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Communications Specialist

Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a science communicator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teaches oceanography at Glendale Community College.

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Four amazingly useful life lessons from a NASA flight software engineer

Unless you call yourself a rocket scientist, you probably don’t think your daily routine has much in common with flight software engineering. But you would be wrong.

Flight software engineers write computer code for NASA spacecraft, which is complicated because—hello—flying spacecraft into space is complicated.

Flight software runs the instruments and sensors that operate thermal control, spin stabilization on all three axes, uplink and downlink to communicate with spacecraft, data collection and handling, a cruise phase, a descent phase and sometimes a “landing on the surface of a planet” phase. And some of this happens simultaneously. (And I thought feeding the cat and dog at the same time was rough.)

If the spacecraft is far away, like, dude, on Mars or beyond, there’s no controlling it from the ground with a joystick, so the software has to be written to allow the spacecraft to run autonomously.

But the experiences of a flight-software-engineering person* are actually the same as the experiences of a regular-person person, from planning a family reunion, to cleaning the garage, to simply shopping for tonight’s dinner. If you skip the bits about the flying, disregard the software and pay no attention to the engineering, then what you’re left with is some amazingly useful life lessons:

1. Feasibility and performance requirements (or, Can I really do this?).

Before you decide to take on any project, it’s best to figure out if it’s even feasible — then be very clear about your objectives so you’ll know when you’ve reached them. The more specific you are about your goal, the more likely you’ll know when you’ve arrived.

2. Manage layers of complexity (or, Bigger stuff is waaay harder to do).

Complicated projects take more effort. I know that sounds totally obvious, but it’s true. The size of your endeavor, its newness and the number of people involved all add complexity. And that means adding time, money and energy. The more you can understand and predict complexity, the less effort you’ll have to expend correcting mistakes. So to minimize your difficulties, accurately predict complexity before you embark on a project.

3. Fault protection (or, Planning for trouble).

Always expect the unexpected to creep into your plans. In fact, the more complicated something is, the more uncertainty you should anticipate. Most people are overly optimistic, oblivious to what may go askew. But requirements change and evolve throughout an undertaking’s life cycle. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can predict that something unusual or uncertain is going to occur, even if you don’t know exactly what that madness might entail. So at least factor contingency into your plans. And be malleable and adapt to new developments along the way—then, when that strange or remarkable event erupts, you’ll end up wasting less effort recovering.

4. System maturity (or, How to work in teams without killing each other).

It’s more complicated trying to organize a new team than a familiar team. And a new task is more complicated than a task similar to what you’ve done before. If you’re working with the same people and you’re doing a similar project, you can just repeat yourself. But anything new is going to cost you. Although repeating yourself might seem advantageous, there’s also a disadvantage to being stuck in a rut. And because there are many interfaces, when working with complicated teams there has to be excellent communication between all the systems.

Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting, and happy flying!


*Thanks to JPL Flight Software Engineer Glenn Reeves for all of this valuable information.

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February 20, 2015
09:34 PST
A beautiful component of the climate equation

A painting from Graeme Stephens' 'Noble Clouds Under Variable Light' series (oil on canvas, 2003).

Last week, Graeme L. Stephens, the director for JPL’s Center for Climate Sciences, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. “It’s a great honor,” he told me, “I’m surprised I was selected.” The National Academy of Engineering honors people who have made outstanding contributions and is the highest professional distinction for engineers.

Graeme Stephens

Stephens received this honor for his study of clouds, specifically the way water in the atmosphere forms rain. Clouds control the climate because they reflect sunlight, but they also act as a greenhouse that traps heat. “Clouds are the most complex element of the climate equation and the most important aspect to understanding climate change,” Stephens said. And just in case you hadn’t noticed, they’re stunningly beautiful, too.

You might be wondering how a NASA scientist could receive an engineering honor. Well, like many scientists and engineers at NASA, Stephens worked to build a cohesive connection between the two disciplines, and his work represents “legs on both sides of a river.” The National Academy of Engineering has twelve multidisciplinary sections that bridge engineering and science. “Scientists think about problems that may not be able to be solved,” he said, “whereas engineers only do things that need to be solved.”

As a member of the academy, his duties will include helping to develop the Academy’s position on climate change. And as a member of the human race, he will continue to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of clouds. In addition to studying clouds, Stephens paints them. Check out more of Stephens paintings at the Cloudsat Art Gallery.

