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
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
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
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.