NASA Datanauts!

[This article was first published on Little Miss Data, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers]. (You can report issue about the content on this page here)
Want to share your content on R-bloggers? click here if you have a blog, or here if you don't.


Over the past few days, some of you may have noticed that my twitter feed was abuzz with NASA related posts. Naturally, a few of you pinged me asking what the heck I was doing.  Well, this week was the in-person kick off session for the fall 2018 NASA Datnaut class!  You might still be wondering what this is all about.  I get it, it seems a little out there.  I’m not an astronaut and I don’t work at NASA.  So why was I visiting their headquarters and looking at their data?


The Datanaut Program

To learn more about the datanaut program and how to apply, you can visit their website. Below is the program description that hooked me.  


After reading this, I was bought in.  Still unclear what we would be doing, I applied.  Hey, I knew enough.  I knew that I would learn about a new domain.  I knew that I would learn new analysis techniques.  Most importantly, I knew that I would get to meet a diverse set of people from around the world who were as passionate about data and learning new skills as I am. So while the details were vague, it was an easy decision to apply. 


But Really, what is this program about?

Flash forward, I was lucky enough to get accepted!   Still vague on the particulars, I decided to attend the kickoff session in person to get the full feel of the program.  Off the bat, the program was welcoming, engaging and exciting.  That said, I still didn’t put together all of the pieces of WHY they are holding this program until listening to Dr. Luisa Rebull‘s talk on “Way’s to Play with Real Astronomy Data”.   She was passionately dedicated to teaching us about an incredibly complex topic.  She made it very clear that this was her duty.  She said unequivocally “Any facility that comes from public funding is supposed to have a publicly accessible archive.  These are YOUR data!“. 

Without a doubt, NASA recognizes that they have a responsibility to deliver public access to the data. They take this responsibility seriously. So seriously, that they have a wide variety of programs to lower the barriers of entry to working with this data.  This is data democracy at it’s finest people.  It’s not just making a data dump available.  It’s also having the programs and support systems in place to make the data consumable by non-experts. 

Further, and I think more importantly, they WANT to partner with the public to leverage NASA assets and make an impact in unexpected ways.  They understand that a diverse set of minds from all backgrounds will offer unique and innovative takes on the application of their assets.


The Kickoff Agenda

During the two days, David Meza and Claire Little took us through a very thoughtful agenda clearly meant to educate, enable and inspire and us. 


Gary Mann from neo4j took us through a great primer on working with graph databases.  Having never worked with a graph database, it was incredibly useful.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to get started!  During the talk, I was able to download and install neo4j and follow their getting started guide to create and query my first graph.  Plus, they gave away some pretty cool t-shirt swag.


Kelly took us through a little session on getting started with RStudio and recommended some great material for learning R, including the free R4DS book.  She showed us some neat packages and tips as well as a demo on shiny dashboards.  The shiny demo portion can be found here.  It was great to see R Ladies DC representing in the community!

  • Luisa Rebull (Research Scientist, CalTech/IPAC) – Ways to Play with Real Astronomy Data

What can I say about Luisa but wow!  Luisa worked tirelessly to distill some very complex topics around astronomical images.  Notes and links from her talk can be found here.  In a jam packed session she taught us the basics of image mechanics & colors, astronomical data and image artifacts.  Luisa explained that image artifacts are items that look like they are part of the picture but are actually just some chemical or physical noise.  This is important to note because eager NASA Datanauts like us may become overzealous and think we’ve found a new planet or a new species coming to take over earth.  She gave a great (and hilarious) warning that when we see these, we need to reel it in, because these are just artifacts. 


“If you find something that looks weird, DO NOT assume it’s really in the sky”

Don’t immediately email the archive’s helpdesk that you’ve found evidence of alien life that the government has been hiding



  • Phil Leibrecht (Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator Space Communications and Navigation, NASA HQ –  Data Strategies and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN)

Phil gave an excellent talk, educating us on some of the challenges they face around space communication and the innovations they have achieved to deliver connectivity to our space teams.  To put it in perspective, he mentions that with deep space networks it can take 38 hours round trip to send and receive a communication.