Painting 2
"The Noble Cumulus," oil and acrylic on canvas, from Stephens' Noble Clouds Under Variable Light Series, 2003.

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February 10, 2015
09:44 PST

Over the past twelve months, we’ve been feasting on a banquet of NASA Earth science launches — five, to be precise. NASA’s Earth Right Now Campaign kicked off back in February 2014 with the launch of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite. And we just celebrated our fifth launch on January 31, 2015 with the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory.

To help you look back at this delectable year, I’ve put together a photo gallery of both the edible satellites that I created over the year and their actual NASA counterparts in space. All of the former are in my tummy, while all of the latter are successfully orbiting Earth right now, collecting valuable data to help us understand our climate.


1. Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM)

View larger image.
Global Perception Measurement (GPM) launched on Feb. 27, 2014. It provides information about rain and snow and how they interact within the Earth system. (Read original blog post.)


2. Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)

View larger image.
Orbiting Carbon Obsevatory-2 (OCO-2) launched on July 2, 2014. It measures atmospheric carbon dioxide. (Read original blog post.)


3. International Space Station Rapid Scatterometer (ISS-RapidScat)

ISS-RapidScat was deployed to the International Space Station on Sept. 20, 2014. It monitors ocean surface wind speed and direction. (Read original blog post.)


4. Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS)

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) was deployed to the International Space Station on Jan. 10, 2015. It measures small particles, called “aerosols,” and clouds. (Read original blog post.)


5. Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP)

View larger image.
Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) launched on Jan. 31, 2015. It will map soil moisture, which will help improve our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles. (Read original blog post.)


And hey, blog readers! Don’t just stand there laughing at my silly food models. I’m hoping at least one of you will go out there, get busy and create a fabulous masterpiece! It’s actually pretty fun, and I guarantee you’ll end up learning a ton.

Please post photos of your amazing edible satellite concoctions. Now GO!


NASA's Earth Right Now campaign is a series of five Earth science missions that launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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February 3, 2015
10:54 PST
A 'gem in the sky'

The Delta II rocket carrying SMAP into space, as seen from Port Hueneme, Ventura. Credit: Jim Hoffman

Launches are a huge deal at NASA. It's a time when we get to celebrate the intersection between science, technology and engineering. From an engineering point of view, launches are the product that you’ve delivered — the big hurrah.

It’s the opportunity for all the people who worked on the project to see the outcome of their efforts; what they've poured their life into. It’s a career-fulfilling moment.

The latest such occasion came on Saturday, January 31, at 6:22 a.m. PST, when NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

On that morning, Jim Hoffman (JPL Earth science business operations manager) and his wife Jodie were up early near one of their favorite beaches in Port Hueneme in Ventura. They love the quiet of the morning and the chance to get focused. After texting friends who were at the launch site, they looked up toward the north and saw what looked like a red jet. They watched as it grew and grew until they knew it was the rocket.

“I like to spend time searching for sea glass from that beach,” Jim told me, “but this morning I found the gem in the sky.”

I look forward to your comments.


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It's countdown to launch
Another milestone in this amazing year of NASA Earth science
January 29, 2015
12:18 PST

Just one year ago, we waited eagerly, wide-eyed and almost breathlessly as NASA prepared to launch five Earth science missions within a single year’s span. And now, just one short year later, we’re here again, preparing for the next step in this great journey.

It’s countdown time to launch SMAP.

With four successes behind us, this one — this fifth launch — represents its own individual milestone, as well as a milestone of this amazing year for NASA Earth science.

I sat down with Erika Podest, a SMAP scientist, a couple of days before the launch to talk about the mission and what it means for her, for NASA and for the world.

To help you share this special landmark moment with us, I gathered a few important and interesting tidbits you might want to know about SMAP:


1. According to Dr. Podest, satellite remote sensing is “a revolutionary way of studying our planet.” It’s how she’s integrated her two favorite things: exuberant nature (due to growing up in Panama and spending every weekend walking through the jungle) and technology.​

SMAP Project Scientist Dr. Erika Podest poses inside JPL's spacecraft assembly facility where the SMAP antenna was built.


2. When we see photos of the rocket sitting on the Launchpad, we need to remember that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since the mission officially started in 2008, hundreds of people, including Podest, worked on the project from the time it was “only an idea, and watched it go from a design on paper to a physical reality.”

The Delta II rocket that'll take SMAP to space.


3. Because SMAP will measure soil moisture, it will be used to improve weather, flood and drought prediction. Global warming projections indicate a threefold increase in drought frequency in some areas of the globe, as well as more frequent precipitation events, increasing flood risks in other regions.​



4. Since global warming has led to longer growing seasons in areas above the 45th parallel, which is halfway between the equator and the North Pole, SMAP data will tell us about freezing and thawing trends to give us more information about exactly how much and how fast the climate is changing in these locations.​

45th parallel
The 45th parallel latitude sign between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner, Montana. Credit: Jo Suderman


5. The 20-foot (6-meter) diameter gold-plated SMAP antenna uses experimental, sky-breaking technology that took years of combined engineering experience and knowledge of what works in space to achieve it.​

SMAP antenna
SMAP's unfurled antenna in JPL's spacecraft assembly facility.


6. The solar panels on the instrument will open just hours after launch. Sixteen days after launch, the reflector/boom that supports the antenna will deploy in two steps. First the boom is deployed, which takes about 16 minutes. Then the antenna is deployed, which takes about 30 minutes to complete. It will spin at 14.6 revolutions per minute.​

SMAP diagram
A diagram showing SMAP's anatomy.


7. After the commissioning phase and data calibration/validation (about nine months after launch), all of the data will be freely available.

SMAP artist concept
Artist's concept of SMAP.


“The science team is calm and positive," said Susan Callery, Earth science public engagement manager, "There’s a confident vibe. The spacecraft is in good shape. Everything is checked and going well.”

To learn more about SMAP and follow the conversation, check these links:

I look forward to your comments.


SMAP is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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January 26, 2015
15:22 PST
Pita bread! What was I thinking?

Pictured here is my edible SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) model.

Every time I make one of these edible satellite models, I go through a crisis phase. I feel horror, worry, shame.

“This looks absolutely hideous!” I fret. “People who read this blog will think I’m nuts.” (Which I am, btw, just sayin'.) So far, my mini-meltdown around constructing the edible version of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory was worse than the other four edible models I’ve made. I mean, just look at it! Pita bread? Really? What was I thinking? It took teams of engineers with decades of experience to design and build the new technology on SMAP, and I sat alone in my kitchen with a celery stalk.

SMAP is the final of five NASA Earth science satellites launched within a 12-month span. It uses a radar, which is active, and a radiometer, which is passive, to make its measurements, thus the name. But it’s the innovative rotating antenna on an extended boom that made both the actual and the edible instruments such a challenge to build.  

While NASA has many instruments with rotating antenna—RapidScat, for example, is an instrument that was deployed onto the International Space Station earlier this year—the SMAP antenna is unique and experimental. (I wanted to call it “ground”-breaking, but not when it’s on a rocket nose cone headed for space.) Its size makes it possible to achieve greater accuracy over a larger area than any other type of antenna. Plus—come on—once deployed, it will be a 20-foot (6-meter) gyroscope spinning in space, orbiting our Earth.

Yowsa! That’s just hella cah-ray-zy!

Oh yeah, and the antenna? It’s made of gold. That’s right, people, you heard me: gold. Can I hear you say “Bling”?

All right now, let's get back to the pita bread. This was, by far, the trickiest of the edible models to build, because the arm—made of celery—had to support the weight of the antenna—pita bread. My challenge was only a small “taste” of what the engineers who designed the instrument had to face. The actual SMAP antenna was built to function in the minimal gravity of space rather than the gravity on the ground, which meant there was a limited amount of testing done with the antenna opened.

As with the other edible models, building this one forced me to look closely at the design and, therefore, learn about the instrument. I encourage you to try it, too. The spacecraft bus is white cheddar; the solar array is thin crackers; the spun assembly is made of yam, cherry tomato and broccoli stalk; and the antenna feed horn is a parsnip.

SMAP diagram
Diagram of the actual SMAP satellite. Learn more about the different parts.

After I finished taking photos of my masterpiece, I ate it—all of it. And the cheese and crackers went really well with the glass of wine that eased me down from my crisis of shame.

Go ahead: Make your own NASA SMAP model, and share your photos in the comments section. You can learn more about the instrument here, here and here.

