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Season 5, Episode 3: Breaking Barriers, with Dana Bolles

Season 5Episode 3Apr 30, 2021

Dana Bolles has worked in many exciting areas of NASA including assuring the safety of experiments and spacecraft going to space, managing environmental programs, and thinking about the possibility of life beyond Earth.

Gravity Assist: Season 5 Trailer – What’s Your Gravity Assist?

Dana Bolles has had many jobs around NASA and is passionate about inspiring young people to go into STEM fields.

Dana Bolles has worked in many exciting areas of NASA including assuring the safety of experiments and spacecraft going to space, managing environmental programs, and thinking about the possibility of life beyond Earth. In her journey as a space professional, a key challenge has been encountering other people’s assumptions about what she can and cannot do. Dana gets around in a wheelchair and uses hooks for hands. In this episode, she talks about her experiences around NASA and how everyone can be a better ally for people with diverse abilities: “By getting to know us first, without preconceived notions, the benefit is seeing the community for the beauty we bring to living life every day.”

Jim Green:Behind the scenes of NASA, so many things have to work right for us to be able to make a mission successful.

Jim Green:Let’s talk to somebody who has worked in many different areas of NASA.

Dana Bolles:With my disability, people tend to make assumptions about what I can and can’t do.

Dana Bolles:I would say that’s been the biggest challenge.

Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this is a new season of Gravity Assist. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA in making these fabulous missions happen.

Jim Green: I’m here with Dana Bolles. And she works for the science engagement and partnership division at NASA Headquarters. Dana was first hired as a payload safety engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. And since then, she has worked at four NASA centers and mission support roles, and at least 10 more years in the human exploration and science divisions. Welcome, Dana to Gravity Assist.

Dana Bolles: Thank you, Jim, for inviting me. I appreciate it.

Jim Green: My pleasure. Well, I really want to know what really got you excited and wanted to work for NASA.

Dana Bolles: So, you know, most kids would say, “Oh, I want to work for NASA”. Right? That’s a common, common thing. But more specifically, when I was younger, when I was thinking of all the different jobs to have, I thought, an astronaut, being an astronaut would be perfect, because it would, I would be in an environment where I wouldn’t need the wheelchair, and the fact that I don’t have legs would be okay. And in fact, it can even be an advantage, right?

Dana Bolles: Because you’re having to launch in these, these little spaces, these small spaces where you’re all crammed in like, like sardines. And I thought, well I’d be, I’d be at an advantage, I wouldn’t need leg space. And thirdly, I, I use artificial arms. So I, I was born without arms, and I use my artificial legs since I was two years old, so I’m pretty proficient in them. So I thought, that’s a third reason why it might be an advantage to hire me as an astronaut, because I could use my hooks, you know, like the astronauts use the robotic arms. And so there you go, three, three reasons to hire me. (laughs)

Jim Green: Well, what was your biggest challenge, you know, that you faced when you prepared for your career at NASA?

Dana Bolles:One of the biggest challenges was, you know, I was getting my engineering degree in the early 90s. And still, at that time, there were, there was a handful of us girls and women in the class, but we were largely outnumbered. And so that, that was a weird feeling, right, being, being one of the few women and, going through the major. Also, the biggest thing for me is, with my disability, people tend to make assumptions about what I can and can’t do. So I would say, the biggest challenge in, in my success in my career and working at NASA or wherever, is just having to always put up against those, those assumptions and limiting me so that, I would say that’s the biggest challenge. And it gets kind of tiring, always having to, to prove myself, you know.

Jim Green: Yeah. But do you remember the time that you know you first came to NASA and how did you feel?

Dana Bolles: Oh, I remember that quite well, even though it was over 25 years ago. It was scary. I was going to the other side of the country. I grew up in California. And so here I was in Florida. But it was a really, it was exciting. It was scary. One thing that, that I remember quite well is the first months I was there, there were a lot of tours. And I’m sure you’ve been to Kennedy, and it’s an amazing facility and…

Jim Green:It is.

Dana Bolles:And my favorite was to go to the Vehicle Assembly Building and you know, that building is what, 525 feet high? At the time, it was the second or third largest building and volume in the in the world. And I was just in awe when I got to see that and know that this was a place where the orbiter was mated with the external tank and the solid rocket boosters. And you know, looking at the crawler and learning all, all the process of what it takes to launch, was just it was exciting. It was overwhelming, and a bit scary. You know, that the responsibility of that. But yeah, amazing. It was incredible.

