We here at Black Nerd Problems had the incredible opportunity to sit down with Courtney Lee, the social media manager for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. You can watch the full interview on our YouTube, but just in case you don’t have time for the full hour, we have provided some highlights.
An Unconventional Pathing
Mikkel: So, Courtney, I could talk about your life, but I think it would be better you do. What’s your backstory, what’s your background, and how did you end up working for NASA?
Courtney: My background’s a little different than the traditional people who study science and then apply for NASA. Growing up, I wanted to be an actress or an entertainer, and in middle school and high school, I realized I wanted to be an entertainment reporter. I wanted to be like Giuliana Rancic or Ryan Seacrest on the red carpets, introducing celebrities before their movies. I went to Curry College in Massachusetts, and I got my bachelor’s in communications with a concentration in television, and then after that, I went to grad school at American University and I got my master’s in reporting on public affairs, focusing on broadcast journalism. After grad school, I realized that was something I didn’t want to do, so it was a very expensive lesson learned. But it was one that I learned, and I’m glad I learned it before getting a couple years under my belt. During that time—I graduated in the summer of 2018—I was still applying to TV jobs, because I’m like, “Maybe I should just stay on this track. Maybe I’ll learn to love it if I’m in it.” But I was also just looking for other jobs too, and just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I saw that NASA had a newsroom intern position open. And I was like, “I didn’t even know NASA had a newsroom.” I didn’t even think that NASA would have a news or communications department.
Around that time I was still applying for jobs at stations, and I got offered a position to be an anchor in Michigan, and I also got offered the NASA internship. I had to make a decision if I should take an internship and stay in the area, or if I should pursue what I got my degrees in. I decided to take the NASA internship, which was the best decision I could have made, actually. I’m really grateful that I did. So that’s how I started at NASA. And actually, a fun fact: since I just graduated from school, I couldn’t really get through the NASA internship database, because you have to be currently in school in order to log into the website. But this was something I was really interested in, so I googled and I figured out who the executive producer was of the newsroom. I emailed him directly, and I was like, “Hi, unfortunately, I can’t get through the website, but I’m very interested in this position.” I sent my resume and my website, and I was like, “I’d love to talk more about this.” He really liked my initiative there, and he was like, “We’re going to figure out how to make this work.” And they haven’t been able to get rid of me since.
A Rising Star at NASA (Pun Intended)
Mikkel: So you’re one of the social media leads for NASA. You handle a couple of the different Twitter accounts from the looks of it. And I guess we’ll go back—you talked about, you wanted to be an actress. Did you ever anticipate you’d be doing social media? Was social media a thing when you were growing up, in the same way that it is now?
Courtney: Not at all. I may be aging myself here, but when I was in high school the big thing at that time was Snapchat just came out when I was a senior in high school, and Instagram was still fairly new, so I didn’t really think of social media as a job. It wasn’t really something people did as jobs at that time, besides the people who created the apps, so it was never on my radar. I enjoyed social media. I loved scrolling on it. I had a Tumblr. I remember I had an Ed Sheeran dedicated Tumblr because I just loved him so much. So, yeah, I loved social media, but I never really thought of a job in social media.
Mikkel: So, when you saw the internship at NASA, it spoke to you, like this is different than usual television production, and you wanted it. What were the first few days, weeks, months of the internship like?
Courtney: I can tell you a little bit about what I did during the internship. Like I said, I was a newsroom intern, and I worked with our Live Shot Team, which is our satellite media tours. So basically, what we did is we got our engineers, scientists, and sometimes astronauts out to different media outlets all over the world. When we did them in-person, we did them in four-minute segments, so we started at 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. and we’d go, like, from Texas to the BBC to Ohio to California with a bunch of different talents, so they were quick-switching the chairs. It was a very intense time each time we did a Live Shot campaign, but I loved the thrill of it, and it gave me the newsroom feeling. I really loved doing that, and I did that even into the pandemic a little bit. We used to do 40 to 60 interviews a day, but with the pandemic, we realized we can do six interviews at a time, because those are virtual, and we went to doing like 200 interviews in that 6 to 12 p.m. time. It was a lot of fun. I got to learn a lot. One thing that I really enjoyed was that, since I don’t have a science background, I was still working with the news, so I had to be able to tell information to the public in a way that I would understand. And I think I had a good skill set on that, since if someone’s telling me about, like, exozodiacal dust, and they’re explaining it very heavily to me, I’m like, “I’m not going to know what that is, and the audience isn’t going to know what that is, so we need to work together to make this appropriate for someone at six in the morning drinking their coffee, turning on the news, and learning about it,” you know?
Mikkel: We’re going to get to the satellite in a bit. I do want to keep on the NASA progress. So you started out as an intern, and as you said, they didn’t want to get rid of you, so they just kept you around. What was the pivot into working full-time for NASA like?
Courtney: When I started my internship in the fall of 2018 I was in the newsroom, and along with doing media outreach, I was like, “We need to be reaching out to content creators and YouTubers as well,” so I started implementing that at Goddard at the center I worked at. And they liked what I was doing. They were like, “You know what, can we extend your internship into the spring?” And I’m like, “Yeah!” I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I was like, “You know, I’m enjoying this, so let me stay here.” And in that time, I was also creating social products because we had a lull in our Live Shot campaign, so I was working with the social team on just cutting some videos and stuff and putting that together. And I’ve done social media before, like in undergrad. And during grad school, I worked at a bridal shop, which had some very interesting stories, but I also ran their social media there.
Around May of 2019, my internship was coming to an end in a couple months, and I was talking to my boss. I’m like, “Hi, I would love to be full-time, do you know if any positions are opening?” And they were like, “Well, there’s this mission that’s kind of on the up and up right now, and they are looking for a social media person, and I think you’d be a great fit for it, so can you interview with the team?” And I did, and I got the position, so in June of 2019, I became the social media lead for the telescope. The transition wasn’t too hard, it was pretty easy. I already knew everyone that I was going to be working with. I was so glad to have insurance now, like health insurance. So that was great, and a consistent salary, that was amazing to have. It felt very adult moving into a full-time role from an internship position. It was fun, and I was able to keep my desk and everything, so it wasn’t that big of a transition.
About this Telescope…
Mikkel: So, the main goal, it sounds like, as the social media lead, is that you’re trying to get the public invested in this type of content, and this will transition now into this telescope. So, give us a little bit of insight into what the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope program is.
Courtney: Yeah, so, that’s the mission I work on. I might be a little biased, but I think it’s one of the best NASA missions. So the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is NASA’s next great space observatory telescope. It is going to be working with the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as Hubble, to help us piece together this cosmic puzzle of our universe and help us know a little bit more. It’s named after Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, who was the first chief of astronomy at NASA. And one thing I love about her is, she wasn’t the first woman. She was just the first person. And that’s something, when you’re thinking of NASA—I think it was started in 1959, 1960—back then, women weren’t given these opportunities or these roles to be in these positions, and NASA sought her out and were like, “We want you to lead the Astrophysics Department,” and she did. And she’s the reason we have space-based telescopes now, so we decided to honor her by naming this telescope after her, because without her, we wouldn’t have Hubble, we wouldn’t have Webb, and a bunch of these other telescopes that are in space right now.
Mikkel: You mentioned the only other two telescopes that I’m aware of. How does the Nancy Grace compare and contrast to the other two? Especially the James Webb, since that’s a “recent” telescope, quote-unquote.
Courtney: Hubble, I believe, is now 32 years old, so it’s had a long, amazing mission, and it’s still giving us some beautiful data. I’ve worked with the Hubble team. They’re amazing. I love Hubble too. But Roman is going to give us the widest fields, or the widest images of space known to date. So think of one Hubble image—it’s a hundred times wider than that. So yeah, that’s our big spiel. If you see the shape of Roman—and you’ll see it in the video game—it’s kind of this weird detector shape, and that is what we’re going to be using to take these—that’s going to be what the photos are going to be looking like. It has the same resolution as Hubble but just a hundred times wider. And with the James Webb Space Telescope, Roman is actually going to the same location, so LaGrange Point 2. So they’re going to be in the same place. And Webb’s field of view is similar to Hubble’s, but Webb is going to be looking further and deeper into space, whereas Roman’s going to be looking wider. So they’re actually going to be working together out there, where Roman’s going to take the big pictures and be like, “Hey, Webb, I think you should look at this for a long period of time.” And then it’s going to do that.
Mikkel: So when does the Nancy Grace actually start looking wide into the vastness of the unknown?
Courtney: It is set to launch no later than May 2027.
About this Game made for the Telescope…
Mikkel: Alright, let’s talk about the thing that really brought everything together, in terms of NASA reaching out to us, is that you have a video game that you made to promote. Do you want to talk about the game first, or shall we play the game first?
