Keeping ISS Astronauts Safe at 4.76 Miles per Second

Mission control,NASA,ISS
Alex Lin
Raquel Scoggin
October 06, 202007:10 AM
Supercluster

Since 1962, only 15 out of NASA’s 100 flight directors have been women.

In 2018, Pooja Jesrani joined their ranks as NASA’s first South Asian female flight director. While her legacy is sure to set the stage for the next generation of Asian-American women in the space industry — don’t get caught up in the history she’s only just made.

This promotion has been a long time coming for someone as qualified as Pooja Jesrani. A UT-Austin alumna with a degree in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and a critical part of NASA Johnson Space Center’s team since 2007 — Jesrani is the real deal.

Throughout her 13 years at JSC, Jesrani steadily climbed the ranks from ISS flight controller to lead ISS CapCom Engineer and finally — to the coveted flight director’s seat. Two years into her tenure as a flight director, Jesrani is likely to be a key player in NASA’s Artemis Program — the endeavor that’s set to return astronauts to and land the first woman on the Moon. Jesrani has been well-acquainted with ISS operations for over a decade, so her perspective on the upcoming ISS anniversary is powerfully unique.

Supercluster snagged this interview with Jesrani as she reflects on the continuing growth of her career, the aspiring students who will follow in her footsteps, and the untapped potential of the International Space Station.

What have you been catching up on during the quarantine?

Like many others, I've been reconnecting with our great outdoors. I have been taking long, meandering bike rides around the Houston bayous and trailways. I wasn't much of a biker before this —so getting this opportunity to be outdoors and feel like a kid again is exhilarating.

How do you plan on celebrating the 20th anniversary of human presence in the ISS this year? What things will you be reflecting on?

Supercluster

With space-themed cake and balloons, of course! To be honest, it's awe-inspiring to reflect on the fact that humankind built a five-bedroom house in space and not only sustain, but also nurture and augment.

Hundreds of astronauts from all walks of life have taken residence on board the ISS, and countries have worked together hand-in-hand for two decades to enable these astronauts to drive cutting-edge science experiments and truly make them feel at home over expansive stretches of time.

With the global pandemic, we’re all taking the time to adapt to a new status quo. How might the impact of COVID-19 affect activities on the ISS now, and in the future?

It's business as usual onboard the ISS. Teams around the world continue to support our brave astronauts, and NASA intends to continue pushing the envelope for space and science exploration.

We are, however, being extra careful during the crewmembers’ pre-launch quarantine periods. All astronauts go through a quarantine period before launching to the space station, and the procedures haven’t changed, but there is an added layer of awareness at the moment.

What are the critical steps your team makes when preparing for expeditions?

We take the approach that there is no substitute for being prepared. We are aware that, suddenly and unexpectedly, we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences. The Flight Operations team is responsible for the safety of our astronauts, and years of planning and execution go into making sure that we can scale and repeat our expeditions safely.

We’re starting to see a shift in the backgrounds of folks working in the space and tech industries. As a woman of color, what is your response to this shift and your impression of your role in it?

I applaud the fact that NASA recognizes talent regardless of gender, race, religion or personal beliefs and also actively supports its working mothers. I can only hope that my career trajectory can serve to inspire others that anything is possible if you work hard and believe in yourself.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to today’s young girls of color who dream of working in space?

I would tell aspiring students to just continue to work hard. Seek every opportunity and know that every day is an interview. You will never know when that time that you worked hard will pay off in the future, but it will. Also, seek out mentors who are in roles that you would like to be in and continue to change your mentors as you grow throughout your career.

Tell us about a challenging day on the ISS.

Every day has its own unique set of challenges. From navigating the ISS around space debris to ensuring the astronauts have working toilets, there is no shortage of excitement in Mission Control!

What's something amazing about the ISS that most civilians wouldn’t know.

In a 24-hour period, the ISS travels the length of a trip to the moon and back.

What are some workplace rituals for you and your team?

Newly appointed Flight Directors select a call sign (team name) to use before their first shift in Mission Control. This dates back to the first Flight Director at NASA, Chris Kraft, who was Red Flight based on the American Flag.

My team name is Unity Flight. Also, before each expedition, the crew creates a mission patch. At the end of the mission, the Flight Director selects two-star members of the team to hang the mission patch on the wall within Mission Control.

What’s the craziest thing that happened to you on the job?

As a part of NASA's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I had the chance to sit down with the legends of the Apollo era (Glenn Lunney, Gene Kranz, and many others) and hear their war stories as they walked the refurbished Apollo mission control center and relived our monumental achievements. It was an unforgettable experience.  

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Alex Lin
Raquel Scoggin
October 06, 202007:10 AM