Jim Green:Yeah, that building we call fondly the VAB.

Dana Bolles: Right.

Jim Green: Indeed, I have never had the opportunity to be in it when they put together the Shuttle and the external tank and then the solid rocket boosters in the building and then put it on the crawler and then roll it out…

Dana Bolles: Right.

Jim Green:…to the pad. You know, but you see it on films and it’s just it’s just not the same. I tell you.

Dana Bolles:Yeah, yeah.

Jim Green:Well, as a payload safety engineer, what was, specifically did you have to do? Is that for every Shuttle flight, or were there other things that you did along the way?

Dana Bolles:So let me let me first define payload. For people who don’t know, the payload is basically, it’s the purpose of the mission. So, it could be anything from an experiment, it could be a spacecraft, it could be the Mars rover, which, which recently landed, Perseverance. Those are all payloads. So at Kennedy, I was part of the ground safety review panel. So we looked at the payload from the time it arrived at Kennedy until the time it launched and cleared the tower. That was kind of our purview.

Dana Bolles:And we were assigned payloads and, and we would look at everything that was done to it for pre, pre-launch processing. So at Kennedy could be, it’s everything from the time it comes through the gate, and you take it from the vehicle, and you put it on a stand, we had to make sure as the payload safety engineers, did the sling, you know, what is the rating of the sling? And when is it, when was it last tested?

Dana Bolles: And so it’s basically looking at everything we’re doing to it from the time they comes in the gate, is it safe for the people working on, it for the from the facilities and from the spacecraft itself, because it’s thousands and thousands of dollars, that, of the American people’s money. So those are the things we looked at.

Dana Bolles: Let’s say the spacecraft has to be fueled, then we had to make sure that all the procedures in that process, you know, that they had all the safety built into it.

Dana Bolles: And then finally, with launch, that was really exciting, because we would have to be there at least a couple hours before launch, so that if there was an anomaly on the pad, we could help the managers know what to do next, for the process and the procedures.

Jim Green:Yeah. Now, this included not only shuttle payloads, but rocket payloads, too.


Jim Green:So, spacecraft that would be mounted on the top and then blasted into space.

Dana Bolles: Right. In fact, I had one of my payloads was an expendable launch vehicle payload, the EOV payload, it was the Mars Orbiter.

Jim Green:Oh, wow. Now, from there, you moved to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to work as a fire protection safety engineer. What led you to make that switch?

Dana Bolles:You know, it was really hard to leave because I loved what I was doing at Kennedy and I loved the center. But coming from San Francisco, it was a really big difference for me to live in that environment, and I really wanted to be closer to a more metropolitan area.

Dana Bolles So with Goddard, it made more sense because it was closer to DC. And I had that access. And so that was my main driver, is, I just kind of I wanted a different, I want to live somewhere different. Goddard was, you know, I met some really good people. And it was in the life safety code, ensuring that we met the fire protection. It was a good experience. I learned a lot, but I was there only a very short year-and-a-half before I transferred to Ames Research Center on the West Coast.

Jim Green:Well, how did that opportunity come up for you to go from Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, all the way back then to California?

Dana Bolles: So as I mentioned earlier, I am a West Coast gal. And so what happened during that that time that I transferred… my mom, my mom was in remission from cancer for about 11-and-a-half years. And so while I was at Goddard her, that was when her cancer came back.

Jim Green:Oh wow.

Dana Bolles So that’s when I decided I need to go back and actually the first year, I was back in California, I drove down from the Bay Area down to LA 10 times in the year so I could spend more time with her. And…yeah, so that was the main driver, plus just the fact that I really like living on the West Coast a lot. So it was, I was back. And then I was back in the Bay Area, which is where my heart was. So, um everything kind of came together perfectly.

Jim Green:Well, what’s really great about NASA is it has 10 centers in many different states across the United States.

Dana Bolles:Yep.

Jim Green:So indeed, it gives you a flexibility to take your skills and ability and go and work at another center.

Dana Bolles:Right.

Jim Green:Well, what did you do when you’re at Ames?