Courtney: I can talk about it a little bit and then we can get into it. I can give the backstory about the game. So, I am a huge gamer. I love playing games. My main console is the Switch, but I also have a gaming PC that I work on, and my cousin, who might be watching this stream, gave me his PS4 that I have in my room. So I’ve always loved games, ever since I was young. I still have my PS1 that I have The Rugrats on, which is a game I still haven’t beat yet, which I’m planning on beating. I have my Wii set up over here so I can play Glee karaoke. So I’m a huge gamer. And I wanted to find a way to meld the loves of gaming and work, and one thing a lot of people say is our detectors look like the Space Invader alien, and we get that often. They’re like, “Why is it that weird shape?” And I was thinking, I was like, “Why don’t we play into that? Why don’t we create an 8-bit-style game where it teaches you about the telescope?” So it’s called Roman Space Observer, and you play as the Roman detector, and you have one minute to capture as many astronomical objects as possible. It took about a year of planning and working with a developer and our illustrator, and there’s the Roman Communications Team—I call them the “Rom-Com Team”—in order to get this game up and out, and we released it on June 2nd, and it’s been a success ever since. It’s something I’m really proud of, because how many people can say they were playing video games for a couple hours, just to make sure it works well, during their workday, you know?
Mikkel: It’s incredible that you got this idea from the panels of the telescope and made it into something that helps people understand. That’s not a jump that a lot of people would make, and it’s really cool. So we’re going to pivot over to the actual website where people can play this game right now.
Mikkel: And now you want to make a whole arcade cabinet for this game?
Courtney: Yes, so we would like two: one for the visitor center, like a big one, and then a little tabletop one that we can bring to outreach events. So hopefully we’ll be able to get one of those, the tabletop ones, because I think it will be fun to just see the Roman Space Observer logo on the side of it, and people will be like, “Why is there an arcade game at this astronomy conference?” and, “Well, come on over and learn about Roman!” You know? And at conferences, a lot of people kept coming back, because I had a scoreboard on the side and just kept track of people, and they were like, “I need to beat the highest score.” Or when they came back and they were like, “My score is beat,” they were like, “Move over.” They started stretching and were like, “You need a chair here, so I can be able to sit and play this.”
Mikkel: (laughs) I need the focus, I need the positioning, I need the grounding.
Mikkel: So, are you going to take an old arcade cabinet and retrofit it? Or are you going to try to make one from scratch for the bigger cabinet for the guest center?
Courtney: We’re still figuring that out right now. What I would love to do is to be able to buy a cabinet that we can just put something in and program the game into the cabinet there. So not taking an old one, but buying a new one, just like a shell, and building around that.
Writer’s note: Checkout the live gameplay over on our Twitch.
A Brief Lesson on the Coronagraph
Mikkel: Before we transition on, I do want to go back to this talking point of making it accessible to the public. How do you transition from talking about space dust that has many syllables and trying to translate that into a common thing? Because as a tech writer, I do that all the time, where it’s sort of like, here’s what software development wants. It’s this complicated 17-step process, and I have to break it down, like, okay, here are the four things you need to know first, and then we’ll build on top of that, and then we’ll build on top of that. I’m curious if it’s a similar process for you.
Courtney: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of complex jargon words that are at NASA, and one thing I also try to do is not steer clear of the jargon, but try to teach people about it, to kind of make it into everyday language. So one of the techniques that the Roman Space Telescope is going to be doing is called “microlensing.” Actually, I’m not going to talk about microlensing, that’s more complicated. I’ll talk about the coronagraph. A lot of people don’t really know what a coronagraph is, like you kind of know it blocks out light from a star; we’ve used it kind of with our sun. But what we’ll be able to do with Roman is we’re going to block out the light of stars far away, in order to be able to see planets around them, because we assume that there’s at least one planet around every star that’s out there, but we can’t see them. So using this technique to block them out, we’re able to see these exoplanets that are out there. And that’s a crazy concept to think, you know? That the stars we see up there have planets. But I think just breaking it down like that, and doing it over a period of time, and starting with the easier terms and being like, “Oh, exoplanets: planets outside of our solar system. Every star might have at least one planet, if not more, circling around them, and we have this instrument on the telescope called the coronagraph instrument that we are going to be testing in order to be able to see these planets outside of it.” So kind of telling a story a little bit backwards, in a sense where it’s easier to getting into the more complex once they’re in it.
