the problem. I used to get annoyed at the focus on minorities, believing that if we stop separating everyone out, minorities wouldn’t face as much discrimination. Yes, I used to be so naive.

As a teenager and undergraduate student, I did not see or recognize sexual discrimination in science or in the workplace. As a white person, I did not experience racism, so I didn’t understand the focus on race relations. It was only by maturing that I began to understand the focus on minorities wasn’t causing discrimination, it was recognizing and speaking about discrimination that already exist.

Pretending something doesn’t exist and refusing to put words to a problem doesn’t make the problem go away. As a woman in science, discrimination against women affects me whether I recognize it or not. And thanks to inappropriate and unfair behaviors of a few, it’s now impossible for me not to recognize it in my own experiences,

Over the past few years as I’ve grown in my career and become more independent, I’ve grown bolder in speaking out about sexual discrimination and lack of diversity in the space sector. I focus my efforts on supporting women (especially young women) and calling out the lack of representation when I see it. This has attracted attention, including negative attention by those who preferred the status quo. But I will not be silenced. I will only speak louder to counter the voices of negativity and oppression that still exist in our society.

This is why I was chosen to give the keynote address on women in STEM at the Ivy Space Coalition. This is why I happily accepted. This is why I poured my heart out into a speech which revealed personal details of my experiences and made me vulnerable in front of strangers.

But do I prefer to speak about women in STEM? No. I want to talk about space. I want to discuss my vision of moving humanity closer to the heavens and exploring the mysteries of our Universe. I want to explain my analyses of the space industry and speak about my expertise in planetary science, human spaceflight, and space policy.

But I am a woman and I will always be judged for being a woman. And so I will happily add my voice to the discussion about being a woman in STEM and lift up the voices of other women. I will continue to speak until our collective voices become so loud they echo among the cosmos forever and can no longer be ignored.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Georgia Aerospace Day: Space Policy Fun Among the Chaos of the Golden Dome

Yesterday was Georgia Aerospace Day, the annual event dedicated to advocating for aerospace activities in Georgia at the state capitol in Atlanta. Given my interest and experience in space policy, I jumped at the chance to be involved.

Prior to the event, I organized our team. At one point we had 16 people committed to representing Georgia Space Alliance – not bad for a first-time involvement of a new group! Thankfully that number dropped down to a more manageable team size. I am hoping to expand the team next year. By then we'll have more experienced people to assist in leading.

I wrote up the talking points for the take-away flyer. We weren't advocating for specific legislation, so we kept it broad. Most of the aerospace activity in Georgia is aviation-related, so I focused on informing readers of the space activities and parties in the state. We exist and we do cool stuff and here's why it matters.

I contacted the offices of around 30 members of the state Senate and House of Representatives on key committees and the elected officials of members of our team – lots of phone calls and emails! By the end I had appointments with 26 legislators, 6 at specific times and the other 20 to be paged from the chambers' floors while the chambers were in session. Little did I know what that meant.

Our first meeting of the morning was in a representative's office. Unfortunately he couldn't make it, though I did chat with his staff while we were waiting. The second meeting had a scheduled time, but unfortunately the meet-up plan was to page him from the House Chamber floor. So that didn't happen as planned.

The Georgia Space Alliance team holding up our take-away flyers
It was such a contrast to be speaking about forward-thinking 21st century technology relying on 17th century methods. In order to page a member from the floor, we needed to fill out a slip of paper, wait in a long line for 15 to 45 minutes, hand the slip of paper to a woman who hands it to a teenage page (ages ranging from 12 to 18) who tries to find the legislator at their desk but may or may not know what the legislator looks like, then wait until the page returns or the legislator appears at the ropes. Our group filled out 15 to 20 slips (one per person per turn in line) and had one member successfully paged. It's a ridiculously outdated and inefficient system that wasted our entire morning, time we could have spent visiting legislators' offices and talking to their staff.

Our team standing in line for forever to page legislators from the floor.
We did manage to speak with one additional representative and one senator from the ropes. A member of our group recognized a senator from a previous interaction, and while greeting her, explained why we were there. She was kind to indulge us.

I used modern technology to meet with my state congressman: social media. After unsuccessfully waiting in line for 35 minutes to page my rep and having the page not find him, I tweeted my thanks and tagged him. He responded. A few more back-and-forths on Twitter and he found me on the ropes before I had even gotten through the line for the third time.

I have no idea why pages aren't electronic messages sent to members instantly, or at least sent to an aide to approve and then sent to the members. That would not only be quick and easy, it would be much more productive and reduce wasted time by orders of magnitude. Instead of wasting an hour to page a legislator at a high failure rate, it could be done in a minute! One thing is for sure: I will never page a member of congress from the floor using human pages again. Lesson learned.

Our final meeting with multiple legislators was also canceled as members chose to go directly to lunch instead of meeting with us in their office. All told, we met with one state senator, two state representatives, and a few staff members in various offices. Thank you to those who took the time to speak with our small group on such a busy day! Lesson learned #2: visit congress first thing in the legislative year or after crossover day when they're not so busy.

Heading towards the main Georgia Aerospace Day event.
We regrouped and ate at the nearby cafeteria, then geared up for the second event of the day: the networking event and expo in the capitol rotunda. When we arrived back, several companies and organizations had set up booths and banners to promote their aerospace (mainly aviation) business. There were speeches by the event organizer, the Lt. Governor, and the Governor. Those remaining of our team met with Governor Kemp for a photo after his speech.

Photo op with the Governor
The networking event gave me a chance to have some useful conversations with existing colleagues and meet new ones. I'm particularly excited about a new space education project I learned about. I had fun with 3D printed prototypes at one table and 360 degree augmented virtual reality at another table. Plus these events are great for fun “swag” take-away items. Georgia Space Alliance didn't have a table this year but I'm already thinking of possibilities for next year.

Thank you to our Georgia Space Alliance team!

Friday, February 22, 2019

State Space Advocacy

Next week is Georgia Aerospace Day, “a unique opportunity for the aerospace industry to showcase their technology and highlight this important industry's contributions to Georgia's economy,” describes the event page. This year will be the first time my nonprofit Georgia Space Alliance will participate. The policy wonk in me can’t wait!

I’ve been interested in policy since high school. In 11th grade I participated in a program called Presidential Classroom in Washington, DC. I didn’t know anything back then, but I was excited to learn. My love of space persuaded me to pursue astrophysics in college, but I still held onto that policy interest.

It wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior year of college that I realized space policy was a field. I was an intern in NASA Academy and heard a lecture by an astrophysicist involved in space policy. I could have listened to him for hours. I was hooked. I had no idea how to get involved, but I felt called to it.

As my astrophysics studies in grad school intensify, I had little time to focus on anything else. I was committed to a science career path and realized I could do space policy on the side. But I didn’t have the opportunity to do so until I switched universities and switched fields to planetary science.

I am forever grateful my PhD advisor was so supportive of my various interests. He and another professor recommended me for the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science's Federal Relations Subcommittee. I was so thankful AAS paid my way to Washington, DC for my first congressional visit. It was just me without a group, so I had to figure it out on my own. I created my own leave-behind document and met with my congressman and a few other offices. My visits went so well and I felt so welcomed! I was motivated to do more.

I don’t remember how I heard about Florida Space Day, but I knew I wanted in. It took me a year to gather the courage to ask. I was just a graduate student, not a representative of a space company or anyone important. Florida Space Day required sponsorship to participate. Even so, I asked. And I asked people I knew who were involved to ask on my behalf. To my surprise, they agreed to bring me with them to the state capital Tallahassee!

I was so nervous to be among all these important people, I didn’t know what to expect or what to say. I didn’t realize at the time elected officials enjoy hearing from students who represent both current education and the future workforce. I was even encouraged to sneak into the VIP-only meeting with the lieutenant governor under the philosophy “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” And I was later indirectly scolded for it. But I’m glad I did; I got to meet a strong woman in politics who was passionate about space and who wore purple pumps.

I would go on to participate in Florida Space Day for 4 years serving on both the Implementation Committee and the Steering Committee and leading the Outreach Subcommittee. I became a team leader during the annual congressional visit to the state Capitol in Tallahassee. I had found my space policy community in Florida and thrived in it. I was even asked to serve on Representative Bill Posey’s Space Advisory Council for a year until I moved away.

The space community in Georgia is small but growing. A year ago I formed the nonprofit Georgia Space Alliance to bring all the space players together. Shortly after I moved to Georgia, I met with officials to gauge the status of space activity and space policy in the state. I was advised by four unrelated people to form an organization with members to bring all the voices together in unity to advocate for space in Georgia. So I did.

