What Does This All Mean?


Gabrelle Saurage

Mission Director, SOFIA, NASA


I never thought this was going to be a career, but I was always interested in the big questions: "Why are we here?" and "What does this all mean?" My first attempt at answering these questions was to pursue physics.

Growing up, I was an academic of my own accord. I was always drawn to math and science as a child. Coming out of junior high and going into high school, I remember I wanted to take the honors classes but thought, "Well, I probably shouldn't take the honors class in math because I'm probably not good at math." Where did that thought come from? It came from nowhere; it came from culture; it came from some outside influence because no one verbally told me I wasn't good at math. I just assumed I wouldn't be. My mom asked, "Why do you say that?" And I'm glad she did because I realized I really didn't know why. The funny thing is, math became my strongest subject. I loved it.

We've made some progress, but there are still biases present against girls in math and science. I have an 11-year-old, so I am always encouraging her to do things in math and science, and I think and hope that the fact that her mother is a Mission Director on a NASA project changes her perspective on girls in math and science.

 Spectral Resolution versus Wavelength

Spectral Resolution versus Wavelength

I had a good physics teacher in high school: There were only three girls in that class, but he didn't treat anyone any different. And I loved it and just got it, and he was encouraging of that. When I got to college, again I thought, "I can't major in physics." But I thought, "Where is that coming from? Why is that that the thing that is scary to me?" So then I thought that must mean that this is the thing that I need to do, so my undergrad is in physics with a minor in math.

Where I went to college, I was the only female in the department for a while, so not only were there no role models but it was even worse than that: There was no one else in my class. I was the only female. So that was a hard period for me. No one was ever mean to me, but I always felt like the outcast or like the weird one. Actually, in the time since I left that school, many years later they hired a woman physics professor and she decided to look me up and contact me. I thought that it was so great she did that. I never met her in person, but we had a couple of great exchanges. I appreciated it so much. She said she wished she would have been there when I was there but wanted to see how are things going.

Physics is the most male-dominated science field. I have ended up working in astronomy, which now is pretty close to 50% women and 50% men. It's one of the few sciences that women have really gotten ahold of, so that's kind of refreshing.

I am a Mission Director at SOFIA, a NASA project that stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The Mission Director is in charge of the mission. I coordinate between the science team, the telescope team, the pilots, and whatever guests are on board. This is my fourth astronomical observatory job. The first three were more traditional observatories; they were ground-based telescopes. SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and DLR, which is the German NASA. They basically built the telescope assembly and put it in a Boeing 747 that NASA maintains. It is currently the only telescope — well observatory — that's on a plane. In astronomy in general, there is a very eclectic group of people I work with from all over the world.

We fly at night, and get as close to the stratosphere (~45,000 ft), above the clouds, above water vapor. That is the goal, because on the ground water vapor filters out certain bands of the infrared spectrum, and that is what we are trying to observe. The only other telescope currently that really does a good job with observing infrared targets is the Hubble Telescope, which is in orbit and of course does not have any problems with clouds. The second-best place to be is in a plane flying above the clouds.

During the summer months, because of the short summer nights, we've been flying missions down in New Zealand where it's winter. The other benefit of flying missions from New Zealand is that we can fly toward the Antarctic, and as we do that the water vapor there is so thin that it's virtually like space. The contribution of our atmosphere in the data is negligible at that point. So from a data-retrieval scientific point of view it's like the same thing as space. That's a real benefit of being down here.

I used to work at Apache Point Observatory, in southern New Mexico. I worked there for six years, lived in Santa Fe, and drove back and forth. This one was like the traditional kind, but on the smaller end of that class. From the telescope in the Sacramento Mountains you can look across and see White Sands. It is a small professional observatory. It was a very small crew, such that sometimes on weekends, I would be the entire staff.

In college, I had no confidence in myself and so that is one thing that I would say to anyone: Don't be afraid to ask for help. You can't change institutionalized behaviors. I was so scared to talk to the professors. They are there to help you. There are to be in service to you. You have to be active. You have to get it yourself. You're paying money for them to provide an education to you. As an undergrad, I was convinced that everyone in the room knew what was going on and I was the one that didn't, like I was barely hanging on. Eventually I realized they didn't know any more than I did. I am just as smart and I am just as qualified as anyone in the room. It wasn't until near graduation when I received academic awards that I realized I was actually one of the top students in my class. I never thought of myself that way.

I am in a discovery field, but I am not a data taker anymore. In most sciences, the researcher takes field data (if possible) then uses the data to publish papers to support or disprove a theory, or to explore an unknown facet about some very specific detail or behavior that has not been documented before. More and more, we find women in various disciplines in various universities, doing research, and getting published. We also need more women in technical roles, engineers, operators, and leaders. I have moved out of a research role in science into operations. I have been a telescope operator for many years helping others collect their data, now I have moved into a leadership position, heading the mission.

Often women who rise to leadership roles in the military or corporate worlds don an air of masculinity in order to be taken seriously. The only other acceptable leadership persona seems to be "mother." I want to change all this. I insist on the possibility of being a strong feminine leader and not being forced to become either matronly or masculine. To that end, I strive to be a role model for girls and women interested in the sciences, to fulfill new technical roles as themselves, not exclusively as the industry or culture deem acceptable.

Gabrelle received a Bachelor of Science in Physics and did research for a semester at Los Alamos National Laboratory on a satellite, FORTE. After doing that a few years, she segued into liberal arts. She had become interested in Eastern Philosophy while in Hawaii, and moved to Santa Fe for her first master’s degree in the Great Books of India, China, and Japan at St. John’s College. This then led to a second master’s degree in Continental (Western) Philosophy, during which she continued working as a telescope operator at APO. Her plan was pursuing a PhD in Philosophy when SOFIA recruited her and now she has been working on the project for the last four years. Gabrelle has been a Telescope Operator somewhere in the world for the better part of 17 years. She worked at four professional astronomical observatories beginning with the HET (Hobby-Ebberly Telescope) at McDonald Observatory in Texas and then operated in the twin domes at Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the 3.5m at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and is currently working for USRA as a Mission Operations Specialist on the NASA SOFIA project based in Southern California.


Words: Gabrelle Saurage