Transcript: Space4U podcast, Sean Wilson
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hi, this is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation, and this is the Space4U podcast. Our podcast series that sits down with the people who make today’s space community what it is, a truly out of this world, an extraordinary place. Today, I’m joined by Sean Wilson, who is the director of media and public relations at Northrop Grumman’s space systems.
Sean has worked as a communicator for a number of different companies, but in her role at Northrup, she’s one of the people that helped shape how that company’s messaging and strategy is communicated to the public shareholders, media, and so forth. And having someone like her to talk about how we tell the story of space is something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
Sean, thank you for joining us. Thanks so much for having me. What a great intro. Thank you. Well, my pleasure. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the space community. I grew up in Houston, you know, that’s space city, right? So with NASA in my backyard, there was always something about NASA going on in the community.
My dad used to take us to Johnson Space Center quite a bit. He, I wouldn’t say he was a space buff, but he was a certified pilot. Um, and he worked at a place called six airport in the sixties, and a lot of the Apollo astronauts would do, you know, some of their touch and go flight training and stuff like that.
Um, at hooks on the north side of Houston. So he was a little bit enamored with, with that era, of course. And so he would take us kids to JSC and back in the eighties, you could just drive on site and wander around. And I remember. He took us into, I think it was a tea auditorium back then needs to be set up like a museum.
And he took us in there once. And I just remember seeing, you know, capsules and the murals and all the things, and I just thought, wow, this is so cool, but it really wasn’t until fifth grade. And so, you know, Christa McAuliffe became the first educator astronaut. And it really caught my attention again, you know, this was such a big deal and that mission was followed so closely for kids my age, um, in our science classes.
So when that tragedy happened in January of ‘86, I was already pretty invested. I don’t think I understood the gravity of it at the time really, but it left an indelible mark on me. So as I got older, my interest shifted to art and surfing and music and boys, of course, you know, and it just wasn’t until I decided to enlist in the Air Force after high school, that space just came back into my life, sort of by accident.
This kind of funny, you know, I, I tested quite high on the ASVAB test, which is a test you take to get into the military and. My recruiter said you could pick any jobs, but in my life circumstances where that I’ve wanted to just join quickly, I wanted to go to basic training as fast as I could. And, and he said, okay, I’ve got two jobs that are leaving next week for basic.
You can be a dental hygienist, or you can do something called space operations. To me, that was kind of a no brainer because I was not interested in working on teeth for the rest of my life. And so that’s, that’s kind of how I got my start. And after my enlistment was up, you know, I wanted to get back to Houston.
And so that was 1998. I spammed faxed and snail mailed, you know, barraged every contractor within the greater Houston area that had anything remotely to do with NASA. And I think I finally broke one down and they said, “Please, if you’ll stop emailing us, we’ll hire you.” So, and so that’s kind of how I got my NASA career started by sheer persistence.
Yeah. You’re not just a communicator though. In fact, in preparing for this podcast, I discovered something really unique about you besides the fact that you’re also a children’s author, but that you’ve been an astronaut instructor. Now tell us about that. What does it take to teach an astronaut how to do their job?
So that was a really cool job. And I kind of fell into that role again, you know, by accident sort of the back in 2003 or 4, I was doing education outreach. There’s the biological sciences office at JSC, no teaching kids about cell science and the bioreactor and how they would grow cells in three-dimensional space and all this stuff.
And it was, it was really cool. But when the Constellation program was announced and that got underway, you know, a lot of science funding got cut and quite a bit of our division was left without jobs. And so the contractor that I’ve worked with at the time, They were so great. And they, they went around and evaluated people for certain jobs and they placed, I want to say all of us, but I don’t, I don’t really remember the time, but I ended up in that astronaut instructor position because I one had had a background in writing.
So there was a tech writing aspects, but I also had been an instructor and evaluator in the Air Force. So having that on the resume is what got my foot in the door. And I was able to go through an instructor training school, um, that, uh, United space Alliance used to put on for JSC and they would train all of their astronaut instructors there.
And if it was a, it was a really cool thing to be a part of. So I fell into the crews, healthcare systems training group, and I eventually became an instructor and I taught astronauts. Basically. I taught them on where the, all of the medical equipment was on board. They station, uh, in the lab where to find all of the, all of the medicines, the med kits and all of that.
I taught CPR in space, how to use the first aid support pack, which I think they have AED now, which is different. So when they do things a little bit different now than when I used to train on. But, um, yeah, it was a really, really cool opportunity and probably one of my favorite jobs, but I also got to do simulation, so we would teach.
Um, go through the motions of an astronaut kind of day in the life and the mock-ups and building 9 at JFC where all the, you know, the, the life-sized based station mock-up is teaching them how to exercise and, and all of the really cool health-related things that a really cool job now in helping to train some of those crews.
And in particular, the, the expedition cruise for their missions to board the space station. That experience has you encounter, I’m sure. A number of challenges. I mean, you’ve not been an astronaut. You’ve not been on board, the space station. Fortunately we’ve not had many medical emergencies onboard the station.
How challenging of an experience was that to again, not having been an astronaut, I’ve been up there. Teaching them to do these things. Is it all about immersion, uh, with getting involved with the technology or is it something more than that? It was a lot of things. So they do classroom training, right? So there’s actual lectures that they have to sit through and, you know, you go through understanding why we have certain equipment onboard the Space Station and how things work and where things can be found.
But yeah, the simulation is where that immersion training happens. So, you know, you’ve worked with a group when I don’t know how they do it now. ‘Cause again, this has been 10, 15 years ago, but as a group with the environmental control team, you know, all the different teams that make up all the different systems, aboard the space station, you all get together and you create these scenarios to teach astronauts how to react to certain things, you know, back then we would even have.
Evacuation drills. So you, you say, okay, it’s filling with smoke. Where do you go? How do you get out? You know, where do you find your PPE? And yeah, it was a lot of immersion immersion work. What are the things that a lot of the instructors would get to do is fly in the vomit comet. So you kind of learn how, okay, if I have to teach somebody how to do CPR in space, here I am on Earth.
It’s not the same, you know, you, you do compressions on someone’s chest and you’re just going to float away. So what do you do to mitigate that? Like you flip upside down, you stick your feet on, on the other side of the module, right? To brace yourself against that law of physics, so to speak.
So you trained in the vomit comet on how to do those things. Now, my, my experience with on that comet was not ideal. I did not, I was probably the reason they call it the vomit comment, but, but yeah, it’s a full immersion experience to train them how to, how to go through the motions of daily day-to-day operations or through a contingency.
How does having that teaching experience help you in communicating highly technical missions and technologies to different audiences, you know, in general, I’ve always taken issue with people who over-complicate things, you know, I’ve, I know the space stuff is very complicated to put F-150 in flight. We know that, but you don’t have to make it sound that complicated.
There’s ways to remove the jargon and the acronyms. And, you know, when I. When I was doing instructing it wasn’t just to the astronauts. I would also teach us as an intern. You were going through the intern process, the JSP, and they wanted to learn about all the different disciplines. So, so I would get to teach younger kids, you know, how things work and what things meant.
And you can’t throw out all the jargon and acronyms at them, but they’re not going to know what you’re talking about. Right. So it’s, it’s all that kind of stuff has always bothered me. So I’ve always thought, you know, you kind of talk on that 8th, 9th, 10th grade level to most of your audiences, right?
That’s how you could best communicate these complicated subjects. I mean, nobody wants to be speaking in front of a group and look out and see glazed eyes ‘cause nobody understands what you’re talking about. So, and that’s, that’s the number-one rule of being a communicator is always know your audience.
How and why did you make that transition from being an astronaut instructor to becoming a space communicator? I transitioned into that, uh, was a little circuitous. I, I started out. Wanting to be an aerospace engineer. And I probably got through the end of my sophomore year probably, and, uh, started my junior year and I could not pass calculus.
I just couldn’t. It was, I call it in the kryptonite and no matter how many times I took it, I just couldn’t pass it. And there was no way of getting around that to, to go on that year tracks. So at some point I realized I was far better at communicating about space than I was actually doing the engineering side of it and I changed my major.
That actually happened before I became an astronaut instructor. So I changed my major to comms and I thought, you know, my experience in operations, in the Air Force and, and understanding working on Space Station program for a few years before that, to bring a different perspective to communication, you know, I love to write.
I loved communicating. I didn’t mind the public speaking side of things. And so I set out to find a job in communication growing up. What were, uh, you talked about that your kryptonite of Calculus. I don’t think you’re alone in that. I certainly was not going to be an engineer with my math skills that my parents and several math teachers can attest on that.
But I am curious about when you were growing up, what were some of your favorite subjects to study that puts you on the path that you’re on today? So I did really like the biological sciences. I really, really liked that. And I was always interested in astronomy and weather. I didn’t get to take, you know, astronomy and weather classes, but those were always things that I was really interested in watching PBS shows and things like that.
But my favorite subjects were art and writing. So I think having that almost equal balance between left brain and right brain is what set me on a path to do communications for a technical field. Like say, who was the teacher or mentor that inspired you to pursue your career? Again, you talk about your Air Force experience and the time as an astronaut instructor, was there anybody in the course of your path there that stands out that really became a guide to you?
