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Society of Women Engineers

Answers to the Questions SWENexters Sent to NASA

SWENexters submitted over a hundred questions for SWE to ask NASA and SpaceX while SWE attended a NASA Social event at the Kennedy Space Center for the CRS-10 mission, which was launched by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS).

Published On: February 2017

From inquiries about particle acceleration to international relations, we were impressed with the technical comprehension and complexity posed by these questions. One question, by SWENexter Janet W., was selected by NASA and asked during an official press briefing for the CRS-10 mission (Janet was the winner of a special NASA prize packet being offered to one lucky SWENexter who submitted a question for this opportunity). While SWE could not ask every question submitted, below are some questions we were able to explore and answer from the interviews and briefings we had with NASA engineers, astronauts, technicians, and other officials.


Falcon 9 launching from Pad 39-A on February 19, 2017. Picture taken by John Huntington of the NASA Social Group. Used with permission.

Janet W. asks: How will these supplies missions help achieve the goal of transporting humans to Mars and ultimately colonizing the Red Planet? What are some examples of engineering barriers that need to be overcome in order to successfully take the human civilization to Mars?

Janet, your first question was asked by a NASA representative (after @SWETalk tweeted it out) and answered during a press briefing for the CRS-10 mission. There are several important experiments being conducted that will support transporting humans to Mars that were delivered to ISS via CRS-10. For example, one involves a technology that tests autonomous refueling (which will eventually help spaceships travel into deep space) and another one evaluates human tissue and bone regeneration.

The second question is one many people are asking – including NASA and SpaceX! We discussed this question during a conversation with Broke Thornton, who is an engineer for NASA for the SAGE III experiment. One of the major barriers in travel to Mars that has not yet been solved is the issue of radiation for human travel both through space to Mars and on the planet itself. Currently, the Mars atmosphere is too thin and weak to protect humans from the radiation of the Sun. Even though Earth is closer to the Sun than Mars, Earth’s ozone layer in the atmosphere helps protect life from the radiation of the Sun. The technology does not yet exist to protect humans from radiation while traveling in deep space flight or on Mars; this engineering challenge has to be solved before humans can safely travel to Mars.


Regina Spellman, Senior Project Manager for Launch Complex 39 – Pad B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Pictured here on the launch pad she is retro-fitting for future use. Photo source: SWE.

Richa R. asks:What are the skill sets required for a Project Manager at NASA?”

Richa, check out these videos by Regina Spellman, who is a Senior Project Manager for Launch Pad 39-B and talks about what it takes to be a Project Manager. More information about Spellman is also in this article we wrote about how women are shaping the frontiers of space.

Val W. asks: How long does it take to build a rocket? 

Val, great question! The Falcon 9 launched by SpaceX in February took around 18 months to build, but it was an unmanned vessel. It can take several years (over 5) to build the rockets that will take humans into space. The Space Shuttle took 12 years to build. These timelines often do not include the extensive research and development efforts that must happen in order for final construction of safe rockets and capsules for spaceflight.


Retired astronaut Christopher Ferguson pictured with the Boeing Starliner. Photo source: SWE.

Namitha N. asks: When (or will) space be available for tourism? I wonder about going on a vacation to the Moon. Will the time come eventually when normal people can join astronauts in space?

Namitha, right now, regular people can experience weightlessness and intermediate space travel. While extended travel in space for tourists is still years away, it is being developed by several companies. For example, Boeing is building the Starliner, which will carry NASA astronauts to the ISS, possibly as soon as 2018. Eventually, the Starliner will have a seat for someone who is not an astronaut! SWE learned about this through a tour by retired astronaut Chris Ferguson of Boeing’s Orbital Processing Center, where the Starliner is being built right now.

Nora V. asks: When you take pictures off Earth from space, what are you looking for? 

Nora, the answer to this could span the pages of many books, but two examples of projects that take pictures of Earth are LIS and SAGE III. Both of these experiments were sent to the ISS via the CRS-10 mission. LIS, or the Lightning Imaging Sensor, takes comprehensive pictures of all lightning activity over tropical regions of the globe. After collecting and analyzing this data, scientists hope to improve how weather is predicted. This will help meteorologists issue better storm warnings, which will protect people on earth. Another experiment is the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment, or SAGE III, which takes pictures of the changes of Earth’s climate. As NASA explains, SAGE III is vital in providing “crucial, long-term measurements that will help humans understand and care for Earth’s atmosphere.”


