Meet one of NASA’s fifty astronaut finalists — Dr. Christine Corbett Moran

Next month NASA will select it’s incoming astronaut class. Get to know one of the fifty finalists vying for the highly coveted position(s) of: traveling to space as a job.

“A few months back, I interviewed Dr. Moran right after returning from a year, living and working, in Antarctica. We discussed her journey from undergrad at MIT to her current research on black hole formation as a post doc fellow at CalTech. We also talked of the importance of science communication, her personal productivity/organization tools, AR & VR use in space exploration, the “Go to Mars or Go to Moon first” debate, quantum computing, her Summer App Space coding boot camp, and of course, her being a finalist (top 50 of 18,000+ candidates) for the NASA astronaut program.” — Nicholas McCay, Interviewer

Question: I read in one of your responses to an interview that stuck with me: “I solve scientific and societal problems with an interdisciplinary approach.” Can you talk more about that, your progress, and also which is more difficult: science or society and why is interdisciplinary so important?
I think society is ultimately more difficult because it is not necessarily predictable. You can do all the right things and have a society function the wrong way because of interactions or because of individual people were doing the right thing but didn’t necessarily think about how gruesome people would behave. So for example all the scientists who were involved in the Manhattan Project fundamentally believed that they were doing the right thing to help end world war 2 and also end war forever. But they didn’t necessarily think about the long term consequences of now of that we are in a world that there are a lot of places that have nuclear weapons, we have managed to avoid nuclear war so far, but there are all these complex societal problems that even people individually doing the right thing couldn’t necessarily predict. In terms of interdisciplinary, if you look at what has solved the really large problems in science or in society it is not necessarily one type of thinking. The Manhattan project brought in chemists, engineers, and philosophers to think about the consequences. When the bomb was developed — game theory and decision making of when to deploy bombs, if ever…hopefully never. I think it is more that no matter how hard we try and silo things into disciplines, those are always too narrow compared to the actual scope of the problem.”
Question: I can kind of see a theme in your work, your twitter, your public speaking, etc: That you really believe in science communication and how important that is. Am I correct in assuming that, and why is it important?
I think science communication is important on a variety of levels. First of all, there is the communication of actual scientific results and that is a bit more subtle to understand because science is an evolving process. Science is more a process than any particular result. It is also about communicating how that process works and understanding what significance means and what experimental sets of the data sample size, and how the data sample size was selected. Kind of more teasing into that than just reporting a fact. Science fact only really becomes fact a long time after the initial result because there has to be a lot of follow up, a lot of debate, a lot of experiments done to change the way of thinking. So science is more of a method of changing the way you think about things than about any one particular result. So communicating that and communicating the results that we do know and the places that we think we are going to deal with those I think help us do more science because ultimately it is not necessarily corporations who pay for fundamental science. It’s people, everyday people with their tax dollars. In terms of science communications and educating how fun scientific processes or tools that can be deployed in a variety of fields, not just for use of the scientific method but maybe use in an art project or for use in someone’s everyday life. There are ways for people to participate in science, and I think may eventually change how science itself is done. We are seeing a lot of projects…There is a project called Galaxy Zoo that lets everyday people learn how to classify galaxies or do various tasks for astronomers and help them discover new objects and help discover new classifications of things in the sky. So there are a lot of opportunities with the internet for people who don’t have a PhD to participate in science and at the same time learn more about it.
Nick: “Yes, I actually just saw a recent TED talk about the crowd or citizen science using satellites for space archeology. So there is definitely a breadth of people out there that want to do this and also plenty of scientists that have data that needs be gone through with additional eyes and ears on things.”
“Yeah I think we going to see more of that because our data sets are getting to the point where even a large scientific collaboration isn’t able to handle all the cool things that we could discover with that data set, So finding more ways to engage with people at whatever level of education to help contribute and to be excited about their contribution and see how that is meaningful will help us do more science moving forward.
