Transcript: Space4U podcast, Tanya Harrison

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello. I am Colleen Kiernan with the Space Foundation and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today we are joined by Tanya Harrison, Dr. Harrison calls herself a “professional Martian.”


She has spent the last decade working as a scientist and admission operations on multiple NASA Mars missions, including the curiosity and opportunity rovers. Her specialty lies in geo-morphology the study of a planet’s evolution based on its surface features before Mars. However, Tonya had her head in the stars as an astronomer setting, the metal content of star clusters and reoccurring Nova systems.


She holds a PhD in geology from the university of Western Ontario, a master’s in earth and environmental sciences from Westland university and a bachelor of science and astronomy and physics from the university of Washington. Currently, she is the manager of science programs at planet federal, the federal arm of planet labs.


Tanya is also an advocate for advancing the status of women in science and for accessibility in the geoscience, you can follow her on Twitter at Tanya of Mars. Thank you so much for joining us today, Tanya. Thanks for having me. Absolutely. So, first of all, I mean, obviously it sounds like you’ve had a passion for space and science.


For probably your whole life, if not a long time. So what originally inspired this passion for space and science for you? It might seem kind of random, but I got really interested in space. Thanks to a movie that came out. I think it was in 1988, 1989 called big bird in Japan where big bird from Sesame street meets someone who ends up being a co-create haymaker, the Japanese mythological princess of the moon.


And from that, I started going outside every night and just staring at the moon. And I got really interested in space from there. There were other things that built on it over time, like watching Star Trek. Um, a lot of my favorite books when I was little, ended up revolving around space. But it wasn’t until the Pathfinder mission that NASA sent to Mars in 1997, that I got really focused on Mars in particular.


I thought it was really cool when you could see this little Rover that was second Pathfinder mission Sojourner driving around on the surface of Mars and the images that the Lander was taking. And that just. Completely blew my mind. And I knew at that point, I really wanted to work on rovers like that.


And my life became laser-focused on Mars. From that point on, that’s probably the coolest story I’ve heard of what got so much space and science. It’s all just all about big bird. Well, and you know, I think it’s always so interesting because really, um, you know, we talk a lot about science fiction and that sort of thing.


And really for a lot of people that is kind of the catalyst, it’s the Star Wars movies, it was star Trek, that sort of thing. Um, so I always think that’s really cool and pop culture can influence us in such a cool and positive way. And you never know what little thing might inspire a child. You know, the, the moon was a very ancillary part of that movie, but for some reason that really stuck with me at that age.


And so, you know, just having stuff like that out there, you never know what’s going to get a kid excited. Absolutely. Now your specialty is geomorphology and I’ll be honest. I had never heard of that, um, until really about. A week ago. Can you talk a little bit about it, what it is, um, and how that factors into the work that you’ve done with the Mars rovers?


I like to say that geomorphology is the study of shapes. So I basically have a PhD in shapes, which sounds very hand-wavy, but in geology, looking at something can tell you a lot about it. If you look at satellite images in particular, so you can look at something you can say, Oh, there used to be a river here, or this area used to be a Lake, or there was a landslide here and then we built a road across it.


And then there was another landslide. If we weren’t there to see these things happen because we’re talking about processes that take place over the course of thousands to millions of years, if not more, we basically are acting like forensic detectives. We have to look at the pieces that are left behind to try and recreate.


The landscapes in the environments that we had before. And so that’s what your morphology really is. And there’s an art to it because a lot of it is basically just, you look at a lot of images and you look at a lot of places and you develop this encyclopedic knowledge of what certain things look like.


So then you can go and you can extrapolate that to other places. Oh, I know from looking at this area, these are the things that glaciers leave behind. So now I can look at another area, say, Mars. It compare the features that we see there to things we might see on earth, knowing how they formed. And then we can extrapolate that to Mars and say, well, we know on earth stuff like this forms from glaciers.


So that’s probably what it was on Mars. Or we know that channels that look like this on earth were formed by flowing waters. So we think when we see these on Mars, that that must be what it was as well. So that’s a lot of detective work. It sounds like it is. Yeah. And a lot of it is. Just putting a lot of pieces together.


Really, you, you need to be able to paint the complete picture as much as you can as to what was happening. So we don’t just want to know, uh, let’s say the landing site for the Curiosity Rover, for example, we landed in a crater that we know from a bunch of different pieces of visual evidence in that crater that it probably used to be a Lake that was about five kilometers deep.


But we want to know more than that. What were the conditions in that lake? How old is it? How long was it there? Was it a Lake that could have harbored life or was it too acidic or too basic or too cold? You know, what, what were the conditions where life might’ve been able to survive in this Lake? And if it didn’t, why not what happened there?


That is really exciting. And, um, the other thing I think it’s really exciting work you’ve done is you’ve actually. Gotten to work on the opportunity Rover when you were at ASU, um, you were a science team collaborator. What all did that entail? So an opportunity specifically, I worked on the pan comedic cameras or pan cam, basically the color eyes of the Rover.


And my job was called the payload downlink lead, which basically means my job was to get the images. Once they came back to earth from the Rover and go through them and look at them from two standpoints. One of them was a sort of technical standpoint, you know, is there anything wrong with the camera? Is it operating within the right temperature ranges?


Are there any dead pixels, uh, stuff like that and looking at them from the standpoint of a geologist, is there anything really interesting in this image that I should bring to everybody’s attention to say, Hey, this rock is weird. Maybe there’s a meteorite right over here. Uh, this area looks like maybe there was one.


Water over here in the past, stuff like that to try and, you know, be that first set of eyes that looks at the images before they’re going out to everybody else and just kind of give them a heads up if there’s something cool going on and then working on the science side, that also gives you the ability to do the science.


So if you see something cool, you could also decide to write something about it. If you wanted, um, for opportunity in particular, I never really wrote up much about it. It was particular. It was specifically just operating the cameras. So when you’re looking at an image and, you know, for the lay person, you know, we see these really cool pictures, usually from curiosity, um, the selfies and that, um, you know, that we still kind of get today.


You know, we see this picture and we just see a bunch of rocks. So what makes a rock cooler interesting that would make you want to investigate it a little bit more? It can be a lot of different things. Sometimes. It’s. Like you said, you look at these landscapes and they’re full of rocks, but you might see a rock that looks different from all of the other ones.


So that tells you, Oh, that might be interesting. Let’s go and take a look at why that one is different from everything else. There might also be areas where the Rover crosses over what we call a contact. So an area that is different from the area that you were in previously, and we’ve driven across a few of these with curiosity in particular.


So going from say. An area where the rocks are predominantly made up of clay to an area where the rocks are predominantly made up of volcanic material. Let’s say we want to know what happened to cause that change in conditions. Did you drive over the boundary between the edge of water versus not water or was it just the edge of like a love of flow, things like that?


Um, you might also see something like a meteorite, so we’ve actually driven past a few meteorites with both. Uh, opportunity. And I think curiosity has also found some media rights at this point as well. And those are very striking. They look completely different from any of the other rocks that are just all over the surface of Mars.


So when we see them, it’s pretty definitive just from the image alone without doing anything else. The photograph is almost enough to say specifically. Yes, that is a meteorite. Yeah. We still tend to do a little bit of additional science because we have other instruments on the Rover. We can go and do things like figure out what the chemical composition of those rocks are.


But. There is a lot that you can do just from an image. And I don’t think a lot of people recognize or appreciate that part of the amount of science you can do just by looking at something. Very cool. What would you say was your favorite part of actually working on the opportunity Rover? I think it’s really just the opportunity.


No pun intended to, to work directly on a mission. So there are a lot of people out there that are planetary scientists who work on. Data from these missions and publish papers on them. But the group of people that actually work on the missions themselves like operating and making sure that they’re actually collecting that data on a day-to-day process so that we can get that data out to the larger community feels really impactful.


And. Almost almost surreal. Like your job is to come in and interact with a robot that’s on a planet 200 million miles away every day. That that’s really, really cool. And it just felt like being more connected to Mars itself. Like not just doing the science with the data, but actually working with the Rover to collect that data in the first place.


And that, that really. Spoke to me that sounds really awesome to do. And you mentioned that, um, part of your work with opportunity had to do with the camera and you did a recent, a TEDx talk where you discussed, combining your passions for photography. Um, how did that come about and what were you able to learn about the red planet from your work?


There are a lot of. Similarities going across there. I mean, taking a photo is the same, no matter where you are, you have to worry about whether your camera’s operating properly. You want to take things into account, like the exposure time, um, the framing, you know, are you actually shooting the thing that you want to shoot when you’re dealing with.


Uh, conditions on earth or Mars. You want to take the weather into account a lot of the time. So for example, when I would go out and shoot photography, when I lived in San Diego, for example, I really liked to go and photograph the beaches in the early morning when the Marine layer was still in, because I felt like a lot of times, when you see photographs of San Diego, you see blue stuff, guys, and sunny beaches, and it always looks like this very.


Uh, this place that is like the sunny paradise, but it’s, it’s not in the mornings every single morning. It is kind of gray and overcast for a little bit of time until the sun starts to bring the clouds off. And that’s when really the only people on the beach are surfers and seagulls. So I, I love to go out there and just kind of have the whole beach almost to myself and take photos and then leave.


And so I planned all of my timing for that around the weather. And we do the same thing. When we’re photographing Marsh orbit, we have such a limited amount of data that we can send back from Mars because it’s so far away. And we have a very limited number of dishes here on the ground as part of NASA deep space network to actually collect all of that data.


So we have to be very careful. We want to make sure that everything we’re getting is actually useful. So if we know. There’s a dust storm happening somewhere. Most of the cameras on the satellites in orbit, can’t see through the dust. So we don’t want to waste time taking pictures of an area where we’re trying to see say a crater on the ground, but this dust storm is in the way.


There might be reasons that we want to photograph the storm itself, but in generally we try to avoid that. Or if we know that there might be a storm coming through an area, there are specific spots on Mars that are stormier than others during specific times of the year. And so we might have what we called campaigns, where we would specifically avoid those areas.


And just say, you know, if you don’t have to, don’t take an image in right. Acidalia plenty HSA for the next two or three weeks. Cause they’re probably not going to be great quality. So you take a lot of these same things into account, which I found really interesting because I don’t think I ever would have tied thinking about how to take a photo on the beach in San Diego to thinking about how I’m going to take a photo with a camera orbiting another planet.


Yeah, that’s a really great point because the weather is important, especially for taking photos on earth. Yeah. They say, if it’s too sunny, you don’t want that because they can whitewash things. And obviously if it’s too dark, it can be difficult. So same, same here. I don’t think I would have thought that those same ideas would translate to taking photos on another planet, but it really makes sense that it would did you’d have to do the same things in different places.


Yeah, definitely. Now you also got to do some work on the upcoming presser virulence rovers sample cash. Uh, how does a Mars sample return mission help us understand the red planet? There are a lot of them lab tests that we can do on samples from things like, say on earth that give us a lot more information about that specific place.


Looking at. The composition of the rocks. They’re looking to see if there’s any kind of biological activity stuff that we just can’t quite do either at all with portable instruments, or it would be really difficult to miniaturize. The instruments would fit on a Rover, or it would take too many consumable materials to put it on a Rover safe.


It’s something where you need a wet chemistry lab, for example, or some kind of chemicals that you need to add to cause a reaction to measure the thing that you want to measure. So one part of is just being able to do more scientific experiments and analysis on these rocks from Mars. The thing is we have some samples from Mars already.


We have a few hundred, I think Martian meteorites at this point. And we know they came from Mars because they have little trapped gas bubbles in them. And the gas in those bubbles matches the composition of the Martian atmosphere. So from that, we have assumed that these came from bars, but the problem is.


We don’t know where those rocks came from on Mars. So it’s kind of like if you just had somebody come to your lab and hand you a random rock and say, tell me about the geologic history of all of earth from this one rock. And you had no additional information that would be really difficult to do because there are a lot of different rocks on earth.


