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Reading can open a door to new realms of possibilities. For Dayna Ise, Space Nuclear Propulsion manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, a childhood of pouring through the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein piqued her interest in engineering.

“As a child, I was an avid science fiction reader and probably read every sci-fi book at my little local library,” said Ise, who has also worked with the Space Systems Development, Integration, and Test Division, Technology Demonstration Missions, Commercial Crew Program, and Ares during her two decades with the agency. “I always had an interest in science and a curiosity with how things worked.” 

Still, Ise didn’t imagine a career with NASA. Growing up in Joliet, Illinois, she felt her options were limited to working at a chemical plant or in the automotive industry. 

“It was just luck that when I started applying for jobs after I graduated from UAH, NASA was hiring and I was able to realize the science fiction dreams I had as a kid,” she said.

Question: How do you encourage teamwork, collaboration, and integration, especially in this unprecedented telework environment?

Ise: I started this job a year ago and we were already out on telework. If it wasn’t hard enough to step into a new role where the team had all been working together for several years, it was even more difficult when I couldn’t meet anyone face to face. The team did an excellent job of holding orientation meetings where I could meet all of the key players and learn what they’ve been doing. Since then, I make sure to maintain a consistent schedule of meetings to provide opportunities for team members to stay connected and better engaged with the whole group. As restrictions on public gatherings have relaxed, we’ve done some social events at local outdoor restaurants. Finally, this fall, we were able to hold two large in-person meetings off-site with 50 people. Everyone who attended these was so excited to be out and seeing people again and they were both very successful events.

Question: How are you managing work-life balance personally and for your team, especially now, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ise: It’s very important to maintain a regular work schedule. I wake up, get ready, and sit down at my computer just like I was going into the office on-site. I take a lunch break and try to finish up the day a reasonable time. It’s easy to get into a trap because you’re home to always be “at work,” which is exhausting and has diminishing returns. To counteract that, I try to keep after-hours work to a minimum, not only for myself, but for my team. Meetings end on time and late-evening emails are avoided if possible. I believe it’s important to maintain this balance when you’re not working a launch campaign or a major milestone review so when you do need that surge capacity, it’s there.

Question: What key partnerships are your team pursuing to help NASA build and develop a sustainable presence on the Moon? Help push the boundaries of science, technology, and/or human exploration?

Ise: Space Nuclear Propulsion has many partnerships across the agency and the government. We have team members at Glenn Research Center, Langley Research Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and headquarters. We have a close working relationship with the Department of Energy, which is managing our fuel developments along with several of the national labs. For the Department of Defense, we have a memorandum of agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to coordinate and provide support to its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations project, and a partnership with the Special Capabilities Office for fuel development. We have reactor development contracts with three companies: BWXT, General Atomics, and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation. We also work with a number of universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Developing space nuclear capabilities is truly an “all-hands-on-deck” effort.

Question: How does your team honor and demonstrate NASA’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment?

Ise: Maintaining a diverse team and inclusive environment is very important to my team and me. We actively make an effort to create a more diverse group, such as providing opportunities for leadership to those who have traditionally been underrepresented in these positions. Our partnerships with universities allow us opportunities to give underserved communities exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math research and development. Working with these students and getting to see their excitement is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

Question: Why do you think your team is successful at staying mission-focused?

Ise: This team is able to stay mission-focused because it is such a unique development project. Even though the potential Mars mission is a long way off, the effort to build a nuclear thermal or nuclear electric propulsion system is an opportunity to work on the cutting edge of materials science, propulsion testing, mission design, and nuclear energy. Since Space Nuclear Propulsion has so many partnerships across the agency and the government, it also affords team members the ability to work with top engineers at the Department of Defense and Department of Energy as well as nuclear reactor companies and colleges and universities. It really feels like you’re a part of a huge, national effort to make the expansion of space nuclear technology a reality.

Editor’s note: Daniel Boyette, an LSINC employee and the Marshall Star editor, supports Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications.

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