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Risha George: From Houston to Greenbelt, Apollo to Artemis

Deputy Project Manager Oversees Technology Development Efforts Critical to Artemis

By ​Danny Baird

April 15, 2021

ACCESS Deputy Project Manager Risha George Credit: NASA

Risha George grew up near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and was inspired by the space program from a young age. When she was 5 years old, she wanted to be an astronaut. Her family would take visitors to see the center’s Saturn V rocket, the only such display comprised solely of Apollo era, flight-certified hardware. They’d marvel at the powerful machine that first placed humanity on the Moon with the Apollo missions.

Today, George works at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Among other things, she’s empowering Artemis, NASA’s current lunar exploration initiative and twin sister to Apollo. George manages teams developing crucial communications technologies and infrastructure that will empower the next generation of lunar explorers.

George began her engineering career with an undergraduate education in computer science and French at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. When she began thinking about internships, a physics professor connected her with an alumnus at Johnson who connected her with an opportunity there. She’s been with NASA ever since, moving from Johnson to Goddard.

Before moving into her role with the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division, George contributed to a wide variety of NASA projects. Early in her career, she supported bioastronautics projects at Johnson, focusing on the health and productivity of spaceflight crew members. She worked on the Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of polar-orbiting weather satellites developed in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She also lent her expertise to the Constellation Program, a predecessor to Artemis that began during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

Joining ESC, George worked on Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), the constellation that provides near-continuous communications to many flagship NASA missions. George managed ground infrastructure upgrades that would allow the TDRS fleet to support the Orion spacecraft during the Artemis I mission.

“The Artemis I mission is a critical lunar exploration mission and a stepping stone to ultimately sending humans to Mars,” said George. “It was an incredible team effort to modify, test, and prepare TDRS to support the mission later this year. We’re excited.”

She also worked on upgrades that improved the data rates TDRS could supply the International Space Station. These upgrades would earn her and fellow NASA engineer Dr. Haleh Safavi a trip to Paris to share their work with the international community as finalists for the 2019 Women in Tech Challenge.

“That was fun because I got to practice my French,” said George, who spent a winter term in college studying Gothic architecture in the North of France. “Women in Tech was a great opportunity to share our successful collaboration with the space station program, which involved mostly women in leadership roles.”

More recently, George turned her focus to optical communications technologies, which use infrared lasers to provide missions with higher data rates and reduced size, weight, and power requirements over comparable radio systems. She worked on the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) project, which will enable ultra-high-definition video links from the Moon.

“I used to lead the O2O ground segment effort,” said George. “So, I definitely have a lot of interest in human spaceflight missions and development work, creating new capabilities in our ground systems that support astronauts.”

Today, George serves as a deputy project manager for the Advanced Communications Capabilities for Exploration and Science Systems (ACCESS) project, having returned from a brief stint outside of ESC. ACCESS is a critical part of NASA’s Near Space Network Enterprise, operating and sustaining NASA’s government-owned, contractor-operated communications infrastructure.

“Now that I’m in a project management role, I’m primarily focused on overseeing ACCESS development efforts and serving as a supervisor,” said George.

One development effort George oversees is a low-cost optical communications terminal that will serve as a prototype for future optical ground stations. The terminal’s design, which uses commercially available components, will be easier and cheaper to implement than previous bespoke terminals.

George is also preparing for the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), slated to launch in June. LCRD will test and refine optical communications technologies by communicating data over laser links between ground stations on Earth and, ultimately, to and from user missions in orbit. Once operational, the ACCESS project will be responsible for providing optical communications services to missions through the relay.

Outside of optical communications, George also oversees the Lunar Exploration Ground Sites (LEGS). LEGS will provide services to multiple lunar missions by establishing a set of tri-band antennas capable of transmitting at three frequencies: X-band, S-band, and Ka-band. The Ka-band communications will offer spacecraft some of the highest data rates available in radio communications.

“The breadth of work within the ACCESS project is tremendous,” said George. “So we’ve divided up the work amongst the project management team and my goal is to help the people managing those efforts to be successful.

“I think part of that is making sure that I'm listening to and understanding the challenges they're facing, then working collaboratively with them to find solutions.”

Outside of NASA, George loves to cook and spend time with her children. She teaches 11th grade Sunday School at an Indian Orthodox Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Growing up as a child of immigrant parents from Kerala, India, staying connected with her faith is important to her.

“That’s a big part of my life,” said George. “Being a Sunday School teacher is a lot of fun and it’s a good way to re-educate myself on theology, but interacting with the kids is what I really enjoy.”