Dana Bolles: When I first transferred to Ames, I transferred into the Environmental Services Division, and I was a an environmental compliance specialist. So I managed the center’s biggest environmental programs in air quality, hazardous materials storage and industrial wastewater discharge. And what I love about NASA is: We follow all of the environmental regulations. There’s federal, state and local laws, and whatever is the most stringent is what we’ll follow. And so living in the Bay Area, that was a really challenging job. We had the most stringent environmental regs in the whole country. And so what that meant was I was mostly dealing with local regulators.

Jim Green:Well, is there one NASA mission or activity that you worked on that really stands out in terms of something that you’re really glad you’re worked on?

Dana Bolles: What I think when I, when I look at my entire career, I would have to say that payload safety engineer was the most exciting time because I was, that was the closest ties I had with the mission, was as a payload safety engineer. But I really appreciate… all of my jobs I’ve had through my 25-year career have been really awesome. And I’ve learned a lot from each one of them.

Dana Bolles And another another program that I was really impressed with being part of was the Human Research Program. And that was a really, in my opinion, that was a really top-notch program of NASA. And it was a, it was an honor to be part of their team, more at the program level, helping with all the elements, integrating them all, and also coordinating their program status review every two years. So, so that was a, that was an incredible experience.

Jim Green:Wow.

Dana Bolles:Mhm.

Jim Green:So you most recently came to NASA Headquarters to work in the Science Mission Directorate, and in particular, science communications. What got you interested in that topic?

Dana Bolles:So what happened was when the call came out, through Headquarters for people who were interested in doing details, you know, I, it’s funny, I, throughout my career, up until this time, when I did apply, which is this last time when I got it, I had no interest in doing a detail at Headquarters. But I just feel like the timing was just right.

Dana Bolles:And not only that, but the fact that you know, communicating NASA to the public. That’s always been a great passion of mine. I mean, I do a lot of public speaking about NASA, and it’s my favorite thing to encourage youth to go into the STEM fields, because we need our best and brightest. If we want to stay in this, you know, in the space game, right? We have to have the best and the brightest, so it’s important to encourage them.

Jim Green: Well, in your work at NASA Headquarters in the science communication area, you’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the search for life beyond Earth. And that’s a huge topic of interest in NASA. And in fact last season’s Gravity Assist, we talked about the search for life. Well tell us about what you’ve been doing to support NASA in this area.

Dana Bolles: Well, my first year of my detail, I helped to create this toolkit. And basically, it was, it’s an electronic resource for NASA employees, anybody who has a NASA email could access it. And it’s to help people so that they can communicate about the search for life to the public. So it could be for people who want to speak about it, like, let’s say an elementary school wants to hear about it. So somebody is interested, they can go here and learn about what NASA has done, and also part of that first year, I helped, I led a team of experts in the search for life, and kind of thinking about how can NASA be better prepared in mak[ing] an announcement in the future about finding life beyond Earth?

Dana Bolles: And so it’s really it’s been an incredible experience just sitting with this team that we have, listening to them just have very light, informal discussions about what can we do? What can we do to kind of help, and a lot of it is preparing the public on what we mean when we say certain things. And then there’s another piece of it, you know, when the announcement does come up, what are some of the things we want to think about?

Jim Green: In fact, as you know, you and I’ve talked about that particular subject on a number of occasions,

Dana Bolles:Yeah

Jim Green:It’s one of my favorites.

Dana Bolles:Yeah.

Jim Green:And indeed, NASA is doing so many things across many of the different centers. And having a place where that can be accumulated and, and brought together is, is really important.

Jim Green: So in the area of search for life, as you’re pulling together important information for all of us to use and leverage, what are some of the things that you think are perhaps misconceptions by the public in NASA’s effort to find life beyond Earth?

Dana Bolles: I think the biggest challenge in making an announcement is that people are going to hear it and they’re going to immediately go to the image of the great little green Martians on Mars, right? So a lot of it has to do with science fiction, and I think that feeds a lot into people’s mis- misperceptions of what, what it looks like, what it could be.

Dana Bolles:I mean, more than likely, you know, based on what we know, now, it’s it’s going to be microbial, which we’re not even going to be able to see. So, those are the things that are the biggest challenges. Just sensationalizing and that not to mention just, the media likes to sensationalize everything anyway to make a good story so that that kind of doesn’t help when we’re trying to be realistic about, you know, what it is that we’re doing and how and what we’re finding out there.

