Women eXploring Space: Dr. Jenny Whitten, Planetary Geologist

The awesome space explorers featured so far have had a definite engineering theme to their work – probably because the author started out as an engineer! But, of course, space exploration involves much more than the design, construction, and control of the spacecraft themselves. Scientists decide which experiments will be conducted in the first place, and why, then conceptualize those experiments (in terms of the scientific method!) and interpret the data when it comes back from space. The latter segment of a mission can involve thousands of people around the world! Who looks at data coming back from space, and what do they study? Read on to find out.


Dr. Jenny Whitten takes a break from science in front of a volcano in Hawai’i.

What is your job title? How would you translate that title into everyday language?

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, working in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies in the National Air and Space Museum. My job involves researching different planetary bodies in our Solar System, from characterizing the composition of lava on the Moon to determining the age of the oldest surfaces on Mercury. I have recently started a research project to understand the radar properties of the surface of Venus, including some of the oldest and most deformed surfaces on that planet.

Is there a specific background, or training, required for your job?

In order to get my job as a postdoctoral fellow I had to earn a PhD. Mine was from a Geological Sciences Department, but planetary scientists come from a variety of different backgrounds, including physics, mathematics, chemistry, and geology. Graduate school provided me the proper training to do research in this field, including experience working with remote planetary datasets, doing analog field work (like studying volcanoes in Hawai’i), and learning how to plan planetary missions.

What sorts of projects do you work on in a given day? Of all of the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?

I am usually working on more than one project at any given time. The various projects that I have, and am continuing to, work on involve different types of data sets (from topography, to visible images, to surface mineralogical information) and different planets.

GeoFactMineralogy is the study of the minerals that make up rocks.

If rocks are like books, minerals are the words!

Mercury Messenger

The surface of Mercury, taken by the MESSENGER spacecraft. (Photo courtesy NASA Goddard.)

My PhD dissertation work focused on ancient volcanism on the Moon and Mercury, two airless planetary bodies with heavily cratered surfaces. In order to complete my dissertation work I would do any and all of these activities: download a data set and process it from an online data center, count the number of craters on a planetary surface (which can tell us how old a surface is), map a geologic deposit, or use computer models to determine the minerals on the surface of the Moon. I would also spend time reading scientific journal articles about a particular topic or looking at published geologic maps. The possibilities are endless. Now, with my new project on Venus, I am learning about radar data and what it can tell you about the properties of a planetary surface, like surface roughness and material density or composition. By the end of my post-doctorate work I will have completed a research project on each of the terrestrial planets!


The terrestrial, or rocky, planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars! (Figure courtesy Wikipedia.)

My favorite project was probably the very first project assigned to me in graduate school. I started graduate school not knowing a lot about planetary science and my advisor assigned me a project looking at the lunar Orientale basin using Moon Mineralogy Mapper data. The Orientale basin is a spectacular impact structure because it has not been completely filled with lava, like most of the other impact basins on the Moon, allowing you to see the basin rings. Having a project in such a geologically interesting location was one aspect that excited me about the project. The other was working with the Moon Mineralogy Mapper data set. This NASA instrument measured the reflected light off of the surface of the Moon and was able to provide information about the mineralogy of the surface deposits. This first project also provided me the opportunity to participate on an active science mission. Over the next several years I was involved in helping to calibrate Moon Mineralogy Mapper data and also used the data for research. Participating on an active mission was an outstanding opportunity to have as a graduate student, and it showed me what lies ahead if I wished to continue to pursue planetary geology as a career.

Orientale Compilation

The Orientale Impact Basin on the Moon, color coded by elevation data gathered by the LOLA instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The three rings formed when an object the size of Rhode Island smashed into the Moon!

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far? How did you overcome it?

I am an early career scientist, so I have not had any great challenges to overcome outside of graduate school, but in the biggest challenge that I have faced thus far would have to be writing my dissertation. The most important part about writing a dissertation is actually getting everything written down, and writing was something that I struggled to do throughout graduate school. Doing research was always the fun part–exploring a data set time and figuring out the best way to address a scientific question always excited me. Writing always took more work. In order to continuously write for almost 4 months I had to figure out a system that kept me motivated. Eventually I found that an accountability group worked the best for me, that, and rewarding myself when I completed a task or goal I set for myself, such as completing the introduction to one of my chapters.

When did you decide to pursue this career? Was there a specific moment, event, or person who inspired you?

I decided to pursue planetary geology during my last year as an undergraduate at William and Mary. When I started college I was “scienced-out”. I had just graduated from a science-focused high school program where I had to take at least 7 science classes over the course of 4 years. So in college I decided to pursue other interests because I could not take any more math or science. However, by my second year I had stumbled into geology, one of the sciences that I had not been exposed to as a high schooler. It captured my attention immediately and I was hooked. Then, a few years later I was sitting in a geomorphology class and my professor put up an image of a mass wasting event. He asked the class to describe the processes that we observed in the image. Then he asked, “What planet are you looking at?” That shocked me a little bit. We had all assumed it was a black and white picture of a landslide on Earth. Turns out we were looking at Mars (what?!). The geologic feature looked almost exactly the same on Earth and Mars! It never occurred to me that other planets in our Solar System were experiencing the same processes as we do on Earth. This one example from class revealed that I could study geology (a new passion of mine) and the terrestrial, or rocky, planets (a passion of mine leftover from high school). My last year of undergrad I took a planetary geology class which solidified my belief that this was a topic I wanted to pursue in graduate school (and beyond!).


Jenny with a mockup of the Mars Rover Curiosity, which is currently exploring the surface of the red planet. (Image courtesy Jenny Whitten.)

What do you think has been the most important event or mission in space exploration in the last 50 years?

The Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon. Not only did that manned mission inspire people to pursue science and engineering careers, but it paved the way for the other landed lunar missions. All combined, the Apollo mission brought back rock and soil samples that taught us many things about the geologic history and formation of the Earth-Moon system. For instance, the rocks collected at the Apollo landing sites were dated using isotopes; a method (using impact crater counting – mentioned earlier!) to determine surface ages on Mars, Mercury, and the icy satellites was developed from this age information.

The number of people inspired by the Apollo missions is equally important and lead to a rapid increase in the number of planets studied, each with their own unique engineering and scientific challenges. The Apollo missions to the Moon showed us that we can land people on other planetary bodies and has inspired us to try and get people to other planetary bodies, like Mars or an asteroid.

What do you predict will be the biggest accomplishment in space exploration in the next 50 years?

Hands down, landing a human on another planet. Humankind has landed on the Moon, but that was over 40 years ago and on our closest celestial neighbor. Landing people on another planet has many more complications than landing on the Moon. There are more medical, physiological, physical, engineering, and scientific hurdles to overcome when we travel further from Earth. People will have to spend several years traveling in space in order to reach (and return home from) another planet. Communications will be delayed because the planets are much further away compared to our own Moon. It would really be a remarkable feat to land humans on another planet and I hope we accomplish this sooner rather than later.

The success of the Rosetta mission, coming so close on the heels of the failures experienced by Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, has rekindled the debate over whether human or robotic exploration is most effective. Having worked with both, what would you say are the merits of each? The drawbacks? Do you think that one or the other is more “efficient”? 

The question about whether humans or robots are more effective at exploring a planetary surface is intimately related to the environment and location of that planetary surface. For manned missions NASA takes many precautions and gathers as much about that body as possible in order to fly safe missions. A good example of this is the Surveyor missions, sent to the Moon before the landed Apollo missions to measure the properties of the lunar regolith (dirt). When the astronauts landed on the Moon we had a good idea of the surface properties.

Apollo 12 Surveyor 3

Apollo 12 Mission Commander Pete Conrad investigates the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

Another advantage to the Moon is its proximity to Earth. It is far more cost effective to send a human to the Moon compared to Mars (even though we know a lot about the surface of the planet from orbital and rover missions). Landers/ rovers are able to withstand harsher environmental conditions compared to humans, things such as radiation, and there much less is at risk when sending them to planetary surfaces.

