Young Costa Ricans looking for a role model in scientific achievement need look no further than Sandra Cauffman. After what she has described as a difficult childhood in the Hatillo neighborhood of San José as the child of a single mother, Cauffman went on to become one of NASA’s most renowned engineers. She is now the Deputy Systems Program Director for NASA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Program and manages a budget of $10 billion. She previously served as the Deputy Project Manager for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Project (MAVEN), which explores the Martian upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind.
Cauffman recently answered questions from students who attend the Juan Alvarez Azofeifa Elementary School in Matanilla, Santa Ana, and the Tree of Life International School located near the center of Santa Ana, west of San José. The Matanilla students that took part in this exchange are science fair winners who will soon be competing in a regional fair. Excerpts follow.
Ruby Méndez Toledo, age 11: Did you have the same opportunities men did to advance your career?
Not while I was in Costa Rica. I was not allowed to study Electrical Engineering because I was a woman. I was allowed in the Industrial Engineering program because there were some women already there, but electrical was out of bounds. After I got to the United States and changed majors [to electrical engineering], things got a bit better, but I have always felt that I have had to work harder to demonstrate that I am capable. The next guy says, “I am an engineer,” and they take it for granted that he is capable. When I say that I am an engineer, I have to show that I am capable. Things are much better now that I am established and that my bosses know what I can do, but that took time.
Dariella López Barahona, age 14: Do you think that women and men have the same opportunities to advance in research and investigation?
To certain extent, yes. But there is still much work that needs to be done.
Matthew Turner, age 12: Can you tell us about the new GOES satellites NASA is making?
The new GOES satellite will be amazing. If you think the data we get now is great and saves lives, the new generation will be even better. GOES-R will be launched in 2016, probably October. This generation will be able to provide image updates every 30 seconds.
The GOES program is carried out in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop the geostationary weather satellites utilized by the meteorologists in the National Weather Service to produce their forecasts. GOES-R’s environmental data products will support short-term weather forecasts and severe storm watches and warnings, maritime forecasts, seasonal predictions, drought outlooks and space weather predictions. The products will improve hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, increase thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time, improve aviation flight route planning, provide data for long-term climate variability studies, improve solar flare warnings for communications and navigation disruptions, and enhance space weather monitoring.
Remember Hurricane Katrina? Many lives were saved because of the forecasts produced by the existing GOES Satellites [GOES-N, O, and P]. GOES-R, the first in the new series, will completely revolutionize weather forecasting and will also have an on-board lighting mapper that will help predict tornado activity more accurately and provide more timely warnings.
Alexia Pita Oriol, age 8: What experiments did you do about the planet Mars and what experiments are you doing now?
Remember that I am an engineer, not a scientist. I develop satellites and instruments for investigation; I work on technology development. Once the satellites and instruments have launched and been put into operation, I move on. The analogy I use is that I am the person who builds the cars. Then I hand the keys to the driver. Unless the drivers have problems, they don’t need me. If there are problems with the hardware then they call me back to find out how to fix it. This does not mean that I am totally out of the loop of the scientific discoveries: we are married to the missions we develop forever, and the discoveries made by those missions. I was part of the UARS, LandSat, EP/EUVE, TOPEX, TDRS, GOES, MAVEN, HST, and XTE teams, and I followed the discoveries until the missions ended [in the case of those that are no longer in operation].
José Ignacio Rodriguez, age 12: Is there scientific proof that life existed on Mars in the past?
No. There is water, and there is evidence that rivers, lakes and oceans existed on the surface. There is evidence that it had an atmosphere. However, there is no evidence that it ever harbored life.
Jimena Montoya Álvarez, age 11: What inspired you to join NASA, and what is your favorite part of your job?
The moon landing in 1969 was my motivation. I always loved everything related to science fiction. I firmly believe that if we can think it, it may be possible to construct. We may need more technologies and discoveries as part of the puzzle, but I believe that some of those things we see in science fiction can be real. Imagine Star Trek, for example, and the tablets they used. It was science fiction in the 1960s, but it is a reality now. Is time travel possible? There is no doubt in my mind that one day we will be able to time travel, but we are not there technologically. So, as you can see, the best part of my job is finding ways to make of these science fiction things a reality. It is never dull, and we are constantly pushing the state of the art.
Daniel Drew, age 12: Is it true that NASA discovered an exoplanet that has exactly the same characteristics as Earth? If so, when is NASA going to send a ship there?
To date, NASA has discovered more than 1,000 newly verified exoplanets around 300 stars. One of these appears to be as close to the star as Earth is from our sun. The exoplanets were found using a statistical technique called “verification by multiplicity.” We have not actually seen these exoplanets, but we can tell they are there.
Gabriel Beaumont, age 12: What is your favorite song and style of music?
“Rocket Man” by Elton John is my favorite song. Chris Hadfield, an astronaut, did a nice version of the song.