Being Home: NASA's Mamta Patel Nagaraja Treasures Her Family Playroom

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Focusing on spaces in people's homes where they go to recharge, tune in, and settle into the simple act of "be-ing."

Like the majority of her NASA colleagues across the agency, Mamta Patel Nagaraja has been working from home since mid-March of 2020 instead of doing her usual metro commute to the Washington, D.C., office.

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Nagaraja has worked for NASA for nearly two decades, during which she has trained astronauts and worked at Mission Control, where NASA operates all its missions for both human and scientific spaceflight, making sure that everything they put up into space arrives back safely. Currently serving in more of a leadership role, as Deputy Division Director for Strategic Content, NASA Science, Nagaraja secures funding and communicates the science that NASA does to the public (among other responsibilities).

We chatted with Nagaraja about her current "office," a ranch-style house in Silver Spring, Maryland, that she shares with her husband and their three kids, ages two to seven.

Hunker:​​ Where is that space, or spot, in your home that is uniquely your own … where you feel you're most​ ​​​​you​​​​​? And what do you do there?​

Mamta Patel Nagaraja:​ When we bought this house we were attracted to it because it was within walking distance of the Metro. We would go down to the city and try to be as connected to DC as we could, and the house has a pool, which my husband was super excited about because he was a swimmer at a young age. The last thing that really attracted me to this house was this room. It was kind of a storage room for the previous family, but it wasn't that attractive and it was cold. When my first child was born, my husband turned it into our playroom, which we recently redesigned.

​Hunker:​​ Why does this particular space have meaning for you?​

MPN:​ I think it's because we spend a lot of time here, especially when the kids were younger, but even so today. Throughout the year, it's like the perfect temperature so our kids will come in and make stuff in their little play kitchen, and I can just sit here on the sofa and watch them, which is normally what I do. I like to just observe the way they act with each other or when they're playing by themselves. I like their creativity. A lot of times I get so distracted by the constant sibling rivalry and fighting that I forget to take a moment [to step] back to just observe them. This room tends to be the place where they're not doing that, and I can just watch them being them.

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Hunker:​​ What is something you like to do in that space that might surprise people?​

MPN:​ Sometimes I take naps in here, but that would not be surprising. I'll just lie down on the floor and my daughters will lie down on the sofa. I've definitely put them to sleep in this room many times, because it's just so warm, they fall asleep.

There is one rule here: no eating, but it is currently being violated with a bag of croutons. We used to let people eat in here, but it turned out that when the children eat in here, I would just constantly find old apples and food and bugs, and I just can't do it. So no food has been the rule … unless Mommy's in a meeting, of course. Then all bets are off!

Hunker:​​ What do you like to surround yourself with in this space? And why is it important?​

MPN:​ When the kids were babies, it used to have an ABC foam mat for them to crawl on. Now we have what older kids might use: a piano for piano lessons, a telescope to get them into science, some toys, but not ​all​ of their toys, because the toys are driving me bonkers. But let's be real, toys entertain children.

We have their bicycles here, because over the pandemic they learned how to ride. And because this is a sunroom, it has all these windows, which means in the winter it's the perfect place to be, because it's just pleasantly warm no matter what the temperature is outside, as long as the sun is out. You can also see the kitchen through the back windows, and I use the ledges for family pictures because there's not a lot of wall space.

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Hunker:​​​ What are three things in your home that hold the most value to you? ​​(​Excluding people or creatures, because of course!​)

MPN:​ In this room, the piano is one, as I've always wanted to play. When I was growing up, lessons would have been expensive because there were five kids and money was already tight. So we never had the chance to take lessons. But now that I am older and my parents worked hard to ensure I had an education and a great career, I don't have the same burdens they did. And during quarantine, I've taken a moment to try to learn how to play using an app, and the kids will have a teacher if I become anywhere near good enough!

The trunk, which holds toys, is something I've had since I was young. There were three trunks in my house growing up that my parents always stored things in, and two of them were from India. I can remember those because they're golden and they don't look like anything I've seen before. This black one was the third. I just love it because it reminds me of my parents and the things that they put in there, the closets they used to store the trunks in, full of my mom's saris.

I've never actually thought about the various elements of the room and what makes them important, but I do think the telescope is important because it is very similar to the piano — something I always wanted when I was little. I was very much into the cosmos and space and becoming an astronaut, and certainly my parents encouraged that, but it wasn't something that they were going to buy me, though I begged for a telescope and space camp. So when I became old enough, I decided, hey, this is the opportunity for me to buy one.

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But in our basement is my most prized possession. When I was a student intern at NASA, astronaut John Young was still living. He was the first pilot of the Space Shuttle program, and he also was one of the astronauts that landed on the Moon. He signed my photo of him jumping at the Descartes base on the Moon. We got to know each other and this is my favorite because it's of a person who actually went to the Moon, and I have a relic of his, which is kind of cool.

Hunker:​​​ Finish this sentence, "Home is where …"

MPN:​ ...I want to be.

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Author and book editor Teena Apeles is a collector of vintage pieces and untold stories. She writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. She is the founder of the creative collective Narrated Objects, which released the anthology Dear Seller: Real Estate Love Letters from Los Angeles, a unique exploration of the lives and homes of Angelenos, and We Heart L.A. Parks, an artful and interactive travel guide to the city's public parks.