Down to Earth Nerdity
Mikkel: Alright, so. You are also a gamer, a nerd, and passionate about many other things, so it would be a waste not to talk about some of the things that you do outside of NASA, some of the nerd content that you like to consume. So, let’s spend the back half of the interview just talking about some of the stuff that you’ve been enjoying. So I guess we’ll start with: What have you been watching recently? Anime, TV, movies, documentaries, anything that’s been in your streaming queue. Or your cable queue, I don’t know.
Courtney: Yeah, so I’m all over the place when it comes to watching things, like, I haven’t watched in a while, but I love trashy reality TV shows, like the dating shows, you know? They’re like my chef’s kiss, I love that. But my go-to: I love horror. I’m a huge horror fan. I love scary movies. You can’t see, but I have a Beetlejuice succulent right behind me, which I got in a horror mystery box, as well as a Camp Crystal Lake Jason snowglobe thing, as well as a Chucky doll that’s in my room that my mom made from a My Buddy doll she got at a thrift shop. So I’ve always loved horror. I think I watched Halloween when I was in kindergarten, I remember, I was living in Boston at the time. So yeah, I’ve always had horror movies on. I watch them to go to sleep. It just calms me, you know?
Mikkel: Okay. And then finally, we’re going to talk about your gaming, which is really cool, because you actually have a gaming Instagram that I’m going to bring up on a separate screen as you talk about things.
Courtney: Yeah! Like I said before, I’m a huge gamer. My genre of games vary a ton. I play from Phasmophobia to Cozy Grove to Animal Crossing to I just finished Little Misfortune. And I’m excited for the new Bear and Breakfast game that’s coming out, so I can’t wait to get that on the Switch, where you play as a bear who runs a bed and breakfast. Like what’s more fun than that, you know?
Mikkel: So what I like to do to close off every single interview that I do is to ask the interviewee, what’s a piece of media that you wish had more attention? Not your favorite, not the most popular thing, just something that you wish more people knew about so you could talk about it with more people. So do you have something like that for us?
Courtney: The one that comes to mind, so I was thinking about this. Well, there’s a couple things. I love K-pop, and the group Got7, so if more people listen to Got7, I would love to talk more about that. But there’s a YouTuber called MyFroggyStuff. She has a lot of followers, I think she maybe has two million. But she makes the most—and we actually did a collaboration with her a couple months ago for a black-hole-themed doll room. So she basically makes doll rooms, and they’re so detailed, and I love it so much. She’s my favorite person; I want to give her all of her flowers. I’ve been watching her for almost a decade now, since 2013.
And then, another media, kind of…I don’t know if really this answers the question, but I want people to know that there’s comms and arts and more creative jobs at NASA that people can do, you know? I didn’t know there was a newsroom position, and I want people to know at a younger age, you can run social media, or you can do animation. Our CI Lab is where they create a lot of our animations, and it’s the coolest office because it looks like a spaceship. It looks like a spaceship from—I forget, some TV show. But some of the animators used to work on Disney and then they came over here and now they animate for this, and then they’ve done stuff with, like, Transformers.
Yeah, there’s so many different people in different walks of lives, and you don’t have to do a traditional path to NASA. There’s a woman, you can look her up, her name’s Paula Cain, she works at Goddard in the Blanket Lab, where she sews the blankets that go on these telescopes. Yeah, there’s the thermal blankets that are on there. And you know how she found the job? She was looking at the newspaper and NASA was looking for fashion designers to hire to do these things, and she was a fashion designer. She applied and she’s been there, I think, over ten years, maybe a little more. She’s been there a long time. I just met her for the first time recently, but I’ve heard about her for the last four years. But just to know, she was a fashion designer and then came to NASA to sew blankets for spacecrafts. That’s crazy.
Mikkel: That’s a great note to end on. So, as a general summation type thing, thank you, everyone, for joining us in chat. Thank you, Courtney, for giving us an hour of your time.
Courtney: I’ll just say, shoutout to our Rom-Com Team and our animators who illustrate some of comics. It’s just an amazing way of also reaching people where they are, creating these cute little comics. We did a Star Wars Day one where Roman was one object and Webb was another—I’ve never seen Star Wars. I know, I don’t know how I work at NASA and have never seen it, but other people get it, you know? But yeah, it was a pleasure being here, and I really appreciate you guys taking the time out to even talk to me about this. And I hope you all have learned a little more about Roman and some of the fun stuff that we do at NASA.