Up in the Air

This time last week I was on my way to Stennis Space Center for a test of the RS-25 engine. I knew I had been accepted to the Social at Goddard, but I wasn’t sure I was going. I’m happy to share that my flight is booked, I’ll be there. 

This trip comes with many firsts; first NASA Social, first time at Goddard, and the biggie: first time on a plane. That’s right, this future astronaut has never left the ground. The last time I went to the DC / Maryland area, I took a train from Florida. I really did consider making the roughly 1,000 mile trip by car, but the independence that comes with driving is quickly dwarfed by the convenience of flight. 15 hours by car vs 3 hours by plane. I’m not afraid of flying, it’s just something I never thought much about. Family trips when I was a kid were always made by car, no matter the distance, save for that train trip to DC I mentioned earlier. I have a layover, so I’ll be tweeting and writing about my first flight experience, be sure you’re following me for that. (Twitter: @sciwithmycat). 

Enough about my airplane hesitations. I wanted to tell you about what I’ll be seeing while at Goddard. 


The first two activities revolve around the ICESat-2. The ICESat-2 is part of NASA’s Earth Observing System which will measure ice sheet elevation, ocean height, examine vegetation characteristics, and so much more. It is planned to launch in 2018 and will have four major scientific objectives:

  1. Quantify polar ice-sheet contributions to current and recent sea-level change and the linkages to climate conditions;
  2. Quantify regional signatures of ice-sheet changes to assess mechanisms driving those change and improve predictive ice sheet models; this includes quantifying the regional evolution of ice sheet change, such as how changes at outlet glacier termini propagate inward; 
  3. Estimate sea-ice thickness to examine ice/ocean/atmosphere exchanges of energy, mass and moisture; 
  4. Measure vegetation canopy height as a basis for estimating large-scale biomass and biomass change.

in addition, it will also be used to measure changes in inland bodies of water (lakes, rivers, and reservoirs) after earthquakes. I will see the altimeter (used to measure the altitude) as well as observe it from the Testing catwalk. 

From there, I’ll get to see the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI, pronounced like Jedi) being built. The lidar will be launched in late 2018-2019 to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 mission. It will provide high-resolution observations of forest structures globally, a first for NASA. This can be used to understand Earth’s carbon cycle and map out habitats.

The night will end with getting to observe Goddard’s Laser Ranging Facility at night. The lasers are used to track satellites from the ground. 

This was just a quick overview of the major activities; there are a couple other things you’ll have to follow along with me to see! 


I am hoping to fit some other activities into my trip, both space and non-space related.

In terms of space related, the National Air and Space Museum has four of the retired spacecraft (Friendship 7, Gemini 4, Apollo 11, and Skylab 4) from my list plus the SpaceShipOne. If you want your own checklist of retired spacecraft, click here.

The Renwick Gallery is currently showing The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Frances Glessner Lee. Lee, the mother of forensic science, built incredibly detailed dollhouses based on crime scene photos. Bullet holes in the walls, labels on soup cans, the placement of the window latches - everything was done to make the nutshells (called such because she wanted to train the homicide investigators to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell”) perfect replicas of the actual crime scenes so they could be used as training tools. Even though they were constructed in the 40s and 50s, they are still used today. As morbid as it may sound, murder and the motives behind it have always been interesting to me (I guess that’s the psychologist in me). At this exhibit, you’ll be given a magnifying glass and a flashlight to fully explore and experience the nutshells. Seeing this unique piece of history and getting to test my observation skills will be an experience I can’t miss. 


During my trip, I’ll be stopping at a couple different airports, museums, and of course Goddard. If you would like the chance to win a postcard from one of my stops, make sure you check out our Instagram page (@sciencewithmycat) to enter.