NASA: The Woman Beyond the Curls

Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja with the  STS-134 Training Team, © Tom Murray

Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja with the STS-134 Training Team, © Tom Murray

I log in to twitter. I have spent several hours browsing through the extremely dramatic tweets of hormone-driven teenagers. No, I wasn’t reading my profile. My drama is in Facebook. Spotlight focuses on a tweet. It’s from a user I don’t even remember following, the U.S. Embassy Manila. My eyes widen, heart beating faster.

—written in direct twitter fashion

Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja graduated with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M University, a master’s in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a doctorate in bio-medical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. She trained astronauts who flew aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle and the International Space Station at the NASA  Johnson Space Center. Moreover, she worked in NASA’s Mission Control Center as a certified flight controller for the communications system of the ISS. Dr. Mamta was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal, one of the Agency’s top recognition.

A chat room is provided to submit questions and facilitate discussions as the program is on air. Anxious as ever because I’m not an Omegle veteran, I posted my query. Dr. Mamta elaborates every detail with finesse. She is confident and articulate like no other. Her charisma is extraordinary. Her passion, exuding and undeniable. It was influential and captivating.

As soon as the program meets its conclusion, I log-in to twitter, as a hormone-driven teenager will naturally do. I search for Dr. Mamta’s twitter account, as a Pisay scholar will naturally do. We don’t stalk. We simply feed our innate curiosity. Her account leads me to  Beyond The Curls, a blog she maintains. And I start reading. But I am no longer the same.

It’s about dreams.  About the unknown.  And a yearning to know the unknown.

It’s mostly intangible.  Yet, in ways, palpable.  It’s the only dream I’ve ever dreamt.  And the only thing I ever imagined doing.

When asked why she wants to be an astronaut, Dr. Mamta responds as a visionary. This restructures my personal reasons of yearning to be a scientist, of needing to push the frontiers of scientific study.

I create Paperback to strike inspiration. I want my writings to be an influence, to reshape the landscape of conventions, to awaken the mute radicals. Marking the debut of my blog, I have contacted Dr. Mamta for an interview. It is an honor for me to feature a personal inspiration on my first post. And I am beyond ecstatic.

1. Why do you love science? 

You know, science is so diverse.  It can be about finding dark matter or the cure to cancer.  It can range from studying frogs to learning how seeds germinate.  Or it can be about mixing chemicals to learning more about the faults in our Earth causing Earthquakes.  I think it’s this diversity that makes me so interested in it.  It’s about learning what we already know when we are in school, finding the boundary of knowledge as an adult, and then pushing it further as a professional.  For me, there’s two things I love the most.  One is the human body and how it works.  Or better yet, how it doesn’t work.  And second, it’s the unknown outside our planet.  I wonder almost daily what is out there.  Can we find it?  Do we want to find it?  Do we need to find it? Science is about being able to ask questions.  And often, we can combine it with engineering and find the answers.

2. When did you start working for NASA? What do you do?

I started working at NASA as a college student while an aerospace engineering major at Texas A&M University.  Throughout my career, I have worked on lateral directional control for the former X-38 vehicle, planned trajectories for future Moon missions, and created computer-based simulations of spacecraft simulators.  What I do now is train astronauts for their missions.  This means that I become an expert in one area of the International Space Station (ISS) and then teach the crew what they need to know to operate and live safely aboard the ISS while accomplishing their mission.  Once we are finished with training, I also have opportunities to work in the Mission Control Center while they are in space.  This means that I support them from the ground, and more importantly, I monitor the health and safety of the vehicle so they can concentrate on the science!  If something breaks, Mission Control goes into “fix it” mode, and it is incredible to be able to fix something in space from Earth.

3. How do you prepare astronauts for space travel?

We have many ways to prepare astronauts for space travel.  Part of their training is technical, which consists of classrooms and lessons much like being in school.  Then we like to take them to our simulators and have them complete hands on training.  As instructors, our job is to create scenarios where things don’t go right and force the crew to figure out how to make it work.  This is important training because it prepares them for the worst so whatever happens during game time usually seems much easier!

We also have different ways for them to get used to being in a microgravity setting and working in it.  There is a modified plane called the DC-9 or the Vomit Comet.  It’s so named because often the human body doesn’t enjoy being weightless its first few times, resulting in … well vomiting!  But we get used to it and the astronauts say it’s almost like walking on Earth. You just do it and don’t think about it.  The DC-9 does parabolas so on the way down, the astronauts get about 30 seconds of weightlessness.  This helps their bodies get that feeling before they travel.  The second setting is in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).  This is a huge 40 foot deep pool where we can put full size section so the ISS and the astronauts SCUBA dive down to it.  When they reach neutral buoyancy, it’s almost like they are floating.  This allows them to practice things they will need to do in space.  For example, think about how difficult it would be to use a screwdriver wearing a huge glove.  This is a seemingly simple task, but it takes practice to get the dexterity to do it!

4. What is your most interesting experience in working for NASA?

Gosh, this is a tough one.  I would probably have to say working in Mission Control during one of the Space Shuttle missions.  I remember one time something was not going right when the crew was out on a spacewalk trying to attach the last piece of the ISS.  They couldn’t get a bolt to move, no matter how much force they applied.  I was in charge of the video system and I remember thinking if I could zoom in on what they are doing, maybe the other Flight Controllers could help them out.  It was amazing how we all worked as a team contributing small things to helping the crew accomplish their task.  And it all meant in the end, the ISS would be deemed complete.  It was a big moment.

5. How can a student follow your footsteps?

I think a student should learn about as many jobs and fields as possible from K-12.  That way when it comes to University, you can start to narrow it down to majors you may want.  That means a student should figure out what he or she likes in school.  Is it science?  Is it hands on projects?  Is it forces and motion?  Or mixing chemicals and reactions?  Is it the arts?  Is it history and our past?  The economy? Is it helping people? Is it the environment that intrigues your mind? There are so many things you learn when in school.  Ask as many of your parents’ friends as you can to see what they do.  Talk to your teachers.  Gather all of the information possible and then you can make a great decision.

I personally majored in engineering because I enjoyed the hands on learning and finding solutions to problems.  I followed a non-traditional program that I made up myself. I majored in aerospace engineering, then mechanical engineering, and finally bio-medical engineering.  For me, my interests change all the time so the diversity in my education makes me well fitted to do lots of different things. Who knows what I will be doing next!

∴ To the Philippine Science High School students,

I think you are lucky to be going to a high school focused on science. These classes will set you on a course to be able to find the problems in our world today and hopefully someday fix them.  Being able to think like a scientist gives you the skills necessary to ask the right questions.  You will find there is rarely only one right answer!  Learn to work as a team because that’s how the world’s greatest problems have been solved thus far.



No, she is not just your everyday girl with dreams and a cool job. Bookmark Beyond the CurlsAnd another hormone-driven teenager bored with Twitter is bound to be inspired. ■



6 responses to “NASA: The Woman Beyond the Curls

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