An inspiration, you know, I’d like, I’d like to say there was, um, but it’s really hard to pinpoint that one person or that one pivotal event. That really put me on that course. I mean, I can really chalk up my career, the stubborn determination. There, there have been people who have helped and who saw potential in me early on and gave me some really good opportunities, but there’s been others who tried to, to, to not do that, to put me in my place, so to speak.
And, and it’s almost been, you know, I came at it from really, you’re gonna… You’re going to try to put me in my place but I’ll show you what I can do. I can, I can do better than anything ever could can see that I can do. So. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t really think I’ve been attributed to one person, just my own stubbornness.
Well, stubbornness works and that is certainly been a part of, you know, the space community. But as much as there’s stubbornness in any industry, there’s also a lot of changes that go on. And again like me, you’ve worked in the space community a while. And, and how do you think it’s changed and how has that communicator role evolved in that time period?
So it’s changed a lot, right. And I started in space in ‘94 and didn’t really start doing pure communications type work specifically till about 2000 to 3. So if you put that into perspective of what what’s going on in the communications industry, since then, you know, social media, social media has given a whole new level of accessibility to space, as well as any level of scrutiny, right.
It makes precision in our communications extremely imperative. You know, I, I was really privileged again, to be in public affairs at Johnson space center when social media became really popular or actually when it started, I guess, you know, Veronica McGregor out of JPL did the first NASA tweet up back in 2009.
So I got to work on organizing the first one that they did at JSB that same year. And it shifted from. Social media being, Oh, you know, don’t forget to put social media in your comp plan to now social media is driving a lot of the communications that we do and digital media is driving it. So it’s, I’ve seen it a drastic change.
It’s a really interesting couple of decades to be a part of the communications field, for sure, because of that. I want to explore. I’m going to pull that thread a little bit more about the role that social media plays, but in exploring this with you, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about what you do to prepare communications plans for a launch, and also what it takes to do a mission communications plan, because they really are two very distinct operations.
A lot of people obviously go onto social media, go on their computers, watch news sites. Or company sites to watch a launch unfold. So I’d like to start with you in talking about how you put together a launch communications plan. First, can you share some of the steps and the planning that that requires, and, and then after that we’ll get into planning a mission communications plan where I am now here at Northrop Grumman.
One thing that I guess we could talk about is a resupply mission for the Space Station. So our company provides both the Antares rocket and the Cigna spacecraft. So that’s, that’s pretty unique. I think the scenario and internally within our company, the launch vehicle, the rocket and the spacecraft are two different divisions.
So we have to coordinate messaging, timeline, et cetera, across a pretty broad group. And so, as you know, the key, the key to communications for these types of events is preparation. We plan several months in advance for a wide range of scenarios. We don’t just plan for success. We have to plan for all the different things that can happen and all the communication pieces press releases, social media, web content, contingency statements, all of that is written and approved well ahead of time so you’re prepped that day and not having to go back and rewrite things.
Um, when you’re in the heat of the moment, uh, during a launch and, and first base station missions too, you know, we work really closely with our NASA counterparts at headquarters in terms of coordinating messages, supporting any launch, briefing, broadcast, anything like that.
So for our team, you know, we’ve been doing this since 2013, our demo missions or interior fitness was back in September of that year. So we do have our planning kind of down to a science. All each mission does have different things, different science and payloads and experiments that we do take up, take up to stay.
We really simply have a pretty good method. We started about three months in advance and getting our messaging down and getting our products written. And then they go through the approval process. Well, ahead of the launch. So for a launch event, we also communication supports the onsite activities.
Anything from guest operations to VIP events, we help organize and oversee media relations that there’s journalists there on site. We provide them backgrounders and information, uh, give them access to subject matter experts to do interviews. We support our subject matter experts to make sure they’re well prepped and, you know, comfortable speaking to the media.
And then we’re there to manage a crisis if we need to in the event of a really bad day. How hard is it to prepare some of these absolutely brilliant engineers that are literally fascinating, an incredible amount of materials and put it into orbit in the right time and space. Again, they’re often at a much higher level than regular folks.
How hard is it to prepare them to basically, you know, talk to the media and talk to regular people about this. Yeah. You know, some are easy and others are not. That’s. One of the things I like about the space industry is we do have a lot of unique personalities and I’ve gotten to deal with some really fun ones throughout my career.
But for us, you know, For our team currently, you know, we, we do media training, we do train executive directors, VPs. We do make sure that they are well versed in the talking points. We know that they’re well versed in their business, but talking to customers and talking to employees is drastically different than talking to the media.