Question: Let’s step back just a bit, you have had quite a journey up until now: double major in physics and computer science and double minor in mathematics and philosophy at MIT. All those subjects are pretty paramount to understanding, or trying to understand the human condition from all different sides. You really don’t see that from a lot of people, you see physics or math, or CS or something else. How does that knowledge compliment your research as opposed to never taking those subjects?
“The outlier in some people’s minds might be philosophy, but studying philosophy and historical philosophers, it used to be that many philosophers were also interested in science — called natural philosophy, that was science. So, historically people haven’t divided themselves into these different camps where “I’m a scientist, and you think about the meaning of life over there as philosophers or how language is acquired or represented. So historically there wasn’t this division. There were a lot of people who were fundamentally interested in knowing more about our world, and they learned as much as they could about anything from biology to politics to philosophy. For myself, I am not necessarily interested in just one narrow question, and I wanted to know that I might have the tools in my toolbox to be able to address a variety of different questions. So, that was studying what I considered the basic building blocks of the tools you might need to address any sort of problem. Philosophy has really helped me decide what type of problems that I think are important to work on, and taking a step back and going through the logic and strategy of where to divide my attention… A lot of physicists are fundamentally asking questions that used to be in the domain of philosophy that we are now able to ask as physical questions. So, it is very helpful in making sure that I should shine my spotlight on places that are really meaningful and want to figure out the answers to.
Question: So MIT, then University of Zurich where you received your Master’s and Doctorate. How was that experience of living and working abroad affected your journey?
“So I had lived and worked abroad several times. I was an exchange student in high school in Denmark. I had worked abroad in Norway, and studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt; so I had lived in a variety of different places. When I got to Switzerland, I had the feeling that I had done this before, and kind of know what Europe is like from living in Denmark for a year. I just enjoyed the process of getting to know a new culture by immersing myself in it and the environment. The Swiss way of life is very interested in nature, there is a lot of hiking and mountain sports going on, so just enjoying that. It was the second time that I had lived abroad for a long duration period wasn’t as difficult as the first, and it was certainly a great place to do science. Switzerland has a huge investment in science and technology, and I think has the most per capita Nobel Prize winners of any country.”
Question: I read in another interview where you said: “Anything that is easy doesn’t hold that much excitement for me.” Was that motivation for applying to want to go to Antarctica, and can you tell us about the process leading up to being selected?
Antarctica is definitely a very challenging environment physically, and I also applied to go in ‘winter over’ which is potentially a challenging environment mentally. I don’t think anyone knows ahead of time exactly how they will react to months of prolonged darkness, isolation, and the inability to video chat with home on a regular basis. So, Antarctica is definitely a challenging environment, and that was one of the many reasons why I wanted to go down there in addition to the scientific reasons of being able to work on a very cool telescope -called the south pole telescope — and many other reasons. In terms of the process to get down there, it was a multi year process for me. I thought about maybe going down there right after I got my PHD, I applied for a job with another telescope and I made it to the initial interview stage and I didn’t make it further in the process, but I did learn a lot about the requirements that they were looking for as well as some of the people they were hiring. So, when I went to apply again the next year, I was a little bit more circumspect about choosing the telescope that I wanted to work with that fit better in my research, and as well tried to highlight the skills that I could bring to it. And, that time I did get the job.”
Question: I recently did a two week Mars analog simulation in southern Utah at the Mars Desert Research Station. That was really interesting for me because it was a taste of living and working in an isolated environment and that was only for two weeks, so I can assume 11 months must have been a different experience. So, what was the most memorable experience as a whole, and what was also the toughest? Was it mental? Physical? Psychological?
