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Christy Hansen – A Force of Nature

Christy Hansen
Christy Hansen
Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

Name: Christy Hansen
Title: Goddard Airborne Sciences Manager
Formal Job Classification: Technical advisor
Organization: Code 610, Earth Sciences Division, Earth Sciences Directorate

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I plan and manage airborne science missions. I help our scientists, engineers and managers to design aircraft-based Earth science missions including milestones and budget, science requirements definition, instruments and aircraft, field logistics and deployment operations, data management, documentation and reporting. Depending upon mission complexity and needs, my support can vary from mentorship and tutoring, to full-blown project management support.

The most interesting part of my career involves deployment travel to execute our mission goals, which includes flying in various NASA aircraft all over the world to collect cutting-edge data sets in some of the most beautiful and extreme environments. My most challenging yet adventurous deployments were in support of Operation IceBridge, which took me to McMurdo base and South Pole Station in Antarctica; Thule Air Force Base and Kangerlussuaq in Greenland; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Punta Arenas, Chile. I have flown on NASA’s P-3, C-130 and DC-8 aircraft; the U.S. Antarctic Program’s C-130 and C-17 aircraft; and NASA’s KC-135 microgravity aircraft. Flying low at 1,500 feet over glaciers and sea ice has shown me the most beautiful places on our planet.

What is your educational background?

I have always loved science and space. I received a B.S. in comprehensive science and a minor in physics from Villanova University, and an M.S. in space studies from the University of North Dakota.

From 1999 to 2010, I worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston as an operations engineer in their Extravehicular Activities Group doing astronaut training and flight control. I learned the technical aspects as well as the human interaction component. Our group emphasized teamwork, leadership and communication skills. You sometimes need to lead, sometimes need to follow and always need to communicate. You have to be able to listen well, sort through large amounts of information, understand potential impacts, and communicate possible solutions clearly, calmly and efficiently.

You’ve said your personal motto is “plan, train, fly.” Why is that?

This motto comes from my time working in Johnson’s EVA group on space shuttle, International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope missions in all phases of mission planning and execution. Our motto was “plan, train, fly” to emphasize the importance of mitigating risk through meticulous planning, training according to the plan, and then executing the plan. Our goal was to anticipate and think through all possible contingencies and to design workarounds in advance of the mission. I try to apply this motto to everything I do, especially when planning complex field campaigns.

How do you help organize Goddard’s airborne sciences missions?

Our missions start with science and succeed through organization, responsibility, drive and clear direction. Working with the lead scientist, we help organize and lead large teams of people with varying backgrounds to accomplish challenging goals in difficult environments. We identify clear milestones and deliverables up front, and actively identify and track all mission actions. These actions include science requirements definition; timeline development; budgeting; flight planning, field location selection with all associated logistical planning; mission operations; and definition of data products. Most importantly, we clearly define all team member’s roles and responsibilities.

Why are you called “a force of nature?”

A former boss called me “a force of nature.” To be a solid project manager, you need to be well organized, driven and able to communicate well with an extremely diverse team. First, you need to earn the respect and trust of the team which I try to do through listening, understanding, and stitching both the technical and interpersonal pieces together. You have to expect to be hit back, encounter multiple hurdles and be ready to hear the word “no” multiple times – and yet never give up.

Hansen with Administrator Bolden
Hansen speaks with Administrator Bolden.
Credits: NASA

What was your biggest challenge? Your biggest success?

My biggest challenge and also biggest success was the 2013 Operation IceBridge deployment to McMurdo in Antarctica. All science projects deploying to McMurdo must be approved by the National Science Foundation, which manages and leads the U.S. Antarctic Program. The enormous logistical challenge was to get our large, wheeled, P-3 aircraft and team of about 30 people to McMurdo and use McMurdo as a base for our science missions for a few weeks.  

We had never before taken a P-3 to McMurdo. We had also never taken such a large team there.

Foresight needed to be 20/20. The runway we had to land on was made of 8-foot-thick sea ice – and no one knew at the time how well our large, wheeled aircraft would do when landing and taking off. The weather can change rapidly and severely, and storms with limited or no visibility can arise within minutes. Could the runway support our landing and visibility requirements? Were there any alternate airports? Was our flight crew properly trained for this situation?

