Ask a Fed: What is it like to work at NASA?

October 3, 2013

This post has been updated to include Jason Dworkin’s answers to questions from readers.

As we enter the third day of the shutdown, hundreds of thousands of federal government employees remain furloughed. These workers have a wide array of jobs from park rangers and lawyers, to animal keepers and economists.

(NASA/Reuters)
(NASA/Reuters)

Here’s your chance to find out who they are and what they do. Today, Jason Dworkin, chief of astrochemistry at NASA, shares what it’s like to be a scientist at the agency.

What have you always wanted to know about NASA? Leave your questions for him in the comments and he will return later this afternoon to answer selected questions right here in this post. Jason will try to respond to as many relevant questions as he can.

Name: Jason Dworkin
Agency: NASA
Title: Chief of astrochemistry; director of Astrobiology Analytical Lab; project scientist for OSIRIS-REx
Status during shutdown: On call

Explain to us what your job entails.

I have three primary responsibilities.

First, I perform research on meteoritic organic compounds important for life. This entails running a research laboratory akin to the things you see on forensic crime show.

Second, I am the chief of astrochemistry, which is a department at NASA Goddard, which involves helping members of the organization make connections, write proposals, nurture junior scientists, maintain high performance standards.

Third, I am the project scientist for OSIRIS-REx. This is a mission to return a sample of asteroid Bennu for scientific study. We launch in 2016 and return the sample in 2023.

You perform research on meteoritic organic compounds important for life. What exactly does that mean? 

I study organic compounds from meteorites, how the Earth was formed and how life arose.  Not just the Earth, but the solar system – Mars, Europa.

Here’s a longer explanation: 

What does a typical day look like? 

I typically work 10-12 hours/day with numerous meetings, telecons and e-mail. Surprisingly, in a mission or organization communication is harder than engineering or science. Beyond that, there is no typical day.

Here are Jason’s responses to a few questions from the comments below. 

Jessica Stahl: “On call” during the shutdown – what kind of astrochemical emergency might get you called to duty?

Jason Dworkin (JD): There are a number of labs in my organization with dangerous chemicals. In the highly unlikely event of a natural disaster or some other way for chemicals in storage to breach, I can be contacted by first responders to aid in understanding the hazards and in securing the equipment. In addition, there are some lab machines which, even in standby may sound an alarm requiring attention to prevent damage every month or so.

Jessica Stahl: A mission like the OSIRIS-REx takes so long – launching 3 years from now, 2 years in transit before it even gets to anything, and returning to Earth in 2023. It always seems to me that NASA scientists must have unending patience. Does it get frustrating that things like that take so long to pay off? Are you working continuously on the project in that time or is it in stops and starts?

JD: Yes, planetary missions take a long time, but the rewards are high. Since there is no chance of repair, everything must be thought out well before launch. This phase of the mission is planning and preparing for an external review which will demonstrate that we are ready to start building hardware. My time on OSIRIS-REx will go up and down as I am needed throughout the project. Most science is a long game, not just NASA work. Research can take years to show a definitive result. But the ability to discover and share something that has been unknown to humanity is thrilling.

-bc-: Are there any other plans for sample return missions to other objects in the Solar System?

JD: Samples from the moon returned by Apollo and the Soviets, samples of the solar wind were returned by NASA’s Genesis mission and samples of comet Wild 2 were returned by NASA’s Stardust mission. I have had the privilege of working on both Stardust and Apollo samples. Currently there is desire to return samples from many places, principally Mars, but currently no funded projects to do so.

ScienceTim: OSIRIS-REx is kind of a long way from launch, but not infinitely long — only three years away. If the shutdown extends as long as four weeks (a modern record!), how might that one-month delay affect the ability to meet the launch window for the target asteroid?

JD: There should be sufficient margin such that we will not miss our launch window (though at a cost of money, risk, and/or degradation of the science return). I hope the same can be said for MAVEN.

Summakor: How is your work performance evaluated?

JD: Performance is primarily evaluated based on publications, presentations at scientific conferences, awards, and the ability to secure funding for research. Under full cost accounting, all NASA scientists are required to obtain funding for 2040 hours of labor for themselves each year (plus the cost of experiments, supplies, travel, overhead, and staff).

itsjustridiculous: How many billions of dollars could the US government save if it shutdown NASA permanently? Do we really need to know if we can grow tomatoes on Jupiter? We live on Earth, we have tomatoes here.

JD: Exploration (of science, space, new lands, etc.) is the pursuit of powerful and prosperous nations. If you believe that the United States of America is no longer powerful or prosperous, then perhaps we should eat our seed corn as you suggest. I hope that you believe, like I do, that America’s best days are not behind us and that it is still worth investing in the future.

Quanta: It appears that increasingly more space exploration and work is being taken over by private-sector companies, as evidenced, as just one example, by launches of space vehicles to deliver materials to the space lab. It once was believed that space work was so demanding and resource hungry that only the government — NASA in particular — could ever be a serious player. My own projection is that private-sector organizations will continue to carve out more and more of the space industry to itself, arguably doing so more efficiently and effectively, with every bit the same level of quality outcomes to space advancement. What do you think?

JD: It is appropriate that as technology advances, cost decreases, and risk becomes acceptable more aspects of space exploration will become privatized. What an exciting time when undergraduate students can explore planets with spacecraft they have designed! In the meantime, I believe it is important that NASA employ scientists who are versed and active in state-of-the-art science to provide advice on how to most efficiently enable the Nation’s goals in scientific exploration of Earth and space.

SandraCS: What do you think are the public policy implications of your work or do you think this work serves more to add to our base of scientific knowledge? How critical to or is there a link from this type of research to our current challenges related to climate change? Finally, how do you develop a “big picture” perspective with respect to your research? I can imagine that laboratory research can at times be so granular that I often wonder how scientists are able to take a step back from this type of work to be thinking of larger science/societal questions, impacts, etc. Do you think that has more to do with education/training, personality/approach or other factors?

JD: Asteroid Bennu, the target of OSIRIS-REx, has an about 1 in 2500 chance of impacting the Earth in the late 22nd century. Understanding the chemistry of the asteroid can help scientists better predict deviations to the orbit of this and other asteroids. Beyond that, the majority of my work merely expands human understanding of our place in the cosmos. It helps inform the public and our leaders and makes sure that our missions of space exploration are designed to ask the right questions. Nothing to do with climate change or saving lives or property today. I find that the best way to develop a big picture perspective is to present research results at interdisciplinary conferences and to share results with the public.

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