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 starting 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.

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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!

Researchers Wonder if Pluto’s Moon Charon is Cracked

One of NASA’s most recent news stories features work performed at Goddard Space Flight Center, where researchers are trying to develop mathematical models that will help us understand the results from New Horizons, a spacecraft on its way to Pluto (arriving in July of 2015). While Pluto may have been demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet,” it can still teach us many things about the history of our Solar System.

What might New Horizons see when it reaches Pluto and its moon, Charon? What will those observations tell us about the histories of these two planetary bodies? Like all good scientists, this team of researchers at NASA are developing detailed hypotheses about the places the spacecraft will visit.

First: will Charon be fractured? Many icy moons are crisscrossed by patterns of huge cracks, or faults like California’s San Andreas. For example, Jupiter’s moon Europa has so many long, dark linea (linear features) that there’s an entire wikipedia article dedicated to a list of them! Many researchers believe that these giant fractures are the product of gravitational tides, which repeatedly bend and eventually fracture the ice shell. At Saturn’s moon Enceladus it is thought that tides continue to open and close the moon’s “Tiger Stripes,” causing jets of water vapor to spew out of the moon’s south pole at regular intervals – a space version of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. It’s possible that Pluto’s moon, Charon, experienced tides like this soon after its formation, perhaps leading to fractures across its icy surface. By building a mathematical model of Charon and Pluto which examines the strength of their gravitational interaction, these researchers have described the conditions under which Charon’s surface would have fractured, and if New Horizons sees linea on Charon, this research may explain how they formed.


 Plumes erupt from huge fractures in the surface of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Image courtesy NASA.

     But the picture gets even more detailed: the location and orientation of these fractures depends on the thickness and viscosity of the ice enveloping Charon. The viscosity (how easily the ice flows when pushed by, for example, gravity) depends on many things – temperature, pressure, the purity of the ice, and even the size of each individual ice crystal –  so it is a major “unknown” in models of icy moons. These scientists, however, recognized that because fractures are driven by stresses, which are in turn affected by the deep structure of the moon, the patterns of fractures we (might) see on the surface tells us about what is happening deep below the surface.

     To explore this idea, they envisioned many different potential thicknesses and viscosities of Charon’s ice layer and subjected these hypothetical ice shells to tides using computer models, then observed the resulting fractures (or lack thereof). Their results are, in a sense, a picture book of fractures on Charon, each with their own back story, which scientists can consult once they have images from New Horizons – see the fractures, find the matching model, and voila: a theory on the orbital history of Pluto and Charon! The photos from New Horizons will be a great test of these scientists’ hypotheses.

  So when New Horizons reaches the end of its long journey, keep an eye out for photos. Grab this paper off of Google Scholar and see if you can figure out how thick the ice shell is!


Read the original article here, on NASA’s website.

This post summarizes an article in press:

Rhoden, A. R., Henning, W., Hurford, T. A., & Hamilton, D. P. (2014). The interior and orbital evolution of Charon as preserved in its geologic record.Icarus.

Saturn’s Rings: A Busy Place for Ice

Icy moons aren’t the only place in the Outer Solar System where ice takes center stage. Saturn’s rings are almost entirely composed of water ice, and are seen here in a mosaic of photos taken by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft:

Cassini Ring Mosaic

Saturn’s rings are formed from the debris of ancient moons that drifted too close to the planet, past an invisible barrier known as the Roche Limit, and were torn apart by Saturn’s gravitational tides (yes – dissipation of tidal energy is important here, too)! The rings do not spin around the planet entirely peacefully, either. Icy pillars rise up from the rings, visible only at the planet’s Equinox:Columns of Ice Rise from Saturn's Rings

The conditions required to take this photo occur only once every 15 years… so mark your calendar for 2024, when the next sighting opportunity arises!

The rings also swirl with turbulence as pieces of debris collide and swarm around one another:Turbulence in Saturn's F Ring

But the rings are not only places of turbulence and destruction: Cassini recently captured this image of the birth of a new moon amid the debris.

Cassini Sees New Moon Forming


Saturn’s rings may be beautiful, but they certainly aren’t passive …and to fully understand their dynamics, we must understand the physics of ice!

For more cool images (pun intended), check out the Cassini Mission’s website.