A front row seat on top (and bottom) of the world


Kate Menzies

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A front row seat on top (and bottom) of the world

Imagine flying across some of the most beautiful and majestic ice structures in the world every day and doing it for a living.

UND alumna and NASA project manager Christy Hansen gets to do just that for her job as a project manager of an airborne geophysical project called “Operation IceBridge.” IceBridge is a six-year NASA mission, the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice ever flown, in which data is collected to help scientists “bridge the gap” when it comes to polar observations after the death of the old polar-orbiting satellite “IceSat 1” and before the new “IceSat 2” launches in 2016.

Based at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Hansen’s field work is mainly in Greenland and Antarctica.

Twice a year, the Operation IceBridge team travels to Earth’s Polar Regions collecting data on the changing ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice. While on location, Hansen’s team, which consists of polar scientists, instrument engineers, educational/outreach teams, logistics teams, data specialists, and aircraft personnel examine the most extreme reaches of the plant to record how they are changing.

“If somebody would have told me that 2012 would bring with it a deployment to Greenland, Chile, and possibly Antarctica, I never would have believed them,” Hansen said.

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Hansen will get a chance to share her passion with students around the world via a special “Google + Hangout” interactive online presentation from her location near Antarctica.

As part of “Earth Science Week (Oct. 14-20), NASA will use forums like Google+ Hangouts, Twitter chat, and blogs to introduce students of all ages to an incredible group of NASA Earth Explorers such as UND’s own Hansen. The week’s focus is on modern-day explorers who are contributing to our understanding of the planet.

All are invited to take part in this adventure by asking questions during the live events or sending in questions beforehand.

Hansen, 37, a native of suburban Philadelphia, attributes her important project management role to her broad-based educational and professional experience which taught her technical, communication, organizational and leadership skills. She graduated from Penncrest High School in Media, Pa. From there, she went on to get her undergraduate degree in comprehensive science with a minor in physics from the Villanova University.

She continued her education at UND, pursuing her master’s in space studies from 1997-1999. While at UND, Hansen was exposed to NASA personnel and Johnson Space Center (JSC), a place she would later work directly with astronauts involved in human spaceflight.

A NASA employee, who was a distance-degree student at UND, spotted Hansen in a video and asked about her interest in coming to JSC. She was hired to help train astronauts and worked in flight control for 10 years at JSC. Hansen specialized in the extra-vehicular activity/spacewalk (EVA) department and was an expert on components of the International Space Station (ISS) as well as Hubble space telescope repair. She was even featured in the “Hubble Rescue” IMAX movie!

Her career was beginning to launch.

Hansen’s next job started in 2010, when she moved to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to become the operations lead/manager of a robotic technology payload, which launched on the final Space Shuttle mission, headed for the ISS.

“Essentially my job was to plan, train, and fly; take the payload hardware before it flew, figure out what the mission objectives were, lead the procedure development that would be flown in space, train my team to be flight controllers and then to lead the execution of the objectives once the payload was in space, ” Hansen said.

Hansen’s next career stop was her current job with Operation IceBridge. After seeking it out, she discovered that the operation was in need of project management. Her mission is to collect data on changing glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice, all of which contribute to higher sea levels. When collecting data in the Arctic, the team spends half their time in Thule, Greenland, and the other half in a small town called Kangerlussuaq, both inside the Arctic Circle.

The team is there once a year from March to May. The day starts off at 5:30a.m., with a visit to the weather office to look at weather patterns over Greenland and to select a flight plan. Then, they arrive at the runway where instrument operators and aircraft/pilot crews have already checked out the hardware.

The team flies for more than eight hours 1,500 feet over sea ice, ice sheet or glaciers, depending on the tartget selected each day, taking pictures while collecting and analyzing data. At 6:30p.m., there is a science meeting to discuss the findings. Some team members work through the night to process data.

The team heads to Antarctica every year in October and stays through November, but they actually are based in Punta Arenas, Chile.

Never actually touching down in Antarctica, the team flies 11-hour missions from Punta Arenas, over the Drake Passage, to various high priority targets over Antarctica. The days are longer for the team than the ones in Greenland.

Hansen says the job is fascinating and exciting. She enjoys working with a well-oiled machine of people collecting important scientific data to increase understanding of the Earth’s processes and responses.

As far as the future goes, the sky is the limit for Hansen.

“I’m pretty happy in my current field and imagine being here for a while,” she said. “But I would love to fly in space someday. If it works out, that would be great. If not, I’d say I’m pretty content leading a team that flies at 1,500 feet over the most beautiful and majestic ice structures on this planet.”

Kate MenziesUniversity Relations student writer

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