Kristen Facciol: endless curiosity at the Canadian Space Agency

In January, Kristen Facciol was in Toronto for the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Conference and I was supposed to interview her then. However the conference coincided with the opening of my recent production "8 minutes 17 seconds" and I found myself too overwhelmed to make it happen.

Luckily, Kristen was willing to talk to me later this winter via email and I am so grateful for her beautiful answers to my simple questions.

Kristen is an Operations Engineer at the Canadian Space Agency, part of the Mission Control Group. She has trained at NASA, and trains astronauts herself, remotely operates robotics in space. Kristen was part of a history-making team, training the two astronauts for the first all-female space walk in 2019.

This interview is short and sweet, but so worth the read.

Kristen Facciol photo courtesy of NASA

LR: What drew you to engineering? and to your particular area within engineering?

KF: It was my high school algebra teacher that first planted the seed to consider engineering right before I started applying to universities. She had graduated from chemical engineering and I became more interested in learning about the potential areas for study within the broader scope of engineering. I have always enjoyed problem solving and quickly realized that engineering was a way for me to take foundational knowledge and apply it in new ways to help find solutions. My first two years were general studies and this gave me the opportunity to learn that I enjoyed aerospace courses, and was also exposed to ways in which I could take my passion for space and make a career out of it one day.

LR: Did the arts figure in your formative years, or do they still? 

KF: Yes to both! Music is a huge passion of mine, as are the performing arts. Throughout my life, unfortunately more so when I was younger than now, I learned how to play 11 different instruments and was once in a musical. I enjoyed the way it stimulated me in a different way, and the challenge of applying what I had learned with one instrument to another. I am often listening to music while I work, and find that it helps me perform in a more effective way; this was also the case when I was studying for my exams in university. I regularly attend concerts and shows as well, and find that it really improves my mood and mental state in so many ways.

LR: What are you curious about — in your field, about space, about the potential of engineering in the future?

KF:I am truly curious about everything that surrounds me – from people’s behaviours to what lies beyond what we currently know. I think that we all have this inherent desire to explore, and I love that I am in a field where we are looking to explore areas well beyond where we ever thought possible. The beauty of engineering is that it is a field that adapts as we learn more, and there really are no limitations on what we can accomplish. I think that the opportunities really are endless, and I am excited to see how we will grow.

Courtesy of CSA

LR: How do you cope with the unknown, or the unknowable in your work? In life, generally?

KF: To be honest, I used to be afraid of the unknown. But more recently I have become much more excited about it, since it often means the potential for growth and opportunities to learn. 

LR: You have trained with the astronauts in simulations — and you teach astronauts how to operate some systems in space — what is most challenging about these aspects of your work?

KF: At first the biggest challenge was my imposter syndrome getting the best of me. I didn’t feel I was qualified or deserving enough to train some of the best and brightest, let alone work with them on a level playing field. 

Now that I’ve gone through some pretty substantial training myself, I see the importance of the roles we each play individually and how we have to work together towards common goals. Ultimately though, working with astronauts means that their safety comes above all else, and knowing the challenges the space environment can present in general is always something we need to keep at the forefront.

courtesy of NASA

LR: Do you hope to go to space one day? I’m sure people ask you this often….I can’t help but admit my curiosity too!

KF: I used to want to become an astronaut, but over time I have learned that the role is not a good fit for me. At the time I dreamt of being an astronaut, I wasn’t aware of all of the other career opportunities that existed in the aerospace sector. Now that I’ve learned that there are so many other ways to help contribute to human spaceflight and exploration, I’ve found an area that’s much more suited to my interests and abilities. It’s an honour to serve as part of the team that enables these missions and tasks, and to have the opportunity to play a role in it. 

That being said, I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to go to space as a tourist!

LR: How do you perceive creativity or artistry in your work?

KF: Part of my job involves designing robotics trajectories for various missions and operations. Although there are physical limitations to our systems and workspaces, it’s always fun to incorporate a certain elegance into the trajectories. There are often multiple ways to get to a final destination, and sometimes it results in getting there in a way that can be perceived as a robot pirouetting through space, and I find that really beautiful.

LR: That is a beautiful image.

Thank you Kristen!

Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.


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