This week, thanks to NASA, I received social media accreditation to attend a NASA Social event for the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California. In the end, I didn’t actually get to see the launch, thanks to a scrub on the first attempt and clouds in Los Angeles on the second, but the overall experience was one that made watching the launch on NASA TV on my iPad at a gas station completely worth it.
OCO-2 was the 81st NASA Social held and its launch marked the 51st launch of a Delta II for NASA by United Launch Alliance (ULA). It is the first of four “Return to Flight” missions for the Delta II, which had been no longer in use by NASA. For NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), the launch had special meaning. LSP recently lost one of their longtime colleagues, Laurie Walls, a thermal discipline expert for LSP until her death on June 4th, 2014. They dedicated OCO-2’s launch to her.
OCO-2 is an Earth Science satellite that will join a group of other Earth-observing satellites in orbit. It is the first mission dedicated solely to the measurement of atmospheric CO2. OCO-2 will be able to accurately measure CO2 sources and sinks on our planet. With our rapidly changing climate, the scientific data gathered by this mission will be invaluable. Climate Change is real. OCO-2 will help us to identify the sinks that help absorb atmospheric CO2 and the sources that contribute to the steadily increasing concentrations of CO2 over the last 50 years.
NASA is an agency that faces a lot of criticism from the general public; a public that often questions the need for an agency dedicated to exploration and pushing the boundaries of what we know. However, without NASA, we, both as a nation and as a planet, would lack certain technologies that many of us consider necessary to our daily lives. Many advances in medical technologies, like improved MRI scans, were made possible by NASA. Research done on the International Space Station continues to contribute to advances in our scientific and medical knowledge.
One product developed for NASA stands out because it was designed for use on the rockets of the Atlas program at VAFB. Our tour guide from the 30th Space Wing, Senior Airman Shane Phipps, was happy to tell us the story behind it. That product, WD-40, was developed to prevent rust on the Atlas missiles. Painting the rockets to protect their metal components from rust would have added too much weight to the Atlas missile, so WD-40 was developed by the Rocket Chemical Company for Convair (who was contracted by NASA to develop the Atlas missiles). WD-40 is just one of many NASA spinoffs that include such things as artificial limbs and invisible braces.
NASA has done extremely well connecting with its audience through social media platforms. The accreditation of social media followers to report on launch events is one way they have sought to bring in a new audience to its work. This event was my fifth NASA Social event (my first was at NASA JPL in 2011, when they were still referred to as NASA Tweetups), and for many reasons, I could easily say it stands out among the others. Though, I am an alumna of previous events, this was my first one as a selected member of social media rather than as a randomly selected follower of NASA’s social media accounts. The difference was apparent and welcome. That is not to say that the other events were somehow inferior, but their feeling was much different. At regular events, the vast majority of people who get to attend are people who live and breath NASA and space exploration, at the OCO-2 event, while everyone was interested in space, it was a much more diverse group.
The group selected to attend included fiction and non-fiction writers, educators, photographers, traditional news media, scientists, PR professionals, TV personalities, and even a pundit. Every single person in the room was a thoughtful, intelligent person with a lot to contribute, not only to the atmosphere of the event, but also to our society in general. Of course, as a woman who also considers herself a nerd, I must note, there were a lot of amazing and impressive women gathered in that room.
One thing that has stood out to me over the years that I have been visiting NASA centers and generally following NASA, is how often you encounter incredibly smart women there. This event was no exception. The social media team at NASA JPL ran point on organizing the event for us. The “hive mind” behind the very successful @MarsCuriosity twitter account, Veronica McGregor (@VeronicaMcG), Stephanie Smith (@Stephist), and Courtney O’Connor (@CourtOConnor), are some of the first women I ever met who worked at NASA. Veronica actually ran NASA’s first twitter account (@MarsPhoenix), as well as organized the agency’s first NASA Tweetup. Veronica is a very savvy professional and is a personal role model. She cares very deeply for the women she works with and for those of us she inspires.
