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Welcome back to our new season of Astronomy Cast! This episode is a special live show that took place at DragonCon 2016 in Atlanta, GA. Pamela hosted a panel of amazing scientists and engineers who all happen to be women, and they discussed the unsung women of NASA and the early Space Age and their roles as “human computers”, and the current climate at JPL for women scientists and engineers. The panelists were NASA JPL Senior Science Engineer Trina Ray, Marshall Space Flight Center’s head of Planetary Science Barbara Cohen, JPL engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory Kim Steadman and Science Systems Engineer for NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Sarah Milkovich. (Please excuse any audio issues, as this was recorded live by remote.)
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This episode is sponsored by: Casper
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser Cain: Hello Astronomy Cast fans. Fraser here. So, once again, I wanted to give a shout out to casper.com, who is our generous sponsor for Astronomy Cast. Now, we’ve talked about this in the past, but I thought I would just give you the story again, for those who missed it. So, Casper gave us a mattress to try out. I had to leave mine in the states at my wife’s house. But, I really liked the mattress, and so I ordered one for myself, and then I ordered another one for the spare bedroom. So, this is the mattress that I’m sleeping on, and I think you’re going to want to sleep on it as well.
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Speaker 3: Okay, hello Space Track. I knew this was going to be a good panel. I knew it was going to be. Not only do we have at least half of the amazing women who are going to be with us at Space Track this year – only half. The others are coming on Monday. The others are coming on Monday. But, it is such a cool topic. We have touched on this in panels in previous years where we’ve talked about women, human computers. But, if you all don’t know, and if you didn’t read the description fully, a book was written on it this year. This lovely book: Rise of the Rocket Girls.
Now, this book that I happen to be holding in my hand is a little bit special, and it has the ability to become more special. It turns out that, of course, all of our women up here are amazing, but one of them, who we have loved for a number of years now, actually knows one of the women in this book. She’s still alive, and she’s working, still, at JPL.
Trina Ray: Longest working woman at NASA.
Speaker 3: And, she has signed it, not just an autograph. It reads, “The legacy of women in STEM, continue to inspire. Sue Finley.” Trina got this book signed, and all the ladies in the panel have offered to sign it and personalize it as well, if I want to auction it off for charity.
So now, we will just do quick introductions because we are already running late. But, at least now we have video. So, new to us this year, the wonderful new auctioneer, Barbara Cohen. Barbara Cohen comes to us out of Marshall, and then we all know the phenomenal – she does things that are absolutely amazing all of the time, Ms. Trina Ray. Our moderator for the night, the gorgeous Pamela Gay. We are actually going to record this, and it will be part of her Astronomy Cast live.
Barbara Cohen: The woman with the voice.
Speaker 3: The woman with the voice. The stupendous Ms. Kim Stedman. She is near and dear to my heart, not only for what she does here, but because she loves cats like I love cats. And of course we have Sarah Milkovich, who was the only woman sitting at the table at that very first press conference after Curiosity landed. And I sat there at the screen going, “That’s my Sarah. That’s my Sarah.”
Dr. Pamela Gay: Okay, so I’m going to double check. Are we recording? Okay, sorry. I’m going to be paranoid about audio. Now, also standard disclaimer to the entire audience, this is being recorded. Which means that if you decide to pipe up, anything that you say that the mics happen to pick up will go out on the internet. So, consider what you say, and your desire to have it on the internet before you say it. Just be quiet if you don’t want to be on the internet, basically. This also means that when we take questions, we’re going to make sure that you are miked, at the end when we take the questions.
Second standard disclaimer, all of us up here receive money in one way or another for our work from NASA. We are not representing NASA at the moment. Anything we say or do is strictly our own opinion, stated on our own time, and has nothing to do with NASA or the federal government. Okay, are we done with standard disclosures? Okay, cool.
So, this feels weird to do it instead of Fraser. Hello, and welcome to Astronomy Cast 419, Live from DragonCon. In today’s episode, I do not have Fraser Cain with me. Instead, the two of us will be recording live from the Osiris Rex launch down at Cape Canaveral next week. You can applaud. It’s okay. Today, without Fraser, I’m going to go solo, sort of. This means that I’m hosting without him, but I have four amazing guests with me, and our topic is going to be Rocket Girls.
So, with me this week, I have Barbara Cohen, Sarah Milkovich, Trina Ray, Kim Stedman. I’m going to have each of them introduce themselves a little bit. So Barbara, I’m going to go ahead and start with you.
Barbara Cohen: My name is Barbara Cohen. I’m a planetary scientist at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center, and I work on the Mars rovers, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity. I open up moon rocks and discover the age of the moon rocks, and I work on missions. I have a mission going to the moon that you can hear about on Monday.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, next up.
Trina Ray: Hi everybody. My name is Trina Ray, and I work at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. I’ve been working on outer planet missions for quite some time. My first job was Voyager, and most recently I’ve spent, oh my gosh, now two decades on Cassini, and soon I’ll be working on Europa Clipper, and specialize sort of in science planning, working with scientists and engineers together.
Kim Stedman: I’m Kim Stedman. I’m an engineer at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. I worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn for 14 years, and I’ve been working on rovers ever since. The Opportunity rover and the Curiosity rover, and now the 2020 rover.
Sarah Milkovich: I’m Sarah Milkovich. I am a planetary geologist and a systems engineer at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. My science side focuses on the polar caps of Mars, and my engineering side works also with – this is where the science and engineering come together – and I’ve worked on the operations teams for Mars Phoenix, Cassini, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Curiosity rover, and now I’m also on the 2020 rover.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, tonight it’s all planetary, all women, all the time. But, the way that we were able to get to where we are today is because of the numerous women who came before us, whose stories haven’t really been told. They were hired for lots of different reasons. They were calculators, they were computers, depending on who you were talking to, they were women who fought their way to be understood as engineers and scientists. They were the rocket girls that helped build the jet propulsion lab out at NASA.
JPL, it’s out in Pasadena, California, and it has always walked its own path. If you watch the movie, The Martian, there is a distinct culture for each institution. Yeah, JPL is its own special place. Early on, that path was paved by women who were known as the human computers. Nathalia Holt – I’m so sorry, I mispronounce everything. This is one of those unfortunate truths of Astronomy Cast. Holt wrote a wonderful book about these women who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Our NASA women, who are not here representing NASA, will tell that story.
So, some of you are actually lucky enough to get to work with some of the women who were there in the earliest days of the jet propulsion lab starting. Trina, did you want to give us some insight into that history, and what their role was in those early days?
Trina Ray: Yeah. In fact, when I first was asked to be on the panel, I said, “Okay, I better read the book.” So I picked up the book, and I hadn’t really spent much time with it before. I was reading the book, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I work with that woman. Oh, my gosh. I work with that woman.” So, it was really sort of a pleasant experience to see their beginnings at the lab.
And, a lot of them were hired to work as human computers, before we sort of had – today we can program in 5,000 languages if we want to, and if not, Excel can do just incredible things. And basically, that’s what they would do. They would have these really complex calculations they had to do, and they would lay out – if you think of it in programming an Excel spreadsheet, right, the pieces of the program, the steps of the program, and then they would do the math along the way.
And, they would work carefully with the engineers to make sure that they had the equations right, that they were doing the right thing, and they were part of the process. And then a lot of them grew in the role and then went on to be more substantive partners in the work. Many of them went on to get advanced degrees while they were working at JPL. And, towards the end, many of them went on to be managers of teams.
One of the really neat things that I learned from reading the book was how strong the culture was for hiring other women to be part of the crowd. The first manager of the group was really very laser focused on that. And then, when she handed it off to the second woman that they talk to in the book who is still alive. I thought that was very interesting, how they really wanted to foster this cooperative nature all along.
So, I would say those were the things that really kind of impressed me when I first read the book, and sort of my big takeaway from it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Now, would any of you feel comfortable giving any history on the founding of JPL, and beyond just being human computers, what it was that brought these women to JPL?
Sarah Milkovich: All right, I’ll give it a try, if I can remember. Okay, so JPL really started because there was a bunch of folks at Caltech who kept on setting the laboratory that they were working in on fire because they were trying to – you know, they were testing out rocket.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And what were they called, Sarah?
Sarah Milkovich: Well, and the undergraduates at Caltech, of whom I once was one, they referred to them as the Suicide Squad because everything kept on going on fire. And so, Caltech was like, “Okay, first you can’t set the lab on fire. Okay, now you can’t set the courtyard on fire. Go up the dry river bed. Nobody’s up there. Set that on fire. It’ll be okay.”
So, that’s what they did, and it’s quite a cast of characters who were the founders. And, so they were involved, and that’s where the jet propulsion in jet propulsion laboratory comes from, even though now we don’t really do that kind of stuff. We leave that to some of the other NASA centers. But, that’s really the foundation of JPL. And so, they needed people to do calculations about trajectories. They needed people to do calculations about the fuel. What’s the right kind of fuel to put in your rocket?
And, that’s where they needed someone who could specialize in these mathematical calculations. And, that’s where they started hiring the women to come in as the computers.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, am I to understand correctly that a whole bunch of dudes at JPL who kept lighting things on fire didn’t want to do their own maths, and as a result of not wanting to do their own maths, they hired a bunch of women?
Kim Stedman: Yeah, the interesting thing about it is, back then, doing all those calculations was considered mundane, and so they hired all these women to do it. And so nowadays the myth out there is that math is hard, and so therefore women must not be able to do it. But, if women hadn’t been able to do math, we would have never gotten anything into orbit, we would have never sent a man to the moon, and all these great accomplishments in our early history of space exploration would just never have happened.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, JPL got started. They stopped setting things on fire. They hired women to do their calculations for them, and they started building an actual institution that was picking up contract after contract from NASA. What was the evolution of the facility?
Trina Ray: So, the evolution of the facility originally was a partnership with the Army, so they were really working on these rockets. It was just before World War II, and then of course as World War II came along, being able to target rockets became a big deal. And so we have, as you’re walking through the lab, there are a couple of old rockets – oh, that’s a great picture. We should have taken that one.
Kim Stedman: They took the rockets out.
Trina Ray: Yeah, but they have the shells. And so, we did a lot of rocket research. As Kim mentioned, that’s where the name came from. But then, very soon, when the space race really heated up, it became – first Sputnik went in, and so they wanted something in orbit right away. And, they turned to JPL, who had had – we had competed and had ready to go a spacecraft that was going to go up, go into orbit, and measure something scientific. It was going to measure radiation around the earth.
And, we got sort of cancelled because they wanted to give it to another NASA center. And – was it the NAVY? Yeah, and so they were falling behind, falling behind, they didn’t make it, then came Sputnik, so then they turned to JPL and said, “Okay, fine. You guys have 90 days to get this done here.”
Kim Stedman: Well, but the thing was, JPL never takes no for an answer. So, they were told no, and so they took their spacecraft and put it in a cabinet. But, they still continued their rocket tests. And, the one thing that they developed was a payload ferry. And, they actually launched that, and they launched a bag of sand into orbit. And, it was closely inspected because NASA and the government did not want us stealthily launching a spacecraft.
And so, that was all successful, and JPL was ready to go. And if they hadn’t kept working on their payload ferry, we wouldn’t have been able to make the 90 days.
Trina Ray: And so, Explorer 1 was very successful, and then that really set JPL on a path of sending things into space to do science research. And, it’s a path that we’ve followed for the past 50 years, and now we have just incredible things that we’ve accomplished at the institution that have been planetary exploration, really based on the early work.
Sarah Milkovich: Yeah, and the corollary to that – I’m not a JPL employee, I’m a Marshall employee. But Marshall, of course, is where Wernher von Braun and his team went after Project Paperclip that brought them here after the world war. And they developed rockets that didn’t hit London that were going to space. That was their passion, was to send rockets to space. And so, they developed the Jupiter C rocket, and it was partly based on work that JPL had done. And, they took that and developed that into what became the Mercury and the Gemini rockets, that took people suborbital space and then to orbital space, and then again onto the moon.
And, the people who developed those calculations, Margaret Hamilton is the most famous one, of course, and she was from MIT, but she wrote the software code for the Apollo 11 human capsule that got us to the moon.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, when we’re all baby space enthusiasts, we learn the story of Wernher von Braun and all of the men working next to the river, drinking their leftover alcoholic rocket fuel when they have a success, and sticking the red stone stuff on the barges to hide it when they were getting inspected and they weren’t supposed to be working on space capsules. And, it’s this fabulous romantic story. Why do we never hear about the chicks?
Trina Ray: I have no good answer for that.
Kim Stedman: No, I have a good answer. Because history is written by men.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, patriarchy. So, the reality is that when you look around academia on the university side of things, we are like five to 11 percent women, maybe on a good day we are – statistically we don’t have people of color, basically. But, when you go to a NASA center, this isn’t the case. You look around JPL, you look around Marshall, you look around NASA headquarters. Heck, you look at Charlie Bolton and everyone working around him, and you see diversity.
What is the culture that these women have to inspire that lead to, today, seeing this diverse face of NASA?
Trina Ray: So, I kind of think that – and, I really saw it when I read this book. One of the things – one of many things, is the women helping the other women. I myself have been the beneficiary of mentors in my life, and I have mentored other young women. And, it becomes part of the culture at JPL to do that. And, I really think that that’s something that I see actually going all the way back to the beginning, when they talked about a young woman coming in to join the computers. And, she was really brilliant, but a little disorganized, and they just helped her. Helped her settle. Provided the right career guidance for her to be successful, and then she turned out to be one of those most successful of all of them.
And so, I think that that is one key, at the NASA centers, that they really work hard on, is women helping women, and I see it all the time.
Sarah Milkovich: Another thing, so I’m the mother of a small child. And, one thing that really struck me when I was reading this book was the fact that the women in the computer group, when one of them got pregnant, she hid it as long as possible. And then she either quit or she was fired right before she gave birth. And then a lot of them, a year later, six months later, their supervisor called them up and said, “Would you like to come back? We’ve got a job for you,” and they came back. They did whatever they needed to do to make the childcare work.
And so now, what I experienced was I was a little nervous because I was working on two different projects at the same time. When I was going around and telling, I had, like, 10 different bosses, and I was telling all of them that I was going to be taking maternity leave. And they were all super excited for me. And they were all like, “Oh, let me tell you about my kids.” And now I see, “Oh, we can’t have this meeting go past 5:00 p.m. because everybody’s got to go pick up their kids.” And men and women both are saying, “It’s my child’s first day of school. I’m not going to be here tomorrow, but I’ll be checking email.” Or, “I have to leave work early because my kid’s got a function. I will be checking email tonight and I will catch up.”
So, I really think that a lot of the culture that the women in the ‘60s and ‘70s set that has trickled down to what JPL has become today is this appreciation for families, and appreciation for outside of work, you have other things that you do need to pay attention to. And, that makes a big difference for everybody’s life, whether you have kids or not, this acknowledgement that there is an outside life besides your NASA work.
Barbara Cohen: Another thing that really has struck me from the book was when one of the women, one of the computers, said that she had never been credited on any of the scientific publications or any of the technical publications, even that she had worked on, that she had done the computations for. The engineers would publish the results, and they weren’t on the paper. And in the scientific world and the engineering world, publications are your currency. They are what allow you to show that your work is meaningful and to achieve promotion and recognition.
And, for people who are really integral to the success of these projects to be left off, to not have gotten the credit – you know, maybe someone comes in and says, “Hey, nice work,” and you’re like, “Oh, thanks,” but to be left off the papers was a really serious omission. And, I think that’s something else that has really changed, at least in scientific publication, is the et al. And when we publish on scientific teams for missions, everyone is on there. And you may be 70th author or something. The LIGO paper that just came out had, like, I don’t know, hundreds of authors. But it didn’t matter, right? You’re in there, and you can point to that and say, “I contributed to that.” And, that goes a long way at your institutions.
And so, I think normalizing the contributions of everyone who contributed to the project also goes a long way to bringing women into the normalcy.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, what I’m hearing is, there’s this very strange historic dichotomy where, in the early days of JPL, you had these women brought in to do necessary and essential work. This was in the days before the Family Medical Leave Act, so when they went on maternity leave, they actually quit or got fired for a period of time. But then, their work was viewed as so essential that their boss sought them out and said, “Come back. We need you.” And, they were part of the story, but inside the institution where people recognized the importance of their mentoring, where people recognized their influence on the hiring, but no one told their story outside of the institution. Their names were left off the papers.
Now, one of the stories that I heard, that maybe one of you can speak to, was on the anniversary of that first satellite launch, the women weren’t invited to be there. Kim, do you want to talk about that? Can you please introduce your name as well?
Lisa Mckinney: I’m Lisa Mckinney. My dad was Royce Leon Mckinney, who was one of the engineers who started down in Houston. He was one of the people that opened up there. He got hired out of the military. And, my mom was a NASA wife, and that was a big deal because there was a big social aspect to NASA where everybody networked. The men networked. They were told, and it really upset my mom because she was actually friends with a lot of them, they weren’t allowed to invite them to any of the events that the wives were putting on.
So, no female that was working at NASA was allowed to go to any of the home parties that the NASA wives put on all the time. So, they weren’t allowed to socialize or network outside of NASA at all. You weren’t allowed to invite anybody. So, they weren’t allowed to go to any of the – like, I was born in 1969. Me, as a baby, and my mom, were carted all over the freaking place to all of the stuff in celebration in 1969, and none of the women who worked there were allowed to go anywhere. I went to the Astrodome when Frank Sinatra sang in celebration. As a baby, I went. These women were not allowed to go to it.
So, they weren’t allowed to go to anything. They were specifically told that they couldn’t go. That’s in a little bit of the movie in that trailer.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, there’s a history of not always acknowledging the roles people have. So, for instance, something that’s familiar to many of us in this room is people don’t generally acknowledge the importance of that administrator or business manager where you work, and your place of work would crumble to pieces if that person wasn’t there to make friends with the custodial staff, know the person in low places who can make sure that things get fixed.
There are certain people that are the glue that hold where we work together, and we don’t acknowledge it because it’s like, “Oh, that’s just the secretary.” Well, back in the day, these amazing mathematicians were put in that same socio cultural role, where unfortunately we stick secretaries, and where too often we stick the custodial workers and everyone else who isn’t the white collar worker.
Kim Stedman: Well, there is a difference at JPL. Because when the computers that we know as a computer, that you plug in and they do all this great stuff, unless you want them to project in a meeting, some of the other organizations that had these computers, they laid them off. Well, JPL made them engineers. And so, JPL kept them on because they knew how important they were. And, some of these women – I mean, like Sue Finley that signed this book, there was a spacecraft problem, and she just wrote a program and sent it to the spacecraft. You have no idea how amazing that is because I couldn’t do that now. No one here could do that now because you have to have a meeting to talk about, “Is this really what we want to send to the spacecraft?”
And sometimes, by the time you decide, your options are quite limited. But, this woman saved a spacecraft just by writing a program really fast, doing math, and sending it up there. And so, it’s just amazing what these women did. And, like you said, they passed it on. Because if you read in the book – towards the end, it moves a little quick because it’s trying to cover so much. Because, we got really busy. So, it talks about Pathfinder, and it talks about Donna Shirley, who was one of the people that worked on the Sojourner rover.
Well, Donna Shirley kept this thing of, “We must hire women. We must have women engineers. We must have women scientists,” and she was an engineer. And so, that was very important to her. And, that’s the reason that I work there. Because, I sent an email to Donna Shirley. She didn’t know me. I said, “I’m a student at Georgia Tech. I’m about to graduate. I’m really interested in coming to work there.” And she said, “Absolutely. Come see me.” So, I flew out to JPL and she hired me.
So, the legacy that these women left is still bringing people like me into the lab. So, it’s just absolutely amazing. And, if JPL had laid all these women off, we just wouldn’t have that. And the NASA thing you’re talking about, I don’t think that actually happened at JPL. I think that was the bigger NASA center.
Trina Ray: Well, they did leave Barbara off.
Kim Stedman: They did later on.
Trina Ray: They had a big party and they invited everybody, but they didn’t invite her. But remember, the work that these ladies were doing was considered drudgery, in a way. I mean, imagine – I mean, you guys with Excel. Imagine putting your equations together, putting your 100 rows, and then you draw a little box, and all the math is done. That’s not what happened then. It took hours and hours and hours every day to drudgingly go through every one of those boxes and do the math.
And, that’s one of the reasons, of course, that they hired women to do it. Because, there was a drudgery factor to it. And, it just so happened that they were really good at it. They had to partner with the engineers to understand what was going on behind it. And, they got better and better. Everything got more difficult and more challenging, and we all grow in our work, more difficult and more challenging, and then pretty soon you move to the place where they can become an engineer and get hired on.
And Sylvia Miller – Lundy in the book, but then she married Lanny Miller – also somebody, a person that they gave more difficult responsibilities to, and pretty soon she’s a manager, and she’s running a team full of men, all doing sort of trajectory work on Voyager and stuff like that. It was fantastic.
Sarah Milkovich: One of the things that I thought was really fascinating was, first of all, yeah, there was that team, and there was who’s doing the calculations, and it got to a point where the engineers had their favorite computer, and they were like, “No, I want Linda to do my calculations. I want no one but Linda.”
Kim Stedman: Yeah, Helen was the big one. They wanted Helen.
Sarah Milkovich: Oh yeah, Helen was it. They wanted Helen to do it for them and nobody else.
Another thing that fascinated me was that once they got what we think of today as a computer, it wasn’t reliable. And so they were like, “No, we don’t trust the machine. We need a person to do the calculations. We will trust the person’s calculations.” Because now, when we do operations for our rovers, we’re like, “If a human has touched the sequence, if a human has typed in anything, you need two people to look at it because a human is inherently going to cause problems.”
And this idea that, “No, you check the machine with a person,” is just very strange to me.
Barbara Cohen: Something that I noticed too, was when they said, “Okay, we’re going to go to Helen for our calculations because she’s the best,” how good did she have to be? She must have been super amazing. Because, she had to overcome the education barrier, the discrimination barrier, all these things, to become that person, and then she went on to become one of the engineers. And, you just think, “She had to be twice as good as the men, three times,” she had to be pretty amazing to overcome all of that and then go on to those careers.
And, I think that’s a theme that you see repeated throughout a lot of these early careers. There’s another great book called Rocket Girl, which is about the woman who developed the fuel that was used on some of the first rockets. They had a fuel issue. They had already built the rocket. They already had the engine. They already had some specifications on the type of fuel that they needed, and it wasn’t giving them enough thrust. And so they said, “Well, we need to figure out another mix of fuels, but it needs to have all of these constraints on it.”
And, when they gave it to the company and said, “You need to develop this,” they turned to the only woman they had ever hired because she was so good. But how good did she have to be to beat out all of the other men, and that epic? How good did Margaret Hamilton have to be to beat out all of the other men in the epic? They were good, but they were so much better.
And, I think that’s something that’s really changed too, is trying to say – well okay, we are twice as good as the men. But to say they had to be pretty amazing. And so, not only did they have to overcome all those barriers. They were really amazing people.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Now, one of the things that you hinted at that is truly amazing to me is they weren’t able to get the same educational opportunities the men could get. Actually, at most universities, women were not allowed to study engineering because that was considered a men’s field. And so, they were instead told, “Go study statistics,” drudgery field open to women.
And so JPL took all of these women who would not have been allowed to study engineering in university, hired them as computers, and then, as the times changed, trained these women in a field they weren’t initially allowed to even enter. How awesome is that?
Trina Ray: And it’s something, actually, that continues to this day. If you are hired at JPL with a bachelor’s degree, one of the first conversations you have with your group supervisor is, “Are you interested in going on for an advanced degree? If so, we would like to talk to you about that. You’ll be more valuable to us, and so therefore we will pay for it.” And so in the evenings, if you want to go on for a masters degree – it’s harder to go on for a PhD when you’re working full-time. It’s very difficult to do a PhD in the beginning, but to do it while you’re working full time – so, it’s usually a masters degree. But, that’s something that’s a tradition that continues to this day.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And another part of this – you said magical words. When they hire someone that doesn’t have a PhD? In academia, that’s actually quite unheard of. Because, there are PhDs that are a dime a dozen, and why would you ever waste your time with someone who doesn’t have a PhD?
But, you have a culture at JPL that respects people based on their abilities versus their sheets of paper, from what I understand.
Kim Stedman: Yeah, absolutely. When they hire you in, they expect you to be able to do the job. And, they throw as much at you as you can handle. And, you move up as fast as you can, whether you’re a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. They throw you in, and you just can excel and move up as fast as you can. We have people do it all the time.
Sarah Milkovich: Yeah, in my experience, it’s always been this unspoken assumption that if you are the person in the room, you are the person who is supposed to be in the room. There’s no second guessing of you based on what you look like. It’s, “Oh, you’re here? Okay, you’re on this team. Okay, I’m going to ask you all these questions, and I’m going to expect answers from you.
Trina Ray: So interestingly, one of the cultural things that happens at JPL, and I don’t know about other NASA centers – Barb can speak – is we use first names. So, when everybody is in a room, it’s not Dr., it’s not Mr., everything is first names until you get to the lab director. The lab director is almost always Dr. Stone. When I first started, actually, Dr. Allen, and then Dr. Stone. And, the one after him, Charles Elachi. A lot of people did call him Charles. Never Charlie. But, we have a new lab director now, and so everybody’s – that was one of the questions that was sort of rumbling through the mist, is, “Huh, I wonder if he’s going to be Mike or if it’s going to be Mr. Watkins or Dr. Watkins? I wonder what he’s going to do.”
But, JPL has a real history of only using first names in meetings, which I have not –
Kim Stedman: Yeah, I worked on Cassini for 14 years, and after working on Cassini for 10 years, I finally found out the project manager had a PhD. I had no idea. I had to go to a JPL open house and watch a little movie, and he was in there. And he says, “Kim, did you learn anything?” I’m like, “Yeah, you have a PhD.” I didn’t know that.
Barbara Cohen: I think where I worked at Marshall, in particular, they are conscious of people who have degrees, and they’re trying to be respectful. But, their term of respect is more like, “Ms. Barbara.” It’s the southern thing.
But, I think that there’s a much different tradition, at least what I’ve seen, in engineering versus in science, and a lot of it has to do with your expectations of what your job description is. So in science, it’s really a PhD because you have to come through that process and you have to learn to write your own grants and to PI your own things, whereas in engineering all over NASA, they take people with bachelor’s. And even before, we saw a video earlier today where we take co-ops that come up through college and work for NASA as a co-op and then are hired into NASA straight out of college, and get their training on the job instead of through a degree.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, that doesn’t work in university computer science.
Barbara Cohen: No, it’s a lot different.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So – sorry, my brain just fell out and rolled across the floor. So, there seems to be an ongoing change in culture at JPL that is lasting across three, four different generations now of people coming in and basically going out and exploring our nearest and sometimes furthest worlds in our solar system. This culture hasn’t been reproduced successfully anywhere. Can you reveal any of the ingredients in the secret sauce? I don’t think the mic picked that up, but Barbara said, “Salt.”
Barbara Cohen: This is really hard.
Trina Ray: Because, I haven’t worked anywhere else.
Kim Stedman: Yeah, when you’re in the middle of it, that’s just how you expect things to be. And, like she was talking earlier, when you’re in a meeting and someone says, “Well, someone needs to do this task,” and you say, “Well, I will do that,” no one says, “Can you? How do we know that you can do that? What experience do you have that proves to us that you can do that?” They’re just, “Go ahead. Come by next week and tell us what answer you found,” and you go and do it. And, that’s just how it’s always been since we’ve been there.
Audience Member: As somebody who watches you all, and have watched you all for years, and have been on the outside because I am not a scientist, I see whatever the cultures that you’re in, whether it’s NASA, whether it’s a commercial space group, whether it’s even, to an extent, academia, but not as much because it’s easier to fake. In the fields that you are in, if you get it wrong, there are major, very public consequences. So, you don’t care as much about who is doing it as to whether it’s done and done correctly.
So, if it’s a female that is going to be out there and doing it and doing it right and doing it fast and getting it done as it needs to get done, that’s all that they care about. Because, in the end, I think NASA worries more about NASA’s reputation than it does about the reputation of its individual members. And obviously that’s just my viewpoint, looking from the outside inside. But, a failure at what you all do is massive, and you’ve seen it in that culture.
In academia, we’ve all had teachers that you knew didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, and the only reason they were doing it is because they had tenure.
Barbara Cohen: That’s a good point about the – you know, it’s very much a team environment. And, a big team is made up of a lot of little teams. And, you are concerned that your team gets the right answer. And, it doesn’t matter who in your team comes up with the answer. Somebody throws out one idea, and somebody builds off of it, and you just build and build and you test, and you just keep rolling. And, the final answer that comes out of that is the accumulation of a whole bunch of different ideas, and taking bits and pieces of everybody’s ideas and working together, and so then it becomes, “The team has presented.”
And, when we’re talking about what has the spacecraft done? We talk about us. Sometimes people ask, “Oh, do you talk about a spacecraft as a he or a she or an it?” And, what we really do in operations is say, “We. We are going to do this, and we are going to do that.” And, that’s very much just the prevailing view, and that, I think, really shapes the culture.
Kim Stedman: Yeah, the big thing in the meetings that I’m in on Curiosity, is what is the right thing to do? What is the right thing for the rover? Because, the health and safety of the rover is number one. We’ve all worked long hours, we’ve come in on the weekends, we’ve worked in the middle of the night, and nothing is more important than the health of that spacecraft, Cassini, or the rover that we’re working on.
They are, in some ways, our children. We love them, we care for them, and we work really hard for them. And, we want to make the scientists happy, but we want those spacecraft to stay healthy. And, we don’t want someone to say that the reason this spacecraft or rover failed is because a human somewhere made an error.
And so, we work very hard to support each other, and we are really a team.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Now, I’m going to ask you to reflect on one last thing, and then we’re going to end the audio portion of the show and move on to showing images that we will post up on the Astronomy Cast website, but we’re not going to torture you with a slideshow that you can’t see.
So, one of the things that I’ve been hearing you say without directly saying it is JPL has figured out how to foster a culture where the imposter syndrome isn’t something that every single young hire struggles with. The imposter syndrome is this feeling that everyone around you thinks that you’re faking it and you don’t trust yourself and, “Oh my gosh, why am I actually here? I don’t deserve to be here.” It sounds like all of you very quickly had people around you assume that you belonged to be there, and you managed to skip that stuff. Can you reflect on that at all?
Trina Ray: Well actually, I think that a little bit of human nature comes in no matter where you work. And, the first time you step into a new role or a new job at JPL or anywhere, you are overwhelmed with sort of what you don’t know. And, you feel that. And so, I think the imposter syndrome is really for that. Every time I’ve taken a new job, I’ve been terrified.
But, you pull on your big girl pants, and you go into work the next day, and you work hard. And, if you make a mistake, you own up to it, and you figure out how to not do it again. And, there’s support around you all the time. But, if you’re not taking steps to grow in your job, and taking on something that’s a little bit beyond what your comfort zone is, you’re kind of stalling out. And if you’re coasting at JPL, you’re falling behind. Because, nobody else is coasting.
So, you have to move forward all the time just to keep up. And, that’s one of the reasons it makes it really exciting to work there, is the excitement behind it. But, I’ll tell you, every time I’ve taken on a task, did not know what I was doing for the first year. And then, I get good at it, and then a couple of years later I’m like, “Okay, I’ve totally got this. I need to move on again.”
Kim Stedman: Well yeah, and new people that come in, we’ve got someone new on Curiosity and I was training her. And I said, “Well, you need to go and do this.” And she said, “Well, I’ve never done that before.” I’m like, “That’s okay. I was here for 15 years before I did that. You learn.” And so just like Trina said, if you’re not occasionally making yourself uncomfortable, then you’re doing it wrong. You have to continually push yourself so that you can get better. And, that’s what I think we do, we encourage the younger people to do, the people above us encourage us to do it, and it’s a continual growth process.
Because, if we don’t grow as we go through our careers, then JPL doesn’t grow, and we can’t do the next impossible thing that we’re always expected to do.
Dr. Pamela Gay: That was a kind of awesome note to end on. So, before we switch to the slides, does everyone want to say where the people listening and here in the audience can go to learn more about the impossible things you do every day?
Barbara Cohen: Oh, you can go to planetary.msfc.nasa.gov.
Trina Ray: So, Pam caught me off guard on this last year. I did have a Twitter account that I created, and I never use it. But, you know what? TrinaJPL, I will start using that, Pam, just so I don’t get caught off guard again here.
Barbara Cohen: You have to be careful that nobody steals that.
Trina Ray: No, I got it, like, 10 years ago or whatever, five years ago. I just never use it.
Barbara Cohen: I’m going to use realTrinaJPL right now.
Kim Stedman: Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, if you want to know what we’re doing at JPL, it’s JPL.nasa.gov, and I’m on Twitter at kim_stedman, and I actually do tweet.
Sarah Milkovich: I also tweet, and I am at milkysa.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Thank you very much. This has been a wonderful return from hiatus for Astronomy Cast, and thank you for sharing your stories with our audience.
Trina Ray: So, we decided that one of the things that we’d like to end here today with is, in the book, the ladies talk about a lot of things, and then they even have some pictures and stuff in the book. And we said, “Well, gosh, we could just wander around the lab and take pictures of those right now. What do they look like today?”
Sarah Milkovich: Yeah, we kind of looked at the pictures, and we were like, “Oh, wait, I know that place. I know that place. Wait, where is that?” So, that’s what we’ve got, I think, six or 10 pictures of some places around JPL that are mentioned in the book.
Kim Stedman: And just so you know, it was 100 degrees when we took these pictures. I got a sunburn. I suffered greatly for you.
Okay, so this is me looking really sad. This is the spaceflight operations facility. If you guys have watched any time we have a big event like Saturn orbit insertion, or we’re landing rovers on Mars, and you see a guy with a Mohawk, he’s in this building. And, so also in this building is all the people that are operating Cassini spacecraft. And, any data that comes from the deep space network, or any commands we send to the spacecraft, that all happens here.
So, we’ve got a little plaque, which means you can’t make too many improvements to this building, and the building has no windows, and it has asbestos. But, they’re getting rid of that.
So, this women in STEM thing kind of caught on at JPL, and this is the inside of that building. This is what we call the dark room. And you see the guy – I don’t have a pointer. Oh, I do have a pointer. I have a sharp pointer. So you’ll see, it doesn’t matter what’s going on, when data is coming down from our space craft, people are working. And here’s this poor guy over here working really hard looking at data coming from a spacecraft, while all these women say, “Oh, take my picture.”
So, this is just a small group of the women that work at JPL. Because the rest of us, I know I was commanding the Curiosity rover at the time.
Sarah Milkovich: Well, I think Trina is over there waving in the wrong direction, and there’s me. And so, we weren’t commanding the rover at the time.
Kim Stedman: I was. That’s very important.
So, this is the front of, I think this is building 180. In the book, who was on this? Chuck Barry was on here. So, whenever we do our group pictures for our projects, we always go stand in the middle of the day on these steps and squint and look terrible.
Trina Ray: And one of the computers talked about working – before this was the management building, it was an actual working building where people worked. They don’t work there now because it’s the management building. Oh, ouch. We’re not being recorded anymore, are we?
Kim Stedman: Right. The computers were in this building, and behind this building is the other building I just showed you, and that’s where the engineers were.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, the engineers are not allowed windows, is what you’re saying?
Kim Stedman: They don’t like us. It’s like being a vampire.
Trina Ray: Or a mushroom.
Audience Member: They don’t want you to be distracted.
