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Overcoming Obstacles on Earth and in Space
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Candice Hansen

Candice Hansen is a planetary scientist. She emphasizes the importance of imagination and wonder in science. Image Credit: Candice Hansen

Candice Hansen's imagination has always been stirred by science. When she was young, she loved reading science fiction about space travel and other worlds.

Going from science fiction to science, however, took time. Not until Hansen took a class in physics to fulfill a science requirement in college did she give a career in science real thought. She changed her major to physics but did not know where that might take her.

"The person who set me on the path of a career in science was Dr. Dorothy Woolum, the only female professor in the physics department at Cal State Fullerton," Hansen says. "She had worked on the Apollo mission and taught a class in planetary physics. She suggested that I go to graduate school and pursue planetary science."

Hansen's first job in the field of planetary science was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. She worked on the Voyager mission, in which twin spacecraft launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. While employed at JPL, Hansen completed graduate school at UCLA. Working and attending school full-time was difficult, but scheduling was not the most serious obstacle she faced.

"At the time I started, there were not a lot of women planetary scientists," Hansen says. She had to deal with people who seriously doubted her capabilities because she was a woman. However, Hansen proved that she was more than capable and continued to pursue her dream of being a planetary scientist for NASA.

Hansen currently works on the Juno mission and is responsible for JunoCam, a visual light telescope/camera that will take images of Jupiter's cloud tops. The camera is designed to last seven orbits before the high-energy particles surrounding Jupiter destroy the camera's electronics.

Designing JunoCam was not easy. Each new mission has unique problems to solve. For example, conditions in space are not fully known. "Every day brought a new challenge ... I loved being surprised," Hansen says. Scientists often have ideas about what a spacecraft will encounter, based on past data and observations. Sometimes, those notions about outer space are partially or even completely wrong. "Nature is just more complex and diverse than our imagination." Science proves to be a creative endeavor as much as it is a technical one. Scientists must be imaginative to solve the problems the universe poses.

Juno will not arrive at Jupiter until July 2016, but Hansen is looking forward to the images and data it will send back. Whether it was the first Voyager image of Jupiter's ring, the Mars Observer Camera image of the layering in the canyons that run along the Martian surface, the picture of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft taken in its shadow, or the image of the avalanche on Mars' polar cap from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's high-resolution camera, Hansen feels fortunate that she has had so many opportunities "to just stop and marvel." The images from JunoCam will be another opportunity to participate in nature’s marvels.

Hansen tells students, "Do what you love. Study the things that fascinate you. Never lose that sense of wonder." And most importantly, enjoy that there are so many things in the universe you do not know. So long as the unknown exists, your curiosity will never be satiated.

Related Resources:
› Voyager Mission
› Juno Mission
› Space Science Explorers Series
› Women @ NASA   →
› NASA Career Resources
› Science and Imagination
› Overcoming Obstacles on Earth and in Space

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies