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We Are the World

Season 1Nov 19, 2018

Missions to outer space have come a long way since the days of Cold War competition. Farah Alibay finds that building relationships is a big part of building spacecraft.

On a Mission podcast cover art

[0:00] Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

[0:08] Narrator: The longest-distance race in human history was the competition to go to the Moon. Neil Armstrong placing his foot on the lunar surface was equivalent to a runner crossing the finish line. The starter pistol had been the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik.

[0:23]CBS news report on Sputnik, with spacecraft beep heard in background

News announcer:“CBS television presents a special report on Sputnik 1: the Soviet space satellite. Douglas Edwards reporting.”

Douglas Edwards:“Until two days ago, that sound had never been heard on this Earth. Suddenly it has become as much a part of twentieth-century life as the whir of your vacuum cleaner. It’s a report from man’s farthest frontier: the radio signal transmitted by the Soviets’ Sputnik the first man-made satelliteas it passed over New York earlier today.”

On a Mission podcast cover art

[0:51] Narrator: The space race was part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR. In battle, you seek the high ground because it gives you an advantage over your enemy. And what could be higher ground than the Moon, which gazes down at our world from over 200,000 miles above?

But it’s not just fear or aggression that sparks competition between spacefaring countries. Launching a rocket off Earth is difficult, dangerous, and expensive, and, consequently, space missions don’t happen that often. So scientists and engineers battle fiercely to get their instrument on a spacecraft.

For over 30 years, Bruce Banerdt has been trying to put an earthquake-measuring device –called a seismometer – on Mars. Back in the 90s, he was competing against a team of French scientists.

[1:36] Bruce Banerdt:Philippe Lognonné was the [principal investigator] of a program in France to develop a planetary seismometer to use on Mars. I was the PI of a program here at JPL to do the same thing. The difference is that I was working with some people here at the Microdevices Lab on technology development for it and he was actually building an instrument to fly on a Soviet (which became a Russian) mission to Mars with the French Space Agency.

In some sense, he was farther along, but we, in our usual JPL arrogance, figured we had a better way to do it but we just needed to develop the technology. And so when NASA started showing interest in the early 90s in actually flying a seismometer to Mars, we’d both come to meetings where that kind of planning was being discussed and we’d give our presentations and we both would ask pointed questions of the other in terms of the capabilities of the proposed instruments and stuff like that.

[2:34] Narrator:NASA was trying to decide what instruments to include on its Pathfinder lander. Bruce and Philippe were running neck-and-neck to have their marsquake measuring tool included on this mission.

[2:44] Bruce Banerdt: So we both kind of went at that hammer and tongs trying to get our instrument on Mars Pathfinder and I think what we succeeded in doing is convincing the people in the project that neither one of the seismometers was really ready, because each of us had sort of damning criticism of the other guy in sort of a “circular firing squad” kind of a situation. And no seismometer actually flew on Pathfinder. After that, we both kind of realized that perhaps the best way to Mars wasn’t by climbing over the other guy, but maybe pulling each other up.

[3:14] Narrator:Instead of competing, they decided to cooperate. Today, Philippe is the principal investigator of the seismometer on InSight, which is currently on its way to Mars, and Bruce is the lead scientist of the overall mission.

[3:26] Bruce Banerdt: Philippe and I are very different personalities, very different kind of scientific approaches, and I think we work really well together because of that.

[3:33] Narrator: That partnership is not the only foreign collaboration on the InSight mission. There are contributions from Germany, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Canada, and scientists from many other countries are also involved in different aspects of the mission. As an international effort, you share the risks and the costs. Bruce says there are other benefits too.

[3:53] Bruce Banerdt: Science doesn’t really have borders, and smart people aren’t all segregated into one country. And so if you really want all the smartest people and the best ideas, you throw a wide net and you get people from all over the world who are passionate about science – passionate about planetary science particularly – and they’ve been enriching NASA missions for decades.

[4:14](intro music)

[4:46] Narrator: We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I’m Leslie Mullen. This season, we’ve been talking to the people who work on InSight, a mission to land a spacecraft on Mars and explore the interior of the Red Planet.

An InSight team member who knows a lot about the international nature of space missions is Farah Alibay. She’s a payload systems engineer. That essentially means she has to make sure all the instruments on the spacecraft get along.

[5:14] Farah Alibay: We have different partners that built these instruments, and they’re all built individually and tested individually. One of the things that we worry about is once we integrate them all together – are they going to work? And how do we track these things? My job is to test everything to make sure that it’s going to work once we get to Mars.

[5:31] Narrator: Since InSight’s instruments were built by groups in other countries, and the lander itself was built at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, Farah has had to work with a wide range of people from different backgrounds and cultures – something she has, in a way, been doing her entire life.

[5:46] Farah Alibay: Obviously this is a podcast so you can’t see me, but I’m a woman of color. I have green hair. I’m definitely a minority and I always have been. I remember when I was younger that that was definitely a challenge for me because when you’re a child you just want to fit in. But with time I actually learned to embrace that and I learned to use that to my advantage because – how many brown women with green hair do you meet at JPL? There is only one and it’s me, so people remember me.


I was born in Montreal, Canada, so I’m actually French-speaking. That’s my first language, but my parents were actually born in Madagascar and I’m originally Indian, so definitely multi-national. And I have dual nationality with French because Madagascar used to be a French colony.

My parents left Madagascar during the civil war, so they had to leave their homes behind, their businesses. The civil war that I’m referring to was in the mid-70s. Madagascar has had unrest for a long time. It’s never been the most stable country, but in the 70s it got very difficult, so a lot of people actually left. My great grandparents immigrated to France and then my grandparents, my mom’s family, moved to Montreal. So they lost everything.

Cultural groups tend to stick together when they’re immigrating, so my parents actually met through friends of friends in Canada. We moved out to a very small town just outside of Montreal where really working at NASA was just the stuff of movies, right? No one really left the town. We were the only non-white family in the little village that we lived in.

[7:20] Narrator:When Farah was 13, her family was uprooted yet again.

[7:23] Farah Alibay: My dad, he’s an electrical engineer, so he works in the paper industry and got offered a job in England, so that’s when I moved to England as a teenager. And I only spoke French. I think the extent of the English I knew is, if you ever took French or Spanish in high school you know, you know how to say, “Hi, how are you? I want to go to the zoo and can I have spaghetti?” That was pretty much the extent of it. And so they dropped me at school and were like, “Good luck! (laughs) You have to speak English now.”

[7:50] Narrator: At first, she struggled to learn her new language.

[7:53] Farah Alibay: I had an entrance exam I had to take for my school because it was a selective school. It’s not fee-paying but they call them “grammar school” in England, and we had to do an English exam, which I failed horribly. I tried hard, but there was a math exam where I knew I could answer the math questions, because math is a universal language obviously, but I remember them asking, “Use the odd numbers in this series.” I had completely forgotten what the difference between odd and even was, because I remember the course they had taught us in English, like what the difference was, so I had to ask the math teacher, “Oh, I know one of them is two, four, six, eight. I totally know there’s a difference – but which one is odd and which one is even?” (laughs)

[8:36] Narrator: Farah went from learning the basics of English to taking classes in advanced math, but she still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. But then a movie provided inspiration.

[8:46] Farah Alibay: I sort of knew I had an interest in space back from watching “Apollo 13” pretty much.

[8:50]“Apollo 13” movie clip

“Uh, this is Houston…say again please?”

“Houston we have a problem.”

[8:55] Farah Alibay: I remember really liking that movie and it really did make a big difference in my life.

[8:58]“Apollo 13” movie clip

“Ok people, listen up! I want you all to forget the flight plan. From this moment on, we are improvising a new mission. How do we get our people home?”

[9:10] Farah Alibay: And I thought, “Wow! It’s so cool that these people get to work together and solve problems.” I kind of like the idea of solving problems in a team under pressure. But I never quite put two and two together that the path to doing that was real and that I could be an engineer. In high school you take those online tests of, “What should my career be?” And aerospace engineer came up as my top match and I was like, “Oh, wait a second – this is a real job! I can do this!”

No one else really in my school wanted to become an engineer. It was an all-girls school. That wasn’t really something that was done. Even my career advisor said, “Well, engineering is a really male-dominated field. Do you really think you can do this?” To which I answered, “Of course I can,” because I’m very stubborn.

