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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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NASA’s Future Leaders

    Throughout NASA’s history, its young employees have been counted on to contribute to major agency projects with their technical talent, enthusiasm and unrelenting faith in the future. This section recognizes some of NASA’s future leaders who have a strong desire to carry the torch of exploration forward in the agency’s second half-century.

    Jennifer Heldmann: In the Footsteps of Galileo

    By Ruth Dasso Marlaire

    Target moon - Jennifer Heldmann is helping astronomers plan for the impact of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

    Target moon - Jennifer Heldmann is helping astronomers plan for the impact of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

    In 1609, Galileo Galilei made his first major discovery with the telescope when he observed that the moon was mountainous and pitted, much like Earth. Almost 400 years later, the same discovery was made by 10-year-old Jennifer Heldmann.

    “I had a small telescope at home,” recalled Heldmann. “One night, my mom and I pointed it at the moon, and I couldn’t believe I could see craters and mountains! Right there, so close to us, was a whole other world. I was truly amazed.”

    Today, Heldmann is a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, working on the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite project (also known as LCROSS), an important precursor mission to humans returning to the moon.

    The LCROSS mission objectives are to search for water on the moon to prepare for a future lunar outpost for the astronauts. In early 2009, LCROSS will rocket two impactors to the moon to kick up a plume of dust from the lunar surface. A sensing satellite will then pass through the plume of material to try to detect water. Back on Earth, leagues of professional and amateur astronomers, perhaps another young girl like Jennifer, will point their telescopes into the plume and later compare notes on what they saw.

    As the LCROSS mission observation campaign coordinator, Heldmann is organizing a workshop to inform astronomers around the world about the mission’s science goals and to provide helpful information about where they can point their telescopes to observe the lunar impact.

    Heldmann, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., attended U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., as a high school student, and was so awestruck by the experience that she was ready to commit to a profession in a space-related field.

    During college she interned at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and had the opportunity to analyze Hubble Space Telescope data of distant galaxies. Later she spent a summer at Ames, where she was introduced to the research combination of astrobiology and planetary science. Heldmann received a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2003. She has co-authored 20 papers, given 35 professional presentations and received numerous awards, including a NASA Superior Achievement Award.

    Today Heldmann said she enjoys “studying the world and universe because there are so many mysteries to unravel. It helps us understand our context in the grand scheme of the cosmos.”

    Jen Keyes: Planning for Humans on the Moon and Mars

    By Rachel Samples

    Mars can’t wait - Jen Keys, with NASA 50-year employee Bill Scallion, isn’t a 30-something yet but has already contributed to future exploration missions.

    Mars can’t wait - Jen Keys (with NASA 50-year employee Bill Scallion) isn’t a 30-something yet but has already contributed to future exploration missions.

    More than 50 years span their ages, but 50-year NASA employee Bill Scallion and Jen Keyes have one thing in common – they like to solve problems.

    “What are we going to do when we get to the moon or Mars, and how does that affect what we should design and how we design it today?” Those are the questions asked by Keyes, an aerospace leader working in the Space Mission Analysis Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Her assignment is to explore upcoming opportunities for NASA.

    What to do on the moon once humans return is just one of the challenges Keyes and her associates are analyzing. Despite various opinions on human versus robotic spaceflight, they are hard at work exploring possibilities for expeditions with humans aboard.

    “It will be great to see someone land on the moon again, even if it cannot be me right away,” said Keyes. “For the last few months, I have led the initial development and integration of the non-science Mars objectives that are addressing the goal of ‘preparing for long-term, sustained human exploration of Mars’.”

    Keyes’ love of science developed at a young age. She was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1980. By high school she knew she either wanted to be an astronaut, or a NASA scientist or engineer. During college, the NASA enthusiast interned with the Hampton University Center for Atmospheric Sciences in Hampton, Va. Later she served as a Co-op (cooperative student employee) at Langley, working in subsonic aerodynamics, atmospheric sciences and in system analysis, where she would later find a full-time job after graduating. Keyes and Scallion also agree the past is important, but it is more useful to prepare for the future. Keys provides a shining example of what young minds and ingenuity are bringing to NASA. She has reviewed proposals for small spacecraft, completed communications analysis for future spacecraft mission concepts and designed new kinds of rovers for Mars – all before her 30th birthday.

    Amanda Hendrix: Using Ultraviolet Light to Study the Solar System

    By Franklin O’Donnell

    Yearbook pledge - Two decades after a prescient yearbook prediction, Amanda Hendrix is indeed a JPL planetary scientist.

    Yearbook pledge - Two decades after a prescient yearbook prediction, Amanda Hendrix is indeed a JPL planetary scientist.

    “Twenty years from now,” a student at Pasadena’s John Muir High School once predicted in a message written in a friend’s yearbook, “I’ll be working at JPL.”

    That proved to be a spot-on bet for Amanda Hendrix – who, two decades later, now hangs her hat at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as a staff scientist. Her career direction perhaps was predictable, given the fact that she had a lifelong interest in the solar system’s bodies: “Ever since second grade, when we learned about the planets,” she said.

