One giant leap: For first-generational beginnings & talking rockets!

Peter Falcon is an Earth Science communications specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with an atypical background: behavioral science. As a communications specialist, Peter acts as a liaison between NASA projects – such as the CloudSat program – and students, teachers, and the general public. Peter sits down with us to talk about his academic upbringing, the important role family has played in his life and career, and how every moment builds toward the potential of our character.
This episode was produced by Zoe Swiss and Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashley Hamer.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                Have you ever been in the position where you’ve been the liaison or a go-between, between different people or groups, whether professionally or personally or anything like that?

Vicky Thompson:           00:12                I try to avoid that at all costs.

Shane Hanlon:              00:14                Oh, really?

Vicky Thompson:           00:16                Yeah. Well at work, obviously I do it, but in my personal life, I just avoid it. It’s just mind…. I can’t even talk. I hate it so much.

Shane Hanlon:              00:30                The way it’s coming off is that you think of this as being a combative experience, that you’re bringing disparate groups to the table. It couldn’t even just be friend groups meeting or something like that?

Vicky Thompson:           00:39                Oh no, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about, “Let’s go to Happy Hour.”

Shane Hanlon:              00:44                You used to go a Meetup group.

Vicky Thompson:           00:46                Yeah, I made the meetup and then people came or they didn’t come.

Shane Hanlon:              00:49                Oh, okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:50                I wasn’t trying to organize anybody around a date or a place or anything like that. That’s the thing. I can’t do it if there’s a group text happening, I’ll suggest what we should do and then I just let it go where it will, and then I show up at the thing I’m not going to.

Shane Hanlon:              01:07                See, I wish I could do that. I don’t want to be this person, but I am this person. I am the arranger or the organizer, I do it professionally all the time, sure, but personally also trying to translate things back and forth and it just gets so deeply ingrained and involved and I care so much that I’m always disappointed and I set myself up for disappointment, but I’m just always disappointed. It’s probably not very healthy.

Vicky Thompson:           01:35                No, I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do it is because then if we go to the place and it was like so firmly my doing, then what if…

Shane Hanlon:              01:47                People don’t like it?

Vicky Thompson:           01:48                My friends don’t like it, or they don’t have a good time or something weird happens. Then it’s my fault.

Shane Hanlon:              01:53                I was literally hanging out with a friend recently who I care, for whatever reason, I care deeply about their opinion, I don’t know.

Vicky Thompson:           01:58                Who knows?

Shane Hanlon:              02:03                And I just find I’m just constantly, I just want their approval. We go out to a place to eat or we go to a bar or a brewery or something. “What do you think? What’s going on? I like this. Do you like this?” And they’re lovely. They’re one of my best friends, but to a person always, “Yeah, sure. This was fine.” Oh my gosh.

Vicky Thompson:           02:21                No. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              02:22                Heart wrenching. 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:           02:39                And I’m Vicky Thompson

Shane Hanlon:              02:40                And this is Third Pod From the Sun. We are talking about being a go-between, or liaising, which is a word. No matter how many times I write it, I cannot spell liaison, liaising correctly. I just don’t know why. But we’re talking about this because our guest today is a bridge builder, a connector, a liasor. Liasor? Is that a right way to say this?

Vicky Thompson:           03:12                Liasor is not a word.

Shane Hanlon:              03:14                It sounds like a fancy way of saying laser.

Vicky Thompson:           03:18                It’s literally underlined in red in the document that we’re looking at right now.

Shane Hanlon:              03:22                Stop reading the document, Vicky, stop adhering to the script that we planned out. And you know what? Maybe it should be. Maybe it should be a word, but anyways.

Vicky Thompson:           03:33                Oh.

Shane Hanlon:              03:33                Nope? We’re going to shoot right past that.

Vicky Thompson:           03:36                Go past it.

Shane Hanlon:              03:36                Not going to let you rebut that. I will let our guest give himself a proper introduction. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.

Peter Falcon:                03:51                My name is Peter Falcon and I work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is nestled in the foothills of Pasadena, California. I am an Earth Science Communications Specialist. I’m also a globe partner and a master trainer. And at NASA asset we tend to wear a lot of hats. So I am the communications lead for the clouds at Mission.

