Betsy Park portrait. Credit: NASA

Employee Spotlight: Betsy Park

March 26, 2018

Betsy Park is still acclimating to her new office, a small desk opposite a tall window looking upon a brief stretch of grass and a few barren trees. It’s a familiar experience of newness, testament to a career marked by an excess of offices. She seems at home among the unpacked boxes, nesting amidst cutting-edge research and government miscellany.

The career of a NASA engineer often spans decades. Some spend that time on a single mission, a single instrument, delving wholeheartedly into laboratory quietude. Some race between projects, lending their ever-diversifying talents to a bevy of disciplines across a multitude of missions.

This latter can be said of Betsy Park, currently the project manager for NASA’s next-generation Earth relay satellites. In 1987, having completed her graduate degree in astronomy from The Ohio State University, Park began her career as a contractor, working on the International Ultraviolet Explorer, followed by the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

After entering civil service in 1991, her work on Hubble continued through the first servicing mission. She went on to develop a number of polar-orbiting Earth-observing satellites like Aura and IceSat, lending both her engineering expertise and management skills. She developed payloads for the space station, creating and serving as program manager for the Research Program Office for Earth and Space Science Research.

From there, she moved from Goddard to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. She served as a program executive, running procurement for a space station research institute. Ultimately, her tenure at Headquarters led her into the Exploration Systems Engineering and Integration office.

By 2006, Park was ready to return home to Goddard. There, she worked on planetary and explorer proposals. In addition, as the first Heliophysics line-of-business manager, she paired technologies with opportunities, creating roadmaps to mission success. She served as mission manager for the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, (now called the Van Allen Probes,) working closely with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to develop instruments capable of enhancing our understanding of the radiation belts that surround the Earth.

In 2010, she began work on a collaborative project of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which provides global weather observations from low-Earth orbit. Park worked first as the project’s instrument systems manager before becoming the mission manager for JPSS-1, which launched on Nov. 18, 2017.

In 2018, she was persuaded to join Exploration and Space Communications projects division by the deputy program manager. Inspired by the exciting pace at which laser communications technologies develop, she took the position as project manager for the next-generation of Earth relay satellites, which will use laser technologies to offer missions better communications services.

Laser communications, in infrared, has a higher frequency than radio, allowing more data to be encoded into each transmission. The Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), an early test of laser communications technology, transmitted over six times as much data per second from the moon as previous state-of-the-art radio systems.

“Missions leave a lot of data on the floor, unable to transmit all of it to the ground through traditional means,” said Park. “Laser communications’ increased data rates will enable a universal leap in space science and exploration.”

The benefits aren’t just to science though. Everyday people rely on weather satellites for their forecasts. These satellites often cannot send all of their data to the ground using radio. With laser, meteorologists can use all that previously unseen information to inform their predictions.

Park’s interest in laser communications extends to commercialization. Laser communication technologies, transferred to the commercial sector, could be a boon to the private space industry and to communications worldwide.

One of Park’s daughters recently completed an internship with NASA and is currently pursuing a doctorate in planetary science, focused on exoplanets. Park speaks eloquently on the role women have in the aerospace workforce, encouraging young women like her daughter to pursue an education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“There are so many career opportunities, so many different avenues for women in STEM,” said Park. “It’s really changed over the last couple decades and it’s up to the next generation of women scientists and engineers to take it further.”

Park remembers Sally Ride, NASA physicist and the first American woman in space, as an inspiration for her own STEM pursuits. Women like Ride and Park are remarkable for their tenacity in pursuing careers in fields once dominated by men, but also for storied careers abounding in contributions to space research and exploration, regardless of their gender.

As Park settles into her new desk, her new role, she remembers the many desks that came before it. Each position informs work yet-to-be done, innovation at the cutting-edge of communications technology.