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Meet The First South Asian Woman To Become NASA Flight Director

People

This year, NASA named six new flight directors to lead mission control at the Johnson Space Center. Pooja Jesrani is among them, breaking glass ceilings as the first South Asian woman to take on this opportunity. “We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."


Jesrani has always been interested in space. In fact, it was her father who inspired her. “I grew up with a dad who had an affinity for space and I think it sort of rubbed off on me," she shared. Her parents who are from India originally, moved to England and then the United States when she was 10 years old. Houston not only became her new home but was also home of the Johnson Space Center. Her father motivated her to pursue a career in aerospace engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) after she finished high school.

Offiicial NASA portrait of Flight Director Pooja Jesrani. Photo Date: July 9, 2018. Location: Building 8, Room 183 - Photo Studio. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Like Jesrani, her father also aspired to be an engineer. Although a test, similar to the SAT's, determined his fate. “In India when you [get] a perfect score you can become a doctor [or] engineer," she said. “He scored really well and his family said 'now [you'll] become a doctor.'" Years after entering the medical field he is now a successful orthopedic surgeon who continues to share a passion for space with his daughter. “He's probably read more space books than me; he talks about space better than me," she admitted. “He's the one that keeps me on my toes." Her father is her avid supporter and he was the first person she called when she got the job.

Her journey began at UT Austin, “I got my first internship with a contractor at NASA," she mentioned. “I worked as an intern for a few years and once I graduated from UT Austin I came back full-time," she said. The internship opportunity opened many doors for her career and future. Jesrani worked her way up to flight director, a position that is very sought after and competitive at NASA. “There were over 500 applicants this time and this was my first time applying," she shared.

There have been less than 100 appointed flight directors since the beginning of human space flight. Out of 90 flight directors, including her class, there have only been 14 women. South Asians are still a minority, but Jesrani makes it clear she was not the only one. “There have been only two South Asians ever in the history of human spaceflight in the United States of America," she said. “Jesrani finds her role an honor and humbling experience. “It's definitely really cool being able to set the example for other people that are just like me," she said. She hopes to inspire others to apply to programs and instills the message that they can do it too.

The Johnson Space Center is the hub of the space flight program. “It's where mission control is, beginning from the early Mercury and Apollo days all the way through the space shuttle program," she explained. At the Space Center, Jesrani leads projects, oversees spaceflight missions and looks forward to using commercial providers like Boeing or SpaceX to send astronauts to the International Space Station. “What's cool about this is that in the next handful of years, we are sending astronauts back to the moon," she said with excitement.

“The International Space Station is conglomerate of a bunch of different countries that have gotten together [like] Russia, Japan, Canada, [the] European space agency; we've created this sort of football field-sized platform that now currently houses astronauts," she said. They are there 24/7 and 365 days a year. “It is a very demanding task because [I am] the final line in case an emergency happens or something [goes] wrong," she explained.

“We're in a really exciting time for the space program in the United States," Jesrani exclaimed. “I feel very honored and humbled."

Though it can be challenging sometimes, Jesrani strives to have a balanced life with her high school sweetheart and their two and a half-year-old daughter. “One of the main things that's important to me is to have balance overall," she said. To her, there is more to life than trying to always excel at work, at home or with friends. Jesrani passionately talks about her husband or daughter. “She's awesome, she's funny and it's fun to be a mom," she gushed. “But then I have this really challenging work life that requires me to travel." She enjoys both her family and working for NASA.

What is an average day like?

“Coming home, I'm sort of like every other parent making sure there's dinner on the table, hanging out with my daughter and husband before bed, and finishing up any work I didn't get the chance to finish during the day," she explained. While she is a flight director at NASA, her husband is a lawyer. Jesrani is grateful to have her family as a support system, as she and her husband have demanding jobs. “I think because of my really supportive husband, my parents, his parents and having a pretty good kid we're almost able to do it all which is unbelievable to say," she laughed.

The morning is especially important, as Jesrani spends quality time with her daughter before she goes to school. Already, her daughter is looking at her as an example of a working mother. “It's funny to see my daughter now say things like; 'Mom can you buy me a purse and I need a car too because I want to go to work just like you,'" she shared. “Having a kid was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."

Though there has been an abundance of accomplishments in her career, there have also been times where she felt discouraged. When she was a freshman in college, intro to aerospace engineering classes challenged her academically. “[The classes] were really, really hard," she admitted. With dedication and hard work, Jesrani passed the course and at UT Austin the intro classes determined who would go on in the program.

Even now, as an Alumna, there are times when she still faces challenges. “When you're a flight controller you go through a lot of training," she began. “They put you through a lot of simulations to see how you react under pressure, with the stress of the International Space Station, problem-solving and figuring all of that out." Going through that process was a learning experience for her. “You have your entire workforce watching you under pressure in the simulations, [but] I ended up doing pretty well." she continued. At the end of the day, Jesrani became certified and is now sitting in the real Mission Control.

Jesrani advises students, whether they are in STEM, to find a mentor. “I was lucky enough to have really good mentors from the beginning of college to my entire career now," she said. “Seek out other women or even other men that are in roles that you want to get to, roles that inspire to you, roles that you think are challenging or tough but you don't know how to get it or do it." When she started out at NASA, she met her assigned mentor on day one. That mentor has helped her grow throughout her career - and still mentors her today.

Jesrani is looking forward to seeing what happens in the future for women. “The fact that NASA [is] diversifying their selection and including a South Asian female in the Flight Director mix is just awesome," she said. “We've had multiple men on the moon, but we've had zero women that have ever walked on the moon, [landed] on the moon, [gone] around the moon."

There are a lot of things happening in the next 5-10 years at NASA. Jesrani is especially excited about working toward having a woman take a step on the moon. “A small step for man but a giant leap for mankind is what Neil Armstrong said when he was on the moon, and in the documentary (Mercury 13) they [said] a small step for women but a giant leap for womankind," she shared. “To be able to be a role model to other kids that are growing up in this generation and see a woman on the moon is going to be pretty amazing."

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.