Foley helped her reach for the stars…
Today is National Women and Girls in Science Day. There is no better way to CELEBRATE than with an exclusive interview with Foley alum (’02-’06) Sarah Elizabeth McCandless! She was part of the team that landed the Rover Perseverance on Mars on February 18, 2021. Sarah Elizabeth is a NASA Navigation Engineer, and you may remember reading about her in our Alumni Newsletter or on The Perseverance NASA site. She was extremely generous with her time and let me ask her about everything from her Foley history and favorite camp activities, to what exactly a Navigation Engineer is, why she’s always loved space, and what she’s doing now that will help future Astronauts heading to even more planets. Check it out below…
You are a Navigation Engineer for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Could you describe your job for campers who may get lost in all those big impressive words?
A navigation engineer is like an interplanetary Google maps. Interplanetary means between planets, so an interplanetary Google maps means a map that helps you get from one planet to another. You can’t just pull out your phone and ask for directions to Mars, so you call us instead! We figure out how to get a spacecraft from Earth to its final destination, and then we fly it there. As we fly to our destination, our team is constantly communicating with the spacecraft so we know exactly where it is. We use that information to predict where the spacecraft is going, and if we think the spacecraft isn’t going to the right place, we’ll modify the trajectory (the route the spacecraft is flying) to fix it. It’s similar to what you may do as you drive to the airport. You plan a route, and as you drive to the airport, you’re continuing to check conditions and make sure an accident hasn’t occurred that could cause a major traffic delay that would make you miss your flight. (At least, I have to continually check conditions in LA!) If something does happen, you figure out how to change your route so you avoid the delay and can catch that plane to Camp Foley.
What were your tasks during Perseverance’s journey to Mars and what do you focus on now that is has landed and is collecting data?
Our team was super busy during the journey to Mars! It was our job to make sure we know where Perseverance was at all times so that it didn’t get lost in space. We also predicted where Perseverance was going because we weren’t just trying to hit Mars—we were aiming for a very specific landing spot on Mars that scientists were (and are) very interested in studying. So on a typical day, we would get information back from the spacecraft and then use that to figure out the spacecraft’s location and then guess where it would land. Now that it’s landed, I’m actually not working on the project anymore! I had a couple friends jokingly text me “Happy You’re Fired Day” on the day of landing because once a spacecraft has reached its destination, you don’t need our team anymore. (In one respect, we’re like a bus driver, and once the bus gets to school, no one cares about the bus driver anymore. So always remember to thank your bus driver!) Just like you, I eagerly watch the Perseverance website for updates about the cool samples it has collected, images it has taken, and drives it has made.
I’m actually working on three different projects right now: Europa Clipper (a mission going to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2024 to learn more about the moon and whether or not it has the right conditions to support life), Lunar Trailblazer (a mission going to our own moon to learn more about the type and distribution of water on the moon, which will help future astronauts when they return to the moon), and Artemis I (a mission going to the moon that is taking a lot of really small spacecraft with it, and I’m helping track all those really small spacecraft at one time)
I read Perseverance has driven 1.8 miles, set a record for the longest rover drive in a Martian day, taken more than 100,000 images (including 2 selfies!), and collected six samples of Martian rock… What has been the action Perseverance did or sample it collected that you are most proud of/excited about so far?
Great question! It’s hard to answer because so many cool things have happened. Collecting the first sample was a huge milestone because scientists have been hoping to return a sample of Mars back to Earth for a long time. Knowing that I helped play a role in that journey is really exciting. Additionally, I’m a pilot, and the fact that Perseverance helped facilitate the first powered flight on another planet (the Ingenuity helicopter flew to Mars with Perseverance) is really, really cool!
You mentioned in an interview with Barstow School that you were inspired to study space because of pictures taken by the Hubble Telescope. Why did those pictures move you so much as a child? How does it feel to be the person helping create new pictures for new generations to be inspired by with Perseverance?
