Kristen John: Asteroid Explorer

When Astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time ever, Kristen John was one of four people helping her out from Earth. Sitting at her desk at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, Kristen talked directly to Kate in space.

kristen-portrait

That’s just one of the many amazing things Kristen has done as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA. Read on to find out more!

What is your role in space exploration?

I work at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) division as a NASA Postdoctoral Research Fellow.  My research involves studying the surfaces of asteroids and small planetary bodies, understanding the mechanical properties of meteorites and their parent bodies, providing mission support for asteroid-related missions, and developing mission concepts for robotic planetary exploration.

Editor’s note: A “postdoctoral research fellow” is someone who has recently completed a PhD and is now an independent research scientist!

I am the Project Engineer and Deputy Project Manager for two experiments currently flying on the ISS.  Strata-1 studies regolith stratification in microgravity. Biomolecule Sequencer performed the first-ever DNA sequencing in space.

experiments-and-patches
Two of Kristen’s experiments on ISS. Kate Rubins sequencing DNA with the Biomolecule Sequencer, with Strata-1 running in the background. And of course, you can’t have a NASA mission without a patch!

Some of your current research focuses on hardware to enable humans to explore asteroids. What do you see as the greatest challenge to humans working at an asteroid?

A huge challenge when visiting asteroids (whether this is done robotically or with humans) is anchoring to the surface.  Asteroids have a very low gravity, so you can’t just land on the surface the way you would on the Moon, Mars, or Earth.  Additionally, asteroids are covered with a layer of fragments of rock, dust, and glass called regolith.  The low gravity combined with the layer of regolith make it an even more challenging environment to operate in.  Past missions to small bodies such as asteroids and comets have all encountered challenges in “anchoring” to the surface (see Philae lander and Hayabusa-1), so this is a challenge scientists and engineers have to work together to solve. As we send robotic missions (and eventually astronauts) to the surface of small bodies, we need to understand the regolith and how to interact with it, hence the “propaganda poster” we created for Strata-1:

strata-1-poster

How did you get to your current job? Have you always wanted to work in human space exploration, or have your goals evolved through time?

I’ve wanted to be a part of the space program since as long as I can remember.  What I love about working at NASA is the fact that I get to work alongside others who are as passionate as I am about what we do.  When I was in grad school, even though I was in an Aerospace Engineering program, my research diverged from space applications.  As I was getting closer to defending, I made the decision to find my way back to NASA.  Paul Abell, a planetary scientist at NASA JSC, came to Caltech to talk about Phobos and Deimos.  I introduced myself and expressed interest in working with him.  I applied to work with him through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (https://npp.usra.edu/) and the rest is history!  I love my job!

Was there a certain person or event that inspired you to pursue spaceflight?kristen-sally-ride

I always looked up to Sally K. Ride.  When I was 9, I dressed up as her for Halloween.  Did you know the K in Sally K. Ride stands for Kristen?!

I lived overseas as a kid.  When we found out we were being transferred back to the US, my family was surprised when we found out my dad’s company was sending us to Houston.  I was pumped to be relocating to the Space City!

What is the coolest thing you’ve worked on during your NASA career?

Being a part of two experiments that have flown in space is pretty exciting!  One of the experiments, Strata-1, went from an idea on a PowerPoint slide to an experiment operating on the ISS in about a year.  It was really neat to experience the whole design life cycle of a project, and to experience it so quickly.  No two days at work were the same.  One day I might be in the machine shop cutting aluminum, another day I would be presenting in front of a safety panel of ten subject matter experts, and another day I’d be at the ISS mock-up facility to test one of our structural connections.  And of course, a really rewarding moment was attending the launches of our experiments at Cape Canaveral.  Lately, we’ve been operating both experiments, and my desk serves as our “ground control station”.  I really enjoy communicating on the voice loops, and it was so fun talking directly to Kate Rubins as she sequenced DNA in space for the first time ever.

You also participated in a HERA mission in which you lived inside a simulated space station for 2 weeks. What was the most surprising aspect of the mission? Did it change the way you thought about life as an astronaut?

kristens-hera-crew
Kristen and her HERA crew before their 2-week simulated mission. The habitat in which they lived is behind them. (Courtesy NASA)

Participating in HERA gave me a great appreciation for all the coordination and manpower it takes to operate a human mission, beyond just the crew members.  We were quite busy for every minute of our two-week mission.  For every activity that we performed in HERA, a team of scientists had to create that study.  And the whole time we were in the habitat, there was a whole team of folks in “mission control” there to support us.  We hear a lot about the astronauts, but we should give props to all the folks at JSC, MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center), and elsewhere that support the ISS 24/7.  HERA also gave me an appreciation for the type of bond you can have with someone when you are locked away together.  It didn’t take long before I realized I had made life-long friends inside HERA.

The Apollo 11 moon landings stood out as a defining moment for a generation of NASA employees. What do you think is, or will be, the defining accomplishment of our generation of space explorers?

Robotically speaking, I think science missions like New Horizons to Pluto, Dawn to Ceres, and OSIRIS-REx to Bennu are something to be proud of, and I hope we see several more of these missions in the near future to uncover the mysteries of our remarkable Solar System.

osiris-rex-launch-crop
The OSIRIS-REx mission launches on its journey to the asteroid Bennu in September, 2016. (Photo courtesy NASA)

As for human exploration, I believe that this moment is still coming for our generation.  While the ISS is a fantastic resource in low-earth orbit, I hope that our generation is able to send humans to another planetary body, whether that’s back to the Moon, to Mars, or to an asteroid.  We have much to learn about crewed deep space missions, and I hope I get the chance to help take us to the next destination, thereby inspiring a whole new generation to take over after us!

annieAnd last, but not least…

I’m a new mom to my amazing daughter, Annie. This is by far my proudest accomplishment in life!

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