As part of the official program for the event, the attendees got to hear from scientists and engineers on the OCO-2 project. I was thrilled that there were several women in prominent positions on the team. As the Deputy Project Scientist, Annemarie Eldering (@Eldering_CO2) put it “if you can get the job done, it’s yours.” This sentiment encapsulates what we, as women, hope to one day experience at every job, and in every part of our lives. Dr. Eldering excelled at communicating with the audience. Many people overlook the importance of being a great science communicator; you can be armed with all the scientific evidence in the world, but if you aren’t able to make that information accessible and understandable to the general public, it’s useless to them. However, throw in an analogy to beer like Dr. Eldering did, and most people will be willing to listen and follow along.
My favorite speaker was engineer Pavani Peddada, she is the Verification and Validation Lead for OCO-2. I got the chance to speak with her for a little bit after the event and I was continually impressed with her enthusiasm for the job. She also was a great communicator. Peddada emphasized that one of the great things about her job was that she got to make the grand visions of the scientists into realities. I also had the opportunity to ask her to speak about her experience as a woman in STEM. Her advice to young women: “If you enjoy doing something, go after it!”
Both Dr. Eldering and Peddada spoke about the importance of being persistent with your dreams, no matter what your dreams are, and these women understand persistence. The reason this mission is known as OCO-2 is because the first OCO failed to reach orbit, through no fault of their own. The original OCO failed to separate from its payload faring and therefore the satellite was lost. You are going to fail, sometimes because of your decisions and sometimes because of others, but you can’t let that make you a failure. It’s your dream, your future. Because we are women, we usually have to work harder and smarter than men to chase our dreams, and sometimes we can’t escape our payload faring, but we can always try again.
At Vandenberg, I met many women who had chased their dreams and attained them. Women from all walks of life, from science to entertainment and everything in between. These women didn’t wait for someone else to make a place for them, they went out and claimed their own. These women remind me a lot of what we think of NASA during its early years. President Kennedy made a speech and inspired a nation. With the support of its citizens, we were able to accomplish what many thought was impossible.
We cannot discount the importance of exploration to our nation. At the OCO-2 NASA Social, we had the opportunity to speak with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, veteran of four shuttle missions. He spoke about the importance of pushing forward and taking risks. He acknowledged that the loss of life is still a risk as we continue to expand the boundaries of what we can do. “We owe it to people to continue to advance. We need to leave behind a nation committed to frontiering… and that’s not afraid to take risks.”
NASA and its mission is important, and the agency fights an uphill battle every year for funding and public recognition of its need to exist. A frightening number of people actually think NASA doesn’t exist anymore because the Space Shuttle program has ended. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Earth Science missions like OCO-2 are integral to our ability, as a nation and a species, to take care of our fragile blue oasis. Future exploration of our universe will be led, as always, by NASA astronauts, and in a few short years, those astronauts will launch again from American soil.
Early in the morning on July 1, I sat with a group of like-minded people, people who believe that we are still a nation of explorers and whom agree that NASA is an important part of that exploration. As we laughed over Larry Hill’s (Chief Community Relations Officer at VAFB) comment of it’s “T-You do the math” and later commiserated over a scrub with only 46 seconds to go until launch, we knew that the launch would eventually happen, that the people involved would persevere. Even though I didn’t end up being able to watch the launch at VAFB, being a part of the group gathered together to learn about the mission and share it with our respective audiences was worth the cross-country trip.
I watched the successful launch of OCO-2 on a Delta II from a gas station a few miles away from LAX. I wasn’t surrounded by any of the wonderful people I met at VAFB, but I wasn’t alone. People from all over the world, and from all walks of life, gathered online together to watch what human hands made leave Earth. America may be a nation facing a lot of problems, but we are a nation of great successes as well. To date, we are still the only country whose citizens have set foot on extraterrestrial soil. We may be out of the World Cup, but when it comes to flags on the Moon, America is still 1 – 0 to everyone else.