And that’s what our job is, is to help. Help synthesize all of their brilliance and all the great information that they have down to those, those pithy soundbites that really resonate with a general public about audience or a space trade audience. We do conduct. I know it’s a horrible term, but we call them murder boards.
Right. So we, we will sit down with our executives and throw all the hard questions at them a week or so prior to an event to a launch event and say, okay, have you thought about this? And what about this other tangential program? Have you thought, you know, can you tell me what’s going on with that?
Because we do get. Questions like that during press briefings, sometimes that are sort of related to what’s going on, but not quite. And we have to make sure that those that we put out in front to speak to the media are well-prepared for that. You’ve talked about preparing those launch engineers and the, the launch plan.
Let’s talk about mission planning because missions obviously take a lot longer in time. What are the biggest differences between preparing a launch communication strategy and a mission communication strategy? We did our campaign, our communications planning for the first mission extension vehicle was probably a year in the making or even longer.
Our company has been developing this technology for quite a long time and to be able to launch it and put it into operation last year. And earlier this year was just. It’s just phenomenal to be a part of such a revolutionary technology. Right. But in terms of, of communications, you know, we, we had that customer identified timeframe is a little sketchy, but you know, like several months prior to the launch, obviously.
So we started planning that communications campaign for the MEV launch and then the historical docking that it’ll set satellite earlier this year, several months in advance. You plan your press releases to announce your first customer, then you do engage the media. Do media briefings around that. I think we actually pulled out that customer announcement at space symposium if I can recall.
So, so yeah, media events press releases and then when they would actually launch there’s communications that go around that and then the docking, I mean the photos. I’m sure you saw the photos of nav docking with that satellite in space. No one had ever taken a photo like that in space for public use for the public before that’s been, that’s just amazing.
So, and then we’re still talking about it. We have our second MAV 2, which is about to launch your fairly soon and you know, it’s those long campaigns, all of the same communication tactics go into any of these events, right? It’s just the scale. So the scale of a launch ops is a smaller timeline where this was, was over the course of a year, year and a half.
Still do press releases, social media, websites, media engagement, thought leadership, getting people on panels to speak and things like that. Sean, what’s one of the most challenging circumstances that you’ve had to communicate and share with audiences. Is it the technical stuff or is it the stuff that doesn’t go as planned?
Probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had a couple communicating about the shuttle. retirement was probably the most emotionally taxing 18 months of my career. You know, anyone who touched that program was so invested in it. I supported communications for that in various capacities for that 18 months.
So, you know, working with NASA over the shuttle transition in retirement efforts, you just see so many people who have invested three-plus decades of their career and it’s coming to an end. And we all knew it was coming to an end, but just the emotion behind that was really, really strong, but honestly, the most challenging event with supporting launch failure and communications around a launch failure.
And, you know, in our career field, we, we plan for these days always. That’s just part of what we do. And it’s, it’s just so interesting how, when you have to put it in practice and, you know, that’s, that’s kind of where the professionals are separated from the, you know, from the amateurs. So you, you see who can hold their composure and can you separate the emotion from what’s going on and just get your inner job done?
You have to communicate what happens. You have to be transparent. Transparency that you can be while rapidly responding to a multitude of media inquiries and speaking in front of the camera and prepping your executive. You talked a little bit about this and social media, and obviously when you talk about a launch failure in social media it literally becomes the, the first dimension and the first capture of that particular event.
What I’d like to explore with you a little — how has social media changed the communicator’s role. Has it made it easier or has it made it harder? I think it depends on your perspective, pre social media. You had to have a really solid hook to get any coverage for your story. And you had to be a good salesperson to pitch the media, to get some interest around what you were doing, you know, even, even with NASA for the longest time shuttle.
I don’t want to speak on behalf of NASA, but, you know, I was there for so long, like shuttle machines became routine, but when social media came onboard on the scene, automatically, there was an opportunity to engage the public in ways that they had never been engaged, had the ability to be engaged before instantaneously.
So in a way, it made getting our message out easier. But again, like I said before, it also opens you up to scrutiny. There’s a lot more opportunity for those armchair analysts to rip apart your message. It, it makes getting your story out easier, but it makes controlling the message harder. Sean, what’s the most misunderstood or underappreciated aspect of being a communicator in the space community.
I think as a communicator, you know, it’s not just the space community, but as a communicator, a professional communicator in general, you’ve got to be able to show how your contribution is showing value to the business. I think measurement is imperative. I think a lot of, a lot of engineers, a lot of scientists and even some program managers I’ve worked with.
