Space Place Live! with Donya Douglas

Meet Donya Douglas, a thermal engineer from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. She always wanted to be an engineer. She never doubted that she could do it. Learn how her team found ways to keep three miniature spacecraft not too hot and not too cold in the harsh environment of space.

Start of show

KATE: Hi, everybody! Welcome to Space Place Live! I'm Kate, and this is my assistant, Carlos.

CARLOS: Assistant!?

KATE: Just kidding!

CARLOS: annoyed growl Today we'll be talking to an engineer. Her name is Donya Douglas. Donya works for NASA on the Space Technology 5 mission.

KATE: Space Technology 5 is called ST5 for short. For ST5, NASA is building three tiny spacecraft. They will be able to do everything that much bigger spacecraft can do, but will be a lot cheaper to build and launch.

CARLOS: Each spacecraft is about the size of a regular TV! But because they're so small, everything that goes inside them must also be small and really lightweight. Donya is one of the NASA engineers who has the hard job of making things small enough to fit.

KATE: So, let's meet Donya without further ado . . . uh, except for this short commercial break.

This episode of Space Place Live is brought to you by Space Technology 5. Testing new technologies to help us explore the mysteries of Earth and the Universe.

CARLOS: We're back with NASA engineer Donya Douglas. Welcome, Donya!

DONYA: It's great to be here, Kate and Carlos.

CARLOS: Donya, what is your job exactly?

DONYA: My job is a thermal engineer for the Space Technology 5 project. A thermal engineer designs systems to either warm things up or cool things down in space.

KATE: Wow, it must be pretty cold out in space. How do you control the temperature of something in space?

DONYA: There are three different ways of heating something or cooling something. There's convection . . . so if you were to hold your hand up (hold your hand up) . . .


DONYA: and blow at your hand and you feel that movement of air, that's called convection. But in space, there is no air so we have to use the other two ways, radiation and conduction.

CARLOS: Ooohh. Radiation is a bad thing, isn't it?

KATE: (exasperated) Oh, Carlos! You're thinking of radioactivity.

CARLOS: But I thought radiation was the same thing. What is radiation, Donya?

DONYA: Radiation, for example, is if you were to be outside playing and your hands were cold and you were to come in and let's say you had a fireplace or something and you were to hold your hands over the fire and you could feel the heat.

CARLOS: Oh, so THAT's radiation.

DONYA: Conduction, on the other hand, requires you to be in contact with something. Let's say again that your hands were cold and there was a warm surface you could put your hands on. Once you put your hands on that surface you would be exchanging energy with that surface so your hands would be warming up and the surface would be getting cooler.

CARLOS: Oh, like when I warm my hands on Astrodog's belly.


KATE: Oh, that must be the howling I hear from your house when you get home from school on cold days! So, Donya, how DO you keep the spacecraft from getting too hot or too cold.

DONYA: Well, we warm things up by using heaters, or we use different types of paints, and we point things toward the sun. Or we cool things down by using blankets or pointing them toward deep space.

KATE: You use blankets? Like the warm, fuzzy blankets I have on my bed?

DONYA: Space blankets are very similar to the types of blankets that you have on your bed. It's many layers so it's kind of fluffy. And you want it to be fluffy, because it helps be an insulator when it's fluffy.

KATE: What do these space blankets look like?

DONYA: Some of them look just like aluminum foil. Some of them look like the material that wedding veils are made out of.

CARLOS: Gee, who would have thought it would take an engineer to make a blanket?

KATE: (exasperated) Well, it isn't your everyday blanket, Carlos!

CARLOS: Well, yeah. I guess it wouldn't be too comfortable sleeping under aluminum foil.

KATE: Right! So, Donya, what's so hard about keeping ST5 from getting too hot or too cold?

DONYA: ST5's orbit is elliptical. So there's a portion of the orbit in which you're close to the Earth where you can warm up quickly and there's a portion of the orbit where you're further away from the Earth and you cool down. And so because we have that change in environment we have to design a system that can maintain temperatures within the orbit. And we have to do that passively without any heaters, so we use paints or blankets.

CARLOS: Yeah, I guess that WOULD make thermal engineering ST5 really tricky.

KATE: But at least your space blankets don't have to be very big! Doesn't that make it easier?

DONYA: The spacecraft is very small. It's about 25 kilograms, which is about 50 pounds. And you could probably hold it in your lap. And that makes it difficult because something that's really small can change temperature really, really fast.

CARLOS: Awesome! ST5 is so small I could bring it to school. I could tell all my friends it's my new time machine!

KATE: (exasperated) Carlos, our friends are watching the show right now. They'll already know what it is.

CARLOS: Oh, well. We'll be right back to find out more about Donya.

This episode of Space Place Live is brought to you by Space Technology 5 and the New Millenium Program. To learn more about ST5 and NMP, visit "The Three Little Piggy-back Satellites"

KATE: We're back! Donya, I really want to know why you decided to be an engineer.

DONYA: Well, I was always good in math and science. And I remember at the age of ten deciding that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and I wanted to work for NASA. And at that time I wanted to be an astronaut too.

CARLOS: How did you even know about aerospace engineering?

DONYA: My dad was always very technical. My dad was an engineer. And so we used to always talk about math and science.

KATE: I like math and science too. But sometimes the boys look at me funny if I jump up and answer all the questions in class. Did you ever think being a girl engineer would be weird?

DONYA: Well, I was a little nervous about being an engineer. But I was always into math and science and there were some girls in my class. And my dad has always taught me that I could do anything that I wanted to do and I could be anything that I wanted to be.

KATE: Oh, I like that!

CARLOS: Hey, Kate, it's fine with all the boys I know that you're smart. You can help us with our homework. So Donya, speaking of boys, I understand you have three of your own.

DONYA: I have three sons, yes.

CARLOS: Hey, if they're anything like my older brothers, they must keep you pretty busy.

DONYA: Well, my sons . . . I have twins, they just turned 15, and I have a 12-year-old. And they're just really good kids. So they realize that school is important, so they just help out a lot and they do well. So it's not that difficult.

CARLOS: So, Donya, I'm a pretty good student, and I really like science too. But I always thought you had to be really smart to be a scientist or engineer. I'm not sure I'm smart enough. What do you think I should do?

DONYA: First, I believe that anybody is smart enough to do anything that they want to do. I would suggest that you talk to your parents and let them know that you're interested in that particular subject. My father used to buy me books and so I'd read a lot of books about math and science and things technical. Also, . . . talk to your math or science teacher and let them know that you're interested. They have access to different programs, summer camps, after school and things like that. Maybe there's a club. Maybe there's some type of event coming up that you could get involved in.

CARLOS: Well, thanks, Donya. Maybe I'd better go do my math homework now.

KATE: It's been great talking to you, Donya.

DONYA: Thanks for having me on the show!

CARLOS: And thanks for watching Space Place Live. See you all next time.

End of show