NASA header National Aeronautics and Space Administration Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Blog banner
Communications Specialist

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

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.

comments ( )

December 8, 2014
15:49 PST
COP-20: It's all about momentum

One if the two main areas where countries discussed key topics for the day at COP-20 in Lima, Peru.

Michelle Gierach, a JPL oceanographer, answered my Skype call while she was walking with her computer. She leaned over and whispered, “I’m trying to find a quiet place to talk.” Gierach was in Lima, Peru, representing NASA at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 20th Conference of Parties (COP-20), which runs December 1-12.

As she swung her computer around, I could see she was in a massive, white, tent-like structure. There were lots of people, and it was pretty loud. “Where are you?” I asked.

Michelle G
Michelle Gierach, oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

She had come to the U.N. climate conference to speak to international delegates from 195 countries about how climate change affects El Niño. I’d expected her to Skype with me from her hotel room for the interview, but instead, she was at the U.S. Center, which was a sectioned off area inside a massive hangar that held representatives from all the countries. To hide from the noise, she’d ducked behind the NASA hyperwall, a screen of nine linked computer monitors displaying stunning data visualizations.

“That’s hilarious,” I giggled as I asked her to swing her computer around, slowly this time, so I could see what was going on. I called out “Hi from California!” to a group of U.S. delegates, and they waved back at me from Peru.

The point of this year’s U.N. meeting is to draft clear, concise negotiating text to set the stage for next year’s meeting, taking place December 2015 in Paris, where countries are expected to agree on actions to address climate change.

“Just walking around, what I gauge from talking to people in the U.S. Center is excitement that we’re all here," Gierach told me. "But the real excitement will come next year. This is about keeping the momentum going."

All of these people at COP-20 are meeting to make sure everyone is on the same track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. “But the ocean’s role within these two degrees of warming is key and must to be factored into the equation,” she said. Earth’s oceans have absorbed a lot of heat, and a better understanding of El Niño will improve scientists' ability to forecast complex climate phenomena.

Any of the delegates can watch the science talks on the NASA hyperwall, where Gierach explains how she uses NASA satellite observations to look at how El Niño affects people on local, regional and global scales. She’s in the U.S. Center all day, busting her butt to tell NASA’s story to the climate community. Data animations on the hyperwall, such as a visualization of sea surface temperatures during the giant El Niño of 1997-98 (shown below) provide beautiful eye candy that have helped draw a steady stream of viewers eager to watch and learn.

“I think it’s so cool to be surrounded by people who acknowledge that there is climate change and who actually care. Everybody here sees that there’s a problem and wants to do something about it. It’s so cool to be a part of that,” she said. And then, “Oh, I have to go right now! The next hyperwall talk is about to start!” And then she hung up on me.

“You go gurl,” I thought.

You can watch Gierach's COP-20 presentation here, and you can find more information about the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change here.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly during the the 1997-1998 ENSO event. Credit: NASA

comments ( )

November 21, 2014
07:21 PST
This Thanksgiving food model is the CATS meow

Pictured here is my edible CATS model that resembles the real instrument headed for the International Space Station (ISS).

Thanksgiving is all about celebrating traditions. In this big year for Earth science at NASA, we started celebrating our own new tradition by creating an edible satellite model for each of the five new missions being launched this year. Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS, is the next Earth science mission slated to launch aboard an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on December 16. CATS is a lidar instrument that will measure clouds, pollution, dust, smoke and other particulates in the atmosphere. A “lidar” measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. The instrument will be mounted on the International Space Station’s Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF).

In the Thanksgiving spirit, I made an edible CATS model out of the best ingredients of a Thanksgiving feast: the desserts! The instrument’s body is pumpkin pie filling made of pumpkin purée, the two high repetition rate lasers are walnuts, the telescope is made of apples and chocolate and the mounting feet that hold the payload to the launch vehicle are also made of chocolate. As with all the other edible models I’ve made, my family actually ate everything, and no food was wasted.

It's a cat eat CATS world
It’s a cat eat CATS world! Our cat Lucy decides to jump up and take a nibble.

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful that more and more of you care so much about this amazing planet we share.

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

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

I look forward to your comments and creativity.


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.

comments ( )

What’s the deal with Antarctica and the Arctic?

This beautiful aerial photograph shows a multi-layered lenticular cloud hovering near Mount Discovery in Antarctica, a volcano about 70 kilometers (44 miles) southwest of McMurdo. Credit: Michael Studinger, Operation IceBridge. Download larger image.

Most people I meet don’t spend much time thinking about the polar regions on planet Earth; the poles just seem too far away. I mean, Antarctica, really? Only extreme explorers and a few scientists spend time thinking about those frozen places. Most of us live in areas with moderate temperatures, fantasize about tropical vacations and have barely checked out what the far reaches of our planet look like on a map. And even maps neglect the far north and south by stretching them so much that many people have no real idea what the ends of the Earth look like.

I became interested, and then obsessed, with Earth’s icy regions during a particularly hot Los Angeles summer a couple of years ago when I created NASA’s Global Ice Viewer. Sitting in my office scouring NASA vaults for the most intriguing views of our planet’s ice was like going on a wild interstellar journey to someplace beyond my wildest imagination; it changed my view of our planet forever.

These days, I frequently give public speeches and show audiences what the Arctic and Antarctic look like from space. It surprises me how little people know about these portions of our world. Perhaps their biggest misunderstanding is that the Arctic and Antarctic are similar. You know, one’s in the north and the other is in the south; but other than that, they’re the same, right? No, this couldn’t be more wrong. These polar opposites are literally polar opposites.

For starters, the Arctic is a small, shallow ocean surrounded by land: Eurasia, Greenland, Canada and the United States. It’s only about 5 ½ million square miles, which is five times smaller than the Atlantic and 11 times smaller than the Pacific. Antarctica, on the other hand, is a continent surrounded by the entire Southern Ocean.


Antarctica and the Arctic
This year, Antarctic sea ice reached a record maximum extent while the Arctic reached a minimum extent in the top ten lowest since satellite records began. One reason we are seeing differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic is due to their different geographies. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center


This may seem like no big deal, but it makes all the difference in the world. It takes a lot of energy to change water temperature compared to what it takes to change land temperature, which means Arctic seawater isn’t as cold as the continental ice sheet covering Antarctica. So, the Arctic sea ice (frozen sea water) is about 10 feet thick, whereas the Antarctic ice sheet (compacted freshwater ice) is over a mile thick.

In the winter, the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic continent also becomes covered with sea ice. But every summer most of this sea ice melts. That’s because the ice edge around Antarctica is exposed to open ocean, and every direction you go is north. So, during the summer, the sea ice moves north and melts away. This means that very little Antarctic sea ice is more than two years old. But Arctic sea ice is trapped inside the landlocked ocean. This means that during the summer months, even though much of the sea ice melts, it doesn’t melt completely.

More than opposites

Is this complicated enough? Consider one more comparison: The amount of Arctic sea ice is way down, while the amount of Southern Ocean sea ice is up by a tiny bit. If you’ve been reading closely, by now you’ll know that those two types of sea ice are probably super duper different because, yup, you guessed it: The two poles are much more than opposites.

Since 1979, NASA satellite measurements have observed an overall decline in Arctic sea ice due to climate change. Climate change warms the ocean water and melts the sea ice. Climate change has also caused some of the Antarctic ice shelves (which are part of Antarctica’s fresh water ice sheet that extends into the ocean, surrounding the continent) to collapse.

But the story of the sea ice floating around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean is even more complex. This sea ice is not just frozen seawater, like the Arctic sea ice. There’s more snow in the Southern Ocean — that ice is made of sea ice, covered by snow ice (frozen snow), covered by snow. It’s a snowman ice cream sandwich! And the strong winds down there easily blow this mixture across an expanding area.

The fact that our Earth is a crazy complicated place makes it difficult to understand, but that same truth also makes it amazing. Earth is never boring, which is why we keep paying attention to and never tire of learning more about it.

Test how much you know and learn more about Earth’s frozen places with these fun quizzes:

As always, I welcome your comments.


comments ( )

October 15, 2014
12:23 PDT
Looking at clouds from both sides

Pictured here are rare clouds, technically called "noctilucent" or "polar mesospheric" clouds, spotted over Billund, Denmark on July 15, 2010. Credit: Jan Erik Paulsen. View and download large image.

Anyone passing by must have thought I was a bit nutty standing in the road and gazing into the sky on a Tuesday afternoon, but it was all for science. That’s right: citizen science.

A “citizen scientist” is a member of the public who makes careful field observations and contributes data toward professional scientific research. Wanna try it? You can. NASA is inviting everyone to participate in a citizen science project, called “#SkyScience,” for Earth Science Week 2014, October 12-18. Earth Science Week is an international event organized by the American Geosciences Institute to help people better understand and appreciate the Earth sciences and to encourage stewardship of our planet.

So I was standing in the road doing #SkyScience, observing all the clouds in the sky—both the ones overhead and the ones off in the distance.

You can do citizen science and help NASA scientists by joining the #SkyScience program. You have to look up at clouds at the same moment a NASA satellite is looking down. 

When you first visit the SkyScience S’COOL website, you might think it’s predominantly for kids but, trust me, you should check it out. It’s interesting and fun, and you’ll likely learn something, no matter your age.

When you’re at the website, the first thing you have to do is find your satellite overpass time; that way, you can schedule your cloud observation. This involves clicking on a map that gives you your latitude and longitude coordinates and inputting the dates you want to make your observations. The website will then generate the satellite overpass schedule, which you will receive via email a few seconds later. I’ve never known my exact lat/long coordinates, so I was somewhat psyched by this part of the process.

Getting my head in the clouds

To be honest, the citizen science projects I’d participated in before had imprecise data collection processes, and I’d doubted the accuracy of the untrained citizens’ measurements. In this case, even the first step was so well organized that it seemed practically impossible to get erroneous timing.

The next step is to go outside within a 30-minute window and observe the clouds. “Aha! That’s where the untrained bad measurements come in,” you might say. And I say back to you, “Don’t be so quick to critique.” Here’s the deal: I’ve looked at cloud charts many times, but this time was different. This time I had to look at actual clouds in the actual sky and identify those specific clouds. I had to interact with a chart, which forced me to understand it. It forced my mind to see the clouds in a different way; it forced me to learn.

The cloud reporting documents were thorough enough to weed out any shirkers who thought they might get away with shoddy cloud observations, although documenting the observations and submitting them online took about half an hour and were easy to do.

NASA announced #SkyScience on October 1, and since then we’ve received about 2,500 overpass requests and more than 360 submitted cloud observations, and we’re hoping for more.

I spoke with Lin Chambers, S'COOL project director, to make sure the submitted #SkyScience observations and photos don’t end up in the back corner of a file cabinet somewhere.

She’s hoping to get observations from places that have snow on the ground. “Even a four-year-old on the ground has no problem telling the difference between snow on the ground and clouds in the sky, but for a NASA satellite doing remote sensing, that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Chambers explained that she and her team are looking for ways to make the satellite measurements as accurate as possible. “When you’re on the ground looking up, you have a uniform blue sky to detect against, but when you’re in space, you’re looking down at the surface, which has all sorts of variability.”

As long as you observe the sky within 15 minutes of the satellite overpass, you’ll get an email within about five days that matches your observation with the satellite’s. You can find a record of your observations, along with all the other ground observations, and compare the clouds you saw with the corresponding satellite data. At that point you’ll have seen the same clouds from both sides: from the bottom and from the top.

comments ( )

But wait … wait … there's more!
Get one Earth mission or collect them all
September 18, 2014
posted by Laura Faye Tenenbaum
09:48 PDT
But wait … wait … there's more!

NASA's C-20A (G-III) banks over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., carrying the UAVSAR underbelly pod, in preparation for studying U.S. and international volcanoes. Credit: Lori Losey, NASA

Everyone I know who works in Earth science at NASA feels compelled to spread the following message: Sure, NASA explores space—but hey, we study Earth too.

When I first started working here, it seemed like very few people were listening. But, awareness changed and the world started to notice how much we’re doing. Nowadays almost everyone I meet seems to know that NASA studies Earth. So this caused our goals to expand. We want people to know that NASA has a whole fleet of Earth-orbiting satellites that measure everything from clouds to sea surface height to carbon dioxide concentration. What’s more, this year we're launching five new satellites within 12 months. Hey people of Earth, listen up. We’re on it!

Mission accomplished, right? Well, almost … (Insert sound of scratching record)

(Before I continue, I have to tell you how I really feel: I’m caught between behaving like one of those guys on an infomercial who keeps yelling: “wait, there's more!” and my discomfort with interminable bragging. But since there really is so much more, I’ll solve the conundrum by telling you that I just took a five-minute break to dance awkwardly in my small office to pop music. This proves that despite the fact that NASA has many impressive achievements, it is also made up of real people, and some of us are secret awkward office dancers.)

Okay then, now it’s time to head for Awesome Town, to let fly the “wait … wait … there’s more!”

In addition to 17 satellites currently orbiting Earth, we at NASA also have an Airborne Science Program. “An Airborne Science Program?" you might ask. "What’s that?” Basically, it’s a NASA plane with a NASA instrument mounted on it that scientists all around the country can use. Cooooool.

Gulfstream III C20-A environmental science research aircraft
Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) mounted beneath a Gulfstream III C20-A environmental science research aircraft. UAVSAR is an imaging radar instrument that can determine how land features have changed. Credit: Michael Greene

There are a bunch of reasons why NASA wants to fly airplanes, even though we have access to space. First, a plane can make regional-scale measurements to add to ground- and space-based ones. Measurements of complex regional processes help us understand the complete Earth system when added to global satellite observations. Airborne missions also calibrate measurements that the Earth-observing satellites make, as well as test and refine new instrument technologies before they go to space, which reduces risk.

But wait, there’s more! NASA has roughly 25 airborne science programs currently active.

See why I feel like an infomercial?

Earlier this month, a few of my co-workers in science communications got to fly along on an airborne mission called UAVSAR, which stands for Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar. It’s an imaging radar instrument that can determine how land features have changed. The radar pod is mounted beneath a Gulfstream-III C20-A environmental science research aircraft (not quite "fly like a G6" but still pretty sweet). It penetrates snow, brings out terrain features, shows glacier flow, measures soil moisture, studies river flooding and effect on levees, and changes in earthquake faults. The plane flies swaths back and forth over the same area, like a lawn mower mowing a lawn. Scientists compare two UAVSAR radar images of the same location to look for changes.

Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR)
The Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) mounted beneath a Gulfstream-III C20-A. Credit: Michael Greene

That day there were two pilots on board, one flight coordinator, one radar operator and three stooges, ahem, I meant three observers. In six hours, they flew 3,000 miles and never left California. They looked at the San Andreas Fault, measured soil moisture in the Central Valley and spent most of the time surveying levees in the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay.

UAVSAR flight coordinator
UAVSAR flight coordinator monitors flight path swaths as the plane flies over levees in Northern California. Credit: Michael Greene

But wait, there’s more … and if you want to find out about it check out these links:

A sampling of features about UAVSAR missions can be found at:

As always, I appreciate your comments.

comments ( )

September 4, 2014
14:16 PDT
RapidFood, or: Revenge of the Space Cornbread

Pictured here is my food model of NASA's next Earth science mission, ISS-RapidScat, which will monitor ocean winds from the International Space Station.

By now you’ve probably noticed that one of the ways I celebrate upcoming NASA mission launches is by creating edible food models of NASA satellites and instruments. And then, of course, I eat them. (Check out GPM and OCO-2, both of which launched earlier this year.)

ISS-RapidScat is third in line for this year's Earth Right Now campaign, which centers on five NASA Earth science mission launches occurring over 12 months.

ISS-RapidScat arrived at Kennedy Space Center (in Florida) in May to begin final preparations for its launch at Cape Canaveral. RapidScat and other cargo and instruments will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX's uncrewed Dragon spacecraft on top of a Falcon-9v1.1 rocket. The Dragon will dock on the ISS, and then a mechanical arm will unload the instrument and mount it onto the space station. Ground controllers will operate the mechanical arm.

