After long pondering how to get herself into space, former Edmontonian Charity Weeden started her new job at NASA thinking a lot more about humanity on Earth.
In late September, the Ross Sheppard High School grad who once worked as an Alberta legislature page officially became the associate administrator for NASA’s office of technology, policy, and strategy.
“For my entire career, it’s always been either I wanted to become an astronaut, or I wanted to help make good policy decisions. It’s always been space. I think it’s getting broader than that. This is more than space. This is about Earth,” she told Postmedia from Washington, D.C.
When Weeden was sworn in at NASA headquarters, she took her oath on Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact, a text she said illustrates how important it is to the space community to understand humans and their decision-making.
“What I see in that book is the excitement of the science and technological discovery and, for me personally that’s exciting, but also navigating through the complexity of humanity to make sure we can achieve those scientific endeavours,” she said, adding that can include navigating politics, funding issues, and convincing the public those efforts are good.
Weeden’s office provides the agency with advice, work she likened to that of a think tank, but bigger.
“We really bring evidence-based decisional support to NASA leadership, and in so doing, we are making sure that we’re providing that analysis and research to inform the most consequential decisions about NASA’s future.”
That includes looking at questions that still hover around bringing humanity back to the moon, and onward to Mars. It’s also thinking about how to help tackle space debris, a challenge that has evolved since the first satellite was launched.
“There’s not one single agency or department, let alone one single country, that can solve the problem and snap its fingers. This is a very complex issue,” Weeden said, noting the solution will involve careful tracking, international coordination, and remediation so it doesn’t pose a threat.
‘When I think of space, I think of us’
Looking back at her stint as a page at the Alberta legislature, Weeden said it informed her positive outlook about the work of policy-makers.
“I wasn’t jaded about politics because I had a front seat in seeing how the sausage is made and the real efforts of the MLAs trying to pass budgets and talk about really important issues for Alberta.”
That work as a teenager helped pay her way to Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama — an experience that caught the eye of the Edmonton Journal in 1991 when Weeden said, “someday I’ll become an astronaut.”
Now, the 48-year-old said there’s a range of career opportunities in the humanities, communications, policy, law or science.
“There are many different types of jobs in space — not just engineers, not just astronauts. I didn’t know that as a 16-year-old in the early ’90s,” said Weeden, adding that even if people don’t realize it, we all take advantage of space technology.
“Space matters to every single human on the Earth. We hold it in our cellphones, or we use it for weather applications, to stay safe, and use our resources wisely. When I think of space, I think of us here on Earth and how we use it and how we are now in this era where we cannot afford to lose the access to space that we have had over the last 60 years — and to keep going forward.”
A ‘zig-zag’ career
Weeden served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), getting an engineering degree, training as an air navigator, and flying around the world for more than six years.
“I felt like I was this little mission support in the back of an aircraft, thinking that this is likely what it’s like in the back of a space shuttle as well. I took that and made it my own, and it was a really great experience.”
In 2003, Weeden earned her master’s degree in space science from the University of North Dakota and later attended the International Space University Summer Session Program. There, she realized important questions about what humans would do in space, and how they would do it and with whom, are answered first at the policy-making level.
“I got interested in that simply because I want to help make good decisions about our future in space,” she said.
Her career has seen her working at North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) in Colorado, the Canadian Space Agency as a flight support readiness manager, the Canadian Embassy as a staff officer for air and space operations, and in the private sector with Astroscale U.S. and the Satellite Industry Association.
“I’ve had a bit of a zig-zag career,” she said.
Still, she said her goals now are much the same as when was younger. “I just want to learn.”
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