Arts and Culture

About a year ago, MaryLiz Bender attended a lecture by Stephen Watson, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer, about the Juno mission to Jupiter. At the time, Bender was working as a web developer at a startup and had just casually joined the Louisville Astronomical Society.

“But this was a turning point,” Bender says. “I was so incredibly inspired and so emotional after the fact, I went up to [Watson], I asked him a ton of questions about the software they used to communicate with the spacecraft, about a career path towards working at NASA, and he was so incredibly helpful.”

Six months later, Watson invited Bender to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over the course of the next few months, Watson mentored Bender. He let her know there were positions for her in the space industry — though on paper, she didn’t really seem like a traditional candidate.

“To further explain, I was a homeless teen and a high-school dropout and I never continued my education,” she says. “Since meeting him and becoming so incredibly inspired by this experience, I have since switched my career.”

Bender is now currently pursuing her degree and working for the Planetary Society — an organization Carl Sagan helped found — as a digital content coordinator.

And she now wants to bring similar opportunities to young adults in Louisville through an event she has planned called Your Place in Space.

Your Place in Space, which is sponsored by the Louisville Astronomical Society and the Kentucky Science Center, is a daylong conference during which NASA engineers, astrophysicists, and space policy experts will speak about how individuals of varying backgrounds can help shape the future of space exploration.

“Regardless of their educational background, or work experience,” Bender says, “I wanted to let them know there is a place for them in this industry, inspire them and help them curate a path toward working in this industry if that’s what they want to do.”

Additionally, Bender says, The Louisville Astronomical Society has purchased a block of tickets to give away to youth career development centers, specifically for young people who struggle with homelessness or other instabilities.

Bender says she hopes some attendees come away with an interest in pursuing careers in the space industry, but even if that’s not the path for them, she hopes everyone recognizes their capacity to be “citizen scientists.”

“This is the ability for any citizen to realize we are all scientists,” she says. “While we may not have the education and the infrastructure, we certainly can use critical thinking to help those scientists that need our help to come to these conclusions, these experiments.”

Your Place in Space will be held from 2-9 p.m. at Headliners Music Hall on June 17. More information about the conference is available here.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.