Things get tricky when we consider a planetary surface that has never been visited by landers/ rovers or humans, such as a comet. It is a little frustrating that after more than a decade of travel, the Philae lander bounced into a shadow, instead of landing in a sunlit area. If Philae were a human it would be able to right itself easily and quickly, and continue on with its mission. Reacting and synthesizing information quickly is an advantage of human exploration. Robots can only do what people have programmed them to do, so if something expected comes up the rover may not have the necessary tool (instrument or software) or mobility to make a measurement, but a human would be able to improvise in that kind of situation. I think both methods of exploration are necessary to continue moving forward and understanding better the planetary bodies in our Solar System.

If you could go to any one (but only one!) of the sites you’ve studied, which would you choose and why?

If I was able to go into space I would choose the Moon. It has a special place in my heart because it was the planetary body that ushered me into the field of planetary science with my first graduate research project studying Orientale basin. Of all the areas I studied on the Moon I think I would have to land in Orientale because of all the science I could do (and it would be a breathtaking landscape, being in the most well-preserved impact basin on the Moon). In Orientale I could sample outcrops from the different basin rings which would provide information about the crustal structure and also the timing of the impact event. There is also a large pyroclastic deposit in the southern portion of the basin (it looks like a giant dark ‘o’), several sinuous rilles (channels carved by lava flowing over the surface), and many different basalt flows. There are still many outstanding questions about volcanism and impact basin formation on the Moon and samples from Orientale would greatly improve our understanding of these processes.

Update from Laura Beachy, ISS Flight Controller

How can I get a job at NASA? We had some follow-on questions for Laura Beachy, the most recent Women in STEM feature. Want to know how she came to be a flight controller? Or the most amazing thing Laura’s ever seen while working in Mission Control? Read on!


Laura Beachy, NASA Flight Controller for the International Space Station, floats in zero gravity as experiments are conducted behind her. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

How did you get such a cool job?

I was really interested in going into pharmacy school towards the end of college.  A friend of mine in the medical field was going to a career fair near our school. I went along with her so she’d have someone to go with and so I could scope out the medical and pharmacy scene and learn a little more. I’d just gotten back from a trip to Disney World where I’d ridden the Mission: Space ride. I ended up hanging back at the career fair and talking to someone about the ride and travelling to space.  I finally got around to explaining that I was studying astrophysics. We set up an on campus interview for the next day. Soon after, I did a phone interview, then flew to Houston for an interview. Before I knew it, I was moving to Houston!

What is the most incredible event you’ve witnessed from Mission Control?

How do I choose? It’s all so awesome. During training, I would sit in the ISS control center viewing room and just watch the external cameras capture the Earth. It was amazing. I’ve watched Mt. Etna erupt, seen the Aurora Borealis, and viewed hurricanes, all from a perspective above Earth. EVAs (Space Walks) are so amazing, too. I can’t believe I get to help put people outside in space.

Watching new crews come aboard is incredible as well. You know how you’re all excited when your friends or family come visit after not seeing each other for a long period of time? You go open the door and everyone is smiling and hugging. Imagine getting to do that in space after not seeing any other people in months. When new crews arrive, you can tell that they’re genuinely excited to be on board and the previous crewmembers are genuinely excited to welcome them aboard. I realize that may seem trivial compared to the other things I’ve mentioned, but the raw human emotion of happiness is infectious. Everyone in the control room is smiling and happy in those moments. It’s a great reminder that even though we do the greatest things, we’re still all human and we’re all connected.


The newest ISS Crew, part of Expedition 41-42, arrives at the Station on September 26, 2014 with smiles all around! (Photo courtesy NASA.)

How to Make Awesome Ice Cubes

“How do I make really clear ice cubes?”

stock photo ice cubes

It may not surprise you that this is one of the most frequent questions asked by people who’ve just learned that I work with ice. I do worry about making clear ice - a clear ice sample is devoid of gas bubbles  and cracks, which can interfere with the processes I’m trying to study – but I also attach my samples to a vacuum pump to draw air out of them, and smash them at 1000x atmospheric pressure to press out even the tiniest bits of gas that still remain. This is not exactly a practical method of getting ice cubes for a drink!