So if you looked at say, you know, a rock from Hawaii, you might think that the entire world is covered in these. Volcanoes or if you look at a rock from an area that is made up of, you know, stuff left behind by one of the ice ages, you might think that earth was just this ball of ice covered in glaciers.


It’s you can’t just take that one rock and figure out the entire history of the planet. I’d just be ridiculous. So, yeah, the goal of Mars is to send back samples from Mars that we know exactly where they came from. And so we’re going to a place called Jezero crater that we can tell from orbit before the Rover has even gotten there, that this place is a crater that used to have a lake in it.


And there was a river basically flowing into that crater to make the Lake for an extended period of time. And it built up a Delta. Where that river enters the crater. So kind of like where the Mississippi river enters the Gulf of Mexico. You have a Delta that’s built up there, which makes up a lot of the Southern part of Louisiana.


It’s the same kind of thing on Mars. So we have an idea of the history of that particular area from the satellite images. And now we’re going to be able to tie that together with the ground-based observations from the Rover, and then take that another step further by sending those samples back from Mars to put together the complete puzzle, hopefully of what exactly happened in that Lake and whether or not it had life in ancient martial.


That’s really fascinating. And I was hoping you can just kind of clarify for our listeners at this point. We have not. Send a Rover or a Lander, anything to Mars and had it sent a sample back. The only things we have, the only samples we have of Marsh and rock are those media rights. Correct? Exactly. So far, everything that we’ve done has all been on the surface of Mars.


So this will be the first time we’ve ever tried to send something back from Mars and that’s, that’ll be huge. Um, I’m sure that there’s going to be so much more that we’re going to learn just from getting these little samples back. Yeah, I’m really excited to see what happens. It’s going to be a long wait for the samples to come back.


We have to send another mission after perseverance to actually collect the little lunchbox that’s got the samples in it. Um, so it might be a little while, but you know, hopefully all goes well and we’ll get them back in that bunch of scientists are going to be really excited for quite a while.


Absolutely. Now your current job is with planet federal, which is the government arm of planet labs. So what. Is your work like there in comparison to your years of work on these Mars missions in a lot of ways, it’s totally different in that it’s a company that observes the earth instead of Mars, but there are a lot of similarities as well.


We have a constellation of earth observing satellites. We image the entire planet every single day at pretty high resolution, a three meter resolution for the imaging nerds out there. And so a lot of it is still just satellite image interpretation. I’m looking at these images as a scientist, looking to see if there’s anything cool going on, but my role is not specifically as a scientist.


So my job is to help other scientists use our data in their scientific research rather than necessarily doing original scientific research of my own. And that’s a little bit of a shift. It’s basically a business development type position instead of science, but I still get to have tastes of science working with all these other people all over the world that use our data.


And I still get some chances to work on Mars stuff outside of that as well, not through planet, but just through my own spare time. So it’s nice to have that tie back to the planet that everybody jokes that I’m really from. So there were a lot of conversations early on asking, well, how did, how did it play in it?


Get you to leave earth. Or leave Mars for earth. And I thought that was quite hilarious. Everybody had, so identified me with Mars. They’re like, what, what happened? What, what happened? Why are you here? That’s the wonderful to the beginning that you’re a big advocate, um, for getting women more involved in the space industry.


Um, so one of your passions is the women in space conference. Can you tell us a little bit about the creation of this conference and what is unique about it? Um, that’s brought to the aerospace table. So the women’s space conference came about, uh, three years ago now with myself and my friend, Sarah misery, who at the time was a student at the university of Toronto and another one of our friends, Dave Hamilton, who used to be at York.


I think he had graduated by that point. Um, but we wanted to create a conference that really focused, not just on the science that women were doing in our field. But also the issues that women were facing, trying to do science in this field, because you can’t separate the person from the science, just like you can’t separate the person from say the actions that they do in their day-to-day life.


As we’re seeing now, you know, all over the media, in terms of people being held accountable for their actions, you know, being a Nobel prize, scientists does not excuse also being a rabid sexual harasser, for example. So we want it to be able to have people. Having an environment where they felt safe to discuss these issues that they were facing, but also highlight the work that they were doing.


And. One of the attendees at our first conference, Jesse, you son, who’s a science communicator out of Canada. I think he put it really well in a review that he wrote. Um, I should call it a review, a summary of the conference after he attended the first year, he pointed out that a lot of these discussions like gatherings for women in science or, um, issues that they might be facing discussions about parenting.


They tend to get pushed to unofficial side events that are held in the evenings or during lunch breaks at conferences. And that’s not something that’s ever really part of the actual science programming. And so we wanted to bring all those things together. This year will be our third year. The conference, unfortunately just got postponed because of coronavirus, but we’re hoping to hold the conference successfully, uh, in late August, um, August 19th through the 21st at the Canadian space agency near Montreal.


Yeah. And yeah, we just wanted to have a venue where people felt like they could bring their whole self and recognize that as a scientist, everything that they are doing is part of their work and everything that happens to them can affect their work. And we want to make it an environment that is warm and welcoming so that women that are trying to come into this field in the future, hopefully don’t face as many of the issues as some of us might have faced, trying to get to the point in their career that we’re all at right now.


Absolutely. And I think that is just incredibly huge because we are starting to see more diversity than we saw, you know, in the Apollo days. Um, you know, it was bunch of white men and, you know, we’re starting to see not only the diversity, I think of women and minorities, but even, um, you know, maybe the people with the tattoos or.


The different colored hair that they’ve chosen, you know, pink or purple, whatever like that. And I think it’s really trying to be more inclusive, but you’re right. A lot of these discussions, they still need to happen and we’re getting there, but maybe not as fast as we should be. Yeah, we’re definitely making progress.


You can see the change when you go to any of the traditional space or aerospace conferences, there are more and more numbers of young people and you do see, um, more gender diversity, more racial diversity. Uh, there’s a lot more acceptance for different body images. Like you’re talking about, you know, the lead organizer behind part of the conference.


I was just at last week had, um, Uh, septum piercing and wearing that with her full on business attire. And I thought that that was really great, cause none of that kind of stuff affects your ability as a scientist or your ability to do your job. And so I’m glad that people are recognizing that and they’re just letting us.


Be ourselves and do our job in the process. Absolutely. And you know, we just talked mentioned Apollo. Um, and today at the recording of this March 17th, um, you actually have your very first book coming out today called for all humankind. And it’s a collection of true stories based on interviews with people who watch the Apollo 11 moon landing, but from outside of the United States, Um, can you tell us about the inspiration behind this book?


Yeah. So there’s two pieces really. I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a professor when I was working at ASU who had grown up in Sudan and we were working on a project and we just ended up in his room, a bunch of us talking about the things that got us inspired to get involved with space in the first place.


And this was not a professor in the earth and space sciences department. Um, he was just a, he was a mechanical engineer, but he was really excited about space. And that’s why he had come to work on this, uh, March project that I was. Leading at the time at ASU. And he told the whole room, the story of watching the Apollo landing live from the university of Khartoum when he was an undergraduate and the look on his face and the pure joy with which he was recounting, the story really grabbed me and it made me think, you know, On the lunar Lander, there was this plaque that said here, men from the planet earth set foot upon the moon.


We came at peace for all mankind. And I wondered how that message resonated with the rest of the world. Because when we hear about the Apollo program in the U S it tends to take on a very patriotic lens. We beat the Russians to the moon America first, that kind of thing. And I wondered, how was it viewed at the time?


And it CA the mission carried all of these messages of world peace. Uh, the patch for Paul 11 has an Eagle carrying an olive branches, a symbol of peace. The mission had a disk on board that was full of Goodwill messages from leaders of countries around the world. And yes, a lot of this could have been to enhance the optics of the U S compared to Russia in terms of space exploration at the time of Apollo.


But I’m sure for a lot of people in the world that didn’t matter, or at least that was my, of my scientific hypothesis as I set out for them. So I tried it really hard. It was very difficult to track down people that were old enough to remember the moon landing and grew up outside of the U S and we’re not in the space industry.


