Last week we posted highlights from our interview with Lauren Worley, Press Secretary and Senior Advisor for NASA. The Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to meet Lauren during the Tucson Astronomy Expo and talk to her about increasing the awesome.
Below is our Q&A with her:
Q: What is your rough job description?
A: Increasing the awesome. That’s how I look at my job. Technically my title is Press Secretary and Senior Advisor. I work to make sure that the public knows what NASA’s doing. I work with really talented public affairs officers here at NASA headquarters and our centers around the country, universities, and private industry groups and I try to tie all that together to work on events, press releases, and tweet to make sure people know what NASA’s up to.
Q: To you, how important is it to tell NASA’s story?
A: It’s incredibly important. I mean, NASA is a national treasure, and if we look back at the history of the United States, the history of the world even, but we’ll just go for the United States right now, if we look back at the history and we look at the positives and the negatives, the history of NASA is an integral aspect of everything that we are as Americans; everything from the geopolitical achievement of being the first country to land on the Moon to all the technological advances that come out of that. Not to mention all of us who have been inspired by all the things the people of NASA have done. It’s amazing. I think it’s so important to not take it for granted because we are a national treasure but more than that we are also an asset to the American people and we are responsible to the American taxpayers. So we have a responsibility to let them know how we are using their hard earned tax money.
Q: How do you best tell that story?
A: Well that’s the trick. The best stories appeal to our hearts and our imagination. And NASA’s story is all about inspiration and aspiration. Right? We exist because people for thousands of years looked up into the sky and wondered why? And looked inward and said how did we get here; the stuff that we do from human inspiration and having astronauts up in the International Space Station, to our science missions, to Earth observing satellites. Everything that we do every day is answering those questions and benefiting human kind. That’s kind of mind blowing. Because NASA is inspiring and encouraging people to aspire, how do you tell that story? Well, for me it’s about sharing how in awe I am. NASA’s story is not just about a piece of hardware, it’s not just a widget that we built, it’s not just a satellite. There’s a reason why Curiosity tweets in the first person. The reason is because all of these scientific discoveries are about us as humans. And the people making the discoveries are people. Computers don’t make discoveries, right? Rovers don’t make discoveries. Scientists and engineers and researchers are making those discoveries. And it’s our job as public affairs officers to take those to the public. And we do that in a variety of ways, we have press releases, we create videos that you can watch on NASA TV or Youtube, that kind of thing. We certainly do a lot of social media. And we also have people who go out and talk to schools. We have astronauts who talk to schools everyday from the International Space Station
Q: Since that’s how you tell the story, do you have a favorite story of NASA for you personally?
A: My favorite story happened this week. So this past weekend, Orbital Sciences successfully conducted their first cargo resupply mission to International Space Station. For a long time we were taking our stuff to the International Space Station aboard the shuttle. Now we don’t have a shuttle, they were retired in 2011. So we’ve been working with private American companies to take our stuff to space. That includes clothes and food for the astronauts, it include science experiments and all that stuff. So we now, as of this weekend, have two American companies doing that. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. So Monday, my boss of communications said hey let’s have charley congratulate the team. Having the NASA team, the Orbital Sciences team, tell them congratulations on the successful resupply mission, that would be awesome. I’m like ‘no problem, let’s make a phone call.’ Then, the next thing I know, I get a call saying ‘we need a phone number because the astronauts on the International Space Station are going to call you.’ So on Monday I got to connect Administrator Bolden to space, via cell phone as we were touring the Michoud Assembly Facility right outside of New Orleans. And it was not just cool because ‘oh cool, Charley’s [Administrator of NASA Charles Bolden] is on the phone with the International Space Station.’ That was cool in and of itself, but what was really cool was why he was making the call. We are in the next generation of space travel. We’ve got private companies now doing this stuff, and if more private companies get into space travel, that means it’s more likely that people like you and me can go to space. That’s pretty cool!
Q: Do you have any opinion on Planetary Resources, the private company that wants to mine asteroids?
A: I’m pretty sure we have, this is ridiculous by the way, at NASA we don’t have contacts, we have space act agreements, which I think is just a fun word. I just think it’s really fun to say ‘I’m going to make a space act agreement with you.’ Kind of going back to what I was saying about commercial companies… they’re really important because the work they’re doing is expanding the body of knowledge, expanding what we know about our universe. Also, they’re getting more people and more businesses engaged. And that is pretty cool.
Q: Do you have a favorite scientist?
A: I can’t pick just one! I’m a fan of Dr. John Grunsfeld. Dr. John Grunsfeld is a five time astronaut, he’s also head of the science mission directory here at NASA. So he’s a scientist, he’s gone to space five times and he has fixed the Hubble Telescope. He fixed it so many times he’s nicknamed the Hubble Repair Man. And he’s super active on twitter. @SciAstro.
My second favorite is Michelle Fowler. You’ve probably seen her on the Science Channel, she’s interviewed a lot. She works with Goddard Space Flight Center. She’s just another cool scientist that I really respect.
Q: You’re really big on pushing women into, not just NASA, but science in general. How important is that to you?
A: When I was a kid, let’s see, 7th grade, I went to the state science fair with my science project, and as a result one of the things I won was a scholarship to a science camp. It’s called Buckeye Women in Science, Engineering and Research, or something like that. I actually was on the cover of their flier, it was the dorkiest. I thought, how could this picture ever inspire girls to go into science? I had my big glasses, and had my braces on.
I’ve always been into science, but my real passion is writing. So I went and got a degree in journalism. But it’s important to me for women and men, but women need a little extra push in this, for so long Science, Engineering, and Math programs pushed people out. They were selective. What those programs need to change to be is saying ‘ok, you’ve got the aptitude to be a real good engineer, right? But maybe you need a little help in calculus, because let’s face it calculus is hard. So instead of flunking you, let’s put you in another remedial course that’s going to get you honed up on calculus so that we can allow you to reach your potential.’ That’s huge. The other thing, though, is that we don’t all have to become engineers, or rocket scientists, or astrophysicists to appreciate our Universe and to make a difference. We need elected officials, we need journalists, and we need CEO’s of companies to understand science. It’s not just about ‘we need more girl engineers,’ we need more women and men who have a basic understanding of science and the role that it plays in our lives. That’s what I like to do.
Q: How would you interest people who aren’t interested in science?
A: One of the things that I focus on is that, you know, we don’t all have to be sitting out there solving math problems. Space and science inspire art, as well. So I love connecting with my friends, particularly in the area of fashion design, around this concept of the inspiration that star gazing and the discoveries we make in our Universe, and how that inspires them. I’ve worked with musical groups, I’ve worked with folks who are related in different art projects, documentaries, all that kind of stuff. So it’s not just about scientific discovery, sometimes it’s about the artistic discovery as well.
Q: For someone who doesn’t have the ability like you to reach thousands of people, how would you best try to reach others?
A: Social media is powerful. The truth is that I can have a mega phone and can talk to thousands of people at one moment. But the truth is, that the information from people we know is the information we trust. Even if you’re just talking to your neighbor about a recent scientific discovery, or a group of girl scouts, or just posting something on your Facebook page. Your friends, and family, and colleagues see that and that’s it right there. You’re a science communicator. You don’t necessarily have to understand Quantum Mechanics to be a science communicator. By sharing your passion and your interest in exploring the Universe it’s going to get more people interested and passionate in it because they’re going to see your enthusiasm and they’re going to share it.
Q: Do you have a favorite story about communicating with other people that aren’t involved with NASA?
A: Let’s see, well, this year MATELL released the career Barbie of the Year, and Barbie in 2013 is a Mars Explorer. You don’t often think about NASA and Barbie, right? But I think it’s important for young girls in particular, and for all of us, to think about and imagine ourselves as explorers. It’s kind of a non-traditional partnership that we have. The agency has had partnerships with McDonalds with their happy meal toys. One of the other things we did during the Curiosity launch, we had a really great partnership with Will.I.Am. You’re like ‘what’s this rap dude doing with NASA?’ But it turns out he’s big into education and robotics, and he was the first song to be returned from Mars.