Yet fear not, ye who need beautiful ice cubes: David Rees, on his National Geographic show “Going Deep,” answers the question of the perfect ice cube in extreme, yet enlightened, detail. Do you suffer from unsatisfying, refrigerator-produced ice “cubes” that “aren’t even cubes, they’re shaped like slugs…and sometimes taste like onions”? Then read on for the Cliff’s Notes version, or skip to the link and watch David’s far more entertaining description!

  1. Start with clean, but mineral-rich, water. Clean water makes clearer cubes, but minerals make the cubes taste good! If you don’t have distilled water, boil your water to clean it of bacteria and get rid of dissolved gasses.
  2. Carefully pour the water into a deep tray. Allow it to cool to room temperature.
  3. Put the tray in your freezer. The water will freeze from the edges inward, forcing any remaining air into bubbles in the center of the dish. This is why you need a deep dish!
  4. Once frozen, break the clear edges away from the bubbly interior (the video clip shows you how to do this nicely).
  5. Clean up the edges of your cubes by pressing them against a warm, flat piece of metal (like a metal cookie sheet). The metal doesn’t have to be very hot – you can warm it up by running it under hot water from your tap.
  6. Voila, pretty ice!

Here’s the link to the video: http://www.hulu.com/watch/669146#i0,p0,d0

Women eXploring Space: Laura Beachy, ISS Flight Controller

Houston, we have a problem! When the astronauts aboard the International Space Station need help from Earth – which is often, because the ISS is a huge, complex vehicle orbiting the Earth at >17,000 miles per hour! – they turn to the experts in Mission Control. This highly trained team of scientists and engineers, who’ve spent years of their lives learning every last detail of their aspect of the Space Station, is on-call 24 hours a day to assist the astronauts when necessary.

Ever wonder who those people are, or how they became Flight Controllers? Keep reading!


Laura Beachy, ISS Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems (“ETHOS”) Flight Controller. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

What is your job title? How would you translate your job title into everyday language?

I am an Environmental and Thermal Flight Controller for the International Space Station. What that really means is that I sit in the Mission Control Center for the ISS, monitoring life support systems, temperature and cooling systems that help the astronauts onboard stay alive and the equipment onboard operate properly. Have you seen the movie Apollo 13? Remember where they say “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”? They’re talking to those guys (and girls!) on the ground wearing the funny headsets and staring at multiple computer screens. That’s what I do.


Laura on console in the ISS Mission Control Center. Do you think she has enough computer screens? (Photo courtesy Laura Beachy.)

Author’s note: for more information on Laura’s job as an ETHOS, check out this NASA video of her being interviewed by students at an elementary school in Florida: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdEHYRK9Fwo

What sorts of projects do you work on in a given day? Of all of the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?

When I’m not in the control center, I get to work on many different projects that range from updating procedures that we follow when operating the Space Station, to working with commercial space companies and training astronauts. So far, my favorite projects include working with our commercial and international partners, integrating the visiting vehicles coming to the ISS.  I’ve gotten to work with the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Russian Federal Space Agency, SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corporation. We have great partnerships with all and all have led to successful missions.

Are there any common misconceptions about your job?

I (and the astronauts on ISS!) talk to aliens! Unfortunately, I don’t have the pleasure of talking to, or knowing of, any extraterrestrials out there. If anyone else from NASA has, they haven’t filled us flight controllers in on the secret yet.

What is the most exciting moment in your career so far?

I have the opportunity to mentor students and teachers participating in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. This amazing program gives students and teachers opportunities to test experiments that may end up on ISS (in a reduced gravity environment) by flying on NASA’s C-9, “Weightless Wonder” aircraft. In short, I’ve gotten to experience zero gravity! I’ve participated in the program multiple times now, and have seen very successful experiments fly – even a few that have made it to ISS.

jsc2014e070629 jsc2011e058518

Laura floats in zero-gravity aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft while teams of researchers test experiments to be flown in space. (Photos courtesy NASA.)

When did you decide to pursue this career? Was there a specific moment, event, or person who inspired you?

My high school physics teacher, Mr. DiPiano, inspired me to pursue physics in college. He was one of those teachers who did a lot of experiments, including ripping a tablecloth out from under a table set with china dishes to describe inertia and letting us spin in our chairs, pulling our arms in and out, so we’d experience angular momentum at work. I remember getting randomly assigned to his class and trying my hardest to get out of it, thinking I’d really dislike it. It turned out to be the most inspirational class I’ve ever taken.

What do you think has been the most important eventin space exploration in the last 50 years?

I’d definitely have to go with the Apollo 11 mission and the first walk on the moon for mankind. It was one of those events that everyone who witnessed it remembers and was inspired by it. The kids who saw the moon landings are the scientists and engineers at the foundation of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station Programs. I also give a lot of credit to Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in space (though that was more than 50 years ago), and to Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride as the first Russian and American women in space. All three of them were really inspirational.


Sally Ride, first American woman to fly in space. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

What do you think will be the biggest accomplishment in space exploration in the next 50 years?

Mankind walking on Mars will be a huge accomplishment, and I think the public will respond very favorably to it. It will be another inspiration catalyst, like the Moon landings, sending us even further into space. I think the biggest accomplishment, however, will be creating and sustaining whatever space stations we need along the way to help get humans to Mars. Whether we are able to sustain the International Space Station that long or we create a new station, the amount of work that goes into monitoring and operating these stations will be immense. The stations, how we care for them, and what we learn from them will be our stepping stones to Mars and beyond.

The sounds of ice… in space

In space, no one can hear you scream… right? Well, the planets – and their icy rings! – make their voices heard in this eerie compilation of “Space Sounds” recorded by the Voyager Spacecraft, which at this moment are hurtling away from us at the very edge of our Solar System. The sounds make the planets come alive.

Click here to listen.

Earth Horizon

NASA Space Sounds

Women eXploring Space: Sarah Hargrove, Orion Software Engineer

Some of the worst stereotypes about engineers (reclusive, socially awkward, and stapler-obsessed…) revolve around those who work with the ultimate nerd machine: the computer. Sarah Hargrove, Orion Software Engineer, blows those stereotypes out of the water while being a self-proclaimed nerd. Sarah writes the software that will keep astronauts alive aboard NASA’s newest spacecraft, Orion – talk about a high-stakes job! At the same time she is athletic, witty, inspirational, and a great friend. Read on to get to know this week’s awesome woman exploring space.

SarahSarah Hargrove, Orion Software Engineer (photo courtesy NASA).

What is your job title? How would you translate your job title into everyday language?

I have been a Software Engineer since February 2014. I work with a team of computer programmers, hardware designers, subject matter experts, and operations specialists to write computer code that automates the environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS) for the Orion spacecraft. The ECLSS processes water, air, and waste for the crew and also controls the temperature of the spacecraft. In the past, I’ve been a mechanical and aerospace engineer working on the structural and operational aspects of this and other spacecraft.

What sorts of projects do you work on in a given day? Of all of the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?

We are just starting to write the software for the second test version of Orion, called EM-1 (short for exploration mission 1). For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with a team to create diagrams and requirements that will help the software developers (which will include myself) to work together across all the systems (ECLSS, guidance and navigation, power, displays and controls, and propulsion, for example) to create an integrated system that operates like it should.

One of the coolest jobs I had was on the operations team for the International Space Station. I got to learn how the ECLSS systems on the orbiting science lab operated and how to control them; I got to work with some really brilliant people; I got to witness some of the last shuttle flights from the Mission Control Center, aka “Houston” in, “Houston, we have a problem”. And I met Tess, the incredible woman who created this blog.


Sarah and blog author Tess, meeting astronaut Clay Anderson while training for their job at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Photo courtesy Sarah Hargrove.)

Are there any common misconceptions about your job?