Brooke Thornton is the Missions Operation Manager for SAGE III at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Picture taken before the first launch attempt of the CRS-10 mission. Photo Source: SWE.

Mary Pat B. asks: Do solar flares have any impact on SAGE III or the data they are collecting?

Mary Pat, we were lucky enough to speak with one of the women engineers, Broke Thornton, who is the Missions Operations Manager for SAGE III. Through our research, we learned that, while solar flares impact radio transmission, any impact on the SAGE III would be very limited. In addition, astronauts on the ISS have special places to stay if a solar flare warning occurs, but so far they have not been negatively impacted.

Alana S. asks: Is there anyway that I can get involved in NASA?

Alana, as someone who is 11, it is exciting that you are already interested in being involved with NASA and space exploration! NASA has a lot of different programs and access points for students of all ages. Here are some of our favorite links with more information:

  • NASA Internships – List of upcoming NASA internship opportunities. (While you have to be in your second year of high school to be eligible for an internship, hopefully you can identify an opportunity you want to pursue here so you can be ready to apply when you are old enough.)
  • NASA K-12 Contests and Competitions – List of upcoming opportunities and deadlines for NASA created competitions and contests for K-12 age students.
  • NASA Youth and Community Activities – A comprehensive list of different programs offered by NASA for students.

Dr. Anita Goel, Founder, Chairman, & CEO of Nanobiosym Diagnostics (Primary Investigator). Picture taken at the NASA Social press briefing. Photo source: SWE.

Rose M. asks: How do they make sure nothing goes wrong with the deadly MRSA bug experiment?

Rose, it is fantastic you are curious about the experiments that were taken via CRS-10 and your question is one many people were asking while we were at NASA! During the #NASASocial press briefing, we tweeted out the response to your question. Check out the answer here by the Primary Investigator of the MRSA bug experiment, Dr. Anita Goel. Dr. Goel is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym Diagnostics.


Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, speaking at a press conference outside of Pad 39-A on February 17, 2017. Picture taken by John Huntington of the NASA Social Group. Used with permission.

Patricia asks: Can you estimate how long it will be before you’ll be launching manned missions in the Dragon space capsule?

Patricia, several large news outlets also posed this question during a press briefing SWE attended, which featured Gwynne Shotwell, the President SpaceX. According to SpaceX, manned missions will take place on Dragon by the end of 2018 if the testing of unmanned missions continues to go as planned.


Jean Wright, who was a Senior Aerospace Composite Technician for the Shuttle Program at the Kennedy Space Center, showed us an example of a Flexible Insulation Blanket that would have been sewn on a shuttle. Photo source: SWE.

Jessica K. asks: 1.) What career path would you recommend for a person interested in going into space and engineering? Do aerospace engineers ever actually go into space? 2.) It is my understanding that NASA has height requirements. What would you recommend to someone who is not tall enough to go into space but is still passionate about space travel?

Jessica, NASA hires a wide variety of technicians, engineers, technologists, and scientists  – all who contribute to vital aspects of space exploration. You can learn a little bit more about being an aerospace engineer at NASA via this link. Right now, the height requirement for astronauts is between 62 and 75 inches, but if you don’t fall within those parameters you can still contribute to space exploration as a woman engineer or scientist. Check out this story we wrote about women shaping the frontiers of space exploration to learn more!


Close-up picture of Shuttle Atlantis and the Flexible Insulation Blankets on its exterior. Photo source: SWE.

Did you know that technicians are also vital to space exploration? For example, while at NASA, SWE met Jean Wright, who was a Senior Aerospace Composite Technician and literally quilted the Space Shuttles together. For the Shuttle to be reusable, it had to have a strong heat shield or Thermal Protection System (TPS). Before the Shuttle program, TPS shields were extremely heavy and would be too heavy for a craft as large as the Shuttle. Part of Jean’s job was to quilt Flexible Insulation Blankets (FIB) on to the exterior of the Shuttle, which allowed it to be both lightweight and safe during the re-entry process to Earth’s atmosphere.

Natasha O. asks: How much of the data from missions like the New Horizons mission is publicly available, and where can the available data be found?

Natasha, NASA tries to make all of the findings and data from missions like this available to the public. You can learn about some findings from the New Horizons here and here.

Thanks to all of the SWENexters for submitting questions to this opportunity!

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