In terms of memorable moments, I think it was definitely walking out all alone on the continent in the middle of the night responding to a problem with the telescope and seeing these beautiful stars and the aurora australis — the southern lights — in the sky and realizing I was probably the only person out on the whole continent for at least 800 miles. The potential for that, I am the only person seeing these sites was a neat and meaningful experience. It definitely was the most challenging being responsible for such a large and important piece of scientific equipment — the south pole telescope. It’s worth millions of dollars, it costs a lot of money to operate and every bit of time that you lose because the telescope isn’t working is literally worth thousands of dollars an hour that you are wasting. So, there is a lot of importance of keeping it running and keeping everything running smooth. That is a lot of responsibility to have, and I enjoyed fulfilling that responsibility. It was definitely a weight off my mind like when someone’s child turns 18 and they go off to college you kind of say: “ok they are out of the house.” It was nice to at least temporarily be relieved of that responsibility.”
Nick: I may apply to the Antarctica Artists & Writers program, so I may be following in your footsteps in the next year or two.
“Yeah I am familiar with the program! I know that scientific jobs or even regular jobs like dish washing are all very competitive, but it is certainly worth while and giving it a shot. And, if you don’t make it this time around then I am sure you will make it down there sometime in the future.”
Question: I know you applied when you were down in Antarctica to become a NASA astronaut. What was your motivation to apply?
“Many years ago, NASA also had a call for astronauts and I was in the middle of my PHD in astrophysics and I had started to point my life of all of the places that I could use physics, computer science, and mathematics — focusing on astrophysics, cosmology, space, and space exploration, so when NASA had the call for astronauts many years ago I had read up on all the job requirements and saw that I had met all the requirements. In terms of what I like doing: scientific work, science communication, learning something new everyday, traveling, and doing something highly meaningful with respect to space and discovery -the job description really appealed to me. So, it wasn’t something that I had wanted to since I was a little girl, it was more that I was doing interesting things and noticed as an adult that could be a potential career path that would fit really well with my interests and where I could make a contribution. So, I went ahead and applied…didn’t make it and this time I have made it all the way through to the final interview round and NASA’s timeline which is public on the web says that all of the final interview candidates hopefully know sometime around June whether they have made the class.
Nick: I assume you are probably not one to pat yourself on the back, but being one of the 50 finalists out of over 18,000 applicants has got to be a pretty good testament to your research, your life, etc.
“I was definitely very honored to make it that far, and it was certainly amazing to me with the other highly qualified candidates as well as getting to meet a lot of astronauts in the process. That was all a unique opportunity and whether I make it or not, I should know a lot more people that will be going into space. So I even feel more a part of the program, and I have some ideas about how I may contribute more whether I make it or not as an astronaut this round.”
Question: Are you team Mars? Or team Moon? Or is that really a false dichotomy of human spaceflight exploration that needs to be re-focused on doing whatever is needed to get us up there on a more sustained basis?
“Ideally if we had enough budget, if we were able to re-purpose all the extra budget to do more space there is a lot of geology that can be studied on the moon and other science and we can go to Mars too. Given a limited budget, and the kind of narrative that going to the moon will help us get to Mars is I think a little weak. I think it is more that the moon is cheaper than Mars, but a lot of the technology is different. So, Mars is farther away, it has an atmosphere, has higher gravity, and actually landing on the moon and taking off from the moon is difficult so it wouldn’t make sense to go to the moon on the way to Mars. So the question is whether the technology being developed for the Moon will be relevant for Mars. The Moon has the advantage of it being cheaper and it keeps us exploring, but it really doesn’t have that much engagement with the American public or even the world in that we have been to the Moon before. I almost think of Mars as a step to the Moon, in that if we go to Mars that will engage everyone in Space and hopefully by then the Moon will seem easy by comparison and start a moon base after that. So eventually, I could see a more permanent human presence on the Moon before Mars, but I also could also see a focus on a mission to Mars and developing the technology for that as more meaningful, more exciting, and more exploration. Space exploration is kind of what NASA is for, to go to new places and do things that have never been done before. Developing technology that will work for both places sometimes can be difficult like developing a piece of clothing that works in Hawaii but also works in Siberia — you probably want to develop two pieces of clothing, one that works great in Siberia and one that works great in Hawaii. The moon and Mars are different, so it might make more actual technological sense to just develop two separate things rather than one thing that tries to do both things sort of worse.”
Question: I read most of your fiancé’s recent book, and he says getting back to Earth from Mars will be the riskiest part of the round trip journey from our home planet. Do you agree with that?
“I do agree with that. Certainly take off and landing traditionally are the riskiest part of the mission, and if you are not taking off and landing on Earth and you are taking off from Mars, you are taking off from a planet where you don’t have a lot of local resources if something goes wrong, and almost no infrastructure even IF you abort. On Earth you can have a problem on takeoff, it depends on the company but for example Space X has designed their capsule in the event of an issue to abort and pop off the rocket and not explode with it, but you also have rescue capabilities. What if those people inside the capsule, they are ok but maybe they have experienced some injuries and they need to be rescued and have local doctors. You wont have anything like that on Mars, so certainly the return journey — the takeoff from Mars will be extraordinarily risky.
Question: Do you see Augmented & Virtual Reality playing a role in going to Mars, Space, & Science moving forward?
“I definitely do, and also from my personal field testing experience in Antarctica isolated even in a big station where I could walk outside, I would do things like change the colors of my lights to mimic being in a jungle, and also playing jungle or rain sounds. A lot of people would do that. I could just imagine the immersive experience: “What would it be like to feel like I was walking on a beach?,” and that is something that you just don’t get to experience. And I am sure if I was on a beach I would imagine would it would be like to be on a continent full of ice. Humans love variety and humans love to explore, ironically in the process of exploring where no one have ever gone before you unfortunately have to be holed up in these tiny little environments. We have these people who love to explore trapped inside, so I definitely think that Virtual Reality could be a tool for crew morale but also potentially to just engage your brain because there is something that shuts off if your surroundings are the same every single day. There is a portion of your brain that is not being activated, and so to help keep your brain engaged and even maybe continue learning and practicing various maneuvers and simulations — all that could be extremely useful with VR.”
Question: I read a tweet of yours recently: “Taking a break from a research field to come back to it years later is like having a time machine — leaping into the future.” Can you bring us up to speed on what you are currently doing as a CalTech postdoc fellow?
“I am working on an extremely interesting project that is entirely funded by the national science foundation. What I am looking at is that we do not understand how the first super massive black holes formed. So we know there were super massive black holes that formed in the first billion years of the universe, but none of our current models show how they could form so quickly. How did they feed? What did they grow from? We have observed a lot of solar mass black holes, but some of the black holes are millions of solar masses. So the question is: “How do you go from A to B?” One idea I am working on is maybe in the early universe because you haven’t had so many stellar explosions, the elemental compounds were different, you might be able to grow REALLY massive stars — super massive stars that might be 10s of thousands to millions of solar masses, and then when these stars collapse they can either potentially explode or form a black hole and then that black hole could grow and feed. If you start out with a really big black hole it is much easier to form an even bigger black hole more quickly. The issue with this is that no one has ever observed such objects. They would explode really early on or die into black holes very early on, and if they die into black holes they wouldn’t leave necessarily anything behind that we could see. If they explode they would be so early on in the universe that even if we could see it we may not be able to tell the difference yet between that explosion and a normal stellar explosion. I am trying to do models of: If these things collapse what would their signatures be? In gravitational wave emissions? Or if they explode in optical or other electromagnetic signatures? And could we actually detect these objects? For example, in my work I am doing simulations — numerical relativity simulations — to try and predict these signatures, and I would hopefully lay the groundwork for these objects actually being discovered. If anyone who sees these signatures in any of the data they would be able to say “Oh we discovered a super massive star for the first time.”
Question: How pumped were you when the LIGO experiment results came back and were confirmed?
“I was super, super, super pumped. First of all, it’s not necessarily the kind of explosions I am looking at or collapse I am looking at would generate gravitational waves that are being observed by LIGO, but they may be observed by future gravitational wave experiments. So just seeing this extremely hard technical problem had been solved for the first time, and actually discovered these two heavy black holes that we’ve actually discovered the masses of is just breathtaking and unlocks a new window into the universe. So I think this is really the first step. I think everyone believed because general relativity predicts them and has been extremely well tested otherwise that these things were out there, but detecting them is such a difficult technical problem that it is was an open question whether it would be done in my lifetime or not. Seeing that first technical breakthrough come through and several detections being made just makes me more excited to be working in this field making predictions. Now had I been working trying to make these predictions a hundred years ago, the thought that my predictions might ever be observed would be kind of out of my mind.”
Question: You are always trying and using different tools and services. What have you been using lately, and how important is it to have them at your disposal to change your research habits or life or whatever?
“That’s a great question. I think particularly with me it was something I learned when I was trying to do a lot at the same time while I was undergrad at MIT. I think only 4 people out of my class of 1000 did a double major and double minor, so it was very rare to do that much course work at once and do it in a directed way. So I needed a lot to manage my time and manage my life to make sure that I was even able to logistically get from A to B and finish the assignments that I needed to finish. I have always been a productivity nerd, and just tried out different tools, and what I have found that depends on my time of life whether I like walk or drive to work and various other things. The tools that I used 5 years ago are different from ones today, but that is not necessarily because the tools are bad it’s just because my life has changed. I kind of look for the feng sui in how these tools integrate with my life and what do I need to use right now to be productive as possible. A couple things that I do is keep a research wiki, it’s a media wiki — the same software Wikipedia is based on. Everyday I make journal entries of the research that I have done that day, but I also have larger entries on different projects or investigations. That really helps me hit the ground running. For example: If I have to travel for a week or if I have to take an entire year break from the research like last year in Antarctica, I am able to look back at my detailed notes and almost start back up where I left off. What I am also trying to do is before I was in Antarctica I was focusing on a variety of different research projects and I still have those on the back burner, but I am really trying to make some predictions with this super massive star project and soon. So, I am focusing on that and I have recently had a thought where I want to measure my time when I am at work and really make sure the majority of my time is spent — 80 to 90% of my time is dedicated specifically this project. Not to attend other scientific talks or in doing other things like reading scientific papers, and working specifically with this project. So, recently I made a call on Twitter to advice on some software and I am trying a few different things. Just yesterday I tried an app called “Timing for Mac,” and it automatically tracks all the applications that you are using unless you classify what that time is spent on. For me, when I am working on the super massive star project I am using the terminal app, I am using my Text Editor(Sublime Text), I am using Keynote to prepare various slides, and a lay tech editor, and my personal research wiki. So if I am using any of those things I count it as working on that project and anything else is distraction.”
Question: I saw that you do some Kung-Fu. How does this practice help you in your research and life? What other physical activities do you do to get into your “flow state?
I found through self experimentation that having a good diet, getting 8 hours of sleep a night, exercising — ideally an hour a day, if not at least a half hour a day, and meditating every day really helps improve my focus and productivity and helps me be on and not tired and not sick or otherwise mentally distracted at work. That is kind of my prescription for staying happy and also work/life balance, and knowing if I build time in for those types of things I can’t work 14, 15, 16 hours a day without a break. I really have to build in some time for self care. Nowadays I also add in some time to spend with my fiance, Casey Handmer, he is fantastic and just hanging out — whether or not I would spend time with him anyway it is always productive in that we both help each other’s creativity and scientific work by just talking about what we are interested in and what we are working on because we have similar backgrounds and can make contributions to that.”
Question: While you were in Antarctica you took some creative writing courses. Being someone that has traversed the formal academia landscape, but also taken online courses — what are your thoughts on online learning vs. formal academia education?
