From Rocket Science to Political Science

Normally at Miles O’Brien Productions, we keep our journalism focused on science and technology. We take a lot of pride in this because there aren’t many mainstream journalists left covering this beat. It is our special purpose.

So while I was initially surprised when Miles assigned me a political story, it made a little more sense when I got some of the details. It’s the story of rocket scientist turned political candidate Tracy Van Houten—who has thrown her calculator in the ring to represent California’s 34th District in the US House of Representatives.

I have to admit; when I found out I was flying from Boston to Los Angeles to interview a congressional candidate—only to return less than 12 hours later, I was not overly enthusiastic. The past several months have dimmed my view of politicians to the point of cynicism. But within minutes of meeting Van Houten, in her modest storefront campaign headquarters, a little seed of optimism sprouted in my mind. She’s smart, articulate, honest, has a terrific sense of humor, and she’s running for the right reason—to represent the people of her district.

Tracy Van Houten is the real deal—someone who can solve complex problems, work with others, and advocate on behalf of education, environment, and human rights. But more importantly, she is reasonable; a critical thinker who won’t let political ideology and “alternative facts” distort her judgment. For a rocket scientist, Van Houten is remarkably down-to-earth. And she appears willing to stand-up for the underdog. As the interview progressed, I found myself wanting to move to L.A. just so I could vote for her.

For nearly 13 years, Van Houten has pursued her dream job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she has worked on some of NASA’s most celebrated and successful missions—including the Mars Curiosity Rover. She’s currently working on Curiosity’s successor—the 2020 Mars Rover. In our technological world, Van Houten would bring an important and much-needed scientific voice to the House of Representatives. If elected, she will become the first female engineer in history to enter Congress—making this a potentially historic election.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more members of Congress who understood technology, respected the scientific process, and accepted “actual facts"?

Here are some highlights from the interview:

TRACY VAN HOUTEN: Hi Heather, this is Tracy Van Houten and I’m the aerospace engineer who's running for congress here in this district.

Trump’s election certainly had a lot to do with it but quite frankly there has been an assault on science going on I think for many years.

I was in Washington last week when the President’s budget came out and I was there advocating on behalf of STEM education.

We really need leaders who understand space and science and care about climate change and know that that is real and not a hoax. Over time, it’s just been something that’s been developing in me that if I really want to make impactful change that I need to be a legislator. And there’s actually never been a woman engineer in Congress. I would be the first ever woman engineer.

Currently, I’m working on the Mars 2020 Rover which is very similar to the Curiosity Rover, another mission that I worked on that’s right now driving around Mars.

I consider Curiosity like my third child. I have two human children and my third child is up on Mars and my fourth is being built as we speak up at JPL.

As a systems engineer, what I do is a very natural translation to government, quite frankly. I’ve been a complex problem solver my entire career.

I am ready to lead the fight against alternative facts and I hope I can count on your vote.

For me at some point, it just didn’t feel big enough anymore to focus on answering mankind’s questions about the universe. I needed to kind of return my focus here on earth to help out in the community here.

I got a voter!