                                    04:13                And really my role is I act as liaison between the engineers that build the instruments. So I understand how radar technology works, how lasers spectrometers work. I also work with the scientists so I can understand the data, the importance of the data, what the colors mean, what’s the societal benefit of the data. And then I turn around and share this information with the general public, with teachers, and with students.

                                    04:38                And my other hat, when I’m doing the Globe program, I am a professional development workshop coordinator. I also work with teachers talking to them about the importance of making environmental measurements that coincide with NASA satellites. And then I also work with students, helping them with their research, helping them understand the data, how they can coordinate their observations with the satellite observations and kind of how to make heads or tails of the data because it can be very, very difficult to see if you don’t have a science background.

                                    05:09                I have a very atypical route to NASA, which is actually as the more people I meet, it’s not atypical at all. My degree is actually in behavioral science. So I was going to school for a psychology to be a child psychologist, but as I was going to school full-time for that, I was actually working as intern at NASA. And the more I worked there, the more I learned. I asked lots of questions and I just realized, “This is some cool work that we’re doing here and I really want to be a part of it.”

                                    05:38                So I just started working and asking lots of questions to everyone I met, engineers, scientists, communicators, educators, and I just started learning a lot and I really enjoyed it. So that’s kind of how I got into JPL and that’s how I’ve been there for 30 years.

Ashley Hamer:              05:53                Wait, so I understand, what even inspired you to do an internship at NASA? How did that happen when you were doing behavioral science?

Peter Falcon:                06:04                So I actually applied in December. I have an aunt who works at JPL as well, and she got me an application. I applied in December. Sometime in June, they called me and I completely forgot when they called and said, “This is JPL.” I thought, “What’s JPL again?” And when I realized what it was, I right away took the call and said yes to everything they asked and stood there for about three months. And at the end of the summer, they really liked my work ethic. So they offered me a position to be an academic part-time employee, which I took.

                                    06:32                And it was great because when other college students are working at McDonald’s at making money, I was learning science and learning how to put together professional presentations and learning about how to communicate to the people. So it was a great learning experience for me. And as I mentioned, it’s NASA. Why would you ever want to leave?

Shane Hanlon:              06:49                Is that how you feel about Third Pod that you never want to leave?

Vicky Thompson:           07:04                I kind of feel like your friend at the restaurant that you chose, you keep asking me. I think this is the second time this month that you’ve asked me about my commitment here.

Shane Hanlon:              07:13                I’m just incredibly insecure. I just want people to like me. Maybe just you.

Vicky Thompson:           07:21                Aw.

Shane Hanlon:              07:23                Well, I’m not worried about you leaving the podcast, Vicky. I think that you like this, but maybe we’ll go… I think my biggest fear might be maybe one day we’ll sign in to record and we’ll do our intro and I’ll go, “Hi, Vicky.” And you’ll go, “I quit.”

Vicky Thompson:           07:42                Oh, okay. I have to remember that because that’s definitely how I’m going to do it when I do it.

Shane Hanlon:              07:48                Just mic drop at that point too. Just knock it off the stand.

Vicky Thompson:           07:51                Yeah, just fling everything across the room.

Shane Hanlon:              07:54                Well, hopefully the day doesn’t come, or at least doesn’t come anytime soon. But getting back to Peter, frankly, he talked about his aunt and NASA, so we asked him about any other inspirations that he might have had on his journey.

Peter Falcon:                08:09                My inspiration, well, that one is, I’m very family orientated. I have a huge family. And for me, my inspiration for just about anything in life has always been my grandmother, I have a Mexican background so we call her abuelita. Jusina is her name. She’s my inspiration because of the hard life that she lived.

                                    08:29                She left an abusive marriage in Mexico, took her eight kids, got their paperwork in order, left in the middle of the night, came to Los Angeles to Boyle Heights at East Los Angeles, and not knowing the language, not having a job, she have raised her kids, kept them off the streets, off of drugs, off of alcohol. And they say she ruled with an iron fist. And I look at my grandmother, she’s five feet and I think, “How can she do that?”

                                    08:57                But to her credit, she raised eight wonderful kids. And from those kids I have roughly about 80 cousins, second cousins, third cousins. And I’m very happy to say I’m the first to graduate from university. So anytime I have any type of difficulty in life, in school, in work, in my personal life, and when I think things are really bad for me, I turn around and look at my grandmother and I think, “I have her strength.”So anytime I run into something difficult, I look for her as my inspiration to get over that hump.

