CitySong

Louisville rockers Twin Limb have a secret and that secret is MaryLiz Bender, drummer, has an intense passion for all things having to do with Space. That’s right. You heard me: Space as in Outer Space, as in The Cosmos, as in other planets besides Earth. Her passion is so intense that she is making the study of space her career and life’s work and also bringing a space conference to Louisville! I recently spoke with MaryLiz about the first ever Our Place in Space conference to be held at Headliners Music Hall on June 17, 2017.

WFPK: What is “Our Place in Space”?
MaryLiz Bender: Our Place In Space is a new, all ages space conference in Louisville, KY. This giant space party will occur from 2:00pm – 9:00pm at Headliners on Saturday, June 17th. There, we’ll hear form NASA Engineers, astrophysicists and space policy experts about how they need us to help shape the future of space exploration. Regardless of our educational backgrounds, work experience, or life circumstances, there is a place for anyone who wants to be an important part of the space industry.

This will be just the first of many annual events, which is an effort to build and foster a space community in our region, and continue to grow the thriving space industry in Kentucky. You heard me right!

What’s your personal involvement in this event?
I dreamt up this crazy idea and am the founder and organizer for this event. I’m joined by my co-organizer and good friend, Becky Steele, who is a NASA Solar System Ambassador. We couldn’t do this without our great sponsors who have helped in many ways (The Louisville Astronomical Society, the Kentucky Science Center, Oh Wow and Louisville Science Meetup).

How did you get particular speakers to be at this event and who can we look forward to hearing from?
Last year, at a Louisville Astronomical Society event, I attended a speech by Stephen Watson, of NASA JPL. He spoke at length about the Juno Mission to Jupiter, for which he was a Project Software Systems Engineer. Before and after his speech, I hounded him with questions, “What programming languages does NASA use to build the software for the spacecraft?”, “How are the servers built and what happens when servers go down?”, “How long does it take to receive data from each of our robotic spacecraft?”, “How are the images processed?”, “How do we send commands to our robotic spacecraft to make them speed up, slow down, turn their solar panels toward the sun?”, etc. I was joined by Our Place In Space’s co-organizer, Becky Steele. We both met while hounding this man with the same questions. He ran out of time, but left us with his business card. I continued hounding this gracious human for months with questions about how radio waves work, what degree I’d need to pursue to work with NASA, and the list goes on (all questions that will go answered at this conference!).

While Twin Limb was on tour with Jim James last Fall, I was constantly relaying these space facts during soundcheck. It was during one of these soundchecks that Kevin Ratterman made it known that we had a day off in LA, and he suggested I visit Stephen for that tour of NASA JPL I had been promised. I quickly purchased my plane ticket and broke away from the touring crew to spend an afternoon touring the most incredible facility I’ve seen in all my life. Stephen escorted me around, pointing to buildings saying, “Do you like to sew? You can sew spacecraft thermal blankets for a living”, “Do you want to be a musician or artist for NASA JPL? We have artist internships here”, “Do you want to use our 3D metal printer to make parts for the spacecraft? That’s over here…”, “Do you want to be a software engineer here? We’ll pay for your education at CalTech, if you obtain an undergraduate degree”. The tour ended with a view of the 2020 Mars Rover. I was forever changed.

Stephen knew that I was a high-school dropout and had never continued my education. But, he saw that I had a passion and a drive, and wanted to help curate a plan for me to work in the space industry. His generosity and mentorship lead me to believing in myself. Less than six months later, I began working for one of my favorite organizations in the universe, The Planetary Society — originally co-founded by Carl Sagan, currently lead by Bill Nye. My dreams became a reality because someone gave me permission to believe in myself. This is the reason I’m hosting this conference. I aim to relay the message to everyone: If you want to work in the space industry, you can. Just decide what you want to do. I will find the right people to help you curate your path. But, start by attending and being inspired by the folks who are literally making waves in the universe. We will supply time for Q&A and networking — this is what its’ all about.

All that said, my original idea was to have Stephen Watson come speak for The Louisville Science Meetup (a monthly Citizen Science meetup I run). But, when Stephen confirmed his schedule with me, I had a vision of making this a bigger event. I started reaching out to other speakers. I got a lot of help from Ken Alderson, President of the Louisville Astronomical Society, who got in touch with Breanna Ausbrooks, an astrophysicist from U of L and Tracy Drain of NASA JPL, who just so happened to be in town for a speech she’s doing at the Modern Thinkers Social Series, the day before our event. Casey Dreier is one of my colleagues at The Planetary Society. All of them will speak regarding the projects they’re personally involved with, then talk about how anyone can get involved, accepting Q&A after each speech.

The full conference schedule is as follows:
2:00 PM
Attendees are encouraged to come early to enjoy our sponsor booths, which will provide VR experiences, solar telescope viewings and workshops.

3:00 PM
Becky Steele
NASA Solar System Ambassador and Our Place In Space co-organizer

Becky will welcome us with a conference introduction and a presentation on what’s going on in space today.

3:15 PM
Tracy Drain
Flight Systems Engineer
at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tracy will talk about her work as Flight Systems Engineer at NASA JPL, share details of the Kepler Mission’s discovery of exoplanets, and share the inspiring story of her career path, from Louisville to NASA JPL.

4:45 PM
Stephen Watson
Mission Assurance Manager
Project Software Systems Engineer
at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Stephen will share details of the amazing work done at NASA JPL through his work on the Juno Mission to Jupiter and the Deep Space Network. He will unveil the vast opportunities available to those interested in working with NASA JPL.

6:00 PM
Intermission: Attendees enjoy the sponsor booths, workshops, networking, food trucks, drinks and entertainment.

6:50 PM
Casey Dreier
Space Policy Advocate
at The Planetary Society

Casey will share his wealth of knowledge regarding the inner-workings of space policy, how NASA’s budget is determined, and how every citizen can help shape the future of NASA and space exploration.

7:35 PM
Breanna Ausbrooks
Astrophysicist
at University of Louisville

Breanna will dazzle the audience with an astrophysicist’s unique view of our Universe, and talk about the Astrophysics program at the University of Louisville.

8:30 PM
Entertainment, mingling, networking and sponsor booth workshops.

9:00 PM
Doors Close, and attendees are invited to a Star Party at the Louisville Astronomical Society Dark Site Observatory in Curby, IN

When did you become interested in Space and Space Exploration?
I grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Missouri. Back then, you could still see the belt of the Milky Way on a clear night. My dad used to point out the constellations, and I was eternally drawn to those stars. I am always looking up, always curious about what we’ve yet to discover.

There was a special turning point, after Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series was published. I held some watch parties, and was stunned by each episode. I went back and watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I was in love. This is where my passion began to grow for the unknown — Dark Matter, Dark Energy and Black Holes. I became a bookworm dedicated to authors Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and the like.

During a very long drive on tour, I downloaded a podcast to listen to: Planetary Radio. I was enthralled to learn how many space missions are currently taking place in our solar system, not to mention the Voyager spacecraft that are still sending data back from Interstellar Space. I was immediately and eternally hooked on space exploration, and even started blogging about it. I wanted to find out if anyone else in the area was interested in space, so I started googling. I discovered the Louisville Astronomical Society, and signed up immediately, a complete life-changer. That’s when I met Stephen and began curating a path toward working in the space industry. I’m amazed that, less than a year later, I work with The Planetary Society, and listening to Planetary Radio is as much for pleasure as it is for business!