The resources down on the ice were limited. We had to organize housing, transportation, food, meeting space, internet, science support equipment, fuel, and physical space for science instrument supplies and spare parts. We shipped thousands of pounds of cargo months in advance via sea vessel and airplane. We upgraded and modified the plane to meet the strict safety requirements of flying in extreme, isolated polar environments.

And then the government shut down.

As part of my personal contingency survival plan, I did not know what the “chocolate situation” would be at McMurdo. Given the strict baggage weight limitation for the aircraft that deployed to McMurdo, I planned accordingly. I fit candy bars all over my bags, backpack and big coat. So I always had a chocolate bar within reach.

It took over a year and a half of planning and working  with NSF to ensure that we could meet NSF’s science and safety requirements and that NSF could provide the resources and support we needed on the ice to succeed, survive and perform science.

In the end, we made it!

Tell us about a day in the life of a field campaign.

Multiple activities occur in parallel during a field day in airborne science which can range from 10 to 14 hours long. Takeoff times may vary per mission, depending on science requirements. Overall day length can vary, depending on aircraft type, science needs, distance to airfield, crew rest requirements and any airfield restrictions.

Here is a sample day:

  1. 6:00 a.m.
    1. Maintenance crews out at aircraft warming it up, checking systems, fueling, etc.
    2. Science leads and pilot in command (PIC) at weather office – final decisions made on (A) if we will fly and (B) where we will fly
  2. 6:00-6:30 a.m.
    1. Instrument teams at aircraft powering up instruments, data checks, etc.
  3. 8:00 a.m.: Aircraft takes off.
    1. Flight times vary, but for Operation IceBridge, an average flight time on the P-3 is 8 hours.
    2. Aircraft flies over science target areas, instrument teams collect data.
  4. 4:00 p.m.: Aircraft lands.
  5. 4:00-5:00 p.m.
    1. Aircraft crew powers down plane, safes it, etc.
    2. Instrument teams power down, check data, etc.
  6. 6:30 p.m.: Evening team meeting.
    1. Discuss weather and next day flight plans.
    2. Discuss any issues and workarounds.
    3. Note: Some may be able to squeeze dinner in before this.
  7. after 7:00 p.m.: Dinner, data processing, additional weather checks, etc.

Who are some of the coolest people in airborne campaigns?

The coolest people I’ve worked with are the aircraft flight crew teams including the mechanics and pilots. They are operationally excellent and do their jobs 110 percent, all the while maintaining positive attitudes. I am often amazed at what they can do. They are at the plane hours before the main team, prepping the plane for the science team, often in extremely frigid environments. They maintain very calm demeanors in the worst of turbulence while surrounded by mountains on either side. They have an amazing “can do” attitude and are true team players. And the best of the best ones always have hot coffee, toilet paper and chocolate stashed on the plane – things you can never take for granted while doing polar airborne research.

Is there something surprising about you that people do not generally know?

I love sports! I loved playing volleyball, basketball, track and field (I threw the javelin!), and swimming and diving. I also played volleyball for four years at Villanova. I also have a twin sister who is currently a Maryland state trooper. We used to do platform and springboard diving together, including risky stunts that I would never try today. I was a lifeguard for six years. I sky-dived while in graduate school in Fargo, North Dakota, and I bungee jumped in Costa Rica.

I really enjoyed my random stint in mountaineering for a few years while down in Houston working at NASA Johnson. This interest took me to courses and climbs in Denali National Park; Mt. Rainier; Mt. Whitney; Mt. Baker; Ouray, Colorado; and El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.

I have also done some exciting international outreach events including speaking at the Scottish Space School, which invites NASA Johnson astronauts, scientists and engineers to Scotland to speak to their students about pursuing STEM fields. I once presented there with a Russian cosmonaut, which proved challenging and extremely fun given that neither of us could understand the other’s language.

What is your “six-word memoir?” A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Lead. Teamwork. Inspire. Awesome. Dependable. Chocolate.

By Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

A graphic with a collection of people's portraits grouped together in front of a soft blue galaxy background. The people come from various races, ethnicities, and genders. A soft yellow star shines in the upper left corner, and the stylized text "Conversations with Goddard" is in white on the far right.
Conversations With Goddard is a collection of question and answer profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.

Conversations With Goddard is a collection of Q&A profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage.