Journalism alum Doug Isbell combines passion for science, writing as NASA JPL risk communication coordinator

Doug Isbell

After 36 years in aerospace communications, Doug Isbell still thanks those lucky stars he’s always admired for the opportunity to create a successful career that combines his passion for science and his love of writing. 

Isbell’s fascination with space began when he was eight years old, around the time the last few Apollo missions landed on the moon. From then on, Isbell knew he wanted to be involved in space one day.

“Those [missions] made a big impression on me,” said Isbell, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.

Isbell (BS ’87, Grainger engineering; MS ’88, journalism) set his sights on becoming an astronautical engineer, but as he worked his way through the program and the upper-level courses, he started to have some doubts.

“I felt a little like I was not going to be an outstanding engineer and I wondered, how can I still be involved in aerospace? And I thought about writing,” he said.

Isbell did finish his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering but went on to get a master’s degree in journalism. Moving to Washington, D.C., to seek a start to his career, his first job was working as a writer for a business technology newspaper, Washington Technology, and then a reporter covering NASA for a weekly newspaper, Space News. 

Four years later, he decided to shift from journalism to the communications side and landed a job at NASA headquarters, eventually becoming a public affairs officer for planetary science. 

During that time, he helped with communications surrounding the Mars Pathfinder mission and the launch of the legendary mission of the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn.

“That was in the middle of a sort of renaissance of planetary science,” Isbell said. “[The Mars Pathfinder mission] was a huge global hit and kind of the first mission of the Internet age.” 

Isbell then spent nearly 10 years as a public affairs officer and director of educational outreach for the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, and the National Solar Observatory when it was in Tucson (now in Boulder, Colorado). 

He also served as the United States single-point-of-contact for the International Year of Astronomy 2009—a global celebration recognizing the first astronomical observation with a telescope by Galileo Galilei more than 400 years ago. 

Since 2010, Isbell has served as the cross-program risk communication coordinator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, working on issues related to space nuclear power and sample return, including the most recent two ongoing Mars rover missions, Curiosity and Perseverance. 

Isbell develops communications materials related to “spacecraft that would carry nuclear materials and nuclear power, and then kind of a growing area of interest is something called planetary protection,” he said. 

Planetary protection is the idea of protecting planets from potential biological contamination during a mission so they can be studied in their original state. It also involves protecting Earth’s biosphere when samples are brought back from other planetary bodies. 

“A lot of what we’re working on now is planning for Mars sample return,” he said. “Looking at my career overall, I’ll probably spend almost half of it on Mars missions and leading up to this idea of returning samples, and the value that can be provided by bringing them into Earth-based laboratories.” 

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which is operated for NASA by Caltech), his group focuses on launch approval engineering, which means helping on the front end with aspects of the environmental reviews needed before a project can proceed and, on the back end, sharing public safety information around the launches and landings of missions. 

Whether it’s writing fact sheets about a mission or training spokespeople on how to share information with the public in engaging ways, Isbell said most of his job is behind-the-scenes, preparing for the tough questions and explaining the “why” behind each project.

“A lot of what I do is to try to explain potential hazards and how we’re handling them,” he said. “My job is to frame these things correctly and train people to talk about them effectively, and anticipate what people’s questions might be. It’s a lot of strategy—what might people be concerned about with this mission or this activity, and how can we address those concerns with as much detail as people can absorb.”

It’s been many years since Isbell was a journalism student at Illinois, learning from professors like Bob Reid and Tom Littlewood, but their teachings about investigative reporting and journalism ethics remain useful in his career today. Isbell also credits Michael Lembeck, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, and a graduate student in the department at the time, for helping kickstart his writing career by encouraging a story on a student design project that led to Isbell’s first published story.

Isbell enjoys staying involved with the University, sharing his knowledge with students as a guest panelist for one of the first virtual Media Career Nights in 2020 and consulting with faculty about the structure of the new master’s in journalism track with a focus on science and technology. 

His passion for science doesn’t disappear at the end of a workday. Every couple of months, he hosts a family-friendly “space night” at a nearby brewery, where he brings out a telescope to view the moon and planets with the community. 

Isbell or a colleague talk about recent scientific accomplishments and exciting developments in space. About 30 to 40 people usually show up, filled with excitement and interest about the various topics.  

“I think [space exploration] is inspirational to people. It’s why I have the career that I have, and do what I do,” he said. 

Isbell is still captivated by space and feels grateful his job as a science writer allows him to be immersed in that world every day. 

“It is amazing to be involved in this stuff,” he said. “The science questions are the biggest ones that we can ask. ‘Are we alone in the universe, or least in the solar system?’ It's kind of an interesting answer either way.”

—Kelly Youngblood 

Pictured at top: Doug Isbell (BS ’87, Grainger engineering; MS ’88, journalism) looks for opportunities to talk directly with the public whenever possible, such as at this NASA JPL exhibit booth at a popular summer air show at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, near where samples from Mars may one day land on Earth.