Jim Green: Now, I’ve heard that you’ve been named, and IF/THEN Ambassador by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dana Bolles:Yes.

Jim Green: So first, congratulations.

Dana Bolles:Thank you.

Jim Green: And tell us what that program is all about.

Dana Bolles:So IF/THEN is an initiative of the Lyda Hill Philanthropies. And what she wanted to do was she wanted to encourage young girls like middle school-ish age to go into STEM. And so she thought, well, if we support a woman in STEM, then she could change the world. That’s kind of their motto. So what, what they did, what this initiative does is it takes the talent agency model, and it promotes all of the ambassadors. There’s like 125 of us. And it promotes us across the country in all these different venues and ways so that we could reach the most number of girls.

Dana Bolles:There’s a virtual classroom experience where you talk to classrooms. It’s called Nepris. So they’re one of the collaborators with IF/THEN, and they get a lot of their speakers through the ambassadorship program. And there’s show there’s Saturday morning shows geared towards kids that encourage girls to go into STEM and there’s all kinds of different ways that they’re promoting us. And it’s just been incredible. And in fact, one really awesome thing is there was a study done in 2016. Rosie Rios commissioned a study in 10 largest cities in the, in the United States. And what they did is they looked at all the statues that are in public, in the public view, and they found that of all of them, less than half a dozen were of real women, nonfictional women. And so based on that Lyda Hill thought, you know, I’m gonna change that. And so she took 3D scans of all of us. And they’re going to display full, full size models of all of us all at once, all in one place. And it’ll be largest display of real women in science in, in the country, if not the world.

Jim Green: Wow, that sounds like a spectacular opportunity.

Dana Bolles:Yep.

Jim Green: In fact, middle school girls in particular, I guess, that’s a critical time for which they then make decisions about whether they’re really interested in science or not. So seeing the role models, seeing that they can actually step up and make a career of these kind of science and engineering and mathematics that, that they may be good at, is really important.

Dana Bolles:Yeah.

Jim Green:And I’m sure you’re, you’ve really helped a number of kids along the way.

Dana Bolles: Yeah, it’s important. It’s important. They see, they see women like them, you know, because that way, it gives them more of a reality check that, hey, I could do it.

Jim Green: Well, what’s the one thing that people could do to really be a better ally for the disability community?

Dana Bolles: Jim, thanks for asking that question. The one thing that people could do, to be a better ally to the community is to not see us for what we can’t do. But be curious about what we can do. So while people’s initial reaction to disability is often negative, and feeling sorry for us, they don’t, they don’t see that living this experience makes us better problem solvers. So by getting to know us first, without preconceived notions, the benefit is seeing the community for the beauty we bring to living life every day.

Jim Green: Well, NASA really looks for a diversity of people, because each and every one of our experiences, and that includes people with disabilities, brings a certain level of sensitivity, and a certain ability to solve some of the most complex problems that that, you know, we really face if we’re going to learn to live and work on a planetary surface.

Jim Green:Dana, I always like to ask my guests to tell me what was the event, the person, place, or thing that got them so excited about being the engineer, they are today in NASA. And I call that event a gravity assist? So Dana, what was your gravity assist?

Dana Bolles:This is a really difficult question for me to answer. You know, at first, I thought it was, of course, it’s my mom, she’s the one who gave me my backbone. She, she helped build my confidence. And then, and then I thought, well, then it could be the principal and the teachers who mainstreamed me at such a young age. It could be my father who, not knowing him for the first 39 years of my life, when I do find him, I find that he builds spacecraft models for living.

Dana Bolles:So when I look at all of this, you know, I would say, if I had to narrow it down, I would say it would be people. You know, it’s my family, my friends, my mentors. All of that kind of helped to give me the gravity assist, to come to NASA and to be successful.

Jim Green:Dana, thanks so much for joining me and discussing this fascinating topic of all the activities that you’ve been doing in NASA.

Dana Bolles: Thank you. It was a great honor.

Jim Green:Well, join me next time as we continue our journey to see what happens underneath the hood in NASA. I’m Jim Green, and this is your Gravity Assist.


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper