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Making a Big Difference on a Small Planet: A conversation with Ellen Stofan, Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

January 29, 2020

 

“I’m really passionate about all this stuff,” states Ellen Renee Stofan, the current Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and former Chief Scientist of NASA. That’s probably an understatement, considering how Stofan’s entire career is peppered with moments, discoveries, and observations most of us have only read about in books. From studying volcanic activity on Venus to exploring the coastal edges of Titan’s oceans, it’s safe to say that she is one of the world’s most qualified people to lead one of America’s most trusted scientific institutions. 

 

The planetary scientist has some seriously impressive credentials. First, Stofan received her Bachelor of Science degree in geology from the College of William & Mary in 1983. Then, she went on to earn her masters and doctorate degrees from Brown University. Eventually, she became the principal advisor to NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, helped develop plans to bring humans to Mars by the early to mid 2030s, and even worked on crafting science policy with Barack Obama’s science advisor and the National Science and Technology Council. 

 

Although Stofan is the daughter of Andrew Stofan — an internationally esteemed rocket engineer, researcher, and NASA manager — her career choices were not influenced by him. Instead, she was inspired by the scientific accomplishments of women, few of which had broken through the scientific glass ceiling at the time of her youth. Realizing how much representation mattered in her own life, Stofan works hard to be a role model, mentor, and inspiration to all up-and-coming aerospace professionals looking to make a big difference on our small planet today. 

 

ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct privilege to speak to the remarkable scientist, trailblazer, and museum executive about her work, research, and the opportunities that led to her executive role at the National Air and Space Museum. 

 

How did you get interested in geology? 

 

I was really interested in science, and I would search around trying to look for female role models. I loved to read biographies, but there were so few biographies about female scientists at the time. 

 

 

It’s funny. I was [recently] in Tanzania, and I got to visit Olduvai Gorge where Mary Leakey (1913 — 1996) worked on human origins. It was really meaningful to me because she was making all of her big discoveries in the 1960s, when I was a kid, and I wanted to be her. My mom was a teacher. 

 

When she was getting her Master’s in Education —  this was when I was 11 — she took a geology course and asked the professor if I could come on a field trip. We were walking around rock beds somewhere in Ohio; he was pointing to rock layers saying how people can understand the history of the Earth [and the organisms that lived at different points in time] by looking at [them]. The idea of tying rocks to history — to the history of the planet and how the planet works — I just thought it was fascinating. I was really thinking about that when we were at Olduvai Gorge. 

 

How did you become a planetary scientist at NASA? 

 

Well, I must say that it wasn’t like I was envisioning myself working at NASA from the time I was little, because — frankly — everybody who worked at NASA looked like my dad. They were guys. 

 

 

Then I got very interested in geology. I was in junior high school and my dad was responsible for the rockets that were launching the first two landers on Mars. That’s when I realized that by looking at the surfaces of other planets, we can begin to understand how they worked and use that information to better understand this planet — its present, past, and future. So, I decided I wanted to be a planetary scientist.  

 

Why look to the stars to understand what’s happening locally? 

 

If you’re trying to understand the planet, and you only look at the one you’re on, your understanding is always going to be limited, because you come up with models based on what you see in front of you. But, when you can compare [what you find on Earth to other planets, your understanding grows.] 

 

 

This has certainly proven true in the work that I do — studying volcanos on other planets. I can say: Alright, a volcano on Earth and a volcano on another planet have the same physical process. But, on the other planet, the rocks are slightly different, the composition is different, the atmosphere is different, and the gravity is different. 

 

By looking at other planets, we’re gathering information that helps us improve our models for Earth. That’s certainly what happened, and is still happening with climate studies. We look at the climate of Venus, the climate of Mars, and the climate on one of Saturn’s Moons called Titan, which has an atmosphere.

 

 

To me, if you want to understand the Earth, you have to put it in the context of other planets in our solar system. Now, of course, we’re moving into this era where we’ll be able to put planets in our solar system in the context of other planets around other stars. 

 

Your research focused on the geology of Venus, Mars, and Saturn's Moons, is that correct?

 

Yes. So, Mars is what inspired me to go into planetary science in the first place. [I wanted to] understand the history of Mars — the history of water on Mars, and if life ever evolved on the planet — and how it diverged from Earth. But, when I went to graduate school, I didn’t really know what I was going to work on. My advisor, [James M. Head,] at Brown University was heavily involved in a project with scientists from the Soviet Union; they had a spacecraft that was just arriving at Venus. He said: “I’d like you work on this.” And I said: “OK, sure.” 

 

 

I fell in love with Venus. It’s about the size of the Earth, made up of about the same materials. It should only be about 10 degrees centigrade hotter than the Earth, because it’s closer to the sun. But, instead of 10 degrees centigrade, it’s hundreds of degrees hotter, because Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect. So, it’s like if you put two chocolate cake mixes in the oven and one came out chocolate and the other came out a lemon cake. Why did these two planets, which had a fairly similar starting point, become so different? Why is one habitable and the other not? 

 

The surface of Venus is literally covered in volcanos, and so I was trying to understand volcanos and how they worked; Venus was a great venue for exploring that. I also did a lot of field work in Hawaii, California, and Italy’s Mount Etna. To me, the question was: How am I using volcanos on other planets to better understand volcanos on Earth? 

 

What was the most exciting project that you’ve been involved in? 

 

I was leading a team that did a [radar survey of Titan’s high northern latitudes using the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn and its retinue of satellites since July 2004.]

 

 

We first identified lakes and seas on Titan. It’s really far out in the solar system, and it’s extremely cold — about 98 Kelvin on the surface —  so there’s no liquid water in the lakes. It’s actually a mixture of methane and ethane, so it’s basically liquid gasoline; but, it serves as a working fluid in their hydrologic cycle, and so it rains methane and ethane, and then evaporates back up. There are rivers that feed these seas. 

 

In college, I took an oceanography and a class looking at coastal morphology — looking at how the coasts have evolved. Here I am 20 years later, looking at shorelines on a Moon that’s hundreds of thousands of miles away from the Earth. To me, the questions were: How do we explore seas on another world? How do we understand the only other liquid bodies in the solar system besides Earth? And how do we use that information to understand our own? 

 

We used a radar instrument to look at Titan. I used radar to look at the Earth, I used radar to look at Venus, and so I understood how to interpret radar data from planetary surfaces. When we were getting close to Titan, I was asked if I wanted to get involved.  I was sort like: “Oh this will be interesting, because it’s something different. I do rocky planets in the inner solar system, I don’t do outer solar system icy moons.” And then I totally fell in love with Titan. We could go out so far into the solar system and then study things that are so informed by the Earth’s geology, which also helps us understand Earth better. 

 

It’s interesting that you keep mentioning the similarities these seemingly different planets in our solar system appear to share. Not a lot of people know about this. 

 

 

I don’t think they do. I wrote a book for National Geographic with a friend of mine, who is a geologist/ astronaut. It’s called Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System (2008). Instead of arranging it by planet — Venus, Mars, etc. — we did it [by natural phenomena — Winds across the solar system. Volcanos across the solar system. How surfaces form mountains across the solar system, etc. We were really trying to make those connections, because most people don’t see them and, frankly, the way its talked about does not help. 

 

This brings us to your current role as the Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. What is your goal? How do you envision your mission? 

 

As you can probably see, I am pretty passionate about all this stuff. 

 

We have this absolutely iconic institution — the most visited museum in the United Sates, and one of the most visited museums in the world — and this real opportunity to engage the public. But, even more importantly, we have a real opportunity to engage the new generation. To me, that’s very exciting because it’s going to be the generation that walks on Mars, moves aviation forward in the face of climate change, and makes the discoveries that will one day appear in this museum. One of my challenges is to get the new generation inspired. 

 

 

We want the new generation of air and space professionals to look like our population — not the way they have historically looked. We’re not tapping into all the talent that’s out there, among different groups. And, to keep this country ahead technologically, we’ve got to start. We’re really trying to do that here, at the Air and Space museum. We’re trying to say: You know, these people have been here all along! They need to know about people like Bessie Coleman (1893 — 1926),  who was the first female African American pilot; mathematician Katherine Johnson; and software engineer Margaret Hamilton, who participated in Apollo. They have been there all along, it’s just that their stories haven’t been highlighted. So, we want to help inspire the next generation by bringing these stories to life. 

 

Aren’t you the fist woman to head the museum? 

 

I am the first, yes. It’s funny, the first week I got this job, everyone was like: You’re the first woman… It kind of made me feel like: Yeah, yeah! But, I got the job because i’m the best person, not because I was going to be the first woman. Then I realized how important it is. When I look back at my own ten-year-old self searching for people who look like me, who are doing what i’m interested in, I realize that it’s important. 

