To boldly go: NASA engineer Kim Steadman helps humanity explore the stars

As a kid, Kim Steadman remembers watching reruns of Star Trek and being utterly fascinated by the vast universe beyond our own planet. What secrets were hidden in the stars beyond what she could see by looking up into the night sky? What “strange new worlds” were out there, waiting to be discovered?

While the world of Star Trek may be fiction, the passion for space that it inspired in Steadman was very real.

“I want to go there, and I want to do that,” Steadman remembers thinking while growing up.

Now, that dream has come true. As a NASA engineer, she has worked on numerous projects at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn, the Mars Science Laboratory, and the Mars 2020 rover.

“I’ve been really lucky,” she said, reflecting on her career. “You’re making a huge discovery — you’re a part of that. It was just, ‘Wow, I’m here, and this is amazing.’”

Although you can listen to a full interview with Steadman by ESO Network reporters Mary Ogle and Ashley Pauls from Dragon Con 2018, on Earth Station One podcast 437, here are a few insights shared by Steadman on the benefits of space exploration, the importance of women in STEM, and more.

The wonder of discovery

Steadman has worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 20 years, including 14 years spent on the Cassini mission to Saturn.

“The Cassini mission was just full of so many new discoveries, because we had never really explored Saturn,” she said. “I mean, we did flybys, but that was it. And so, especially in the first few years in the mission, every day was Christmas, because you get ‘this is the first time we’ve imaged this, look how close we are to the rings.’ It was just amazing.”

In addition to observing Saturn, Steadman has also come closer than most humans to the famous “red planet” — Mars. She worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers, including Opportunity and Curiosity. It takes a lot of behind the scenes work to get the rovers to Mars…and to keep them functioning properly once they’ve arrived.

“There’s a lot more to the, you know, ‘care and feeding’ of the rover other than just ‘science,’” she said. “We have to make sure that she stays safe and that everything stays working and we monitor everything, so we don’t get surprised.”

Bringing the technology home

Space exploration isn’t just about exploring new worlds — it also involves bringing technology back home. We have space exploration to thank for the popularization of many technological marvels that improve our everyday lives — from miniaturization technology, to Velcro, to MRI science, and more.

“The space program has given so much,” Steadman said. “We’ve gotten so much technology out of it, because once we develop for space, then it’s available for industry.”

And as for humans one day finding another home amongst the stars? Steadman said it will take a lot of time and money to get there, even if it’s colonizing someplace relatively “close” like Mars. It’s challenging for humans to spend so much time in a harsh, dangerous environment like space. Steadman does see promise in partnerships between commercial space exploration and government entities like NASA, however. Space exploration also is a true international effort, bringing together scientists and researchers from across the globe.

Embracing the future

Steadman is excited to see more interest in space exploration, particularly after films like “The Martian” have boosted the public’s interest in galaxies far, far away.

She hopes to see more women getting involved in STEM fields — a.k.a. science, technology, engineering and math. She said we have to start by creating a safe environment for girls to express an interest in STEM and help them feel accepted within that community. School robotics teams are a great way to get started in STEM.

Missing Dragon Con already? 🙁 Check out the Earth Station One podcast Dragon Con 2018 episode and read our other Dragon Con interviews with Timothy Zahn, Tom Bancroft, and Robert Hendrickson.

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