Thursday, March 28, 2013

NASA Month: Beyond the Stars

All this month, I'm NASA! This means every weekday in March will feature a new post about NASA, and I'm hosting a giant giveaway in order to encourage people to spread the NASA love. For more information on the giveaway, check out this post.

Today, I'm interviewing Karen Burnham, who is currently employed at NASA, working on power systems on the space station, electrical analysis for the pyrotechnic group, and is a subject matter expert for the electromagnetic compatibility group.


NASA: Beyond the Stars

When most people think of NASA, they think of astronauts and giant telescopes. What are some of the other functions of NASA--what else does it do, and how do people who work with NASA do more than just look at the stars? 

My work at NASA has been focused on manned spacecraft, since I work at Johnson Space Center, which is where astronauts are trained. However, I rarely actually meet astronauts! Instead I work with other engineers, trying to design very complex systems where all the sub-systems play nice together. For me, that involves making sure that the pyrotechnic systems are as safe as possible. (There are explosives used in almost every space vehicle, they can be a very precise and powerful tool for many different applications.) This means making sure that firing lines are shielded from interference, protected from lightning strikes, and cannot be set-off by build-ups of static electric charge (like the shock you get from doorknobs on dry days). Pyrotechnic explosives are unforgiving: when they need to work, you need them to work perfectly. When you need them to not work, you need them to be as safe as possible. Luckily, when it comes to explosives on manned vehicles, NASA has a perfect safety record, and I'm proud to be part of that.

Looking farther afield, I think one of the most important functions of NASA now is supporting the space-based environmental research of Earth's climate. All the weather satellites that help predict the weather, and all the observations satellites that tell us about how wind patterns, temperature signatures, and ice cover are changing; those are generally planned and launched with NASA's support. They have been critical for us to learn how our world is rapidly changing. 

Can you describe a particularly fascinating aspect of your career? 

I really can't express how proud and psyched I've been to work with the pyrotechnic systems at NASA. I have a BS in Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, which has set me up perfectly to study how electromagnetic waves affect electronic systems, and how to protect those systems from unwanted interference. I still have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, since every project is unique and there is a vast universe out there of things I need to know. But the upside is that I get to do things like conduct tests on explosives to determine their sensitivity to different kinds of radio frequency energy.

NASA has been using the same design of pyrotechnic initiator since the Apollo missions. We call them NASA Standard Initiators (NSIs), and they are incredibly useful--about 150 of them were present on every Space Shuttle mission. We had information from testing in the 1960's and 1980's about how the communication frequencies used during Apollo and the Space Shuttle affected the NSIs. I got the job of doing the testing to update our knowledge for the frequencies used by the Space Station and the new Orion missions. 

This was a tricky proposition, because very specialized equipment is needed to handle the NSIs safely and effectively. I had to design special adaptors that were manufactured here on site. A whole lot of people helped me track down all the equipment needed, and both the pyrotechnic engineers and the electromagnetic engineers all spent some time helping out with solving different problems as they arose. But in the end, we were able to expand our knoweledge about the NSIs, their behavior, and their vulnerabilities. Probably one of my best days at NASA was when we finally got all the right pieces put in place, and were able to set off an NSI in the lab using S-Band radiation (roughly the same frequecy used by an off-the-shelf wifi router). 

What's the best way for a teenager who'd like to be a part of NASA to join the program? 

There are a lot of programs out there that aim to encourage student participation at NASA. Probably the most important is the intern and co-op programs, where late high school and college students can take semester-long jobs at NASA, get paid for their time, and learn about out engineering tasks from the inside. You can find more information about the JSC program here:

Also, lots of student have benefitted from the different Space Camp programs run in Huntsville, Alabama (around Marshall Space Flight Center) and Florida (Kennedy Space Center):

Also, please check out Women@NASA: There are mentorship programs there that can connect young men and women interested in science directly to mentors working every day in the science and engineering fields. 

Is there any part of working that NASA that feels as if you're living in a science fiction novel? 

Aside from setting off explosives using radio waves? (I still love that part.) I do remember taking my parents on the JSC public tour. We were leaving mission control, but the tram couldn't leave because the wheelchair lift had gotten stuck. The astronaut who had just been guiding the tour inside wandered out, looked it over, quickly fixed the problem, gave us a wave, and then wandered back inside. It was great to remember that while astronauts are often pilots, many of them are also scientists and engineers and very, very useful people to have around. 


Karen Burnham is an electromagnetic compatibility engineer working at NASA's Johnson Space Center. She completed a BS in Physics in 2001, worked as a radar engineer for Northtrop Grumman until 2008, and then completed an MS in Electrical Engineering in 2010. She has been working at NASA since 2009. In her spare time she is a reviewer of science fiction literature, writing for venues such as Locus Magazine, Strange Horizons, and She lives in Houston with her husband and young son. You can find her blog here:

This post is a part of the month-long celebration of NASA I'm hosting on my blog. In order to encourage people to celebrate NASA, I'm also hosting a giveaway!

One grand prize winner will receive all the books in the recent Breathless Reads tour, as well as ARCs of two anthologies and a signed Breathless Reads poster:

As well as swag from NASA, courtesy of Kate @ Ex Libris:

To celebrate NASA creatively: you could blog about why you like NASA, you could reach out to an astronaut for an interview, you could make space fan art, you could sing a song about NASA, you do a vlog, you make a list of all the ways NASA rocks...any of this counts! Just celebrate NASA in some awesome way, post it online, and include the link in the Rafflecopter. I even set that part of the entry open for multiple entries, so you could blog and vlog and Facebook and tumblr and Pinterest about NASA and they all count. The only requirements: post a link back to this contest, and put the full URL of the site in the Rafflecopter. Full details here.

To enter: be sure to read the full rules and terms of the contest here. Then fill out the Rafflecopter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Post a Comment