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​Two alumnae are “breaking barriers” in space flight and exploration

Kathleen Rubins, PhD ’05, and Kendra Short, MS ’92, Aeronautics and Astronautics, discussed the future of NASA as well as their career trajectories at a recent panel discussion.​
To encourage the public interest in space travel, JPL created a “travel bureau” that creates downloadable posters. | Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some people discover their passions at a young age. Kendra Short, deputy program manager for the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was one of those children. Her father took her to a sidewalk astronomy club event in San Francisco when she was in elementary school and she looked through a telescope. The sight changed her world. It was small. It was fuzzy. It was hard to see. But it was real. It was Saturn and seeing it propelled her interest in space.

Short, along with fellow Stanford alumna astronaut Kathleen Rubins, shared personal insights from her 29-year career at NASA at a recent panel discussion titled “Breaking Barriers: The Future of Space Exploration.” The event, hosted by Stanford School of Engineering and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was coordinated in conjunction with the Women in Aerospace Symposium. The conference aims to attract more women to pursue a career in aerospace and included 29 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, 13 Stanford and visiting faculty members and 8 industry experts from states and universities across the country.

Short described her work on the Cassini mission to Saturn, as well as groundbreaking undertakings like the Mars Pathfinder project and Kepler mission, among other projects. Rubins discussed her path to becoming an astronaut, her training experience and her research on the 48th and 49th expeditions to the International Space Station.

Exploring Exoplanets

Short’s work on the Exoplanet team consists of exploring and looking for life outside of our solar system. Her team’s primary goal is to discover planets around other stars, characterize their properties, orbits, masses and spectral characteristics, and identify candidates that could harbor life. To date, her team has confirmed over 3,500 planets around other stars with thousands of other candidates awaiting confirmation.

In addition to planet discovery, Short’s team is also active in public engagement and technology development. Her team employs direct imaging to get a spectral signature of the atmosphere and shares those insights for future exoplanet missions.

To encourage the public interest in space travel, JPL created a “travel bureau” that imagines what certain planets look like based on scientific foundations and creates downloadable posters based on those findings. Short hopes these posters, available online on the JPL website, will encourage and inspire others to get involved and interested in space.

Becoming an Astronaut

Like Short, Rubins’ interest in space started young as well, though she never imagined becoming an astronaut. Her career began at MIT, where she was working as a research scientist studying genomics and infectious diseases. Running a team of 14 students, postdocs and staff was something she enjoyed and she believed she’d continue to work in research for the rest of her life. Rubins was writing a grant proposal when a friend informed her that NASA was accepting applications for astronauts. She sent her application in on a whim and was later accepted to the program. Recounting her experiences on Expeditions 48 and 49, Rubins concluded that space is a wonderful place to live.

In a Q+A session led by Aero/Astro alum Tess Hatch, MS ’17, venture investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, both Short and Rubins discussed their hopes for NASA and the next generation of scientists. “I think everybody should go to space. It shouldn’t be just this small group of people,” said Rubins. But she hopes that even if people can’t go physically, they’re able to feel included through imagery.

Short agreed. “There are new discoveries happening every day. And so every day there’s something new and exciting,” she said.

Watch a full recap of the event here: