vast expanse of tan-colored buildings stretches for miles across the crisp, soft hills of a Maryland suburb about 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C. The structures’ bland facades belie the cutting-edge research going on at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where inside one such forgettable building sits a model of the next big thing in astrophysics: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Amid a gaggle of women from a Maryland senior center group, Dorlisa Hommel ’84 listens intently to a description of the infrared stargazer.
“It’s six to seven times bigger than the Hubble telescope,” says D.J. Emmanuel, a tour guide for NASA Goddard. “When it launches in 2021, it will be able to look back billions of years to just after the Big Bang.”
Hommel, who works in another area at Goddard, is giving a visitor her own private tour and has just stopped to listen to Emmanuel. She stands off to the side, peering through an interior window into the room where a practice model of Webb – a giant, origami-looking contraption resembling a gold-plated honeycomb – is on view. The actual telescope was moved to a facility in California last year. Engineers and scientists dressed in white coveralls from head to toe zigzag between toolboxes and computer stations that dot the cavernous white space, carrying out their tasks for a new mission.
The air in the state-of-the-art clean room, says Emmanuel, is 100 to 1,000 times cleaner than ordinary room air, thanks to high-efficiency filtration that changes out all 1.3 million cubic feet of air in the entire room every four minutes.
“The filters can trap dust that’s one-three-hundredth the diameter of a human hair,” says Emmanuel excitedly. “That’s three-tenths of a micron!”
This isn’t the first time Hommel has seen a clean room for satellite construction. Despite her familiarity with the ambiance, she takes in Emmanuel’s animated explanation of NASA Goddard’s latest and greatest project with rapt attention, and she watches with interest as scientists float around the room like grounded astronauts urgently reaching for the stars.
Eyes twinkling, she whispers to her visitor, “Isn’t this great?”
It’s that innate curiosity that has served Dorlisa “Lisa” Hommel so well in her career.
Inside a small room lined with six gray cubicles just off a musty hallway that smells of decades of long days and even longer nights, Hommel has spent the last eight years ensuring that scientific instruments on two of the latest international weather satellites, MetOp-B and MetOp-C, were up to snuff.
As a contract systems engineer for NASA, Hommel has been working with a team of engineers to make sure the instruments that collect the weather data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) actually work, can survive the violence of a rocket launch and then function in the brutal environment of outer space.
The funny thing is Hommel hadn’t ever done this kind of work before she stepped foot on NASA’s Goddard campus nearly a decade ago. Sure, she’d written the IT strategic plan for the U.S. Postal Service headquarters and the IT security program plan for the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility. And before that, she’d spent five years working on the development and testing of the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System data-processing system for environmental data products. But, she had never done satellite in-orbit verification (SIOV) to ensure that weather instruments on a satellite work properly after they blast off to orbit the Earth.
But the challenge of learning something new is what Hommel finds so thrilling, and why she’s made a career of it.
“I love telling young people to try different things – you have no idea what you’re going to like,” she says.
Part of a trio of international satellites that provide global weather data, MetOp-B launched in 2012 and MetOp-C launched in November 2018. The first satellite of the group, MetOp-A, launched in 2006.
For both MetOp-B and MetOp-C satellites, Hommel traveled to Darmstadt, Germany, a small city near Frankfurt in the southwest section, to attend mission simulations at EUMETSAT Headquarters, a global satellite agency that operates all three MetOp satellites. In the company of engineers from all over the world, Hommel worked as a member of the engineering launch team to troubleshoot any software issues involving the U.S. weather instruments.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2017, however, that Hommel finally got to don the white coveralls, also known as a bunny suit, and go into a clean room similar to the one at Goddard to see the MetOp-C satellite up close.
“It was so exciting to see the hardware, the entire spacecraft in this very large chamber,” recalls Hommel, who was supporting thermal vacuum testing on the satellite at an international laboratory in the Netherlands. “It was an amazing feeling to be able to see the satellite in there ready for testing and knowing that it would soon be launching and in orbit collecting weather data. And it was overwhelming thinking about how we had worked for so many years to get to this point.”
