Exploring 'big science'
As a kid, Mary Kaiser remembers the thrill of watching National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches. Her school teachers would wheel a television into the classroom so that she and her fellow students could witness the historic events.
"The astronauts really were rock stars," she says. "Everyone knew the Mercury Seven guys' names."
And just like "every child of the '60s," Kaiser says, she dreamt of becoming an astronaut too. But she certainly didn't expect that her experimental psychology degree would lead to a 30-year career at the NASA Ames Research Center.
Kaiser, who retired in 2015 and now lives in Lake Oswego, will share NASA's history on Wednesday, Feb. 1, as part of the Lake Oswego Public Library's 11th annual Lake Oswego Reads.
The popular citywide reading program includes more than 30 events throughout the month of February, this year inspired by Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars."
Published in 2016, the book tells the true story of the women — called "human computers" — who launched America into space, breaking the boundaries of both gender and science along the way.
In the 1940s and '50s, when the newly created Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, the company didn't turn to male college graduates. Instead, it recruited an elite group of young women who — with only pencil, paper and mathematical prowess — transformed rocket design, helped create the first American satellites and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
Based on extensive research and interviews with all living members of the team, "Rise of the Rocket Girls" offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science. It looks not only at where the U.S. space program has been, but also into the far reaches of space where it is heading.
'The best toys'
Before her NASA career, Kaiser earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Virginia and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan in applied experimental psychology.
When she traveled to the University of California at Santa Cruz to present her dissertation, she took the advice of one of her professors and stopped by NASA's nearby research center to give her presentation there as well. A year later, in 1985, she accepted a job as a research psychologist at the NASA Ames Research Center's Human Systems Integration Division.
"It's all about getting the humans and the machines to play nicely together," she says of the work. "One ongoing question is, 'What tasks do you let the machines do and what tasks do you reserve for humans to do?'"
Kaiser says she enjoyed teaming up with her coworkers and doing "big-science" work to tackle problems that none of them could have solved on their own.
They once built a full-scale synthetic version of a High Speed Civil Transport as part of NASA's efforts to develop a supersonic passenger aircraft. In another project, she and her lab team had to recreate what astronauts experience during a rocket launch so that they could find out a way for astronauts to read their displays during the high-vibration segment of a launch.
"It was very cool," she says. "NASA has the best toys."
Throughout her career, Kaiser — a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science — authored more than 60 articles and chapters on perceptual psychology and human factors. She also served as an associate editor of The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance for more than a decade, and she holds two patents for innovative display technologies.
She retired as a project scientist for NASA's Space Human Factors Engineering Project.
Kaiser says she often sought out the more senior employees at NASA to glean the knowledge they'd gained from years of project successes and failures, learn about how to avoid repeating mistakes and hear insights on the history of NASA.
Having started at NASA in the 1980s, she says her experiences were different from those of the "Rocket Girls" who came before her.
"Work that (we) were doing could have life-or-death impacts, but it wasn't life or death in the way it was for the 'Rocket Girls,'" she says. "There, when a project blew up, it literally blew up."
IF YOU GO
What: Retired NASA research psychologist Mary Kaiser presents "How NASA Came to Be."
When: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1
Where: Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 S. State St.
And there's more: Look for a complete list of next week's Lake Oswego Reads events on Page B2 of this week's Lake Oswego Review.