• Christy Caudill

My adventures in space science and back again: an earthling's tale in the Anthropocene

Updated: Jan 24

The following may give some background for my call to Earth Scientists and others to not be disheartened at the changing landscape of "work opportunities", but to embrace the demands of the new age, to fiercely take up every last gasp of hope for our changing planet.

I was raised in northeastern Kentucky, a place commonly seen through the eyes of others as economically depressed, lacking in educational resources, and traditionally isolated, physically and intellectually. These characterizations are not totally untrue, though there is beauty there, both in the land and in the people. The idioms of language itself, being lost to time as are many traditional ways of life, have a uniquely colorful, descriptive, dramatic flair and a tonal sing-song quality.

Growing up, I always felt as though I didn’t belong. For example, I strongly fought the hunting culture. That is to say: killing for the sake of killing; not holding the other creatures of the world as sentient, present, precious, and not experiencing their felt experience – I was a natural empath. I felt a part of nature, as nature seemed to be more important and precious than the things with which we filled our lives. My internal guidance strongly situated me in the land itself; the land was alive. The disrespect, utter disregard, and destruction of the land and its inhabitants hurt me deeply. The disconnect for me was palpable. I had never heard anyone else speak about this connection or these feelings, and I developed a story about myself from a very young age that I was too emotional. I was broken and there was something deeply wrong with me.

As most in my society, I did as my culture (that is, Western social construct) instructed for most of my life: I fought back who I was. I pursued a life a normalcy and complacency, while carrying into adulthood the karma of multi-generational poverty. I was just trying to get by. Emotionally and spiritually, this is also all I was doing: merely getting by. In many ways, I held on by a thread, scarcely present in this world with the heavy fog of trauma and disconnection clouding my vision.

I worked my way through school, availed myself of every opportunity, and created many for myself. I often held three jobs while in school. I remember my first day sitting at my desk as a Mars spacecraft mission operations imaging specialist, knowing that I didn’t have to rush off to the evening shift waiting tables – I could just enjoy the ease and simplicity of doing work that I loved.

And it was joyous work. My particular position on the NASA High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) Camera (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Spacecraft) Operations Team involved my assessment of every new image that beamed through the universe on X- and Ka-band radio frequencies to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth, before the data were curated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Basically, I got to be the first person to see every single new image of the Martian surface. This was spectacular, because these images were the highest resolution ever captured of the surface, revealing details we’d never seen before. I was afforded an opportunity to see the surface of Mars with new eyes – as it had never before been seen by another human – hundreds of times each day, every day. It awakened something that I felt with nature as a child: wonder.

Following my time at the HiRISE Operations Center, I decided to go back to school for my PhD to give myself the opportunity to one day lead a space mission of my own. I loved the work during my PhD, too. I split my time between researching on-site at geological planetary analogues – areas on Earth that can teach us about the geological happenings on other planetary bodies, like Mars – and continuing work on Mars geological phenomena through images and image-embedded data. As a Planetary Geologist, we use the same image processing, mapping software tools and techniques, and data processing for both Mars and Earth.

During the last few years of my PhD research, I was gifted experiences that reconnected me with who I was. I lived in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, which is the unceded Anishinaabe territory Nogojiwanong, ‘the place at the end of the rapids’, historically a meeting place where different First Nations would come together in exchange of knowledge and ideas. It was here I was healed by the people I met, the other inhabitants there (or more-than-humans), and the waters of the Otonabee River. It was the first time in my life that I was blessed enough to hear someone articulate what I’d always known, but hid away from myself. Anishinaabe elders spoke about the spirit and wisdom in every part of nature, and the reverence for all things as a way of life, as so deeply connected that it wasn’t a religion or belief – it simply was. It was a listening, not asserting. It was humility.

I could finally see my core truth more clearly. There was nothing wrong with me for weeping with a dying snake, for holding leaves on a tree as gently and with as much love and compassion as if I embraced another human hand, or for collecting rocks and plants as precious symbols of a being smitten with the Earth. As Pat McCabe has beautifully said, “It is not a madness. It is a deep love affair with the Earth…that you can’t do by intellect…but with an expanded ability to perceive.”

This awakening forced me to take stock of my career choices. I loved Mars science, but my core truth called out, and I am compelled to answer that call. I must be a voice for those whose calls have been suppressed with force, violence, and exploitation, and ultimately out of painful disconnection. As the first person in my family to receive higher education degrees, I will not waste the privilege of that education selfishly. Even though I now pivot from a career focused on space science and exploration, and turn my attention toward Earth in her inhabitant’s greatest time of need, all of the training and experience in my path was purposeful. I can now take all that I have learned and serve the Earth and humanity with intention, awareness, and unshakeable determination to help edge us closer to a more beautiful, just, and free world.

I take up the call as my responsibility and privilege to feel deeply, to be quiet and listen, to do the highest good for myself, for others, and the planet.

We are entering a new era together: welcome to the Anthropocene. It has become clear that the lived experience — and indeed, the very pathway to survival — of each human and more-than-human on Earth is shared. May we move beyond the concerns of division and sharpen our intention to an absolute and total focus on the world that we wish to see for the future.

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