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Of Starships and Mental Health
a Profile on Alires J. Almon
It’s sensible and commonplace to make a plan for the future. Some of us have five-, ten-, or even fifteen-year plans, but not Alires Almon. She’s happily uncommon. And because of this, her plans stretch a bit further; she’s working hard on a 100-year plan and not only that, her plans focus on locales that are 62 to 140 million miles up.
Almon, 51, is a woman with a commanding presence who effortlessly walks into almost any room with ease. Her presence is constant no matter the environment, whether it’s a boardroom at Colorado Space Business Roundtable, a conference room at the Iliff School of Theology’s Artificial Intelligence Institute, the offices of Mental Health Center of Denver, or even in a virtual room with gamers or members of NASA. It doesn’t matter where she is; her draw is when she is.
Her understanding of the opportunities created by advanced science and technology ensures that the cultural and social impacts of technology are taken as seriously as its technical components.
Almon has come into her own as a distinctive type of innovator and people are taking notice. She was tapped by former astronaut and first Black woman in space, Dr. Mae Jamison, to join her as she leads the 100 Year Starship program. The program, launched in 2011, endeavors to allow humans to be capable of trekking beyond our solar system in the next 100 years. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA’s Ames Research Center are providing funding for this ambitious initiative. As the program’s Orchestrator of Engagement, Almon is responsible for the development of executive strategy for delivery and management of global programs that promote the organization’s mission. Almon found a mutual sense of purpose with Dr. Jamison through books like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a classic that appealed to both with its ambition and reason. “I love logic!” she said with an elated, wide smile.
“It’s one of those seminal books I come back to,” she said. “It’s the book that kicked off my curiosity and nerdiness…. From that book, I wanted to be a psychohistorian. I wanted to explore human behavior on a civilization level. And that’s guided my decisions to go into psychology, decision theory, space exploration—the whole thing!”
Almon wants to discover a methodical model that helps explain human behavior and she’s with the right people to do it. The audacity of such a tremendous undertaking will “take more than one group, one country, or one organization,” according to the 100 Year Starship mission statement. The appealing logic in the Starship’s statement of purpose ties directly to her personal path of discovery.
“It’s OK to be curious and find your own interest. You don’t have to define yourself by what others expect.” Almon said. “It’s only recently I’ve been comfortable in my nerdiness.”
After earning a psychology degree from the University of Georgia and a master’s in experimental psychology from New Mexico State University, the self-proclaimed “Child of the West” moved to Colorado in 1996. She knew only her mentor, Felix Cook. Cook and his wife, Margie, extended their home to her as she transitioned to Colorado. “It was our pleasure to have her in our home,” he said. “She is honest and so comfortable to be around.”
And while it may have taken her some time to truly see and embrace her own curious way of thinking and infectious magnetism, others, like Cook, have felt it all along.
“I’ve always admired her entrepreneurship and her ability to tackle tough tasks. Alires is a very smart and dedicated person,” he said. “She is a forward thinker; ahead of her time.”
Cook met Almon when she was a 23-year-old intern with the US Bureau of Reclamation. He recalls her being a strong person with great intelligence and a unique ability to get along with others. “She was able to develop a core of people that respected her; even to this day.”
Cook, 81, retired from the Bureau of Reclamation in 1991 and was the first electrical engineer in the position of Director of Engineering and Research for the Bureau of Reclamation.
“Because she always looked toward the next big event, I’ve always had high expectations for Alires. And she has exceeded them,” Cook said. “Alires is someone to follow. I have no doubt that whatever she takes on she will be successful.”
Throughout their decades of friendship, they found their careers intersecting, both of them serving on the Colorado Supreme Court Disciplinary Hearing Board. The strong devotion to the community has found Almon giving her time and efforts by participating in various programs and on many different boards, including A+ Denver and iGIANT, and as the chair of Colorado Space Business Roundtable.
Colorado is no stranger to the space race, perhaps because of its insulated inland location. Indeed, the state has played a pivotal role in the industry since the end of World War II. In the 1950s, it wasn’t considered safe to transport missiles and arms to Colorado from coastal states, so the state quickly developed its own homegrown weapons industry. The Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin) began in Waterton Canyon, building and testing Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Soon after, the Department of Defense established the North American Air Defense Command at a revolutionary facility in Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. And Ball, the canning company, even spun off its own aerospace division in Broomfield, Colorado.
At the same time, the University of Colorado Boulder became a hub of space tech and science, producing a total of fourteen astronauts, including two recent Colorado natives: Jessica Watkins and Matthew Dominick. The pair became NASA-certified astronauts in January 2020. They are among the first class of NASA explorers to graduate since the announcement of the Artemis program in May 2019. Lockheed Martin is building the Orion capsule, which will play a major role in NASA’s Artemis program. The program’s goal is landing “the first woman and the next man” on the southern polar region of the Moon in 2024. Maybe it’s something in the air—the state has long called to explorers, and Almon answered that calling into the unknown.
“Now you have landed in Denver, a place that has allowed you to continue to blossom and grow and be yourself all over again. Curious, fearless, and outgoing. It is here where the center of your village resides; you have friends of all types—bankers, teachers, scientists, astronauts, and actors,” Almon recently wrote in a letter to her 18-year-old self, which she shared on a segment with Denver’s 9News.
Her unyielding passion has complemented her well, especially in her current role as the Director of Innovation for Mental Health Center of Denver.
“It brings into focus the implications of technology. How technology is in the real world and who gets to participate. We are starting to see the implications but not enough to address it as its own problem,” she explained, adding that she aims to focus on those implications in her newly named position. “Mental Health Denver has always been known for innovation and I am the manifestation of their innovation journey.”
Almon is part of a team working on the Digital Front Door to healthcare. This new integrated digital experience uses personalized mobile and web platforms to help users easily access their information and manage their health. She sees the resource as more than a customer portal, and instead refers to it as a multi-layered digital experience. She’s excited to figure out how to more fully transform the Mental Health Center’s brick-and-mortar resources into an accessible digital experience.
So, just how do mental health and space coincide for Almon?
“No one talks about the mental aspects when you look at the history of space; they were weeding out the diagnosable mental conditions. But now NASA’s Human Research Program is starting to view humans as a subsystem of the machine, of the vehicle. The question is: How do you get that vehicle to work optimally?” she explained. “You reduce stress, use human factors to make it user friendly, and you use the techniques to make and keep that body healthy. Inflight issues may come up—depression and such—so for me [the question] is, why can’t you make an alarm system for psychological distress?”
Like she said, she loves logic.
Once fearful and hesitant that her different perspectives would be shunned, she carried on with her innate curiosity. This approach helped her develop her passion and stamina, and manifested in a compelling leadership style. In the letter to her 18-year-old self, she further explored this evolution.
“As much as you tried to deny and deflect the responsibility, you took it on as people put their trust in you to lead them into new places,” she wrote.
The goal for her legacy is to move the needle and to contribute to something bigger than herself, even if it means she won’t be around to see it, she explained with a comforting ease.
“My legacy is my contribution to these long-term efforts.”
So, while you may see Alires Almon in a director chair, a board chair, or even a gamer chair, she keeps her head far above the clouds. That’s because Almon tends to live in fantastical places that don’t exist. Well, not yet. But she’s working on it.
“It’s only recently I’ve been comfortable in my nerdiness.”