If I had to point to a single moment that sparked my love of space, I’d point to the National Geographic magazine cover that featured the “Pillars of Creation”. This is an iconic photo the Hubble Space Telescope captured of the Eagle Nebula, and in it, three columns of dust and gas rise against a colorful background. Prior to seeing this photo, I thought space was a big expanse of black nothing, with dots of light scattered around. (For those who remember the Lion King, pre-Hubble I was more like Timon, and post-Hubble, I was more like Pumba!) I had no idea that there was so much color, or structure…or just, stuff, really out there. The color in particular really sticks in my mind—it was just so beautiful and so full of life, when what we normally see looks like an empty void. It sparked my imagination to wonder what else might be out there and how much there was to explore. Even though I’m not an astronaut exploring space in person, my job as an engineer allows me to help fly spacecraft around our solar system, which is the next best thing!
Turning to Camp Foley, you were a camper for 5 years. Give us the run down, what was your favorite activity, best cabin moment, and most memorable counselor?
Favorite activity: This is so hard! I’m from Kansas, right? And everyone knows it’s “somewhere in the middle”. (I always affectionally refer to it as the heart of America.) And that it’s flat. And that it’s dry. To be clear, we do have lakes and bodies of water, but not nearly as many as Minnesota. So for me, I think anything on the water (except fishing) would be my favorite! I don’t think I ever filled out an activity sheet without water skiing (including the sessions when it was so cold in June all water activities were curtailed), and I loved learning how to sail on the Mangos. (Funny story: one year, I think practically every kid at camp caught swimmers itch from the shallows. That particular year, I was also doing horseback riding at another camp down the road, which conflicted with my sailing time. So instead of preparing the Mango with my partner, I showed up, stepped in a motorboat, and then directly into the Mango. I think I was one of a handful of kids that didn’t catch it!) I also loved riflery, and remember that the first year I was eligible for trap shooting I was pumped. (Because we drove to and from camp, I think I even still have some spent shells in a box in our attic.) I loved climbing, especially the idea of the “Rock Jock” award because it sounded so much like “Rock Chalk”, the cheer for the University of Kansas, which I’ve loved my whole life and ended up attending for college. I also remember the first year they added human foosball and how much of a blast that was. I’m pretty tall (and have long legs), so I was pretty good in the corners. I still talk about this and people are always blown away that human foosball actually exists.
Best cabin moment: Can I say every moment? It’s hard to pick a favorite! One in particular that really sticks in my mind, though, is actually from the first year I was at camp. We had a camp-wide 4th of July event and one contest was to wear as many red, white, or blue clothes as you could. Our cabin picked blue, and somehow I was the winning camper who ended up in 81 various shades of blue from head to toe! (I know it was 81 exactly because we found some of my old camp journals over the summer, and I noted this in an entry!) I’d never done anything like this before—putting myself on display for all the other campers and counselors was kind of scary, but ultimately a really good experience for me. Other fun cabin memories are canoe trips, making rice krispies and walking tacos together, and getting a new nickname to add to my collection. (My name is really long, and wherever I go, people try to come up with new nicknames. My initials SE tend to be an easy first option, but fellow cabin mates made it more fun by actually turning it into a name: “Essy”. After it became a camp nickname, I didn’t let new friend groups adopt it since it was a Foley special.)
Most memorable counselor: This is like asking me to pick a favorite parent! Every counselor I ever had at Foley was phenomenal. One moment in particular I will always remember, though, is my last year at Foley, which is actually unofficially in 2007. My mom and I drove up my sister to camp, and literally as we’re dropping her off, director Marie Schmid mentions that they’ll miss seeing me this summer. And I agreed, and then she said that they actually needed a counselor in one of the cabins for just the first session. So if I could get myself back up, I could be a pseudo-counselor/camper combo. So my mom and I went back to KC, I found a one-way flight to Minneapolis, and one of the counselors who had leave for a friend’s wedding then picked me up on her way back to camp! So we drove to Foley together and I will always remember her kindness and how fun that mini-road trip was. Once at camp, I helped out in the kitchens (I wasn’t actually teaching any activities!) and then got to be a camper the rest of the time. I finally got to access the Wheelhouse and I felt so cool. (I think that’s what it’s called? It was the counselor-only hangout with the computer in the middle of camp.) I was about to be a senior in high school, and I had to work on a paper over the summer, so I was actually allowed to bring my laptop and work there in my free time and it was like this secret hidden part of camp was finally open to me. I was also able one morning to check myself out for a 6 mile run on the road, and I felt like a pretty sweet adult.