[9:53] Narrator:Farah studied aerospace engineering at the University of Cambridge in England. Then she headed for a whole new land and culture: Boston Massachusetts, and MIT.

[10:02] Farah Alibay: The work I was doing at Cambridge was more on the aero side. I was working on jet engines, which was really great, really fun, but I really wanted to work in space, so when I got the offer from MIT, I took a deep breath and thought, “Well, if I’m gonna go to grad school and pursue this dream, I might as well do it now, because if I say no now, that door might never be open again.”

My advisor, Jeff Hoffman, was a shuttle astronaut actually. He was part of the first group of non-military people that were selected to be shuttle astronauts and he repaired Hubble the first time.

[10:33]C-Span report clip

“You’re looking at a live picture from Space Shuttle Endeavor. Astronauts Jeffrey Hoffman and Story Musgrave are beginning to venture out into space to begin what is expected to be the fifth and final spacewalk of the Endeavor mission. Tonight the astronauts will continue repairs to the Hubble telescope…”

[10:53] Farah Alibay: I was intimidated the first time I met him but eventually we worked on a few projects together.

When I was at Cambridge it was very traditional type of teaching; it’s very thorough but it’s not quite as hands-on. And then I got to MIT, which has a hacking culture. You know, they put a police car on top of a building and somehow that’s a reasonable thing to do. (laughs) We would never do that at Cambridge. And you know, Cambridge is full of halls; we wear gowns; it looks like Harry Potter – and you get to MIT and it’s just some odd 1960s building slapped together. So, definitely a culture shock. But part of why I value my education so much is because that difference is actually something that’s made me more whole of a person, right?

[11:38] Narrator:Farah’s studies at MIT led to JPL internships and, eventually, a job here.

[11:43] Farah Alibay: I’m now getting pretty much a highlight of my life. I think it just all became real that we’re sending this thing to Mars. Like, it’s going to another planet. If you told 12-year-old Farah who was learning English for the first time that all of that would lead to this, I don’t think she would have believed you. (laughs)


[12:10] Narrator:As I noted earlier, Farah is a payload systems engineer for the InSight mission, which means she had to make sure all the instruments – which were built by groups in different places – could communicate and cooperate when they finally came together. Her French skills came in handy for this task.

[12:25] Farah Alibay: And it’s great because it really helped build a bond with the French team because I can talk to them. It’s happened once in a meeting where they stopped the meeting and asked me in French, like, “Farah, can you translate to make sure that we understood?” So I started speaking in French and kind of forgot I was speaking French and then someone else on the phone who was American was like, “Why are you all speaking French?” (laughs)

I never thought growing up that me speaking French would ever be useful in an aerospace career, right? The French really like to make fun of me because I have a French-Canadian accent and it’s very different. It’s a little bit like the difference between the British and an American accent, but there’s more words that are different.

In French, they will use English words. So they’ll say “weekend” and “parking.” In Canada, they’re very strict about using French words, so every word that exists in English they’ll have a translation for it. It has to do with the history of Quebec and the fact that we had to really protect our language when the rest of the country was English before it became a bilingual country.

So for example, “the weekend” in France they’ll say “le weekend” and in Canada they’ll say “la fin de semaine,” which basically is “the end of the week.” The same with “parking” is “stationnement” and then “shopping” is “magasin.” But the French will use all these English words, and they’ll just laugh at me whenever I come up with this French-Canadian word, because you can literally take a literal translation most of the time and it works. They would come up with words and be like, “Oh, is snowboard “planche à neige?” Which is literally “snow board.” I was like, “Yeah. That’s what it is.” It would just crack them up that they would just make up these words and that happened to be the French-Canadian word.

[14:02] Narrator:Clear communication was vital as the instruments were being tested. Testing doesn’t just focus on whether an instrument operates and collects the data scientists want. Testing also makes sure each instrument is hardy enough to operate in the harsh environment on Mars – and can survive being blasted off Earth on a rocket.

[14:19] Farah Alibay: We have something called “validation and verification,” which sounds very boring and does involve a lot of paperwork, but what it does involve is a lot of tests – and really cool tests. So we do things like we shake the spacecraft. Once all the instruments are installed we put it on a shake table and shake it as hard as it would see it when you’re launching because that’s the worst environment. We put it in a vacuum chamber and pull a vacuum and make it really, really cold so that we can simulate what the spacecraft will feel on its way to Mars. Pulling a vacuum on the spacecraft and testing is actually a 24/7 test. It runs all day and all night, and there’s always delays and things that go wrong.