“I think online learning is fantastic — every semester, so at least twice a year, I take an online class. I have taken cryptography classes, quantum computing classes, and now some humanities classes such as creative writing. Also, taken architecture classes. I believe letting your mind go to a different space then your everyday subject, brings about unexpected connections that people might not have (if they didn’t). Also, there is a particular value of online courses is that they are focused on people who aren’t necessarily subject experts or don’t necessarily want to be the expert in the field or work in the field professionally but are interested in it, so they are very focused on not wasting your time and helping you as quickly as possible gain whatever you want out of that subject. I think college education isn’t always necessarily tailored to that. It might be a fit a physics course that’s tailored towards people who want to be professional physicists which is a completely different course to something that wants people to understand physics research and appreciate it. So, you are able to find much more of that niche “this is tailored for me and my life” type of courses online. On the flip side, there is a big community that happens with in person study where you can learn a lot from your peers. I think online learning is still struggling with how to develop those communities. So, it is much more difficult if you do what to be a subject matter expert or to do this professionally, I think it is more difficult online to develop all those kind of skills that you might get from interacting with people who have different perspectives. So that is the flip side of that.”
Question: Another quote from you: “I think one of the most fascinating and under appreciative uses of quantum computers would be to give us more insight into quantum mechanics and allow us to simulate physical processes that aren’t possible with a classical computer.” Can you go more in depth and also have you heard about the recent plans to build a quantum computer the size of a football field — maybe a quantum computing update?
“Sure, but I actually haven’t heard of those recent plans. I know that researchers around the world, IBM has this 5 qubit quantum computer but is about the size of a room. So, I think getting more qubits into play will help the exploration more. Right now we can run algorithms, but there is not a whole lot of information that you can get from the output of those algorithms because ultimately your answer is 5 qubits… In term of importance, I think a lot of people think of quantum computing as something that could help us solve particular algorithmic problems quicker or changing the political landscape for solving or breaking cryptography as deployed currently. It doesn’t break cryptography for “all time,” there are different types of cryptographic systems, but the dominant method of cryptography relies upon the fact that factoring large numbers is a difficult computational problem. Quantum computing could potentially break that assumption and therefore break it. I think a lot of people think that is the use of quantum computing, but building a quantum computer could also tell us a lot about quantum mechanics and allow us to potentially simulate say a complicated chemical reaction that relies on quantum mechanical properties that we wouldn’t be able to solve with a computer alone and that might be difficult to observe exactly what is going on physically. What I do now is simulate how galaxies interact with a computer, we might be able to simulate how various quantum mechanical interactions happen with a quantum computer and discover more about quantum mechanics and chemistry.”
Question: Lastly, can you speak about your upcoming summer camp for high school students that you are organizing? Summer App Space
“Absolutely! So, part of my grant and proposal from the national science foundation was to do an outreach project with the community to share Science. My proposal was to do a summer school for high school students and teach programming skills with the lens of doing projects around “space sciences.” Every year NASA runs the Space Apps Challenge, it is different every year, but 5–10 projects that relates to data that NASA has collected or a task that NASA would ideally like to do and ideas to help them process or solve those tasks or challenges. And it can be anything from “here is a bunch of data from the Moon — try to figure out a good place to land” to “here is a bunch of data that we collected from Earth — try to figure out where forest fires are happening” to “it would be great to have an app to help astronauts to manage tasks on the space station.” So there is a variety of different tie-ins where a lot of programming skills can be learned as well. So the students are going to have a six week bootcamp, four weeks of dedicated study and small projects and learning how to program in Python, and then two weeks working on a final project of their choice in teams that would be similar to theses NASA Space Apps challenge projects. I am going to be able to accept 12 students, fully funded where they get paid just like a summer job, to come learn. This is to share the possibility of getting paid to do interesting intellectual work, and making sure that it is not necessarily students whose parents can fund everything. I am hoping to target students who say “I am pretty smart and I am interested in stuff, but you know I need to earn money over the summer.” But they can get paid well above minimum wage to learn and have fun, so I am hoping to recruit some cool students, and also taking three high school teachers who will be in three of these teams. Teachers may not have experience with computer programming and either be able to take some of the things that learned back to their classrooms.”

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