What was the greatest take away from 5 years as a Foley Camper? Anything that has helped you during your journey to becoming a Navigation Engineer for NASA?
These are all such good questions! If I have to distill everything I learned at camp into one thing, I think I’m most grateful for how much camp helped be comfortable trying new things. Whether that means a new activity I’ve never done, opening myself up to strangers who turn into friends, or volunteering to do something ridiculous and fun, there is so much value in doing new things and going beyond your comfort zone. I don’t need to get into all the studies and research about fixed vs growth mindsets, but I think it’s incredibly important for people to realize that we are all ALWAYS learning. Even after nearly 8 years at NASA, I still learn new things every week, if not every day. It’s hard to do things you may not find immediate success in, but I think it’s really important to try. Camp Foley did an incredible job of creating an environment where every camper is encouraged to do new things, and making it ok for us to fail, learn, and grow. Being willing to take risks and try something new is critical for my job, and something I learned at camp.
You wrote in your 5th Year Bridge Crossing essay “There are things at camp you can’t photograph, but more often than not, these are the things we remember the most” What camp memories have stuck with you the most in the years since 2006?
A couple different things. May sound cliché, but my best memories are of the people and the friends I made. In a really fun anecdote, one of my best camp friends and I recently reconnected after almost 15 years apart! We attended camp together for a couple/three years and became really good friends. After camp, we lost touch as sometimes happens with the real world, and didn’t see each other again until 2019! The first time we met again, we had a four hour lunch and it was like the years in between just melted away. We both commented how cool it was to see that our friendship wasn’t just a camp friendship that existed in the “Foley bubble”—we knew we’d found a good thing all those years ago, and lucky for us, not everything that happens at Foley has to stay at Foley!
I loved going to Foley with my sister, too. We’re two years apart, so we didn’t do everything together, but sometimes our activities lined up. One particularly memorable occasion is when we were in the same fencing class and we re-created the scene from “The Parent Trap”. (Well, to the best we could with the counselors watching!) I honestly can’t remember who won, just that we had a great time.
I also remember the first time I waterskied. For some reason, the counselor that day took the time to set up the boom off the side of the boat since I’d never done it before. I remember jumping in the water, grabbing the bar, and him telling me to not let go. The boat’s momentum would pull me up, and I’d get a feel for skiing without having to worry about standing. So he punched it, I immediately stood up, and remember feeling like I was flying! It wasn’t super smooth (I remember the skis slapping the surface pretty solidly, and in a journal I uncovered, I apparently said it was “weird”, but I guess that’s a 12 year old for you), but it was so different to feel the wind flying past when I wasn’t in another vehicle. Something I will always remember! Over the years, I learned how to drop a ski, and my sister and I even got to ski doubles when the schedules lined up and we’d weave back and forth in and out of the wake, which was always a blast.
Another funny memory is the first time I tried tubing. It was an intersession “changeover” afternoon with the handful of kids who were staying from 1st into 2nd, and we got to use the ski boats for something a little different. I’d never done it before, and I didn’t think anyone could hear me over the water and the engine. So I get on the tube in the back, and the driver starts up and we zoom all over the lake. I had a blast and I screamed my head off the entire time. At the end of the ride, as he’s pulling me in, the counselor asked if I was OK. I was fine and had had a great time, so I was a little confused until he clarified he had heard me screaming the entire time. I was so embarrassed! But since I’d enjoyed the ride, I didn’t mind so much.