Georgia Aerospace Day didn’t take place the first year I lived in Georgia. The second year it did, but I had a 19-day-old baby and couldn’t participate. This year, for the first time, Georgia Space Alliance will participate in Georgia Aerospace Day with a team of approximately a dozen people. To my knowledge, this will be the first time a space organization participates in the aviation-dominated Aerospace Day. I look forward to advocating for space with our team!

Traveling to a state or federal capitol is a great way to meet with legislators, but it’s not the only way. I have my elected officials' numbers programmed in my phone and call their offices regularly to discuss legislation and current events. Politicians want to hear about topics most important to their constituents. You can also email or physically write to your elected officials. Use your voice! Tell them why space is so important to you and thank them for their support.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Birth of a Book

March 7, 2016. It started with a thought, casually tweeted: “I'm playing with a book idea. Anyone out there in the 'millennial' generation working in the space industry willing to be interviewed?”

Millennials this. Millennials aren't that. Millennials are doing this and killing that. So many articles, so many stereotypes, so many negative portrayals. I didn't feel fairly represented.

The story I wanted to know wasn't being told: how are millennials changing the world through space exploration? What grand accomplishments does my generation hope to achieve in space? What do we prioritize and value? What are our individual and collective dreams? And through asking these questions, can I read between the lines to understand whether any of the millennial stereotypes hold true?

I never saw myself becoming a book author. I never saw myself becoming a small business owner, either, but life takes us on unexpected journeys. The idea, planted in my mind, publicly sprouted on Twitter, grew. Numerous people stepped up to volunteer their thoughts and support.

I sincerely appreciate my gracious and talented interviewees. Without them, this book would not exist. I am but one millennial. By the time the interviews were completed, 100 voices from multiple countries, a diversity of disciplines, and a mix of employers had given Rise of the Space Age Millennials life. All I had left to do was to put it all together.

Life got in the way. I had an infant. We moved four times. I had two computer crashes and thought I lost data until I rediscovered my back-up. I had a second baby. There were lots of starts and stops, long stops. At times, I thought the barriers were so high, I would never finish it.

The seemingly insurmountable barrier was one I had erected in my own mind. No one praises my writing. It's good enough to get by for my usual purposes. But it's not popular or award-winning. I don't have a gift for prose. My writing is functional but not fun. Why would anyone pay to read my writing for the fun of it?

I convinced myself I was no good at book writing and I shouldn't take money from people to give them an amateur book that could be better written by someone else. Why waste everyone's time? Why set myself up for rejection?

It took a lot of bad books to change my mind. I knew how to pick them in 2018. I read one forgetable book after another. Some of them were okay. Some of them weren't even worth my time to finish. The best book I read all year, Oh Crap! Potty Training, is wildly popular yet I'd grade it a C for writing excellence.

And then it occurred to me: every book I had read was recommended to me or was somehow placed in my awareness despite the fact that they were average to poor quality. If those books got published and put on shelves, why shouldn't my book have the same opportunity?

I conquered my fear of rejection by choosing to ignore it. I was writing for myself to finally get this book out of my head. I no longer cared whether it sold. Ten seemed like a respectable low bar; I decided to try to sell ten books and call it a success. I vowed to do my best not to read reviews or glance at star ratings. It doesn't matter. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. My book isn't for everyone, but it's for someone. It's for me. And maybe it's for others too.

I calculated the bare minimum budget I needed to publish with editing, art, and publishing costs. I rounded: $1000. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing crowdfunding platform; I needed to raise at least $1000 or I'd get nothing at all.

I raised my goal within the first 2 hours of the campaign. I met my stretch goal as well: enough of a budget to record an audiobook. I was flattered by the positive response. The topic interests people. I hope my writing will as well.

As of this posting, there's 24 hours left in the Kickstarter campaign. Preordering the book through the campaign allows me to include extra perks such as thanking contributors in the book, autographing, consulting, and traveling for a lecture and book signing.

If you're reading this within the last 24 hours, you still have time to support the Kickstarter campaign and preorder your copy:

I still have plenty of work left to do. I won't truly believe it's real until I'm holding it in my hands. I'm not going to let anyone stop me, not even myself.