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Alice Bowman: APL’s First Female MOM

Alice BowmanAs New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) and group supervisor of the Space Department’s Space Mission Operations Group, Alice Bowman’s most interesting days at work are the ones where the unexpected happens. Fortunately for her, in the world of deep-space exploration, that potential exists almost every day. After 23 years in the field of space, Bowman has learned a lot about making the most of the daily twists and turns of the missions she manages. One of the most important lessons translates easily to daily life: “You just can’t overreact when things happen, you have to stay calm,” says Bowman.

To illustrate her point, she recounts a story about the first time New Horizons (APL’s mission to Pluto) went into “safe mode.” The spacecraft experienced some problems, telemetry was lost, and alarms were sounding in mission operations center. “Your first reaction is always to try to fix things right away…but sometimes, waiting for the spacecraft to take care of itself for a certain period of time—like it’s programmed to—is what you need to do,” says Bowman. “In the case of New Horizons, waiting gave us insight about what was going on and time to plan how we could best resolve the issue.”

Bowman hasn’t always been so knowledgeable about spacecraft (a physics and chemistry major in college, she started her career analyzing infrared detectors in the defense industry), but she has always been driven. As a child, she sat down with the other eight-year-olds in her neighborhood at 5:30 each evening to watch Lost in Space and she was riveted to the screen. She knew she’d be a space explorer one day—there was really no question in her mind.

“I never felt like I couldn’t do anything I wanted,” said Bowman. “I was determined to be like the folks I admired on Star Trek and Lost in Space.” And, while she’s never donned a spacesuit, Bowman is thrilled to spend her days in the field of space—“making history” as APL’s first female MOM.

For Bowman, it is tough to name her most remarkable day at work; after all, dealing with space exploration of the planets is remarkable in itself. But thoughtfully, she describes the short time frame in which New Horizons reached Jupiter in the mission’s initial phases on its trip to Pluto and how amazed the team was when they saw the spectacle as it was captured by the imaging instruments.

“The imaging of the planet, its moons and its rings, was like nothing we’d ever seen before,” said Bowman. “Our team was exhausted by the process of getting to that phase, but when those first images came back, it was all worth it and we were re-energized. We even captured the volcano on Io (one of Jupiter’s moons) erupting.”

The daily creativity necessary for MESSENGER’s mission to Mercury is also notable in Bowman’s mind. “Mercury is hard to get to, and to save propellant for more science observations, the team’s gotten very innovative using the solar panels (solar sailing) to correct smaller trajectory errors; this has allowed us to make minute changes in course without the use of propellant,” she says.

In her downtime, Bowman is a clarinetist and bassist who enjoys collaborating outside of the Laboratory with others, including her husband, Robert, a mandolin and guitar player, and son, Noah, a banjo, guitar, and harmonica player, who share her passion for music. “My work-life can be unpredictable, but every other Wednesday my husband and I host a community outreach jam session at the West Laurel Senior Center. No matter how busy the day was, I am always glad when I get there,” she says.

The collaborative relationship and dedication to a craft that she shares with her fellow musicians is similar to the close relationship of the small teams of APL space scientists and engineers working on extraordinary missions like MESSENGER and New Horizons. “We spend a lot of time and long hours together during the missions,” says Bowman. “As a result, we form very close team bonds focused on a shared common goal.”