Kim Stedman: That’s exactly right. So, if you’ve read the book, this is also, when the first picture came back from Mars, it just printed out in little numbers – Mariner 4. It just printed out numbers. And the people that were working the missions, they couldn’t wait for all the data to process, and so they just hand-colored the numbers. And so this is what they got, and of course it’s framed at JPL, and we went and found it.
Sarah Milkovich: My favorite thing about this is that there’s a scale bar here, and it’s like 150 kilometers or something. And so somebody drew a big line and marked it, and that’s my favorite part of this.
Kim Stedman: And so to me, that just looks like someone drank a lot and colored a picture.
Sarah Milkovich: The two are not mutually exclusive.
Kim Stedman: That’s true. That’s true. So, you see the picture they colored here on the left, and the actual picture on the right. And so, it shows you the clouds over Mars, and the edge of Mars, so it was really quite exciting.
And then, since we got our picture taken, Trina had to have her picture taken, and you want to talk about this, Trina?
Trina Ray: This is the Explorer 1. This was the 90 days you have to get something into space, and so we worked with Wernher von Braun. And, the scientist we worked with is at the University of Iowa. That group there, still almost on every spacecraft that is launched today, there is an instrument based sort of on the history of this one for studying plasma and radio waves. And so Van Allen – and, I’m the one who works at night. Anyway, Van Allen, and in fact they discovered radiation belts around the Earth. They’re called the Van Allen radiation belts.
And, in the book, they talk about how many rockets they had to strap to the main rocket to get this to go up. And so, you can see here. Often, you see the picture of the three scientists and engineers holding it over their head, and that’s just the top part. And so, it’s nice to see all the rockets that they talked about in the book, and how they calculated it to get it to go into orbit.
Kim Stedman: So, when you see pictures of our space craft being built, when we actually build them at JPL, they’re built in building 179 called, oddly enough, Spacecraft Assembly Facility. So, once you go in, this is what that building looks – this is what our clean room – this is our largest clean room at JPL. This is where a lot of those early spacecraft were built, the Mariners, and they would build a bunch of them at a time in here. This is where Cassini was assembled. This is where Opportunity and Spirit were assembled. This is where Curiosity. And if the short woman pointed out, we actually have pieces of Mars 2020 in here.
We’re using spares from Curiosity. And so there’s the heat shield, and I guess the other parts are the descent stage. And so, we’re getting ready to start building our next rover. And you see, oh, what’s his name, Bob?
Sarah Milkovich: High bay Bob.
Kim Stedman: So when people come and do tours at JPL and they look down at the high bay, usually there’s nobody in there. So, they put little – someone actually found him in the trash somewhere, brought him to JPL, and dressed him up. And the way that he’s dressed reflects the cleanliness of this room. So sometimes he has his full outfit on, and sometimes he’s dressed a little more casual. We love high bay Bob.
So, the building that the computers first worked in is at the other end of JPL up a large hill. And so, we trucked down there because we love you guys, and found building 11. So there I am, pointing to 11.
Trina Ray: And JPL was so brilliant. There’s so many brilliant people at JPL, and sometimes they do things that are so stupid. So, they named the buildings in the order that they were built.
Dr. Pamela Gay: MIT does that.
Trina Ray: And so now, it’s madness to try to find a building. 303 is next to 179, is next to 642.
Kim Stedman: Yeah 264 is across the street from 301. So, when I have a meeting in a building I’ve never been in, I look at the map in my cubicle to see where I need to go.
Trina Ray: But, this is the oldest building still on the lab that still functions, and it’s building 11, and it just happened to be the building where all the computers worked, and we just thought that was charming.
Kim Stedman: So we sought it out, and there I am pointing to 11, and there’s kind of a picture of the building. It’s surrounded by trees, but I guess someone likes to sit outside when it’s 100 degrees.
But, so we went in this building, and we found where we thought the computers were. But, it’s now a really small conference room in a hallway. And we thought, “That’s not very impressive.” And so, while we’re making our way out of here, we walked into what we thought was a library. And, there was a guy in there, and we’re like, “Oh, man. We just walked into your office.” He’s like, “No, you can come in.”
And, we’re looking at all this data from the Voyagers and stuff, and we’re just geeking out. “Oh my gosh, look at this. Oh my gosh, look at that.” And then, he’s like, “Well, if you want to see something amazing, go into that room.” And so, we go into that room, and there’s all this data from the Apollo missions. That’s what I said. I said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this.” And so, you can read on it that it says, “Apollo 11 data,” the backup data that came down to JPL. And, you see how well it’s preserved. It’s got a sticky telling you it’s Apollo 11. And then when you find the Apollo 13 sticky, there’s one little bitty can.
Barbara Cohen: You know, they lost that data, and they’ve been looking for it.
Kim Stedman: Well, come on over. We’ve got it.
Barbara Cohen: It’s been in the news.
Kim Stedman: So, that isn’t really talked about in the book, but I about died. I was like, “I’m never coming out of this room.” And the guy is like, “Why? Because of the air conditioning?” And I’m like, “Apollo.”
And when they talked about, in the book they actually talked about their cafeteria, and they showed the ladies sitting out in front of the cafeteria. I’m like, “That looks really familiar,” and then Sue Finley confirmed it’s where the JPL store is now. So, if you do a tour, and they take you by the store where you can buy neat little t-shirts and all this cool stuff, this is where they used to eat when they first opened. And, you can still sit out there and eat your lunch over on the right. There’s a little coffee cart, and you can get some Starbucks.
And so, that’s one of our favorite places to go. And, you always have to go right before they have the open house. Because, they always get in really neat stuff that they don’t want us to have before they give it to you. So we always go and say, “What do you got? I know you’ve got something.” And we get first go at that.
So, anybody else have anything to add?
Trina Ray: No, no.
Fraser Cain: So, I think we have time for a couple of questions. Or, you can all stare.
Audience Member: I didn’t realize there’d be homework for Dragoncon, and I haven’t read the book yet. But, were there any times that the computers, the women, had to correct or realize that something the men were doing was wrong?