Also, check out my edible CATSGPM, OCO-2 and ISS-RapidScat models.

I look forward to your comments and creativity.


SMAP is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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Last week NASA and NOAA announced that 2014 topped the list of hottest years ever recorded. Yikes!

What’s worse, the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998. Yikes again!

I fear this news story might turn into a blip that gets tons of attention and is then forgotten after a few days. But it's a topic that deserves sustained attention.

So let’s look back at those years and remember what was going on then. What were we focused on during those record-breaking years? What were we doing? I encourage you to think about what was happening in your life.

Here are some of the top news events from the 10 warmest years on record. Although I did not specifically look for environmental or climate-related events, often the most notable event of that year did have a climate connection:

1. 2014 - The People's Climate March

Climate March
Source: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
During the hottest year ever recorded, people took to the streets to demand action on climate change. Sure, there were many other stories that grabbed headlines in 2014 (like the Ebola outbreak), but I’ve decided to highlight this one because it stood out to me as a turning point in the global discussion. The People’s Climate March, based in New York City on Sept 21, 2014, was the largest climate change march in history and spread to over 150 countries.

2. 2010 - The Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Oil spill
Multiple cameras on JPL's MISR instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft were used to create two unique views of oil moving into Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill began on April 20, 2010. It lasted 87 days and spewed about 260 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, making it the worst marine oil spill in history. Eleven people and countless marine animals were killed.

3. 2005 - Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina, as seen from NASA's GOES mission. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Hurricane Katrina formed in the Bahamas on August 23, 2005 and made landfall on August 29, causing flooding and severe destruction along the Gulf Coast. New Orleans, Louisiana, was especially hit hard when levee failure caused over 80 percent of the city to become inundated.

4. 1998 - A massive El Niño

El Niño
El Niño of January 1998. Source: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
A massive El Niño occurred in the winter of 1997-1998, causing extremely wet and warm conditions across the southern third of the U.S. and extremely dry conditions in Indonesia and Australia. Severe weather events occurred across the globe, including intense rain and flooding in California and tornadoes in Florida.

5. 2013 - Super Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan
Super Typhoon Haiyan at peak intensity and making landfall over the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Super Typhoon Haiyan, in November 2013, was the strongest typhoon ever recorded. It caused catastrophic destruction and devastation across Southeast Asia, especially in the Philippines.

6. 2003 - U.S. invasion into Iraq

Oil fires in Iraq
Dust storm blowing in from the northwest over Iraq, captured April 5, 2003 by the Aqua satellite. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory
The U.S. invasion into Iraq began on March 16, 2003 and dominated the news that year.

7. 2002 - Larsen B Ice Shelf shatters

Larsen B Ice Shelf
The northern section of the Larsen B ice shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, before it shattered and separated from the continent. The image was taken March 5, 2002 by the Terra satellite. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/National Snow and Ice Data Center
Between January 31 and April 13, 2002, nearly all of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula disintegrated and collapsed. The ice shelf had been stable since the Holocene, but warmer ocean currents around Antarctica caused the 1,250-square-mile shelf to melt and break into the sea.

8. 2006 - Twitter launches

Mars Science Laboratory tweetup
Artist concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover with an illustrated astronaut bird. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The social networking website Twitter was launched in July 2006. It presently has about half a billion users, including NASA satellites and rovers.

9. 2009 - The United Nations Climate Change Conference

Copenhagen from space
Copenhagen, Denmark, as seen from space. Credit: NASA Worldview
The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen December 7-18, 2009. The goal of the conference was to negotiate a deal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hold the temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, but participating nations failed to reach an agreement.

10. 2007 - First iPhone release

Earth Now app
NASA's 'Earth Now' app. Download for free here or here.
The first generation iPhone was released in the U.S. on June 29, 2007.


The point of this exercise is to say that we have to look at global warming as more than a bunch of numbers and dates on a page. The 10 warmest years have happened so recently that we can easily remember what was going on then. Even the 19- and 20-year-old college students I teach are old enough to remember what was happening and where they were in every one of those years.

Wow, is your mind as boggled as mine is? Share your thought in the comments. I look forward to reading them.


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January 13, 2015
16:11 PST

The Wonderkids show their enthusiasm for learning about climate change. Credit: Paige Handley

“Climate change! Climate change! Climate change!”

