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Friday, July 17, 2015

The Women who Power NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto


When Fran Bagenal began her career working on NASA’s Voyager mission to the outer planets, she was among just a handful of women on the team. But that didn’t phase her. “That’s just how it was,” she explains, adding that she was focused on particles and plasma. “Space physics was just my way of exploring the solar system.” Now, as the particles and plasma science team leader on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, her response to the relative abundance of women on the team is met mostly with a shrug. “This isn’t remarkable—it’s just how it is.”

Bagenal’s attitude regarding the strong female presence on the New Horizons mission is mostly echoed by colleagues who were informally surveyed. “I've never really thought about it,” says Kim Ennico, a deputy project scientist on New Horizons who calibrates instruments on the spacecraft and monitors their status. “I’m really only conscious of it when there are only women in a meeting room.”

In preparation for New Horizons’ Pluto flyby—the mission phase between July 7 and July 16—Ennico works with Leslie Young, another deputy project scientist who is also the encounter planning leader on the science team. Young is tasked with fitting all of New Horizons’ science goals into the precious few days the spacecraft will be in the near vicinity of Pluto. “I figure out the spacecraft’s priorities,” she says, describing the process as, “a job that means scheduling observations that can run simultaneously to gather the most data in a limited time.”

Young’s flyby playbook for New Horizons is turned into spacecraft commands by the science operation team managed by Tiffany Finley, who calls the gender balance on the New Horizons team “refreshing.”

Spacecraft commands are passed on to the mission operations team, managed by Alice Bowman. She personally reads every line of code before it’s sent on a four-and-a-half hour journey to New Horizons. “I’m the last one who signs off on everything we send to the spacecraft,” she explains. “I want to make sure it’s perfect.”

Of course, the flyby science couldn’t happen without the spacecraft arriving at its target, a major challenge that falls to Yanping Guo. As the mission design leader, Guo configured the entire mission trajectory, including the Jupiter and Pluto flybys. In short, “My job is to get New Horizons to Pluto.”

The dozens of women who are powering New Horizons to a history-making July 14 flyby of Pluto look forward to the day when the conversation about gender becomes irrelevant. “Girls will be inspired to be scientists and boys will grow up to be ‘gender blind,’ seeing women in science as the norm," says Young.

For deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin, it’s simple. “New Horizons is about a group of talented, smart people who are passionate about the mission. That’s what makes New Horizons awesome.”

At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14 New Horizons will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.

Follow the path of the spacecraft in coming days in real time with a visualization of the actual trajectory data, using NASA’s online Eyes on Pluto.

Stay in touch with the New Horizons mission with #PlutoFlyby and on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1

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