I was working the evening shift and then the night shift. So obviously what did happen, and it happens every single time, is that the schedule got shifted just enough that all the interesting stuff happened at night. Which is great if you don’t want to fall asleep, but it’s terrifying if it’s your first time doing this and your boss is sleeping.

We definitely had one night where there was an issue with one of the instruments and it didn’t behave the way we expect it to. If you can imagine when you’ve been working on night shift and it’s 6 a.m. and your boss comes in and something has gone wrong and you suddenly have to sit down and explain as much as you know to them so you can hand off and go to bed, it’s definitely stressful and it definitely stretches your ability to stay calm.

The best approach when something goes wrong is to take your time, make sure that you’ve analyzed everything, that you’ve talked through all the possible solutions and that you agree to a path forward. It’s very different from our reaction as normal humans, right? If something goes wrong at home my instinct is to press all the buttons until something happens. You cannot do that with a multimillion-dollar spacecraft.

[16:01] “Armageddon” movie clip

“It’s stuck, yes?”

“Back off, you don’t know the components.”

“Eh, components…American components, Russian components, all made in Taiwan!

I’m telling you please move! This is how we fix problems in Russian space station! (bang bang bang) Because I don’t want to stay here anymore!”

[16:20] Narrator:If anyone had the urge to pound on the spacecraft with a wrench, like the Russian cosmonaut did in the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” their actions would not have gone unnoticed.

[16:29] Farah Alibay: We have cameras where the lander is – we actually control it from the control room. And there’s cameras around where the operators are and the idea for that is that if something goes wrong, or if we want to know what happened in the future, we can actually go back and look at the tapes and see what happened.

For example, we were seeing noise in one of the tests at night. I was actually wondering if someone maybe had walked by at the spacecraft. The seismometer, which is the main instrument, is a very, very sensitive seismometer. We tested it out in Denver, because our spacecraft partner is Lockheed Martin, based in Denver. And you could hear the waves crashing in California and on the East Coast. So we had to discount that noise when we were looking at noise data. That’s how sensitive it is. So that was investigative work, but we did actually go back through those tapes to see if anyone had come in between certain hours. And it ended up being someone opening a door in a different building. So you really do feel like you’re in a police department sometimes. (laughs)

[17:23] Narrator:As Farah and her colleagues tested the instruments and spacecraft, they came up with different ways to stay calm and focused.

[17:29] Farah Alibay: It started off as a squat competition. You know those wall squats… some people are really good at them. And then it became a push-up competition, which I am no good at. I can do maybe five push-ups on a good day. So someone suggested yoga and it became a tradition. We didn’t really want anyone to see us do yoga, because we’re not that great, so we picked an area where we tested out all the cameras to make sure that no one could see us in that little area. As a lot of young engineers, we don’t necessarily know each other. So it was also a great way to bond and becoming friends really helped us in terms of teamwork later too.

[18:10] Narrator:When InSight arrives at Mars on November 26, Farah will be with other team members at JPL. They’ll be supporting each other – a team of people from all around the world, united with a single purpose: to wait for the signal that tells them whether InSight survives its landing.

[18:26] Farah Alibay: I remember when the Curiosity Rover landed. I was an intern and I couldn’t watch. I was like nearly crying because I was so terrified that something would go wrong because it’s such a big deal. Now that it’s actually mine, yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.

But either way it’ll be really cool. All the team will be here because the foreign partners are actually going to be here the first few months for operations, so we’ll all be together.

[18:51] Narrator:And she might even change her signature green hair color for the rare occasion of landing on the Red Planet.

[18:57] Farah Alibay: I’ll probably dye it red for landing, just for good luck and to fit within the theme.

[19:03] Narrator: Next time, On a Mission.

[19:05] Matt Golombek: When something matters to you as much as a mission that you’ve worked on for, in this case the last five or six years, you just pretty much just pray. (laughs) Once it arrives on the planet and it kicks off the cruise stage, you don’t control anything.

[19:21] Narrator:If you like this podcast, please subscribe, rate us on your favorite podcast platform, and share us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

[run time: 19:38]