Deputy EPO Lead, EPOCh Co-Investigator (and "King of the Earth"!)
What's the coolest thing about EPOXI?
I like coming up with solutions to unexpected problems, working around my limitations and making them work for me. We're using a spacecraft that was intended for a very narrowly-defined one-time project and we're making it do all kinds of things that weren't part of the original mission. Getting a spacecraft into space, and operating it, takes years of preparation and planning. As a result, there aren't all that many spacecraft left floating around loose, waiting for us to exercise our creativity and find new ways to put them to work. EPOXI gives us that chance.
Why do you like working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center?
I do my science work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. It's a great place to work because it's all science, all the time. What I grew up liking to do is what I get to do for a living now. My work in education and public outreach is done with my colleagues at the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. For the EPOCh part of the mission, we are presenting Family Science Night programs at the National Air and Space Museum. It's my chance to share the fun of discovery with 400 of my closest friends that I just met, all in the coolest museum in the world.
What is your job on the EPOXI mission?
As a co-investigator on the mission, I'm part of the science team. That means I have a part in arguing over what we are doing, how to do it, what it means after we have done it, and how to present it to our colleagues in the science community and to the public. My own piece of that work is leading the effort to make observations of our own Earth as a simulation for what we would see in observations of a distant Earth-like planet in orbit around a star other than our Sun; that's why I get the nickname "King of the Earth." I am responsible for assembling the observations into a coherent set of measurements that we can use to understand what we can really deduce about an Earth-like planet from a very limited set of data. When we (scientists, not the EPOXI mission) finally start making measurements of actual Earth-size/Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, we will be able to collect only very sketchy data at first and we will need to understand how to get the best results possible from only a little bit of information.
As the Deputy EPO Lead, I have the main responsibility for conducting the portion of the EPOXI mission's Education and Public Outreach program that concerns the EPOCh measurements, and I write short essays and material for us to put on the EPOXI web site describing that part of the mission. I also am one of the speakers in our Family Science Night program at the National Air and Space Museum. We invite an audience of about 400 students, parents, brothers and sisters, and teachers to come down to the National Air and Space Museum after hours, when we can have it to ourselves. After a little time to get acquainted with the museum, we bring everyone into the IMAX Theatre, where we talk about space exploration for a while, then we watch an IMAX movie together. It's a lot of fun to take a huge room of people on a journey through space together and to share the excitement of exploration. It's what we do.
How did you end up in Space Science?
I grew up in the 1960's and 1970's. Space exploration was the great dream of that time, and I think it still can be that dream for us today. It's the belief that the future is hopeful and we have the ability to make that hope into reality. When I was small, my whole family gathered for every Apollo launch and mission event, and we watched what NASA was able to share with us from lunar explorations. I remember watching TV news coverage about the Pioneer spacecraft passing by Jupiter, then Saturn, coverage from Mariner 9 reaching Mars in the middle of a global dust storm, and Mariner 10 visiting Venus and Mercury. I had posters from the Viking Mars missions in my bedroom.
One moment stands out. When I was 7, my Dad called for me to get to the TV, to watch Apollo 11 lift off from the Moon. In the lunar launches before Apollo 15, of course, there was no TV camera watching the LEM on the Moon -- we just had cheesy animations suggesting what was supposed to be happening. The sound was live, however, so we could hear what was really going on. Anyway, we lived in one half of a two-storey duplex. I came running down the stairs from the top floor and hit our dining room's wood floor in my socks. I was like a cartoon character, sliding sideways and then backwards across the floor with my little legs spinning, trying to run. Suddenly, it worked, and I ran straight forward -- right into a corner of the wall separating the dining room from the living room. Conk! Ow, ow, ow, ow! I fell down holding my head. I ended up watching the news coverage backwards in a mirror while lying with my head towards the TV, so my Dad could be in a better position to watch the news while holding the cut on my forehead closed with his thumbs. I wasn't hurt so badly, but we had to know if the LEM would lift off all right. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's lives depended on the LEM's ascent motor firing properly for the one and only time it would ever be called upon to fire. Of course, it worked, and they returned safely. Meanwhile, my Mom (who had nursing training) bandaged up my head and I turned out all right, except for a scar on my forehead that gives me a story to tell.
How could I end up doing anything else?
What do you do in your spare time?
I have two rapidly-growing children, so my own spare time is not something I have too much of. I have several hobbies -- reading, bicycling, woodworking, photography, and lately, writing lyrics for astronomy comedy music videos. The main hobby that I'm able to make some time for, is storytelling. I am a regular at the Washington Folk Festival and in the local Voices in the Glen storyswaps. I tell mostly original humorous stories with a sciencey theme, or stories that give me a chance to do voices. "Cinderella" has 9 separate voices in it! Lately, I have begun teaching a small storytelling class for 8th and 9th graders.
Who in your life inspired you?
My parents, especially. My father is a retired scientist, although in a fairly different field from my own. He always was ready to help me try to understand the world, how things worked, and the excitement of exploring it. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college; the second was his Aunt Janet, in her late 50's (Summa Cum Laude!). My mother is retired from echocardiography, using ultrasonic sonar to explore the structure of the heart. She was one of the earliest people using echo in clinical diagnostics. I never had any question that men and women had equally valid roles in the workplace. As time went on, and I learned that a lot of other people still refused to acknowledge the role of women in the workplace, I admired her ability to press on and accomplish things despite stupid barriers raised by stupid people. It was a thrill to be at her college graduation from Johns Hopkins, which I later attended for graduate school. Most important, I don't think anyone in my mother's or my father's family ever expressed any notion that there had to be limits on what my sister or I would do with ourselves. Our lives were our own and we didn't have to subscribe to anyone else's notion of what we could or should be.
Oh, and Bill Cosby. A tremendously funny man and a great storyteller, who consistently shows that it's possible to be smart and funny and creative and caring and involved with the world, all at once.
What is one yet-to-be achieved life goal?
I have never been to Livengood, Alaska. Please send me pictures if you have any -- I collect them. I have never bicycled across the whole United States. I am still lousy at playing guitar. I have never hosted Saturday Night Live. I have not yet published any of my stories as children's books, nor my Family Science Night talks as nonfiction books.
Oh, wait, you said one goal. Umm, publishing the books.
Were you science-oriented as a young person?
Yes, but my great problem is that I am interested in too many things at once. Science, science fiction, movies, animation, history, classics, photography, bicycling, archaeology. Always have been, probably always will be. A lack of focus is the bane of my life.
What was your favorite book as a young person?
I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy several times each (it was the 70's -- everybody was doing it). Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I had a collection of nonfiction books about dinosaurs. It's very hard for me to pick out one single favorite, but I think it might be Jack London's Call of the Wild.
What did you want to become when you were young?
That's easy -- like my father before me and my daughter after me, I imagined that I would be a paleontologist. Not a one of us still wants to do that, however. Life intervenes.
If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
Probably archaeology. I have always been fascinated by the permanence of things, by objects that existed before I was born and tell me about earlier times; by objects that will persist after us. Scientists sometimes say that nature doesn't lie, but she doesn't volunteer answers. People, however, can and do volunteer answers, especially when we are volunteering lies about what we are and what we do. We want to leave history and posterity to see us in the best possible light, and overlook our foibles and imperfections. I find endless amusement contemplating ideas for misleading clues to befuddle future generations of archaeologists.