  • Renee Wynn (Chief Information Officer, NASA HQ) – NASA’s Open Data Initative

Another “WOW” presentation.  NASA CIO, Renee Wynn talked us through the 5 core concepts of NASA’s Open Data initiative.  She also dazzled and inspired us with tales of her unconventional journey to CIO and advice for success.  Some of the main concepts are: have a mindset of lifelong learning, be open to the gift of feedback and build a solid network.  


  • David Meza (Cheif Knowledge Architect, Information Managment Program Executive Johnson Space Center and NASA HQ, – Key Concepts and Data Sources

David Meza engaged with us throughout the two days either through talks or one on one conversation.  All of this really helped to get us oriented within the program.  During his session he enabled us to better understand the type of NASA data sources that are out there for public consumption and got our ideas flowing by showing us some projects that datanauts have done in the past.  He also inspired us with great perspectives on why we need to focus on information accessability.  I love the quote he shares from Eric Schmidt below. 

  “We have an opportunity for everyone in the world to have access to the world’s information. This has never before been possible. Why is ubiquitous information so profound_ It is a tremendous equalizer. Information i.png   Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 8.35.09 AM.png
  • Matt Scott (Digital Storyteller from SecondMuse) – Getting Involved in the 2018 SpaceApps Challenge

Matt Scott spoke with us about the NASA SpaceApps challenge.  Space Apps is a 48 hour international hackathon to address challenges in space or use space assets to address challenges on earth.  In 2017 there were 187 locations participating in the challenge worldwide!  Mark your calendars, the next session is October 19-21 2018!


  • Tara Ruttley (Asssociate Chief Scientist for Microgravity Research, Office of the Chief Scientist, NASA HQ) – Scientific Valuation of Results from the International Space Station

Tara spoke with us about all of the great things they are doing with the research produced through the International Space Station.  They are on a mission to disseminate to the general public all of the knowledge that they gain from their space research through academic summaries and consumer focused articles, podcasts, video clips and more.  She also spoke with us about ways that we as datanauts can engage with their assets!



One of the recent neat changes to the program is that they introduced a hackathon component to the two day session.  Claire and David reviewed our profiles and matched us up with a diverse group of people that they thought would produce interesting results.  I have to say that while everyone I met at the session was awesome, I feel like I really hit the jackpot with my team!   We are a diverse group of folks from Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Canada and USA and with a wide range of backgrounds including Consumer Behavior and Evolutionary Psychology, International Relations, Citizen Journalism and Technology.  Engaging with these ladies has bee my favorite part of the program so far.  

Our team’s first project is to explore the NASA lessons learned data set to look for patterns in user behavior, overlap of content, trends over time as they relate to external events and more.  Stay tuned, I’m sure a number of us will be posting updates!  

   From left to right:  Lilian Carvalho , myself ( Laura Ellis ),   Elif Yüksel ,  Reshama Shaikh ,  Caroline Williams  and  Louise Lai.    Image courtesy of my awesome team mate  Caroline Williams

From left to right: Lilian Carvalho, myself (Laura Ellis),  Elif YükselReshama Shaikh, Caroline Williams and Louise Lai. 

Image courtesy of my awesome team mate Caroline Williams


Special thanks


It’s now time to mention a few special folks who helped me to partake in this experience.  Firstly, thanks to the amazing Caitlin Hudon who suggested that I check out the program.  Caitlin and Victoria Valencia are the co-organizers for R Ladies Austin.  These women do so much in Austin to engage and connect the R and data science community. 

Also a very important mention goes out to my leadership team.  IBM Cloud really supports their employees in trying new experiences to inspire and grow their skills.  Both my manager Nic Sauriol and my VP Pete Rubio were incredibly supportive of the opportunity.  

Finally, my amazing family is always tolerating these crazy endevors that I do!  As a mom, it can be hard to leave your family but my husband is my rock who never bats an eye.  And while the kids did miss me, they were pretty stoked for their new astronaut costumes!  



To leave a comment for the author, please follow the link and comment on their blog: Little Miss Data. offers daily e-mail updates about R news and tutorials about learning R and many other topics. Click here if you're looking to post or find an R/data-science job.
Want to share your content on R-bloggers? click here if you have a blog, or here if you don't.

Never miss an update!
Subscribe to R-bloggers to receive
e-mails with the latest R posts.
(You will not see this message again.)

Click here to close (This popup will not appear again)