    After earning a bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, graduate school took her to the University of Colorado, where she became steeped in the use of ultraviolet light to study small bodies like asteroids and icy moons. It also brought her onboard the team responsible for the ultraviolet instrument on the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

    Since then she has moved on to the Cassini mission to Saturn – remaining with the ultraviolet specialty – and also uses other observing platforms such as the Hubble Space Telescope. She is most proud of her work on asteroids, using ultraviolet observations to discover evidence of how these rocky bodies between Mars and Jupiter are weathered.

    But her interests do not stop at asteroids. “Eventually I’d like to put an ultraviolet instrument on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa,” said Hendrix, who in her spare time is fixing up a vintage Mercedes to run on vegetable oil as fuel. “We might detect venting of gas from the subsurface – which would be further evidence for a subsurface ocean, an important step forward in the search for life.”

    Jason Rhodes: Expert on the Dark Side

    By Franklin O’Donnell

    Probing a mystery - Jason Rhodes is helping plan future missions focusing on the dark side of the universe.

    Probing a mystery - Jason Rhodes is helping plan future missions focusing on the dark side of the universe.

    Six years ago, with a new doctorate in physics from Princeton University, Iowa native Jason Rhodes took a year off to focus on running. A specialist in half-mile or 800-meter races, Rhodes was sponsored by a sports shoe company and trained for the Olympic trials, missing the U.S. team only barely.

    The athletic world’s loss was astronomy’s gain. After a stint at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as a National Research Council research associate, Rhodes came to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, where he divides his time between JPL and campus. Rhodes’s specialty is dark matter – all the material in the universe that scientists predict must be there, but which telescopes cannot directly see. He has become a prominent figure in what is known as weak lensing – detecting the presence of dark matter by the way it subtly bends light from stars and galaxies. Working with Hubble Space Telescope data, he also has a hand in several proposals for future missions that would concentrate on the dark side of the universe.

    “In a way I have the best of both worlds,” he said of his dual status at JPL and Caltech. “On any given day I might spend time at one or the other. It combines the benefits of being at a facility like JPL and of being at a university.”

    Kim Hambuchen: A Passion for Robotics

    By Amiko Nevills

    Between humans and robots - Kim Hambuchen develops software to improve human-robot interaction.

    Between humans and robots - Kim Hambuchen develops software to improve human-robot interaction.

    Artificial humans are among us and have been, if only at first as part of our imagination, for centuries. Fascination in these non-human but intelligent forms brought Kim Hambuchen to NASA's Johnson Space Center, where robots are born, or rather built, to help us in space.

    Robots like R2D2 of Star Wars and the obedient female replicas of The Stepford Wives long have intrigued us. We created a talking car named KITT, a self-operated frisbee-shaped vacuum cleaner and even a stiff illusionary dance that entails small jerks to give the impression of motors starting and stopping, or creaking hinges.

    Like most of us, Hambuchen, a 32-year-old who was born and raised in Conway, Ark., admires the peculiar mechanical marvels. Unlike most, however, she made them her career.

    Hambuchen began her college career in biomedical engineering and added an electrical and computer engineering degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. She continued her studies in electrical and computer engineering with a master’s degree and finished with a doctorate in electrical engineering.

    Her father, a dentist, and mother never pushed her in any direction but encouraged her to do what she enjoys most. Robotics, a term invented in 1941 by writer Isaac Asimov for the 1942 science fiction short story "Runaround" to mean the science and use of robots, became her passion.

    “I actually fell into robotics rather than choosing it,” Hambuchen said. “I decided I-robots were pretty cool, and I might like to work with them for years to come.”

    It is no wonder, then, when the opportunity came for Hambuchen – by way of a research fellowship award – to work with Robonaut, she found her way to NASA. The humanoid was designed at Johnson to demonstrate a robotic system that can function as a spacewalker.

    After her stint in 2004 as a National Academies of Science post-doctoral researcher at Johnson, Hambuchen was hired for her experience with Robonaut and expertise in robotics in July of 2006.

    "I chose NASA because there is literally no other place on Earth where I could be doing what I do now,” Hambuchen said. “That sometimes blows my mind.”

    Today, she works for the Robotics Systems and Technologies branch in Engineering where, as a robotics engineer, she develops software in the area of human-robot interaction. “Although I am an engineer by trade, I am a pop culture and fashion junkie,” Hambuchen said. “I prefer InStyle to Popular Science, Vogue to IEEE Spectrum.”

    Today the idea of a mechanical machine that can think not only piques our curiosity but fulfills a need. Robots are created to do one of two jobs: jobs that a robot can do better than a human, and jobs a human could do better than a robot but which are too dangerous.

    NASA’s challenge to build machines that can help us work and explore in space is the same challenge Hambuchen embraces. She hopes in the future to become more involved in the management aspect of our return to the moon. “I really feel that lunar outposts have a tremendous potential for the future of space exploration and would like to share in the directions of those activities,” she said. “I would be so proud if some of my work made it into missions that will help us expand our knowledge of things outside the planet.” Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, the robots Hambuchen works to help develop will expand our ability to explore in space.

    In her workplace in the robotics laboratory, her computer screen projects the Hubble ultra deep-field image that gives others who visit a glimpse of what inspires her most. Perhaps travel to far-away places, like space, will become Hambuchen’s next hobby or job here at NASA.

    “Knowing that those incredible galaxies and stars exist keeps me hoping each day that something we do around JSC will enable us – or more accurately our future generations – to visit these extraordinary locales,” Hambuchen said. “I wish I could be one of those people.”

    For now, she’s sticking to what she knows best – robots.

    Isabella Velicogna: From Italy to Ice Sheets

    By Franklin O’Donnell

    Follow the frozen water - Isabella Velicogna recognizes the importance of studying ice sheet behavior.

    Follow the (frozen) water - Isabella Velicogna recognizes the importance of studying ice sheet behavior.

    When Isabella Velicogna was growing up in northern Italy, physics did not sound like a promising career to her mother. “She tried to get me to do something else,” Velicogna recalled of the time her interest in math and physics was blossoming in high school. “She didn’t think I could get a job.”

    Fortunately, her mother’s fears proved to be unfounded. Several college degrees later, including a doctorate in applied geophysics from the University of Trieste in Italy, Velicogna has joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has plenty of work. Her specialty: studying the loss of ice in polar regions as Earth’s climate warms, with the aid of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or Grace – a pair of satellites that make extremely accurate measurements of Earth’s gravity as they circle the planet.

    In the future, Velicogna – who pursues painting abstract art in her spare time – hopes to combine data from more satellites and ground studies to create a more complete portrait of ice around the planet, or Earth’s cryosphere. “Antarctica is Earth’s largest reservoir of fresh water,” she said. “Understanding the behavior of the ice sheets has important societal and economic impacts.”

    Tracy Drain: The Play-by-Play Voice of Mars Exploration

    By Franklin O’Donnell

    Public voice - Tracy Drain enjoyed serving as the public spokesperson for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

    Public voice - Tracy Drain enjoyed serving as the public spokesperson for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

    Wanted: Jack-of-all-trades engineer to wear many Martian hats. Will build command sequences, supervise their upload to the spacecraft, support readiness tests, lead planning for transition phase after aerobraking. Serve as voice of mission control for major spacecraft events.

    Tracy Drain never saw a posting in so many words for all the roles she would play on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project – but if she had, it might have run something like that. Joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2000 after earning a master’s degree from Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering (“I was a wimp for not going straight for the aero degree,” she joked), Drain spent a year helping to plan advanced mission concepts before joining the Mars orbiter team.

    During the spacecraft’s insertion into orbit around the Red Planet, Drain graced television screens as the mission’s spokesperson, explaining the orbiter’s play-by-play maneuvers to the viewing public. Many mission events later, the orbiter now has settled into routine science operations, and Drain likewise has shifted hats. She has joined an on-the-job training program for systems engineers that will pair her with senior mentors such as Viking veteran Gentry Lee.

    Which of her roles has been the most memorable? “The one with the most immediate cool factor was serving as an ‘ace,’ because I got to actually send commands to the spacecraft,” she said. “It’s an important function, and it taught me a lot about the Deep Space Network [NASA’s tracking network for planetary spacecraft].

    But a lot of people don’t like to do it because it involves strange hours. It’s the kind of job you either hate or love.”

    Gina Branco: A Rewarding Journey

    By Beth Hagenauer

    Measurement system designer - Mexican native Gina Branco has served as an instrumentation engineer on several flight research projects.

    Measurement system designer - Mexican native Gina Branco has served as an instrumentation engineer on several flight research projects.

    NASA engineer Gina Branco was only 12 when her mother was killed in an automobile accident, followed by her father’s death three years later. These tragedies did not discourage Branco from pursuing a childhood dream of attending college.

    The youngest of eight children, Branco then moved from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to the San Francisco Bay Area, home of her older sister. As a new immigrant to the United States, she completed high school requirements while she learned to speak English. Branco displayed an aptitude and love of math that surprised her teacher, who encouraged her to continue to strive for mastery in mathematics.

    After high school, Branco studied math as a night student at San Francisco State University. She then transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she studied biomedical and electrical engineering. Branco hoped to use her education to design prostheses for handicapped individuals. Finding the quest for dual degrees too challenging, she completed a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering seven years after beginning college.

    Branco then applied for an engineering position at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. She left her job interview with the impression that employees at the center enjoyed their work and that things really happened at Dryden. She thought the small NASA center offered a family atmosphere that promotes teamwork. Employed as an instrumentation engineer at Dryden, Branco designs measurement systems for aircraft, enabling researchers to gather accurate data.

    Over the years, Branco has contributed to many successful flight research projects involving modified aircraft, such as the F-104, F-16XL, F-18 High-Alpha Research Vehicle and the Intelligent Flight Control System project on a highly modified NF-15B. She currently is a member of the developmental flight instrumentation team responsible for designing and implementing this subsystem to support the upcoming launch abort system testing for the Orion crew exploration vehicle.

    Branco’s advice to young Hispanics is that resources and opportunities are available, if they areto work hard to persue their goals with passion, but the journey is rewarding.