Yes! Common misconceptions include:

  • That engineering is a “good ole boys’ club” and there aren’t many (if any) women. There are certainly industries where this is true, but in all of the NASA programs that I’ve worked, women have been equally represented. As of 2014, though, Engineering schools and professions in general have a low ratio of women to men. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the women have a bad experience or are discriminated against. Some companies have great cultures, regardless of this shortcoming, and some don’t.
  • That computer programmers, software engineers, and engineers in general are geeky, socially awkward nerds. There are all kinds of people who become engineers. People always seem surprised to learn that I’m not a Trekkie (Star Trek fan). I, like a lot of my peers, am athletic, enjoy reading books other than science fiction, am an artist, and try to be fashionable. By definition, I am still a space geek and a nerd, though, and my friends and I identity with the characters on The Big Bang Theory.
  • That engineering school is impossibly hard. Engineering school is definitely a challenge, but those that excel at and enjoy math and science go to school looking for that challenge.
  • That engineering is for loners who like to sit in a cube at a computer all day. There are lots of engineering positions where this is very much not true. Some engineers spend all day out in the field wearing a hard hat and steel toed boots; some work with amputee patients designing prosthetics; some become astronauts; some teach other engineers; some work in control centers on a team that operates things like spacecraft and power plants; some are loners who like to sit in a cube at a computer all day, but they still usually work on a collaborative team.

What is the most exciting moment in your career so far?

My favorite experience was in 2009 when I got to fly in a C-5 airplane with the hardware I designed for the Ares 1-X spacecraft from the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


Ares 1-X hardware designed by Sarah is unloaded from a C-5 transport after flight to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

We arrived on the same landing strip that the Space Shuttle used to land when coming back from space. Then I spent the next week working on the Ares 1-X hardware in the Vertical Assembly Building that was built in the 1960s for the assembly of the Saturn V rockets and Apollo spacecraft. It was AWESOME!


Ares 1-X hardware coming together in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. (Image courtesy Sarah Hargrove.)


Ares 1-X lifts off! October 28, 2009. (Image courtesy NASA.)

When did you decide to pursue this career? Was there a specific moment, event, or person who inspired you?

My high school physics teacher, Mrs. Willars, very much influenced my decision to become an engineer. I really enjoyed learning physics from her and joined physics club, where we built robots and went to Science Bowl competitions. She also encouraged me and several of my friends to go to events at The University of Texas that introduce girls to engineering. It was the robot competition and going to engineering “camp” at UT that really solidified my decision.

What do you think has been the most important event/mission in space exploration in the last 50 years?

Apollo 11, definitely. Landing on the moon inspired so many engineers around the world to pursue important jobs, even outside of space exploration, that benefit life for all of us here on Earth.


Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin stands on the Moon on July 20, 1969. If you look closely, you can see Neil Armstrong reflected in his visor. (Image courtesy NASA.)

What do you think will be the biggest accomplishment in space exploration in the next 50 years?

A person walking on Mars will be the biggest accomplishment in the next 50 years; but hopefully it won’t take that long.


Want to learn more about Sarah?  Visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/snapshot_shargrove.html

Feature: Dr. Laurie Carrillo, Spacecraft Thermal Design Engineer

Most people think that the people exploring space are glasses-wearing, TI-83-toting nerds who could recite pi to 35 digits without blinking an eye. Well, there may be a few of those… but the business of human spaceflight has many facets, from engineering, science, and technology to education and public relations, and the people who work in the business are even more varied. To give folks a glimpse of the many people, places, and jobs that contribute to the exploration of space, I’ll be interviewing women in all aspects of the field.

Why only women? As you will see in the first of these profiles, there are still places within NASA where, in a group of 15 engineers, there is only one woman. My hope is that these features, about the lives and careers of cool women doing amazing jobs, will inspire young women to pursue jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math. Please share these stories with the next generation of female space explorers!

My mentor and friend, Dr. Laurie Carrillo, has graciously agreed to be my first interviewee and to give us an inside look at the life of a NASA Spacecraft Thermal Design Engineer. Click over to my new page, Women eXploring Space, to find out about the career of this NASA engineer.

Check back for more feature profiles in the future!