36-Spaceship Earth: Overseeing space…& Earth

When Christa Peters-Lidard cold-called the head of NASA’s hydrology lab as an undergrad, she wasn’t thinking she’d eventually land that very position. Now as the Acting Director for Sciences and Exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Christa oversees several critical programs – either orbiting, like the James Webb Telescope, or currently in development – by ensuring scientists have the resources they need for a successful mission. Christa sits down with us to touch on her extensive career, the difficult decision of leaving academia for NASA, and what we could expect in the new space economy.

This episode was produced by Jason Rodriguez and Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashely Hamer.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                What is one thing that you’ll repeatedly sing the praises of, that other folks might not appreciate or be aware of? What are you a cheerleader for?

Vicky Thompson:           00:12                Oh, gosh. Okay. One thing? I’ve got three things.

Shane Hanlon:              00:16                Oh my goodness. All right.

Vicky Thompson:           00:17                A couple of things. Penny loafers, paper planners…

Shane Hanlon:              00:23                Wait. No. You can’t… Stop. We’re going to go through this one by one. Why penny loafers?

Vicky Thompson:           00:27                Oh. Because, high heels are overrated.

Shane Hanlon:              00:30                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:30                And I love a short-

Shane Hanlon:              00:31                Penny loafers specifically for women.

Vicky Thompson:           00:33                Oh, for women. Yes.

Shane Hanlon:              00:34                Or for individuals who wear high heels, or are expected to wear high heels.

Vicky Thompson:           00:37                Yeah. No. Maybe I just had a reaction. Not for men somehow, in my mind.

Shane Hanlon:              00:44                Yes. See? I don’t love penny loafers.

Vicky Thompson:           00:44                Yeah. It reminds me too much of… I went to Catholic high school, and we wore uniforms. So penny loafers for men… But a penny loafer for me…

Shane Hanlon:              00:54                Okay. Gotcha.

Vicky Thompson:           00:55                Great news.

Shane Hanlon:              00:55                All right. Next?

Vicky Thompson:           00:56                Yeah. Okay. Paper planners.

Shane Hanlon:              00:59                Oh, okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:59                I feel like I don’t have to explain that.

Shane Hanlon:              01:01                You don’t have to explain that. Yeah. I get it.

Vicky Thompson:           01:04                Yeah. And then more recently, old school e-readers. Just a plain Kindle.

Shane Hanlon:              01:10                Oh. That you can do nothing else except for read on?

Vicky Thompson:           01:12                Yeah. Just read. I guess, you could just do a book. But books take up, I feel like paper and all that.

Shane Hanlon:              01:18                Yeah. So this wasn’t-

Vicky Thompson:           01:19                I’m not going to get into an argument.

Shane Hanlon:              01:21                This wasn’t my answer, but we are going to talk about this. Are you more of an e-reader? Do you like digital reading medium? Or do you like books more? If space wasn’t an issue.

Vicky Thompson:           01:35                Oh, no. Then I would… Then books, for sure. But I like having the ability to have many books in my pocket.

Shane Hanlon:              01:42                I see. Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           01:44                Because, I am a switcher of books. I’ll be reading a couple books at once. And then also, [inaudible 00:01:49] space. But space, not withstanding-

Shane Hanlon:              01:54                Yeah. See? I’m the opposite. I hate e-readers, for me personally. I don’t engage with them like I would otherwise. And I very much… I appreciate a physical book. Something to me is just… I love a physical book. I’ll make room for it. I 100% understand the arguments. My partner has an e-reader, all of that. But no, I personally cannot engage on an e-reader.

Vicky Thompson:           02:16                Really?

Shane Hanlon:              02:17                It’s just not… Yeah. It’s just not quite how I work. One of the things… Or you have a question about this.

Vicky Thompson:           02:25                Well I was going to say, what if they could somehow make an e-reader that smelled like a book?

Shane Hanlon:              02:31                I don’t know. I actually don’t know what it is about books. I don’t know specifically, what the experience is. I do like having a physical book though, because that’s a thing. My partner gives me crap, because I don’t… I was going to say I don’t like libraries. That’s not true at all. I will sing the praises of libraries. I think libraries are very important, especially in this specific moment.

                                    02:48                But I like owning books. Because, part of our decor in our household are… No, seriously. Books. We have books everywhere.

Vicky Thompson:           02:57                No. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              02:57                So that’s something that’s… It’s really meaningful to me. And this is really funny, because this is going to transition out to something that I’m going to advocate for. That is so… This is not who I am, but I’ve just discovered this recently. I got married last fall, as you know. As listeners know. And it was the first time in my life that I ever… It wasn’t a super fancy wedding. It was very us. But instead of having a tuxedo, I bought myself a tailored suit. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever really had anything tailored for me. And this is… It’s not super fancy. Off the rack. Opposed to just buying something off the rack.

Vicky Thompson:           03:36                Okay.

Shane Hanlon:              03:36                Yeah. And this suit is… I’ve worn this suit. We got married in October. I’ve worn this suit over a half dozen times in three months. I’m not a fancy person. We do not do fancy things. But if there is just an opportunity for me to put at least this jacket on that fits me so very well… I’m still… I’m wearing a thermal Henley today. I wear flannel all the time. I am not a fancy person. But have the opportunity to just get one thing that fits you really nicely. It doesn’t even have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be expensive, or anything like that. But just something that fits you really well. Ooh, there’s just something about it.

Vicky Thompson:           04:25                Yeah. It’s a really nice suit.

Shane Hanlon:              04:26                Oh, thank you.

Vicky Thompson:           04:27                I’ll give you that. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              04:29                This isn’t even the purpose of this. But I do appreciate that, Vicky.

                                    04:37                Science is fascinating. But don’t just take my word for it, join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           04:47                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              04:48                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

                                    04:54                Okay. We are here talking about things we love, and things we want to sing the praises of. And Vicky, it’s not just to talk about how good I look in a suit.

Vicky Thompson:           05:06                Oh. You’ve been waiting to talk about how good you look in a suit.

Shane Hanlon:              05:11                Oh my gosh. I’m going to regret this entire beginning of this episode. But here we are. But no, there is always a third pod serving. There is a method to my madness, essentially.

Vicky Thompson:           05:28                Okay. Tell me about this.

Shane Hanlon:              05:28                Okay. So-

Vicky Thompson:           05:29                What are we hearing today?

Shane Hanlon:              05:31                It might be roundabout. But we are hearing from a director at NASA who in addition to her many, many responsibilities… She’s not out here doing her own QVC channel like we are. Hawking wears, and that type of thing.

                                    05:45                But she is advocating on behalf of her division. And singing the praises of her division, and the folks who work for her. And the really great work they do to make sure they have the support and resources that may need to do that critical work. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.

Christa Peters-Lidard:    06:09                Hello, my name is Christa Peters-Lidard. I am currently the acting director for sciences and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Ashley Hamer:              06:21                Amazing. So what specifically does that entail?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    06:27                Well, the Sciences and Exploration Directorate contains four different divisions that look at earth and space science. So our four divisions are the earth sciences division, the heliophysics division, which does space weather and everything about the sun. The solar system exploration division, which of course studies planetary science as well as… Not just our own solar system, but other solar systems. And also, our astrophysics division. Which of course, studies the universe.

                                    07:01                I oversee really critical programs that are either orbiting, or in development. And so, a lot of our time is spent making sure that those programs are successful. So many of you have seen some of the amazing images from our James Webb Space Telescope, or from some of our earth science missions, like the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission. Some of you may have seen our OSIRIS-REx grab a sample from the asteroid, Bennu. I mean, those are the kind of things that we review.

                                    07:33                We want to make sure they’re on track, that things are… They have what they need. And so, my job is to make sure we have a successful science organization. And so, I live vicariously through all the scientists in our divisions that do really amazing science. And I’m here to help them when things get into trouble. And then also, to help direct resources towards the next big thing that we want to do.

Ashley Hamer:              08:02                Yeah. That sounds like a really important job. That’s awesome. So just to step back, what inspired you to get into science?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    08:10                Oh, yeah. So I mean, I loved math and science from a really early age. And I just read books all the time. I loved books about constellations, and earth science. And volcanoes, and planets. And so as I went through school, the real light bulb moment for me was when I took earth science in ninth grade. I just loved it.

                                    08:37                And I’m like, this is what I want to do. And so I went for an undergraduate degree in geophysics, and I just was looking for opportunities to do earth science. And I really found a break with the federal government, actually. Because, they had an internship program at the US Geological Survey. And that’s what brought me into hydrology, which is the field that I studied. It was through my USGS colleagues, that they turned me onto remote sensing. And remote sensing in hydrology. And so my eyes were open that I could use satellites and the vantage point of space to do the science that I was really into, which was understanding the water cycle. And so that’s what brought me to grad school and to NASA, was that moment when I learned from my internship. And they said, you should call the head of the hydrology branch at Goddard Space Flight Center.

                                    09:42                And so, I cold called him. This was before Google. Before email. I called him. And I’m like, I’m an undergrad. I’m looking at grad school. What should I do? I’m interested in remote sensing and hydrology. And he pointed me to ultimately my advisor at Princeton University, because they were doing field campaigns. And so ultimately not only did I get my degree in that area, I later had that job. So when I came to Goddard, I became the head of the hydrology lab. Which… So I got to give props to Ted Ingman. Dr. Ted Ingman. He was the head of the hydrology lab that spoke to a lowly undergrad that cold called him, and brought me into this remote sensing and hydrology that ultimately led me to this career at NASA.

Ashley Hamer:              10:36                Oh, that’s a fantastic story.

                                    10:48                Oh, I have so many questions. So I also want to ask you a question that I’ve been wondering about a lot, as I talk to earth science people at NASA. You mentioned how when you first heard about NASA, you just thought about space. I have a feeling you probably get that a lot. People don’t really know about the earth sciences division. How do you feel about that, as a cheerleader of everything that NASA does? I mean, is that frustrating? Or is that understandable?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    11:15                It is true that every time I go out and speak, I talk about earth science. I’m like, you’ve probably heard about all the planets that NASA studies. But you may not know that we really started studying our own planet. Planet earth. And our earth sciences division is actually our largest division at Goddard. Yes. It’s a constant messaging issue, to make sure that people do know that we do study earth. And it’s a strong and important program.

                                    11:45                But it’s true that I think the other parts of NASA capture the imagination. I mean, it’s just something that people… That only NASA does. Whereas for earth science, I think we have a lot of partners with NOAA and with USGS. With Landsat. I mean, we’ve got… There’s a lot. Now, in the commercial sector. I mean, we’re… There’s so many folks doing earth science, that it doesn’t stand out like it probably used to with our earth observing system.

                                    12:16                Yeah. It’s a good point. I mean, I think we… Every time I talk, I message on that. But I think it’s true that it is an underappreciated part of NASA.

Ashley Hamer:              12:29                Sure. Yeah. All right. So back on you. Did you have any people or things that were sources of inspiration for you as you came up?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    12:38                Yeah. Well I have to say, I mean you start out with your parents. I mean, both of my parents are very technical people. I mean, my father was an engineer. Electrical engineer. My mom actually was a computer… She ran a computer help desk. So I think they really supported me in pursuing my geeky dreams. But even beyond that, I think one of the most important influences in my career was one of my teachers. My math teacher, actually. Mr. [inaudible 00:13:16]. And so he was my math teacher first in middle school, and then he moved up into the high school when I moved up. So I actually had him as a teacher three times. And he also was the coach of our math team. So we had a math contest team. We would take these math contests, and compete statewide.

Ashley Hamer:              13:37                Sure. Like from, what’s the movie mean? Mean Girls. They have a math contest. Anyway…

Christa Peters-Lidard:    13:43                Yeah. So I was very into math contests. But he was really creative in his approach to teaching math, which I love.

                                    13:53                I mean, it was… And I think that helped keep me interested and hooked. Because going through middle school and high school, I mean a lot of people, especially women drop out of math and science. And I just stuck with it. Because I was good at it, and I loved it. And so, he was a huge influence on me.

Ashley Hamer:              14:13                Yeah. Definitely. I could see that. And then is there anyone that you didn’t see for inspiration, that you wish you had?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    14:20                Yeah. I really didn’t… I mean there were many times in my career, even these internships I’m talking about, there were no female mentors. All of my mentors were men. So I was always wondering, where are all the women in hydrology? And where are all the women in earth science? And as time went on, I found them. But I think it was definitely something early on when I was in either undergraduate or even early graduate school days, it was a noticeable gap. And so, I always felt I was… There were definitely times when I was the only woman in the room, or the only woman in a class. It’d just be… That was the way it was for a while. But I’m so happy that, that’s… It’s not that way anymore.

Ashley Hamer:              15:14                And were there any obstacles to you being where you are today?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    15:19                Yeah. So for me, I would say… Well, first of all… This wasn’t an obstacle, but it was a challenge. So let me just say that my family really supported me when I had my two kids. So when my two kids were young, it was hard. I mean not sleeping well, trying to think. I mean this job is about thinking, and thinking clearly. And it’s hard to think clearly when you’re not getting sleep, and you’re dealing with a toddler. And when they get ear infections, and all that stuff. So my family was super supportive. I mean my parents stayed with us for quite a while, and helped with the kids. And then I should also point out that Goddard has onsite daycare, and onsite lactation facilities. So that’s amazing. Yeah.

Ashley Hamer:              16:05                What year was this, by the way?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    16:07                Well when I came to Goddard, it was 2001. The daycare and the lactation facilities were established I think, well before that. Probably at least five to 10 years before that. So just so progressive. Now it seems like, oh yeah. Of course, it does. But no, this was a long time ago. So both of my kids went to the daycare here. They called it space school. It was so cute. Space school.

                                    16:35                And their class names were the little dippers, and the constellations. It was like, oh. Yeah. So I think obstacle wise, just trying to be a working mother. And trying to be there for all of their events. And just balancing all that was hard. So I mean, I’ve… My husband’s been super supportive. My parents, everyone. All my in-laws. It’s been… Being here with a supportive family has made it all possible.

Ashley Hamer:              17:10                That’s fantastic. What personal achievement are you most proud of?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    17:15                Yeah. So I would say one of the big projects I led when I came to Goddard, was something called the Land Information System. And this was really a huge team effort. Basically, developing software that assimilates data from all kinds of satellites. And tries to improve our understanding of the hydrology on the land surface. And that ultimately won a software of the year award from NASA in 2005, so that was really awesome. But I think what’s even more awesome is that it has revolutionized the way the Air Force and the USAID, a program called FEWSNET. Which is the Famine Early Warning System Network. They both use that software now, to help them with their decisions. So I mean, it’s more than just bringing a bunch of data into a system. It’s actually used to help them understand, is there going to be a drought? And is the drought going to get more severe? And is that going to lead to a famine?

                                    18:23                And then they make decisions about aid, based on our forecasts of drought. Or in the Air Force case, they want to know what is the soil moisture doing? How does that affect the ability of a tank to move through some area? Or they want to know how does that affect the development of clouds? And ultimately, the visibility for Air Force. I mean, it’s amazing. So we’ve been able to bring the capabilities of NASA to these other agencies, that are our partners.

Ashley Hamer:              18:57                So what’s next on the horizon for you?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    19:00                I’m the acting director right now. I’m looking forward to where our science missions are headed next. So in earth science, we have the earth system observatory. And specifically, the atmosphere observing system. Which we are getting ready to go into formulation very soon. We’re working on Landsat Next, which is the next generation of the 50-year plus Landsat record. In heliophysics, we’re working on the Geospace Dynamics Constellation called GDC. Which is going to revolutionize space weather.

                                    19:37                And of course in the solar system area, I mean we’re getting ready to have a sample come back from an asteroid. I mean, how amazing is that? That’s going to be… It’s going to land this fall. We’re going to be able to analyze it. It’s just amazing. And then, we’re getting ready to go to Venus. So we have a new mission called Da Vinci that’s going to be not only orbiting around Venus, but going through the atmosphere. And we’re going to for the first time, be able to really understand more about the composition of the Venetian atmosphere.

                                    20:08                And of course following on the success of James Webb and astrophysics, we’re looking at the next big space telescope, which is the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. So that’s in formulation right now. And we’re looking forward to a new deep field survey, that’s going to be many times greater than Hubble. And it’s going to compliment the kind of observations we’re having from James Webb. So it’s a great time to be in science. So many exciting flagships, and other missions going on. And that’s the best part about this job, is I’m learning so much about every aspect of earth and space science. And it’s just fun. I love it.

Ashley Hamer:              20:53                It really does sound fun. That sounds super exciting. And what a time to be in earth and space science.

                                    21:07                So what do you see as one of the biggest challenges in science today?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    21:12                I think that we don’t always connect the dots as well as we should, about the impact of science on everything. I mean, science is the R&D for the future. So we learn about our universe. But ultimately, we also… As we explore this universe, I mean we’re understanding not only really fundamental questions about, where is life? How did life evolve? How did our universe evolve? But also, I mean we are understanding the abundance of different elements. I mean ultimately, we might understand how different planets have evolved. And how they’ve supported life. And we might be able to bring it back to supporting life on earth. So I mean earth 1.0 is here, but earth 2.0 could be out there. And so imagine knowing our place in the universe, and how we can have a sustainable path towards intelligent life going forward. I mean, these are huge questions.

                                    22:25                I think if we look at some of the challenges, not just in terms of funding, but in terms of partnerships. I mean, the other thing that’s happening right now is that the private sector is revolutionizing access to space. So I mean, we didn’t have all these potential opportunities to reach space before. Now we’re going to have multiple space stations, and we’re going to have different ways to get to moon and Mars. So I think it’s an exciting time, but it’s a little uncertain. Because, what is NASA’s role in that? How does NASA help facilitate these partnerships and maintain a focus on the big questions, while also partnering with the earth and space sector to advance this new economy? I mean, there’s going to be a new space economy. And how do you protect the science? If everyone lands in a certain place and they want to set up a place to live there, well then what does that do to scientific investigations?

                                    23:40                I mean if you’ve got a permanent presence on the moon or on Mars, who decides what you can do for scientific use, versus for commercial use? So that’s I think, a big challenge we’re going to have to navigate as we move forward is, this is a new era. It’s back… It’s like when we first started exploring the South Pole, and we set up research stations on the South Pole. And we have international agreements about who maintains what, and how you help each other out. We’re going to need similar… And we are working on that, for the Artemis Accords. So how do you share space going forward? And how do you govern space? So lots of really thorny policy issues. But as a scientist, I’m especially interested in all of the opportunities can lead to amazing new discoveries. And they can lead us in paths that we can’t even anticipate right now.

Ashley Hamer:              24:46                Yeah. Gosh. Yeah. Those are big questions, but probably pretty exciting to be able to be involved in making them right. That’s great.

                                    24:54                Is there anything that you want to plug, or make sure that the audience knows about what you’re working on? Or what other people are working on?

Christa Peters-Lidard:    25:05                So I would just say that NASA, especially Goddess Space Flight Center, I mean this is a special place. We conceive of new missions. We design them, we build them. We launch them. We operate them. And then, we think of the next thing. And so, what an amazing place to be. And I got to give a shout-out. It’s not just the scientists, it’s the engineers, it’s the project managers. It’s the facilities folks. I mean, it’s everyone. Safety. I mean, we’re all part of a team. And what I love about Goddard is the team. I feel like we work so well when we work together, and we make great things happen.

Shane Hanlon:              26:00                Well Vicky, do you think this podcast is a special place?

Vicky Thompson:           26:06                I do. I feel like it’s a special physical, and metaphorical place for me. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              26:14                That’s so nice.

Vicky Thompson:           26:15                I love sitting in my basement, and hearing great stories. And talking to you. It’s fun.

Shane Hanlon:              26:21                Yeah. And well, folks don’t… They see some of this or hear some of this in our stingers, or on the stuff. If you are not finding us on Instagram or TikTok, you can see… You should. Because you get to see us actually do this, if you’re interested in that. And some of our silly outtakes. But no, I agree with you.

                                    26:40                This has been really great. And the reason why we’re waxing a little bit poetic about this is, this the final episode of our first season. Our first… Well, not kind of. Our first weekly release season. Yeah. This has been really great, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           26:53                Yeah. It has been great. It’s been super fun.

Shane Hanlon:              26:57                Good. Because, we’re doing it again. But in addition to all the wonderful people who made this season and episode happen, credit’s incoming, I want to thank all of you out there for listening. Vicky and I would do this regardless, if [inaudible 00:27:13] would allow us to do it. Because, this is fun for us. But it really means a lot for all of you out there listening, and responding. And engaging with us. And so just as a logistical thing, we’re going to take a couple months to start on season two.

Vicky Thompson:           27:29                Can you tell us anything about season two? Can you reveal anything for everyone?

Shane Hanlon:              27:33                Sure. Yeah. We have some stuff nailed down. We’re going to have some more stories from NASA, which will be really exciting. We’re going to be talking climate change, and math. And trust me, it’s really going to be super interesting. We’re partnering with another organization to tell some really fun, and fascinating, and fantastic stories. And then, I know this is fall. I know it’s a ways for now, but this is how we plan these things. We’re going to dive into the science behind horror and science fiction around spooky season. Among other things. So they’re just the things we have listed on our slate already.

Vicky Thompson:           28:06                I’m so excited for what the next season will bring.

Shane Hanlon:              28:10                Yeah. No, I am too. In the meantime, we are going to still be releasing. Doing some re-releases. Some special releases in the pod on the feed, so be sure to pay attention to that. But for now, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           28:25                Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview. And to NASA for sponsoring the series.

Shane Hanlon:              28:31                This episode was produced by Jason Rodriguez, and me. With Audio engineering from Colin Warren, and artwork by Karen Romano Young.

Vicky Thompson:           28:38                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app, or at thirdpodfromthe sun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              28:47                Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week.

                                    28:55                Again, I don’t know what we’re doing.

Vicky Thompson:           28:57                So QVC channel… I feel like QVC, what would the title of our show be? QVC? We’re selling penny loafers, paper planners, Kindles.

Shane Hanlon:              29:10                Tailored suits.

Vicky Thompson:           29:11                And tailored suits. Anyway, it would just be a show just for us. I don’t even know what QVC shows are named anyway.

Shane Hanlon:              29:23                Back to being basic?

Vicky Thompson:           29:25                Back to being basic.

Shane Hanlon:              29:29                Back to, in parentheses, being the basics.

Vicky Thompson:           29:32                Yeah. That’s a good one.

Shane Hanlon:              29:34                That’s actually… That’d be it. It’d be back to being the basics.

Vicky Thompson:           29:36                I feel like that’s a brand of socks somehow.

Shane Hanlon:              29:39                What…

Vicky Thompson:           29:44                Third Pod from the Sun.

Shane Hanlon:              29:45                It feels like a knockoff pirate store.

Vicky Thompson:           29:48                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              29:50                Because, even… I know that’s the paper planning part of it. But just all those things together feel very of a piece, even though they are different wears. All right. Anyways…

Vicky Thompson:           30:05                Now I’m going to look at penny loafers this afternoon online.

Shane Hanlon:              30:09                I want this for you.


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