With launch day looming, the end of the mission was in sight.
The thing about Dorlisa Hommel is she’s not afraid to go for it. Sure, she gets nervous, anxious even – but it’s not enough to stop her. When her mother suggested in 1979 that she consider applying to the College of Charleston because she liked the ocean, the then-teenager, who resided in Princeton, N.J., didn’t hesitate to start a new life in the muggy world of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” Hommel recalls. “All the women were petite compared to me. I felt like an Amazon woman – and everybody was in a sorority.”
Hommel rushed as a little sister for a fraternity, but she didn’t spend a lot of time participating in the organization her freshman year, noting, “It didn’t feel like the right thing for me.”
The right place for the lanky young woman, who grew up splashing in the brisk waters of the Jersey Shore, was exactly where her mother said it would be – on the water. As a marine biology major, Hommel found a niche for herself among her academic peers who were also curious about the aquatic world.
Becky Greiner Wise ’83 was one such friend.
“I’m not sure if we met in class or if we were in Craig dorm together, but we became instant friends,” recalls Wise, who also majored in marine biology. “Lisa was a great person who loved adventure like me. She was funny and made college very enjoyable.”
In fact, the two outgoing women started the College’s crew club in the early ’80s, even though neither of them had ever done it.
“I don’t remember what started that idea,” says Hommel, laughing. “I had never done crew, but I really wanted to. It just sounded so cool!”
Because the College didn’t have any crew shells, Hommel and Wise set about borrowing one from the then all-male military college The Citadel, located about three miles from the CofC campus.
“In order to be able to use the rowing shells at The Citadel, we had to form a club,” remembers Wise. “Once Lisa and I formed the club, we were able to go over to The Citadel, use the rowing shells and get help from The Citadel team training and learning how to row.”
“They had an old boat they let us use. It was really frickin’ heavy!” chuckles Hommel. “It was horrible to carry that thing to row out on the Ashley River.”
Despite all the heavy lifting, the one race the CofC crew team did with Hommel and Wise at the helm was exciting and a moment of accomplishment for the two women. Both Wise and Hommel say their interest in crew at CofC was short-lived, but they’re thrilled the College’s crew team has survived through the years and is still active today.
“I’m not sure that Lisa and I are responsible for that, but it’s great to know that it continued,” says Wise.
The same chutzpah that drove Hommel to start a crew club on a whim powered her through her academic career at the College and into her professional life.
A summer research internship at Grice Marine Laboratory gave Hommel her first experience with scientific instruments, her first practice at managing large amounts of data and her first opportunity to dive headfirst into science.
Under the leadership of marine biology professor Phil Dustan, Hommel, along with other marine biology students, conducted testing in the Cooper River, measuring the water for things like oxygen, salinity, turbidity (a measure of the water’s transparency) and temperature. She also got to test samples from the Amazon River, which Dustan had brought back from an expedition he did with the Cousteau Society the year prior.
“She worked on the organic content of Amazon River Plume muds from the Cousteau Society Amazon River Expedition that I brought back in May 1982,” says Dustan, noting that Hommel worked with Mike Katuna, the then-chair of the geology department. The teacher and student would continue to touch base periodically after she graduated. “Lisa was always in a good mood, curious and in love with the sea.”
Following her graduation from the College in 1984, Hommel had two short-lived jobs working at a clam farm on Johns Island and building tanks for hybrid glass at the State Fisheries Lab on James Island, before landing her first professional gig as a biological technician with the National Marine Fisheries Service, under NOAA, in Beaufort, N.C. In that role, she led a team of scientists in testing and evaluating various fish species hauled in by local watermen. The data was used to set annual fishing limits each season.
But after nearly five years of cutting up dead fish, a job Hommel describes as “very smelly,” she was ready for something fresh.
“I kind of kept thinking about different things I wanted to do, and that just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do for a long time,” she recalls. “I thought about the classes I loved at the College of Charleston and remembered how much I loved calculus with Professor Susan Prazak [who, though now retired, still volunteers in the CofC math lab] and my physics classes. So, combining those with my love of the ocean, I decided I should learn oceanography.”
She went on to earn her master’s degree in oceanography from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in 1992. Then she got to work with large ocean datasets for NOAA working as a contract oceanographer and software engineer assisting in the development of a data-processing system for global ocean data. In her next job, she got her first taste of handling satellite data working for the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., where she worked with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data that revealed oil slicks on the sea surface in the Gulf of Mexico.
After several other stints in various positions in greater Washington, D.C., as a software engineer and analyst, Hommel decided she wanted to learn more about the science behind the ocean’s waves and enrolled in a graduate program for coastal ocean engineering at the University of Delaware, Newark, in 1998. She started her second master’s degree with the goal of earning her doctorate, but a professor there begged to differ.
“My advisor after the first semester said he just didn’t see it for me and he didn’t want me to continue in the Ph.D. program,” she says. “It was disappointing, but at the same time I think that might have also been best, too, because I don’t think that would have been good for me.”
Flexible and resilient, Hommel took the rejection in stride, and after earning her second master’s degree, she landed on her feet poised to decipher the waves of the ocean as a science integrated product team lead for ocean products for the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System.
Even after winning what many would consider to be a plum job in the realm of oceanography, Hommel began to feel bored. For her, the journey isn’t so much about realizing a goal, it’s about continuing to grow.
On the evening of November 7, 2018, a group of engineers and scientists from NASA and NOAA gathered in a gray conference room in one of those bland, tan buildings on the Goddard campus. A live feed of a launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, was displayed on three different screens, showing the rocket that would take the MetOp-C weather satellite into outer space.
The pending moment was one that had been in the works for five years – which is why Hommel was a little disappointed when her co-workers didn’t seem interested in staying a little late to watch the spectacle.
“At first, no one was going to stay and I was like, ‘What?!’,” she recalls, noting that after a little convincing, they all ended up staying and having dinner together while they watched the launch.
Clad in a blue pullover emblazoned with the NASA logo and the words “Launch Team,” Hommel listened with her colleagues as an engineer stationed in Kourou counted down in French “dix … neuf … huit …” to liftoff. A blast of fire filled the screen before the sleek, white rocket rose into an early morning sky, leaving a wiggling trail of flames as it disappeared into the heavens.
“It was so exciting watching the launch of the third and final satellite of this series together,” she says. “It was a little bittersweet because I had worked with this team for eight years and now we were at the end of the mission. But it was still very exciting.”
It was a moment of glory that would lead to six weeks of intense work for Hommel and her team as they ticked through the SIOV tests to ensure the weather instruments on the satellite were working.
“We weren’t sure how well it would all work until it happened. And, of course, the biggest concern was hoping the instruments would turn on when the commands were sent,” she says. “Fortunately, the instruments all turned on, we got the data after some delays, and we got all of the testing done.”
More than a year on from the launch of MetOp-C, Hommel has been spending her time wrapping up the project, periodically checking in on how the weather instruments are performing and logging all the equipment that was used on the mission. A little nostalgic, she’s even snagged a few souvenirs, including a red covering from one of the instruments that reads, “Remove Before Flight.”
Now she has to decide what’s next. She could choose to join another satellite mission. Of course, she’s also begun dabbling in documentary filmmaking and is currently submitting her first project, a 45-minute film on an organic grocery store, to festivals and competitions. The pull to tackle more serious film projects on topics such as women and minorities in engineering on a full-time basis is one Hommel is weighing with great consideration.
As she’s proven so many times before, change is just the next adventure.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really realize what it was that drove me, but I think I just have this huge ambition,” she says, adding that, because she hasn’t yet gotten married, it has been easier for her to keep exploring new avenues in her career.
It’s that urge to push for more that has fueled her journey. Says Hommel: “I really want to do things that I love.”
Indeed, that’s why she keeps reaching for the stars.