That was the other thing. A lot of us have that common story, especially. Older folks in the field of being inspired by Apollo to go into a field where they work for, or with NASA. I didn’t care about those stories. They’ve all been told before. I wanted to talk to, you know, school teachers and university professors and, um, just general day-to-day folks.


Like, did this resonate with you at all? Was this something that you felt like was important? Was this an American achievement to you or a human achievement? And so I managed to find eight people, uh, three women and five men covering five continents. Uh, and they range in age from 5 to 44 at the time of the landing.


So our oldest interviewee is now in his nineties. Right. And he’s a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. So he has a very powerful story to tell about, wow. Watching how the world changed in that time period between being in a concentration camp as a teenager, all the way up through watching people walk on the moon within a very short span, relatively speaking of his life.


And it was a very emotional process to go through all these things and hear these people’s stories. But there were a lot of common themes among them. And the thing that fell out was in general, everybody felt like this was a human achievement, whether it was. A seven year old boy in Iran who had nothing to do with space whatsoever or a 44 year old radio engineer who had survived the Holocaust it’s it was so fascinating.


And I’m really excited cause I’ve been working. I’ve had the idea for this book for at least two years, I think. And it took a while to figure out how to actually. Write a book and pitch it to a publisher and whatnot. So I’m really glad that it’s out there and, you know, I, I would encourage everybody to read it and see how this moment in human history literally brought the world together and showed that we have the ability to accomplish amazing things that make everyone feel like they are part of something bigger for the future of our species.


And I feel like that is missing right now because we’re so. Disparate and focused on all these different things. And there’s a lot of infighting going on and there’s still Wars happening around the world. And it made me wonder what is the next thing that can happen to actually bring us all together and realize that the future can be better for all of us.


And you really took the word out of my mouth. I mean, that just sounds incredibly fascinating because especially living in America, we do tend to think of it as patriotic and. Look at it from our lens, but to think about it from around the world, what did other nations think? And, you know, I think we probably imagine other nations watched it, but you know, how often do we stop and reflect on, well, how did they perceive it?


Um, so I think that’s just incredibly fascinating and. Then, like you said, everyone’s telling the stories of, you know, the people here, the ones who were kids or the wives of the astronauts and that sort of thing. So it’s such a unique perspective. Where can people get ahold of the book it’s available on Amazon?


If you search for all humankind, or if you go to, it will redirect you there. Um, if you prefer to buy it at your local bookstore, um, you can go in and if you just ask them to order it, you can also, uh, have them ordered into your local store as well. That’s incredible. Um, definitely it sounds like a good read for a lot of our listeners.


So I do have one last question for you, and this is probably the toughest one. So obviously you said that everyone kind of jokes that you, you are from Mars. Well, if you had that chance to be the first human being to set foot on Martian soil, what would your first words be? Oh, that’s a great question. And so much pressure, like the whole world is literally going to be watching.


Um, gosh, I don’t always feel like I’m particularly eloquent. So I, I would have to think about it quite a bit. It is a tough question, I guess I think I would want to harken back to Neil Armstrong’s first words a little bit. I think that, that those were very powerful and maybe tie that together by saying something like.


These are the first steps for the future of humanity, expanding upon earth and into the rest of our solar system. You know, considering that I didn’t give you much time to come up with an answer. I think that’s a great answer. That’s that definitely impacted me a little. I got chills, um, with that. And the good thing is, is if you were the first person to go, you have nine months to think about what you’re going to say.


Right? That’s true. Yeah. I’m going to start now and see if I cope with something more eloquent in the meantime. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Tanya. It’s been an absolute delight to talk with you today. We’ve really enjoyed having you on the show. Thank you so much. This was really great. Awesome. Well, that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast.


Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes. By checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And of course our website at on all of these outlets and more it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community, because the space foundation, we will always have space for you.


Thank you for listening.

Listen to the Podcast

Space4U Podcast: Dr. Tanya Harrison – Professional Martian