The kids of the Wonderkids after school science program were chanting and pounding the tables as I walked in the room. “Wow,” I thought. “If only more adults were this interested in climate change.”

Paige Handley and Sherry Chan, coordinators of the 32nd street Elementary school University of Southern California (USC) ReadersPlus Program, had just introduced me by asking the group if they remembered what the speaker (me) was going to talk about today. That’s when the chanting and pounding broke out. Obviously they more than remembered—they were bursting, eager, raring to go.

Laura with kids
Laura and the kids doing some hands-on science learning. Credit: Paige Handley
I’d always hesitated to give my climate change speech to kids, worried they’d be ill-mannered or wouldn’t pay attention. I was afraid of not being able to control the room. But I was wrong. These kids were awesome: They were super keen, attentive and totally eager. They gave me hope for the future, for all of our futures.

I spoke for a few minutes, showing them images of NASA’s Earth science satellites and the rockets that launch them into space. I told them the satellites are space robots. (Hey, it’s true. A satellite is a robot in space. Also, I like the idea of a “space robot.”) Then we talked about the data that NASA’s instruments collect. After that, the group performed three Earth science demonstrations together, because science education works best when it’s hands-on.

Kid concentrating
Desiree Godinez concentrates on the demonstration of water's unusually high surface tension. Credit: Paige Handley
I watched as they focused intently on the tasks in front of them: naturally curious and undeterred, like mini professional research scientists. They tenaciously and persistently repeated their experiments without any coaxing from the adults. They cooperated, taking turns and giving each other advice.

I looked over at one of the teacher helpers, smiled and said, “We’re just going to stand here and let them go at it for as long as they want.”

Working in climate science can make me feel down sometimes, because I’m concerned about the impact that we, as a species, are making on our environment. I know much of that impact isn’t going to occur during my lifetime, but will be passed forward to future generations, including this generation in front of me today. But unlike us older people, these elementary school kids will grow up knowing about climate change. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance they’ll be the ones who have the courage, the know-how and the determination to deal with it.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


Wonderkids, a University of Southern California (USC) Joint Educational Project (JEP) program hosted by ReadersPlus, is a first-to-third grade after-school science program in the USC Family of Schools. It is currently in six schools: Foshay, Weemes, Vermont, Norwood, Mack, Norwood and 32nd street. The program focuses on different areas of science through hands-on lesson plans and books. The program also has professional scientists from different science fields as rotating speakers coming into the classroom to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM.

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January 7, 2015
posted by Susan Callery
07:05 PST
Palm oil: A climate change culprit

Pictured here is a forest area being cleared for a palm oil plantation. Deforestation destroys wildlife habitats and adds massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. (Photo by Ian Singleton)

Susan Callery
Susan Callery is the manager of Earth Science Public Engagement at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and secretary/treasurer of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the orangutans of Indonesia.

I always wanted to see orangutans in the wild, having learned that they are probably the most intelligent of all the great apes because of their ability to innovate and problem-solve. In 2007, I finally scraped together the funds to travel to Borneo—little did I know that at the age of 53, I would find my passion.

On my trip, I observed more incredible wildlife and natural beauty than I can possibly describe. I also saw acre after acre of once-pristine rainforests that had been transformed into barren moonscapes; rivers devoid of life and polluted by palm oil effluent and heavy metals; orphaned baby orangutans whose mothers were killed in palm oil plantations as agricultural pests. I learned that the forest home of many of these magical creatures is disappearing rapidly and suffering from the impacts of slash-and-burn agriculture.

Tracking forest changes from space

What is palm oil, what does it have to do with climate change and what does it have to do with NASA?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the fruit of the West African oil palm tree. It is used for biofuel, cosmetics, snack foods, ice cream, lotion and soap, and is in about half of all products on store shelves. The oil palm tree is grown in tropical regions (mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, but now spreading all over the tropics, including Africa), and rain forests are being  cleared to make room for more of this crop. Since rain forests are the largest carbon sinks, when destroyed they release massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Deforestation is the second largest manmade source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, after fossil fuel burning.

NASA satellites make it possible for scientists to monitor changes in rainforest landscapes around the world and to collect images of areas that are actively burning (here and here). In addition, the AIRS instrument on the Aqua satellite can keep an eye on the carbon monoxide produced from these fires. These satellites and instruments are part of a fleet of 18 Earth-observing satellites that are monitoring our home planet 24/7. 

For more information, visit

Images of my Jakarta journey

The following is an album, in words and images, of my life-changing visit to Indonesia.

Burning peat forest
Smoldering embers of a burned rain forest area. (Photo by Ian Singleton)
I was greeted by a choking haze as the plane landed in Jakarta. Soon, my eyes began to sting, my throat became scratchy and the smell of fire penetrated my clothes and hair. After inquiring about the cause, I was shocked to learn that this was the result of illegal fires that were deliberately set to clear forests for palm oil plantations. Of course, I had never heard of palm oil.

A "klotok" travels the Sekonyer River. (Photo by Susan Callery)

Traveling to Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo required two more flights and a slow trip on a funny wooden boat called a "klotok." I soon forgot about the palm oil and poor air quality in Jakarta (or so I thought) and enjoyed the natural beauty of the forest along the pristine black water Sekonyer River.

Mom and baby proboscis monkeys
Mom and baby proboscis monkeys. (Photo by Susan Callery)
The banks came alive with colorful birds, macaques and proboscis monkeys, with their large protruding noses, potbellies and magnificent red-brown fur, leaping effortlessly from tree to tree. I was heartbroken to learn that these spectacular monkeys are vanishing rapidly because their habitat is disappearing.

Polluted river (Photo by Susan Callery)
River pollution. (Photo by Susan Callery)
Soon we arrived at a “Y” in the river, and I noticed a sharp divide between the black water and murky brown water that reminded me of coffee with cream. Our guide told me that the pollution was due to chemical runoff from logging, mining and palm oil plantations upstream. There was that name again: "palm oil."

When we arrived at the dock of Camp Leakey, Siswi, one of the resident orangutans, greeted us. She and several other orangutans ran to hold hands with Dr. Birute Galdikas, who established the camp back in 1971. Siswi was a bit of a troublemaker, immediately getting into a guest’s backpack and breaking into the lunchroom. I was fascinated to watch her mix herself a drink (non-alcoholic) and show her affection by holding our hands and ankles. I quickly fell in love with these creatures, who appear so different physically from us but have many human characteristics.

On the trip, I also visited the Orangutan Care Center, where locals bring confiscated, sick, injured and orphaned orangutans for veterinary care. Soon after I arrived, a baby came in, and I couldn’t help but ask what happened. I was told that many orphans are “palm oil orphans” whose forest habitats were destroyed—and parents killed—by the swiftly spreading palm oil industry in Indonesia. 

Siswi and operation room
Left: Siswi greets us at the dock of Camp Leakey. Right: An operating room at the Orangutan Care Center. (Photos by Susan Callery)

I returned home, determined to do something about palm oil, and enrolled in graduate school in environmental policy and management. I joined the board of a local non-profit organization dedicated to protecting orangutans in the wild. As an Non-Governmental Organization, we joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which promotes palm oil production practices that help reduce deforestation, preserve biodiversity, respect the livelihoods of rural communities and ensures that no new primary forest or other high conservation value areas are sacrificed for palm oil plantations.

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December 19, 2014
08:47 PST
Coming soon: CATS in space

Kyle Guzek works on CATS during testing in the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

As you know, the Internet was created so people could watch cat videos. And now felines are aiming to pounce right into the middle of some NASA space action, too. Well, sort of.

“CATS” stands for “Cloud-Aerosol Transport System” and is the next NASA Earth science mission slated to launch aboard an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft headed for the International Space Station, where it will be mounted on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF) to measure pollution, dust and smoke in the atmosphere.

Kyle Guzek was part of the design team that worked on the instrument, which is scheduled to launch Jan. 6. A sophomore studying mechanical engineering at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., Guzek began working on CATS as a junior mechanical draftsman while he was still in high school. He participated in the thermal testing of the instrument in the Applied Physics Laboratory.

“When we started on CATS,” he told me “there were design problems, and we had to keep working until we found design solutions.” Through the process, Kyle said, he learned not to dwell on challenges and problems and to move toward solutions to those problems.

Guzek will be watching CATS launch at a viewing party at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “I’m probably going to jump for joy, and cry. No, I won’t cry, but I’ll be jumping for joy.”

Find out more about CATS here and here.

I look forward to your comments.


The CATS instrument was developed and built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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