ISS-RapidScat is a scatterometer, a radar instrument that measures near-surface wind speed and direction over the ocean. Stronger ocean winds create choppy seas with rougher waves that scatter the radar signal, while a calm ocean causes less "backscatter." Scatterometers are used to forecast weather and to monitor hurricanes.

I created this edible model from foods I actually ate, so nothing went to waste. I used homemade cornbread for the ISS attachment; the electronics subsystem is tri-tip; the spin assembly is made of eggplant, a pineapple slice and a carved apple; the antenna is made of grapefruit, sticks from my grapevines and a grape; and the brackets are celery. And yes, I know, it looks kinda weird.

Go ahead: Make your own NASA ISS-RapidScat model and share your photos in the comments section. You can view a spacecraft detail drawing here, and you can learn about the ISS-RapidScat mission and see more illustrations on the mission home page.

I look forward to your comments and creativity.


ISS-RapidScat food model
Left: Artist's concept of RapidScat attached to the International Space Station's Columbus Laboratory. Right: My food model of RapidScat.

ISS-RapidScat 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.

comments ( )

The struggle to reach out and tell the climate story

Credit: Lightspring /

“Nope, no. No. Nuh-uh. These aren’t good.”

I’m sitting next to one of my instructors at the University of Southern California‘s Annenberg School of Journalism where I’m taking a course in multimedia. We’re going through a series of photographs I’d taken for an assignment and he’s critiquing them.

“The photos don’t make me feel anything,” he says.

The day before, I had gone out to shoot photos with an agenda: to find a story about climate change and how it affects people — the same thing I do every day at work. I intended to find a science person to interview about the California drought and work in a climate change angle. But that was not going to happen. The instructors had given us an insanely tight deadline for a series of assignments—all due simultaneously—and restricted the location for our stories. On top of that, I was struggling with unfamiliar equipment.

The instructors also told us not to get blocked into our initial vision. But I was blocked and I was ticked off, too. It was obvious that I was not going to have my way. I felt like I was being pressed into an assignment that was impossible to complete within the allotted time frame. And frankly, I also thought the assignment was beyond my skill set and unrealistic for me.

But the assignment was due and there was no way I was going to quit. I was out in the field, walking around, and I absolutely had to find a stranger, interview him or her and make it work, period, end of story, done. Wandering through my assigned neighborhood, I stopped to admire a well-groomed garden in the front yard of one of the homes. When the homeowner, Migdalia Collazo, walked out onto her porch, I asked if she would allow me to photograph and interview her.

During that first photo shoot, I focused on composition, color, light and context, thinking that was the route to a compelling shot. But my photos were lacking the most important element: a compelling story; something to feel.

After the critique, my teacher’s words stayed with me, reverberating in my head:

                  The photos don’t make me feel anything.

                  The photos don’t make me feel anything.

                  The photos don’t make me feel anything.

As a climate and Earth science communicator, I find this is the biggest challenge. We’re in a constant fight to capture attention, to move people, to make them care about how their behavior is affecting Earth.

To feel something.

But we get caught up with logical analysis of facts and don’t understand why many people don’t hear our stories. This is incredibly frustrating because, for us, climate change is so important, so dire, such a big deal. We desperately want to reach out and let our stories be told; to find the right way for the meaning to get through.

So from now on, I’m committed. My goal is to find a way to inspire you to feel something.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


comments ( )

August 6, 2014
posted by Holly Shaftel
13:02 PDT

Holly Shaftel
Holly Shaftel is an editor and social media specialist for NASA's Global Climate Change website.

Want to see something really cool? Duh. JPL's visualization team has updated the International Space Station (ISS) in NASA's Eyes on the Earth app to include the agency's next mission, ISS-RapidScat.

I know what you're thinking: What will RapidScat do, and why is it called that? RapidScat, short for "Rapid Scatterometer" (a scatterometer being a type of radar that bounces microwaves off Earth's surface and measures the strength and direction of return signals), is going to observe ocean winds from the ISS. Ocean winds tell scientists about the complex relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. The mission will also tell scientists the role the sun's heat plays in creating winds. These data will contribute to both weather (short-term and local) and climate (long-term and global) predictions, such as those related to El Niño.

You might also wonder how it's going to be attached to the ISS. NASA partnered with SpaceX to use the company's Dragon, a free-flying spacecraft that will deliver the instrument to the station. Once there, an arm attached to the station will grab RapidScat from inside the Dragon and install it on the end of the station's Columbus laboratory.

Video of ISS-RapidScat, as seen in NASA's Eyes on the Earth web app. RapidScat is scheduled to launch in September 2014 via a SpaceX Dragon.

So, now there's a virtual RapidScat aboard a virtual ISS in NASA's Eyes on the Earth app. It's awesome and super detailed. In Eyes on the Earth, every spacecraft is a high-end, photorealistic (i.e., closely resembling the real-life spacecraft) rendering created by a 3D art director. You can view the spacecraft orbiting Earth, zoom in and/or access real-time data from your keyboard.

ISS-RapidScat is scheduled to launch in September 2014. Learn more about the science and instrument.

As always, we look forward to your comments.


ISS-RapidScat 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.

comments ( )

July 18, 2014
12:41 PDT
Flirting with gravity

Like a rocket, Ammed, an aerialist from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey's Tuniziani Troupe, shoots toward the sky. Credit: Richie Gaona

“If you release the fly bar too early,” explains Richie Gaona, fourth-generation trapeze artist turned trainer, “your trick will go long and you risk banging into the catcher.” We are standing near the net talking about timing. He tosses a gardening glove into the air. It spins and lands a few feet away.

Rolando Bells on the launch pad preparing to take flight, while Kristin Finley and the rest of the Tunizianis act as support crew.
Rolando Bells on the launch pad preparing to take flight, while Kristin Finley and the rest of the Tunizianis act as support crew.

“If you hold on too long, then your trick is short and you’ll miss.” Someone brings back the glove and he throws it again. It goes up spinning, but this time travels backwards. “If you let go at just the right moment, you get vertical lift, then a moment of stillness and end up a perfect arm's distance from the catcher.” The glove goes up, spins twice, and lands squarely where he intended with a satisfying plunk.

When people find out that I work at NASA and fly trapeze, they’re surprised that I have such diverse interests. I don’t see it that way: It’s the same sky, just a different type of rocket.

Richie’s "timing" explanation uses the same principles of physics that NASA uses to deploy many of its spacecraft. A combination of physics and timing is what accounted for the tight 30-second launch window of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) earlier this month. OCO-2 must arrive in the A-Train lineup as precisely as a trapeze artist performing a complex acrobatic trick. Two other NASA Earth science missions launching this year, ISS-RapidScat and CATS, will exploit the same science and math equations for their meticulous rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

I never did run away to join the circus. But Kristin Finley, the girl I stood next to for so many years on the platform (just another term for "launch pad"), made it all the way to the top. Although our journeys seem like worlds apart, they're actually more like a parallel universe.

That’s me in the sky over a party. (Credit: Bobby C. King)
That’s me in the sky over a party. (Credit: Bobby C. King)

To me, NASA is enough like soaring through the air, shooting for the sky and flirting with the forces of gravity. And even though Kristin has traveled all around the globe, just like one of NASA’s Earth-orbiting satellites, the trapeze troupe she performs with came back into town this week.

So, for a day I ran away (a couple miles downtown, actually) to get swept up in flight, up in the air, thrusting into space and reaching for the sky.

Why do trapeze artists do what they do? The same reason we do what we do at NASA. It’s the attraction to what seems impossible; the relationship with space, to leave the ground and go upward, going as high as you can; to push boundaries using a combination of physics and sheer determination.

We push ourselves for the pure joy of pushing, and the hope that those who watch will be moved and inspired; that someone, somewhere, might see what we’re doing and consider pushing beyond their perceived limits, real or otherwise.

           Kristin with the Flying Bells. (Credit: Katia Chrispin)

As always, I look forward to your comments.


OCO-2, ISS-RapidScat and CATS are 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.

comments ( )