Fun fact! We have 2 kids with the last name McCandless coming to camp this summer, I don’t think you’re related (Anna and James?) but as first-time campers, do you have any advice for them or any other new campers coming to Foley for the First time?
Oh my gosh, how cool! Unfortunately no relation (that I know of), but fun to know the name is still hanging around! I think the coolest thing about Foley is that you have so many opportunities to try something new. Don’t be afraid or shy—even those who are really good at something had to learn how to do it at some point! I will also always and forever recommend you sign up for waterskiing!
What is your go to advice for young people (like our campers) to get involved in STEM and start a path towards becoming an Engineer for NASA themselves?
I think I’m starting to repeat myself a little bit, but I think it’s really important to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone and learn new things, even if they aren’t immediately or directly related to school or your job. Oftentimes, things that seemingly aren’t related help us solve problems. As an example, the fact that I learned to speak French and love the language helped me become a better pilot because a lot of aviation vocabulary has French origins. Learning how to fly and becoming a pilot helped me in my job because I became better at making decisions under pressure. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing how connected things are!
I also think it’s really important to allow yourself to make mistakes. Failure isn’t making a mistake—it’s refusing to try again. There can be a lot of pressure to have all the answers and know everything, but you can’t learn if you aren’t willing to do something new that might not work. I’ve actually found that I learn more from my mistakes, and those lessons are the ones that stick with me and make me a better engineer.
Joe Harrington, our Boys AD, would like to know what your favorite element on the periodic table is and why?
This is a great question, and one I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked before! I love to say “beryllium”, and I love that people used gallium as a practical joke (they’d make spoons out of it and unsuspecting guests would use it with tea and see that it disappeared!). I’ve always loved fluorescent rocks, too (I’d beg my mom to take us to KU’s Natural History Museum to see the “rocks that glowed”), but lots of different things can cause fluorescence, so I don’t think I can pin down a single element for that. (If Joe, or anyone else, is interested in learning more about the periodic table, Sam Kean wrote a great book about it called “The Disappearing Spoon” that is really interesting and readable.)
What’s a question you don’t get asked enough and would love to answer?
“What would you do if you were an astronaut?” There are a lot of really cool aspects of being an astronaut, including the fun science experiments you can conduct, the photographs you can take of our planet, and the interesting people you get to meet. I think it’d be pretty fun to play “Space Quidditch” though! Can you imagine actually getting to fly around?? You wouldn’t be quite as fast as Harry on a Nimbus 2000, but you’d probably have just as much fun.
“How do you know where you are in space?” Honestly, I love it when people want to know how we actually know where a spacecraft is! I like breaking down the technical details and explaining how you can figure out where something is when it’s millions of miles away in deep space. (I use lots of hand gestures and analogies)
Meal: Soda Bread
Camp Song: Rattlin’ Bog, Linger
Grace: I don’t know that I have a favorite, but my sister and I both still remember the Addams Family inspired one
Canteen Snack: M&Ms. I bought M&Ms every single time!
Apparel: The first piece of clothing I ever “bought with my own money” was at Foley! I know it was really via my parents, but I got to make the decision all on my own. I ended up with this gray hooded sweatshirt two sizes too big for my 12 year old self, but I still wear it today! When I moved from Texas to California to start my job, a bottle of nail polish actually spilled all over it and I spent a week getting it out so I could save my Foley treasure.
Skit/Lip Synch: One year our cabin did a lip synch to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! and we all lined up for the beginning with our sleeping bags over our heads and did some sort of synchronized bopping before we ripped them off and did the rest of the dance. I wish I had a video of this one because I remember the practice being a ton of fun! I also will always associate Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” with camp! I think I can still do the dance moves to the chorus, but some of the verses have faded with time.
A HUGE thank you to Sarah Elizabeth for taking the time to answer all our questions and for keeping Foley so close to her heart! If you know someone who would be perfect for an Alumni Spotlight, email Ally Daily at email@example.com