The Woman Who Sees Space First
Candice Hansen-Koharcheck is a firsthand witness to some of the most iconic images of outer space
For decades, space scientists could only speculate about what the surface of Mars looked like. It wasn’t until 1965 that NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft sent the first images of the red planet back to Earth. Today, spacecrafts on and around Mars continue to capture images that help the agency understand what our outer worlds look like.
Imagine being the person who sees these images before anyone else. That person is Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, the deputy principal investigator of the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and one of the co-investigators on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. Over her 40 years at NASA, Hansen-Koharcheck has been present for the capturing of some of the most iconic images of our solar system.
These photos are aesthetically stunning, but they also contain valuable scientific data. Before the HiRISE camera started documenting Mars in detail in 2006, scientists believed the planet was a barren, flat, lifeless world. “When we were designing the camera, the conventional wisdom was that Mars was monochrome,” Hansen-Koharcheck says. “It had this reddish tint everywhere, because everybody knew the global dust storms would redistribute that dust everywhere, and it would mask all the color on the surface.”
But the photos Hansen-Koharcheck got back from her camera revealed a blue Mars with a snakeskin-like terrain, active dunes, and rippling hills. “Who knew it was going to look like that?” she says. “This is a gorgeous planet, and it’s not all monochrome red.”
There’s no doubt Hansen-Koharcheck has one of the coolest jobs in planetary science, but it took hard work to get where she is now. In the summer of 1979, Hansen-Koharcheck was tasked with making sure the Voyager 1 spacecraft captured some of the first photos of Jupiter and its moons. In preparation for the first flyby, she’d pull all-nighters watching the camera feed, taking naps in in her baby-blue 1955 Chevy in the…