By Egan Millard
Episcopal News Service
When Episcopal News Service recently spoke to the Rev. Pamela Conrad, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Glen Burnie, Maryland, she was exhausted – but not only from the liturgical marathon of Holy Week or the weary slog of daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, Conrad is a member of the tactical operations team for NASA’s Mars rover mission, often working through the night, analyzing feedback from the Perseverance rover as it searches for signs of potential life.
From her living room in Maryland, Conrad connects virtually with scientists around the country and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California for several shifts a week, monitoring sensors that she helped design as they transmit data about the Martian environment. Among the instruments she works with are the cameras that have sent back over 25,000 photos, including Perseverance’s first selfie, which shows the rover and the small helicopter named Ingenuity that is expected to take the first-ever powered flight on another planet later this week.
“Every time we get new images, it is such an amazing sense of awe,” Conrad said.
Conrad, 68, has been working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1999 on projects including the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. Priesthood is a more recent vocation; she was ordained in 2017 and has continued her scientific work on the side since becoming a rector.
“My full-time job – and I’m very clear about this – is as a priest. And my second thing that I do is the science because the science informs my ministry as a priest,” Conrad said.
She told ENS that the scientific and spiritual worlds have always been intertwined for her, united by a sense of wonder. From an early age, she remembers “being very in touch with the general concept of nature and God.”