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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (AD)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
September 9, 2019

A Story to Share

As a Hispanic female growing up in a small mining town in southwestern New Mexico, Debbie Conder saw, firsthand, the challenges minority students and their families face while trying to earn an education. As the director of the External Relations Office (ERO) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, she reflects on these challenges and creates opportunities for everyone to engage with NASA, regardless of their background.

Conder’s experience is in business and not a technical field, yet she recognizes that for NASA to accomplish daring missions, there needs to be a constant flow of students who are engaged and inspired to develop the technical skills NASA needs.

“As a nation, we still have a lot of work to do to get more students—particularly women and minorities—in the STEM pipeline,” Conder said. “We need to continually develop the next generation of STEM students and instill in them the skillset to help us take the next steps from the Moon and on to Mars.”

To promote STEM initiatives, ERO engages thousands of students each year through classroom activities, academic programs and by coordinating NASA internships for the entire agency through Johnson’s Office of STEM Engagement (JOSTEM), NASA’s education and outreach office.

Conder and JSC senior leaders meet with the University of Houson Clear Lake to discuss STEM partnerships.

JOSTEM’s programs attract students from across the nation, but there is also a keen focus on the Texas community. With an eye toward maintaining Houston’s legacy as Space City, programs such as Texas Aerospace Scholars inspires Texas students to explore careers in STEM fields that are key to future NASA missions.

“At the local level, we have this amazing opportunity to share the NASA story with our communities and remind our neighbors that we live in the home of human spaceflight,” Conder said.  

Stakeholder and community impact extends far beyond the classroom, a fact that was on full display during the recent celebrations of the Apollo 50th anniversaries. ERO focused on community engagement through partnerships with Space Center Houston and other organizations across Houston, including VisitHouston, the Astros and Dynamo, to celebrate Johnson’s contributions during Apollo and educate the community about NASA’s newest giant leap forward with the Artemis program.

The chance to be out in the community is particularly important for Conder, because she has the opportunity to see the direct impact of ERO’s work. She also understands that NASA is a global brand, and it isn’t possible to make a face-to-face connection in every community. Instead, she challenges her team to be active adopters of social media and other digital platforms, which has given NASA the opportunity to connect globally and has established Johnson as a leader in social media.

“The NASA brand has grown as social media has given the world another amazing way to experience human spaceflight,” Conder said. “But the platforms are constantly evolving, so we are continually exploring new techniques and strategies to grow our reach and spark the world’s imagination.”

Some of these recent innovative strategies included social media campaigns such as #NASAMoonTunes, where the world was challenged to build a playlist of songs for a trip to the Moon, and celebrity collaborations with JJ Watt, Ariana Grande, Garth Brooks and many others who enthusiastically amplify NASA’s messages.

Conder speaks to the Super Bowl Committee in the lead up to Houston hosting the 2017 Super Bowl.

While ERO has been exploring new media models, the office continues to innovate its more traditional responsibilities, including its unique role at the public affairs console in mission control.

“Working side by side with the team in mission control to share the story of human spaceflight is a monumentally important task,” Conder said. “We are helping to tell this incredibly intricate and technical story in an engaging way and, if we do it right, the whole world can share in the wonder of it all.”

Traditionally, the role of the public affairs console was to provide commentary and live updates during mission operations, but with a media landscape that relies increasingly on visual appeal, ERO has explored new ways to deliver mission coverage, uniting with the agency’s commercial crew partners to complete the first collaborative launch coverage telecast during SpaceX Demo-1 earlier this year.

Demo-1 marked the first time NASA anchored a launch show with an outside partner, which required the team to develop techniques to switch launch coverage and commentary between SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters and the nucleus of human space exploration: Johnson’s mission control. The resulting coverage has already received an Emmy nomination, and a follow-on broadcast is being planned with Boeing for the CST-100 Orbital Flight Test scheduled later this year.

Conder accepting the Public Relations Society of America's highest honor, the Best of Silver Anvil Award ,for NASA's #YearInSpace campaign highlighting Scott Kelly's year long mission.

But with all the fanfare and attention that NASA receives locally and globally, Conder recognizes the fundamental component to the gripping content ERO shares is the work being completed by teams at Johnson and across the agency.

“The NASA brand is cool, but what we do at NASA is even cooler,” Conder said. “Without our team continually pushing the boundaries of exploration, we don’t have a story to tell.”

To share these specific stories, Conder explored new business models to make ERO more client focused, partnering with programs across Johnson to offer additional services. Some examples include the development of long-term communication plans for the International Space Station and Gateway, as well as exhibit creation, like with the space station and spacewalk displays at Hobby Airport to scaled models of the Orion capsule—even the Moon.

Conder (second from left) speaks at a thought leaders panel with JSC Deputy Director Vanessa Wyche (second from right) and Human Health and Performance director Cathy Koerner (left).

Conder also highlights missions and employee team members for internal stakeholders. Recently, Johnson’s Roundup internal communication platform transitioned to be more digitally focused and mobile friendly. Another new development is the celebrating milestones team, who is joining forces with other directorates to offer additional employee events.

“We have an amazing team, and I want to make sure they have an opportunity to reflect on the impact of their contributions to human spaceflight,” Conder said. “I cherish the opportunity to highlight our workforce, celebrate our successes and prepare the team for the giant leaps we will take together as we explore deeper in space than ever before.”

With an excited public, inspired students and an engaged workforce, Conder’s team is putting in place the pieces across the board that will bring Artemis—and human space exploration thereafter—to life.  

Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center

Debbie Conder is director of NASA's External Relations Office at Johnson Space Center. This story is part 12 of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find  previous stories on the directors website.

Debbie Conder
Debbie Conder, director of the External Relations Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center.