Space Place Live! with Linda Herrell

Not all architects design buildings. In this episode, you will meet Linda Herrell, architect of space missions! Find out how a love of French and Spanish led her to a love of computers and space technology-and what artsy hobby she picked to use her special design skills.

Start of show

Kyo: Hi! Welcome to Space Place Live! I'm Kyo, and this is Kate.

Kate: Hi everyone! Our guest today is Linda Herrell. She works on NASA's New Millennium Program.

Kyo: Hey, I wonder why it's called the New Millennium Program. I don't even remember the old millennium, it was so long ago!

Kate: I'm surprised you remember what happened yesterday!

Kyo: Yesterday was hot dog day in the cafeteria!

Kate: Exactly! (LAUGHS) Anyway, hi, Linda. Welcome to Space Place Live!

Linda: Hi, guys. Thanks for inviting me!

Kate: I think the first thing we want to know, or at least what Kyo wants to know, is, why does NASA call it the New Millennium Program?

Linda: Well, because the New Millennium Program is about the future. We talk to scientists to find out what they hope to discover, and what technologies they will need to make their missions possible. Then, our job in the New Millennium Program is to help to get these technologies ready for space. We create space missions to test the technologies and make sure they will work.

Kyo: Wow, what kind of technologies do you test? Do you mean futuristic things like space warps and time travel?

Kate: News flash Kyo! This is science, not science fiction! Right Linda?

Linda: Well, maybe some day we'll test things like that! For now, we might test new, lighter-weight and tougher materials, or a new kind of spacecraft engine, or a better kind of solar panel to convert sunlight to electricity for the spacecraft. Or, sometimes, the technology is computer software to make the spacecraft smarter.

Kate: Boy, I could sure use some of that technology sometimes!

Kyo: Isn't that the truth!

Kate: Kyo! (Scowling)

Kyo: Oops ... uhh, we have to take a commercial break now. We'll be right back!


Kate: And we're back, talking with Linda Herrell of NASA's New Millennium Program. So, Linda, you said that you can test these new technologies in space. Why can't you just test them here on Earth?

Linda: We can test a lot of new technologies on Earth. But some things behave very differently in space, and we have to know what they're going to do. After all, it's a very different environment out there.

Kyo: Yup, like there's no air because astronauts have to wear space suits to breathe. And they float around weightless like they're under water.

Linda: Well, that's just the beginning of how space is different. Temperatures are extreme. A spacecraft can be colder than a freezer on its shady side and hotter than an oven on its sunny side.

Kate: Geez, I didn't know it could be so harsh!

Linda: Yeah, it sure can. And unlike on Earth, there's no blanket of air to protect the spacecraft from the Sun's harsh radiation and the electrically charged particles of the solar wind. It's important to make sure that the new material or computer or solar panel or antenna or whatever it is can stand up to the punishment of being in space.

Kate: Ooh, that sounds so not healthy! Whew! Ok. Well Linda, what's your job?

Linda: I'm called the Program Architect. Like an architect who designs how all the parts of a building fit together, I design how all the parts of a space mission fit together.

Kyo: So you have to draw all the designs yourself?

Linda: Not quite. Let's say we wanted to test a new kind of solar panel, plus a new kind of computer, and a new communications antenna all on one mission. I'd figure out what kind of spacecraft we'd need to fit in all these technologies, and then what kind of rocket would be needed to launch the spacecraft into space.

Kyo: Wow, that sounds hard! You must totally know everything about everything!

Linda: Oh I have lots of help. All kinds of engineers work together to design the mission.

Kyo: Wow, that sounds pretty hard and fun at the same time! We'll find out more in a minute. But right now, we have to take another break.


Kyo: And here we are again. So Linda, can you give us an example of a really wild, futuristic, New Millennium Program mission?

Linda: I'd have to say one of the most interesting missions so far was the Deep Space 1 mission. The New Millennium Program tested 12 new technologies using a single spacecraft!

Kate: Twelve!? That spacecraft must have had a lot of thing-a-ma-jigs sticking out all over it!

Linda: Well, no, it was actually quite handsome. I brought a picture of it. One of the technologies we tested was the new ion engine, which made the spacecraft keep going faster and faster. It was new and different, because usually, once the rocket boosts it into space, a spacecraft pretty much just coasts the rest of the way to its destination. The ion engine keeps thrusting very gently the whole way, making the spacecraft go faster and faster. And it uses very little fuel.

Kate: So how did this new engine do?

Linda: The engine and even most of the other technologies did better than anyone expected. Some of the newly proven technologies from that mission are already being used on other missions. That is a great success for our program.

Kate: It sounds like you have a very cool job. But, did you know when you were a kid that you wanted to work in space exploration?

Linda: No, not at all. I was curious about everything and I liked school. One of my interests was foreign languages–French, Spanish, even Latin. Then when I went to college, I began studying the languages that you use to talk to computers.

Kyo: Really? How do you say "Hi, my name is Kyo" in computer?

Kate: Hell-O, Kyo! It's not that kind of language! She means the programs that tell the computer what to do.

Linda: Right, but there are similarities, Kyo–like very strict rules of grammar and you can't misspell anything! Anyway, that's how I got interested in computers and in engineering. I decided the most interesting engineering job would be working for NASA.

Kyo: What else do you like to do when you're not working?

Linda: Well, I've always enjoyed the outdoors. I grew up in Canada, and spent the summers at the park and the swimming pool. And in the winters it would be ice skating, skiing, and just playing outside in the snow. Even now, my husband and I go hiking and skiing whenever we can.

Kate: That sounds like a lot of fun. Anything else?

Linda: Well, let's see. I like to grow things in my garden, and . . . and quilting. I really like to make quilts.

Kate: Oh, that's cool! I'm learning to sew too, and it's fun. But isn't it really hard to make a quilt? Fitting together all those little tiny pieces of material?

Linda: Yes, it's challenging, but that's why I like it. Actually, it's a little like my job. At work, I put together all the pieces of a space mission–the technology to be tested, the spacecraft, a rocket, and, of course, all the little details of all those bigger parts. Like a quilt, it all has to fit together in a beautiful, workable design.

Kyo: Wow, that makes me want to give quilting a try. Anyway, I'm afraid our time is up. Thanks for visiting us today, Linda.

Linda: I had a great time! Thanks for having me.

Kate: And thanks for being with us on Space Place Live! See ya next time!

End of show