Kim Stedman: Well, I don’t really remember that. But, I remember that one of the ladies made a mistake, and she was trying to calculate, I think the nozzle, how big the nozzle should be, and she made an error. And, she realized it just as the test was occurring. And so she knew what was going to happen. It’s not like today, where you could call down on your cell phone. Because when they were doing these test firings of these rockets, they would turn off all their communication equipment, get the heck out, and fire the rocket, and she heard the explosion.
And so, she was like, you know, “Did anybody die?” And so, a few minutes later, in comes in one of the engineers, and he’s all covered and soot and grime, and she’s like, “I know. I know what I did wrong.” And, he was like, “Okay.” And, that was it. “Don’t do it again.”
Dr. Pamela Gay: This is why I write software for processing data that already exists, rather than for getting the data on the live spacecraft.
Audience Member: Hi, I’m an undergrad astrophysics student. And so, I guess my question is, what is your advice to a young student who might be a woman who might have a lot of anxiety about, like, math and engineering, and how to get over that anxiety to be successful in their career?
Dr. Pamela Gay: You don’t have to love math to do astronomy. I in fact hated, and doing budgets is one of the few things that makes me cry. Now, if you’re good at computers, you just write software, and it does all the stuff that the people older than you, who never learned to program, don’t want to do, and you will be the most useful and employable astrophysicist ever. Learn software.
Barbara Cohen: Problem solving skills, for sure. Critical thinking and problem solving skills. But, I agree with what you said before. Anxiety is a fact of life. And, part of being successful is learning to live with your anxiety and getting through it and saying, “You know what? I am good enough. And I am really good, and I’m going to do this anyway.” So, that’s a skill too that’s good to learn.
Kim Stedman: I would say the number one thing for that is locking arms with friends.
Sarah Milkovich: Yeah friends, and I was going to say experience, too. Because at some point, you do hit a point where you’re like, “Okay, I can learn this. I can do this, and I just need to hold everybody off on getting on my case until I have.” And, some of that is just pure experience, and some of that is just sort of pushing your way through the anxiety.
Trina Ray: And stubbornness. Stubbornness is your best friend.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Sometimes you just need to learn how to get angry instead. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “You’re never going to do Fu,” which apparently is a siren’s call for me to do Fu. And so, I take all of that, “You can never do this,” and transform it into getting the thing done in an angry huff, which, as long as they don’t see the angry huff, is actually very productive.
So, find someone older, use the internet to find a network of colleagues. You’re going to be in isolation most of your life. I’m the only astronomer at my institution, and my best friends live all over the world. And, they’re always an internet click away.
Kim Stedman: Well, I think one thing, too, for everybody, is that everybody is afraid of failure. And, everybody has failure. And a lot of times, we learn a lot more from our failures than we do our successes. And so in my cubicle, which is really small, I have something taped up that’s a quote from Winston Churchill, and it says, “Success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that matters.” And when you fail, you just say, “Okay, I failed. Let me pick myself up and do it better next time,” and you just have to keep going.
And, everyone’s afraid, and no one knows what they’re doing. No one. We just do it and hope it turns out okay.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Thank you so much.
Audience Member: I have sort of a two-parter question. The first part is, this early analysis of women being able to contribute to difficult projects – ah, nice. That sort of appeared in the World War II with hiring women as code breakers at Bletchley Park. So, this has probably contributed to this sort of understanding of women being able to contribute in these heavily computational fields, with sort of a tedium aspect to it. So, women were hired at JPL for this. But apparently, JPL differed from the Bletchley park approach because the Bletchley Park women were just let go after World War II, after the project was done, boom, they returned to normal life as wives.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It actually goes back to Harvard College observatory and other universities around the nation where they needed women to do early analysis of glass plates, early calculations on periodicity, all sorts of amazing work was done. They were actually referred to as Chapley’s Girls.
Audience Member: Yeah, manual evaluation that took hours and hours and hours was given to the women. Here’s the second part of my question, and I’m not trying to be anti immigration or anything here. But, do you find – and, JPL may have a culture that’s been in continuum since that time in the ‘60s. But, do you find that H1B Visa applicants are now filling those positions that women were traditionally given?
Sarah Milkovich: What we want, is we want the best people at the table. And the more voices and the diversity of the background of the voices, the better ideas that you have. The more ideas that you can bring from the more places, the better answer you’re going to get at the end.
Audience Member: I know that’s not really an attractive question that I pose, but what I’m trying to get at is that there’s been a significant drop in the percentage of women who participate in computer sciences and sciences in general, since the ‘80s. The number of women who graduate with these degrees has not declined.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Actually, people who do research on that find that it has nothing to do with H1B. Women are leaving the field because there are assholes in the field.
Audience Member: Okay, I just didn’t know. Okay. What are the numbers at JPL? Do you have any –
Kim Stedman: So, I don’t have the exact numbers. I could give you the numbers for two things that I’ve tracked recently. Cassini, the Cassini mission is about 25 percent women, which is high. And, interestingly enough, the top scientist, the project scientist, is a woman, and the top engineer, the spacecraft manager, is a woman. Two out of the 12 instruments are managed by women, and that’s a pretty high percentage.
But, we still see the same sorts of trends at JPL, that we see – I mean, JPL is not immune from the rest of society and culture. When I went into management, the number of women around me dropped to 12 percent. So, when I passed into that management level, that’s what I saw.
But interestingly what I saw, right now, my management above me is a woman, and above her is a man, but then above him is a woman. And, there’s nine directorates, and so I’m in one of the directorates that’s run by a woman.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, we are thoroughly out of time by seven minutes. And, I just want to say that we are all one people. We share one sky. And, if it takes a village to raise a child, it’s going to take the whole world to understand our universe. So, everyone go out and look up.
Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at email@example.com, tweet us at @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google+. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific, 4:30 p.m. eastern, or 20:30 GMT.
If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over on cosmoquest.org, or on our Youtube page. Our music is provided by Travis Serl and the show was edited by Susie Murph.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 68 minutes
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It would be a good idea to embed the picture used for every episode into the mp3-file as a front cover so it is visible on my podcast player.
You can do that via the Info-popupmenu in iTunes or with Mp3Tag
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