 

It’s not the only answer to unblocking this incredible difference we have in the number of women in engineering and computer science and aviation. I mean, the numbers are appalling. Just 6% of commercial aviation pilots out there are women — 6%!  And 1% are African American women. Yet, we’re facing a massive pilot shortage in the coming decade, and you’re like: OK. Well, here’s a partial solution to that problem. So, when I look at those numbers, I can definitely say we’re not tapping into the talent of our population and there’s a need, 

 

Our job is to inspire people. When you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily understand that being a pilot is fun, that being an aerospace engineer is fun, or being a planetary scientist, like I was, makes you eager to get into work everyday. I want the kids who come here, especially the kid who was dragged here, to get inspired and say: “I’ll be the first to walk on Mars!” 

 

Aren’t you one of the people who sort of planned how humans were going to get to Mars? 

 

 

Yeah. When I was at NASA headquarters, we worked on bringing all the different parts of NASA together - scientists and engineers — to really look at the different paths we can take to bring humans to Mars in the early to mid 2030s. And, it’s totally possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about that a lot in the past year, since we’ve been busy celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Consider the fact that it was only 8.5 years between when president Kennedy made the call for humans to go to the Moon and return safely. We had to invent everything. We didn’t know how to do anything, and we did it in 8.5 years. To me, that’s really inspirational, and it’s one of the things we try to talk about at the museum. As humans, when we put our minds to something, we figure it out. 

 

A lot of the people who held your position before you had military backgrounds, so you also brought something different to the table in that sense. 

 

I definitely have a space background. I think that at first, people were worried that I wouldn’t embrace the aviation side of the museum, which I actually hugely love. I think now, people understand that I am as committed to the aviation story as I am to the space story. 

 

What’s a brainstorming session like when you are working with your curators on the next exhibition or an event? 

 

Recently, we’ve been working on a new gallery on the future of space life. So, for example, Virgin Galactic is about start its space tourism. I know the CEO, George T. Whitesides, so when the company had its first successful test passenger flight to space, I emailed him and said: ”Hey, can you give us something from the flight?”

 

The curators and I have been talking about the themes we want to go into the gallery. We are thinking about the messages we are trying to get to the public and the world of the future  — about flying cars, space tourism, hotels on the moon, and so on. So, to talk to people about space tourism, we first have to have them imagine what that is. We have companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic taking the first steps [in this new industry.]. We need artifacts to tell the story of space tourism, and so Virgin Galactic actually donated [RocketMotorTwo, the hybrid engine that powered Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, into space for the first time Dec. 13, 2018.]

 

 

To start telling the story about where we’re headed in space, we need to talk about the process, and where we’re at in the process. Companies in the private sector are playing important roles and are a part of the conversation. And, there other players coming in. It used to be NASA and Russia and the European Space Agency and Japan, but now we have lots of countries involved. 

 

So, at the museum, we have to start with all the stories that we want to tell, think about how much space we have in the museum to tell them, reach out for relevant artifacts, and so on. I am humbled, because when I reach out for artifacts, people are willing to work with us because they understand the importance of this museum. 

 

How do you talk to people who are rejecting evidence based information? 

 

That’s a huge area of concern, because as a museum — and museums are some of the last trusted organizations left — part of the challenge we face is figuring out how to educate the public, which will be instrumental in figuring out how we drive flying cars, and make laws or regulations for future technologies, and so on. We need to have challenging conversations with the public about things that are not controversial, but are presented as such, like climate change. For me, it’s about presenting information in a very simple, but fact-based manner. Some of it will be absorbed. It’s our job to take on these challenging conversations about thigs that realistically concern all of us.

 

Seems like the International Space Station is an example of what we can accomplish when we work together.

 

Yes. Most astronauts who come back from the International Space Station are affected by seeing the Earth from space. It’s called the overview effect. They can see how thin our atmosphere is; a very thin layer keeping us all alive. It’s a lot easier to understand how humans can have an effect on it, that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell at the museum. 

 

 

The International Space Station, to me, really shows that space should be a place of cooperation. When we talk about humans going to the Moon or landing on Mars, I think all of us in the space community see it as not a US effort, but an international effort. I think this is one of the things that the public is not aware of. As scientists, that’s what we do — we partner with the best around the world. 

 

What are your favorite books? 

 

When I was growing up, Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott was my favorite book, but I haven’t seen the movie yet. It was very much because of that character Joe, and her I can do anything I want to do and I am not going to be treated like a “girl” attitude. To me that was a huge inspiration growing up. And, I have to say that I’m a huge fan of science fiction, whether it’s something like African Futurism or Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut. There are a lot of really great books out there. 

 

 

 

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