Over the past couple of decades, there have been some people who don’t understand the value of communications. Why do we throw budget money at that? When we’re, we’re just trying to launch things into space. What’s the point, right? But I always came at it from, you know, why put your life’s work into engineering and these spacecraft or developing a long-term mission if no one’s ever going to know about it and proving to your internal partners that that’s your job.
Your job is to, to show the world or show the community the great things that they’re doing in showing value for your work. That’s probably one of the, the things that I have run into and quite a few places that I’ve worked. I want to ask you that obviously you’ve communicated with media.
You can communicate with executives, but you’ve also been a communicator for another really tough audience. Children. Tell me about the skills that it takes to become a children’s book author. Shawn is the author of a book called Princess Ava’s Great Space Adventure. I’d love to hear how you came about the book and the challenge of communicating with the, with those smallest and most unique of audiences.
Uh, when I was getting my master’s, um, my master’s degree was in writing and design and I had, I had the opportunity to do a standard, you know, traditional thesis or a project, like a capstone project. And so I thought, well, if it’s writing and design, why don’t I write and illustrate a book? My daughter, Ava was, Oh gosh, I think she was 16 or so at the time, and she had expressed an interest in space.
You know, we, we even did our family photos on site at Johnson Space Center when she was five. So she’s got to see some pretty cool space stuff in her short time on this planet. She got me interested, got the thought in my head. It’s like, why don’t I write a book for her?
So I wrote it with her in mind. It’s about her inquisitive nature and her wanting to be both a princess and both, uh, a space explorer, how it’s okay to be girly, but be smart at the same time. And there’s a little bit of adventure in there. So, so yeah, so she is the one who got me interested in putting that book together for my master’s program and then communicating it down to her level.
I mean, she actually helped me shape the story. So I would read different iterations to her and ask her opinion. Do you think that makes sense, are those words too big? And she’d say, mommy, I think you should say it this way. And so she helped me very much craft that message. So you had your own in-house book critic?
I did. I had my own in-house editor. I was going to say. And did she get any part of the proceeds there? Yeah, you don’t have to continue that. I’ll leave that one. She has her own autographed copy. What advice do you have for a young person who might want to enter the space community and be one of its leading communicators?
My advice for what it’s worth is to not limit yourself to one discipline early in your career, learn to write and to speak and to educate, learn social media, build a website, make a video, you know, learn all the nuances of media relations and, and build a foundation for what communications truly is. And if you’re coming into space, there’s so many different things you can do in space, right?
Work for an up-and-coming company and work on cube sats or communicate about 3D-printed rockets or, you know, there’s, there’s just so many different things that you can do, but the broader knowledge that you have on what space means and the civil space versus the national security space and all of the different things involved in and basic concepts and physics and launch and orbits.
It’s all really important. So I guess what I’m saying is be that space renaissance person. If you want to learn and be really strong in your career, just don’t stop learning and try new things as often. And as early as you can. Sean. I’ve got a final question here for you that any of us as communicators have all sort of hypothesized about, uh, the, the mission that, uh, we’d like to be a communications lead on for.
I’d like to know what’s the mission that you would love to plan the communications for. And what do you think you can do to make that mission that much more memorable and engaging? Any role that I could ever play in our first manned mission to Mars would be a dream. And I know that that’s not unique to me.
Right. You probably would love to do the same. That’s going to be phenomenal when we, we do get to send people to Mars for the first time and to make it more engaging, honestly. We need cameras everywhere and we need live feeds. That’s not, and not to be afraid of that. That’s what really captures people’s attention is being able to put yourself in that environment and go along with the crew.
Sean, thank you for that. And thank you for your time and sharing your experience as a space communicator. Uh, the being a communicator in this arena. Is a, it is a pleasure. It is an honor. It is also a challenge. And I think you captured some of that in our conversation today. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. And with that, we’re going to wrap up this episode of Space4U. We’ve been joined by Sean Wilson who’s the director of media and public relations at Northrop Grumman Space Systems. Keep an eye out on the Northrup Grumman Space Systems for a lot of the work that Sean and her colleagues do.
They’ve got a mission coming up as a station resupply and a lot of other great stuff. That the Northrop company does, uh, to make our space adventure more accessible, more successful, and more knowledgeable. I’m Rich Cooper again, with the Space4U podcast at the Space Foundation. It’s a pleasure to have you as a listener, and I invite you to continue to follow what we’re doing at the Space Foundation at spacefoundation.org, as well as discoverspace.org, which has lots of space content, and particularly for STEM education activities for parents, teachers, and students.
And as always, we depend on the support of companies, friends, and supporters like you, you can always reach out to find how you can get involved and support our mission by going to spacefoundation.org, because at the Space Foundation, we always have space for you.
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