Dr. Rachel MK Headley

By Dr. Rachel MK Headley

Embrace Discomfort

Embrace Discomfort 150 150 Dr. Rachel MK Headley


An Atlas rocket with an NRO spacecraft and its mobile servicing tower (on the left).

Embrace Discomfort

We walk out of the elevator on the 12th floor. Perhaps with a better view than most 12th floors, I can look out unobstructed over the Pacific Ocean.

Hanging out at the 12th floor of this particular building is nearly unlike any other place on Earth. This 12th floor is in the mobile servicing tower on the Space Launch Complex – 3E on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In the center of this mobile servicing tower stands an Atlas V rocket. Atop the Atlas rocket is a fairing (nosecone) with Landsat 8 stashed safely within it – ready for it’s noisy and jarring ride into Low Earth Orbit.

I had very little to do with Landsat 8 development. I was on the Landsat 1-7 operational team. I was really here, because I was the pivot around which much of the Landsat social media turned.

I was gobsmacked to be there, really. There were so many others who deserved to be here more than I – who had lain awake nights worrying if the mission would ever make it this far.

But, here I was. One of the luckiest people I know. But I could have easily missed out. I could have easily been back at some office somewhere.

The story is a long one, but for our purposes here, I’ll start the same day in early February.

Landsat 8 was a big deal in the imaging community. Landsat 7 had launched in 1999, so it had been a 14-year wait for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (later renamed Landsat 8 upon on-orbit checkout). And it was past time, really. We had been leaning hard on Landsat 5, but she was an ancient bird, and we had to get Landsat 8 up.

I was part of the team that was hosting a social media event on the eve of the launch at Vandenberg AFB. We had toured the base and were going to end it at SLC-3E, where then-NASA Administrator Bolden and astronaut Peter Sellers were going to do a bit of speaking in front of the mobile launch tower.

Earlier that day, I was awkwardly hanging out with people I didn’t really know and poking around about a temporary office space, when all of the sudden, people started looked excited, rushing around, and saying things like – “Now?” “We can go NOW?!?” “Hey, Randy, we gotta go!”

I had no idea what they were talking about. But, I was not going to miss it.

I raced outside with everyone else, and jumped in a car with an extra seat. I introduced myself around, and then waited to see what was in store.

The entire time, I’m thinking – Are you freaking nuts? You are in a strange car, driven by someone you don’t know, with 3 other people you DON’T KNOW. And you don’t know where you’re going! And you haven’t been cleared. What if you need clearance? What if we get there and you have to wait outside the door for whatever it is that is happening? Ack!

Shut up, inner monologue. It’s gonna be great.

We drove up to SLC-3E, where the Atlas V rocket was still safely enclosed in its tower. Well, this looked promising.

We all pile out, and then we’re being lectured about hurrying up, because Administrator Bolden was coming by soon with whoever hugely important top brass from the Air Force Base, and the commoners had to be out of there by then.

We are ushered to the elevators and cram inside. I’m still not sure what’s going on, although it’s clear we’re going to get to see some super amazing stuff. I am a total fangirl when it comes to space stuff, in general, so at this point I didn’t care if we were going to see how the fueling couplings worked, I was going to be into it.

The door opens at 12. And there. It. Is. We are at the top of the rocket! The fairing. Where it says, in hand painted lettering, Landsat Data Continuity Mission, and NASA, and USGS. Mindblowing.

There is no trying to be cool when you’re up at the top of a rocket. And I was still the odd man out, when it came to knowing anyone there, or being a part of the crowd. But, I didn’t care. At all.

What I did care about was that I hadn’t let the awkwardness or unknown get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; an opportunity where even the people that deserved it didn’t get a chance to experience it.

Don’t let opportunity (or change!) pass you by, because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is likely the only way you’ll be able to take advantage of the opportunities that will change your life.

Sometimes the chances you take are obvious and easy, but often they involve just diving in and trusting you can handle anything that comes.

Next time, don’t miss out on your top-of-the-rocket chance of a lifetime. Embrace discomfort. Say yes.


Dr. Rachel MK Headley is a Mensa PhD scientist and former Chief Science Officer of the Landsat satellite mission, with over two decades of experience leading complex and groundbreaking achievements, managing big projects, uniting diverse international stakeholders, and guiding teams through change.

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