                                    09:29                It wasn’t until I got to university and really started taking a lot of different classes that you realize there’s a lot of things out there to learn and you just got hooked from a class to class. But it wasn’t until I did that internship that I realized, “Hey, this is for me. I really enjoy this. I really enjoy working with people from different backgrounds, working with students from different areas as well.”

                                    09:52                So I think for me that was the key to getting in to NASA is having that one foot in there, but also realizing I wanted to kick the door through and continue and put the other foot in as well.

Vicky Thompson:           10:08                Okay. Shane, I’ll ask you this one. Did you have any inspirational people in your life?

Shane Hanlon:              10:15                That’s tough. I know we had this mentoring conversation a few weeks back and I don’t know if there’s a person I can point to as a real inspiration, or like I said before, a mentor. I will say though, my dad was an inspiration from a don’t do this perspective. Oh, he was a blue collar electrician, very capable man, someone I very much look up to, even to this day.

                                    10:39                And my parents didn’t pressure any of my brothers or myself to go into a certain career. My dad kind of strongly recommended that we not do anything in the construction profession if we could help it. He’s like, “This was a good job for me and provided for our family, but don’t do this.” So I guess pushing away versus pushing towards.

Vicky Thompson:           11:06                That’s interesting. I think that makes sense. My dad was a mechanic, always did super physical work, and I feel like that really takes its toll on you.

Shane Hanlon:              11:15                That’s really what it was. Yeah. Encouraged this or discouraged us, whichever way you want to look at it, in a very positive and caring way.

Vicky Thompson:           11:24                Sure.

Shane Hanlon:              11:25                And with Peter, back to the interview, with all of the successes that he had at NASA, we were very curious about all of the kind of not so successful points that he had in his career.

Peter Falcon:                11:38                I remember when I first started, I just got my full-time job. I was the communications lead for Mission and we had a lot of great science coming out. And my job was to make sure I posted that on our website. And the internet was big as it is now. And there were so many articles written about the data that I just grabbed one and posted it.

                                    12:00                Little did I know it was an opinion piece. And an NASA watchdog quickly jumped on that within 10, 20 minutes of me posting it and wrote something, not very flattering, about the post and why I decided to pick an opinion piece opposed to picking all these other articles that I could have selected. And I quickly contacted my media representative and say, “Hey, I think I messed up and I can use some help.” And when I told him the problem, he said, “Don’t do anything. I’ll take care of it. Don’t reply to him, don’t answer any phone calls because it will go public.”

                                    12:34                And that’s when I realized the importance of having great teammates on hand to help you through these difficult times, who know their job, people who are willing to help you, they’re going to be there for you. So that was roughly about 20 years ago. And until this day when I see this person, I always think, “You saved my bacon.”

Ashley Hamer:              12:52                Yeah. Well, what was the biggest hurdle to you being here today?

Peter Falcon:                12:57                The biggest hurdle that I experienced in my career is often I would go to these conferences, these science conferences, and I will look around and I would look at the audience and I’m thinking, “PhD, two PhDs, masters, masters and a PhD.” And I’m looking around and I would think, “I’m the dumbest person in this room because I don’t have a PhD.” And so that really took a hit to my self-confidence.

                                    13:23                But then I realized when it was my turn to present, I was the expert at what I did. I was the expert in communication and education and only I knew those things, whereas the other PhD scientists didn’t and that helped me kind of overcome that. It’s something that I still have struggle with to this day is at NASA, there are a lot of smart people there. You heard of the A type personalities. There’s triple A type personalities people that work there that literally sleep in the room in their office to get their work done.

                                    13:54                It was difficult to kind of get over that. But the more experience I have, the more I realize, “I’m a pretty smart person too, and I have a lot to offer.” So I don’t feel that way as much. But it’s difficult when you have so many different applications of science and you’re not an expert in each one, but you do have to bone up on things and read up and do your research. And that’s part of the challenge of working there, is to make sure you know what’s going on and your fingers are on the pulse of what’s going on in the atmosphere, the ocean, the land, topography, all these different applications. It’s difficult, but it’s a challenge, but it’s fun.

Ashley Hamer:              14:32                And remembering that you’re the expert in the thing you’re the expert in. Not everybody knows everything and you can teach even the smartest person something that you know a lot about. So that’s a great reminder. What about the personal achievement that you’re the most proud of?

Peter Falcon:                14:48                Oh, I have it in the perfect example, there’s quite a few. One of them is I love working with students, young students. I think no matter what I’d be doing in life, I’m sure it would include working with kids because I have a lot of patience and I think I’m just a big kid to myself. I still love video games, I love horror movies.

                                    15:09                My favorite thing is when I’m explaining a complex science concept and I do it in a way that they can understand and then I see that light bulb go off in their head and they say, “Oh, I get it. You mean it’s like da da da da?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.” And I feel really good about myself. I almost kind of punch the air, if you will, because I feel like I just kind of planted a seed and now I can just step back and just kind of watch it germinate, watch it grow.

                                    15:34                So that’s been one of my favorite things is being able to do that in a way that different students at different age ranges can understand.

                                    15:42                Another thing that I enjoyed was, as I mentioned, I get to go to a lot of different countries, work with a lot of different students from different backgrounds. And I was in Thailand and I did a presentation there. And there was a young student who the teacher had told me she was ready to get out of this science program because she felt she wasn’t getting enough from it. And when I went to the visit and talked to her, I guess, reinvigorated her interest in science.

                                    16:08                So she stood with the program and then about two years later, she was a keynote speaker, one of four keynote speakers, at our conference. And the teacher told me she is going to go off onto university with, I believe it was some kind of science degree that she was going to get. And she said, “She was going to quit until you came and now look where she’s at.”

                                    16:30                And at first I didn’t believe the teacher, but then when I met the student, she said the exact same thing and it really kind of hit me right in the heart there. And I was like, “Aw, I did that.” And it was just yet really good that she was going to continue with her science degree. And then in Thailand, a lot of times female students don’t continue. So it was great for me to see that and see where she’s at today.

Shane Hanlon:              16:57                I hope someday that I can inspire someone like that.

Vicky Thompson:           17:02                I bet you do already, actually. Through the podcast, through your work on Story, what’s it called?

Shane Hanlon:              17:11                Story Glider.

Vicky Thompson:           17:12                Story Glider, yeah. Through all of the things that you do, you inspire people.

Shane Hanlon:              17:17                Wow, Vicky, thank you. I wasn’t expecting a sincere response. Well, no and I very much appreciate that. Thank you. I care a lot about what I do and I try to work hard, obviously, like we are here doing our thing. But frankly, not too hard. I’ve really tried to find a balance of that kind of work life balance. I really care about my personal life and those relationships. And kind of related to that, we actually asked Peter how he finds balance in what he does.

Peter Falcon:                18:01                Some people lived to work. I am not one of those people. I have some colleagues that will work and then go home and watch NASA TV. I am not that guy. I much rather binge Netflix. So I realize life is too short. I am always cracking jokes at work, making people laugh.

                                    18:19                One of the things I enjoy doing is during work hours, I will take my team and we’ll go to have lunch together, or we’ll go have coffee in the mall and just talk about each other’s lives. We’ll talk about what’s going on with each other’s lives, and then we’ll talk to people who come by. And it’s at that point where I would introduce people since I’ve been there for a while, and at some point we’ll just start brainstorming about work. And it’s rather than having one person do that one thing now, they’re able to ask questions, kind of collaborate, get people’s ideas, and all that happens because we just wanted to have a cup of coffee and just kind of shoot the breeze.

                                    18:55                So in one hand we’re having a good time getting to know each other, being more than just work colleagues, we actually becoming friends, but we’re also there to help each other out. So that is one way I do that. It may make my day a little longer, but it also makes it much more beneficial.

                                    19:10                My colleague jokes and she says, “Is there anyone you don’t know here?” Because when we walk to our meetings for one building to the next, I usually have to go about five to 10 minutes in advance because at some point I’m going to meet somebody I know and we’re going to chit-chat and we’re going to talk. And it could be somebody I know from softball, from JPL bowling, or some other social event that I do. And it really helps me with my work, but it also makes work that much more fun.

                                    19:35                So that really helps me with my mental stability and also getting to know people, becoming friends with my colleagues. That is absolutely true. I’ve got so much work done joking and saying, “I will let you hit the ball off me on a next softball game if you do this.” And it actually does work.

Ashley Hamer:              19:53                And as far as someone who might want to follow in your footsteps, what words of advice would you have for them?

Peter Falcon:                20:00                Get some coding background. I know when you apply to JPL, it’s going to ask you what languages you speak. It’s not referring to English, math, or French. It’s referring to Java, Python, C++. So the faster students get some programming background, the better off they’re going to be.

                                    20:16                I would also say that if you Google 21st century skill sets, these are skill sets that students are going to need in their educational career as well as their professional career. Things like how to communicate, how to think creatively, how to work in collaboration with people. These are skillsets that they’re going to need to develop if they don’t already have them developed. So I would encourage them to look at those skill sets and work on them if they don’t already have them develop.

                                    20:43                One of the neat things about today’s youth is when I work with students and I see what they’re doing, I look back at my years when I was at age and I realize, “Oh my God, you are so much more advanced than I was at age 12.” And when I see interns working today, I look at the qualifications and I often think, “Oh my God, I am not qualified to do my own job.” Because there’s so much more that they’re learning today, so much more skill sets that they already have developed.

                                    21:09                I think in science and in society in general is misinformation is really a big thing for us. People tend to grab certain data that fits their narrative, and it’s really difficult to get past that. It’s a fact with the science that our planet is changing. I’m very optimistic with today’s youth, with Generation Z. They seem to be very educated in environmental issues. So I’m really looking forward to seeing when they come of age, because I think they understand now that when adults do something inactive when it comes to policy change, environmental issues, that problem gets kicked down the road to them. So I see them being more vocal.

                                    21:55                So as they come of age, I hope, and I’m very optimistic, that will start to see change when they start to vote and to be able to say what’s on their mind.

Shane Hanlon:              22:05                So Vicky, do you want to say what’s on your mind right now? Do I want to hear what’s on your mind? You were really nice last time. What else you got?

Vicky Thompson:           22:27                Oh, well.

Shane Hanlon:              22:29                Nope?

Vicky Thompson:           22:30                Nope. Well, I feel like it’s one of those cartoons where it’s like you think the other person’s thinking a really deep thought or something, and I’m just looking at this orange that’s next to my computer and real excited to eat it when we get off the line.

Shane Hanlon:              22:46                Frankly, most of the time when we’re on these recordings, and if anyone watches the videos of these, they can see our backgrounds and such. But I have this cutout of my dog in my studio that always has a hat on it. And right now it has a pirate’s hat on it, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the baseball team. And literally every time we record, I look at that and go, “Oh, could I attach that to his head better? Would there be a better way to put that on there?”

                                    23:15                I don’t know. These are the deep thoughts that we have in our brains. Yeah, we’re doing good work, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           23:21                It’s good. We’re not distracted at all.

Shane Hanlon:              23:24                No, no, not at all. But I will say, to be serious, I really want to thank Peter for one, keeping us on track than us just gallivanting here on our commentary and for all the great work he does and for sitting down to chat with us. We really appreciate it. And so with that, that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           23:48                Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview and to NASA for sponsoring the series.

Shane Hanlon:              23:53                This episode was produced by Zoe Swiss and me with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Karen Romano Young.

Vicky Thompson:           24:02                We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at

Shane Hanlon:              24:11                Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week.

Vicky Thompson:           24:17                While you were talking, I was looking at the word liaising really closely, and it makes sense how it’s spelled now. I’ve never looked at it this close, but I can’t spell it either, but it’s like li, aising. L-I…

Shane Hanlon:              24:29                But why is there a second I in it?

Vicky Thompson:           24:33                So how do you spell raising?

Shane Hanlon:              24:34                Oh, darn it, Vicky. You are correct.

Vicky Thompson:           24:38                Mm-hmm. That’s why it makes sense now. I still won’t be able to spell it.

Shane Hanlon:              24:43                I’m a very good communicator. But when it comes to the written word, that’s that’s why I thrive in an audio medium. I know what I want to say. I just don’t know how to spell the thing I want to say.

Vicky Thompson:           24:59                It’s okay.



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