Author: Emma Grey Ellis. Emma Grey Ellis Science
Ellen Stofan speaks at the Engaging Women and Girls in STEM through Data Science event on June 15, 2016 at NASA Headquarters in Washington.Aubrey Gemignani/NASA
Unlike many of her colleagues at NASA, Ellen Stofan never wanted to be an astronaut. She saw her first rocket launch at age four. It didn’t go well.
Stofan, who recently left her position as the space agency’s chief scientist, dimly recollects traveling from Ohio to Cape Canaveral to watch the fifth flight of the uncrewed Atlas-Centaur launch system, a project of her NASA engineer father‘s. In the 51 years since, Stofan has thought a lot about the strain her father would have been under, launching rockets in 1965. But as a small child, she focused on the blast: “The rocket exploded on the launchpad,” she says. “According to my mother, my sister and I went hysterical. But all I remember is this giant fireball.” That’s not a distorted, child’s-eye view—the explosion was probably the largest the launchpad had seen.
But to Stofan today, even spectacular failure is a sign of science at work, pressure an opportunity to innovate. Which is why she made a good chief scientist, a role that has more in common with a White House policy advisor’s than a NASA principal investigator’s. From 2013 until the end of December, Stofan took a 3 million-foot view of NASA’s science programs. And though she leaves her post at (and perhaps, because of) an uncertain time for her field, Stofan advocates for optimism.
Not about climate change, though. There she thinks everyone should take a look at Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect and get their shit together.
“The planet I care most about is the one I live on,” says Stofan. But while that’s true, she’s spent most of her life looking anywhere else. When Stofan was a teen, her father managed the rockets for Viking 1 and 2, the first successful Mars landers. She hung out in Florida for the launches, and was an unimpressed audience for the science programing NASA put on for their scientists’ families. “I was fourteen,” Stofan says. “Carl Sagan? What-ever.” Except not really: Over the course of Sagan’s speech on why humans should go to Mars, Stofan had a career epiphany. “That was it. I knew I wanted to be a planetary geologist,” she says.
One PhD later, she was one. And after a career that pinged her from Venus to Earth to Titan, in 2013 NASA tapped her for chief scientist. “I worked on Earth science, planetary science, human space flight, technology,” Stofan says. “That made me start looking at the big picture: How do you make the future happen?” Diverse experience is key when your purview runs from black holes to budgets, and according Stofan, the future depends on three things: making STEM fields more inclusive, doing good science, and finding a way to work within political realities.
As Chief Scientist
Stofan is the first to say that her experience is “weirder than most.” As a self-described NASA brat, she spent summer internships mapping Mars and wrote her thesis using Soviet data. (She traveled between the US and the USSR even during the particularly tense Andropov years.)
For a female scientist coming up in the ’80s, she faced relatively few barriers. “I got occasional snide remarks,” she says. “But what happened to me more often—what still happens to me—is I’d look around the room and ask myself, ‘Do I belong here?'” As chief scientist, she’s worked to make sure that fewer people have to ask that question, and under her direction NASA began collecting demographic data on their grantees for the first time.
Her other major beef with NASA’s status quo? The budget. “We could accomplish things a lot faster if we had a different budget, but we don’t. And we’re not going to,” Stofan says. NASA has a bit of a culture of planning first and budgeting later—which just doesn’t work when your budget inevitably inches down. She also prioritized funding long-term technical advancements. “If you only put dollars where you need them now, or in two years from now, you can run out of tech,” she says.
After all that, in some ways the science was the easy part. With the ISS due to be retired in about ten years, Stofan worked to build it out as a research platform. (And lo, a glut of ISS-based research projects.)
She’s leaving NASA with slightly less-complete plans for Mars. “There’s the stuff we have our arms around—better EVA suits because ours are too bulky for walking around Mars, and better propulsion systems like the Space Launch System,” Stofan says. “But we have to come up with a realistic plan like we did when we explored the moon. We have to do it in stepwise fashion.”
Before planning a Martian hail Mary, she wants to see improvements combating cosmic radiation (“How cool is it going to be when we get to work with tissues and sequence DNA in a cislunar habitat?”), advancements in water recycling and life support technology (“We have those systems on the ISS, but they break a lot.”), and practice getting humans to enter Mars’ orbit, descend, and land. Slow and incremental, sure, but Stofan’s plan still sees humans orbiting Mars in 20 years, and on the surface in 30.
What Comes After
So, why would someone with such long-term plans leave NASA? “A lot of people have been asking that,” Stofan says, laughing a little. The chief scientist role typically changes hands every few years, but leaving the space agency outright is kind of different. Especially since Stofan doesn’t seem to have much concrete planned for her future. She’s polished and reticent, but part of the reason seems to be political: “After having worked on so many things, to come in and start over again wasn’t something I was interested in doing,” she says.
Which, she’s careful to point out, isn’t really a knock against the incoming Trump administration. “New presidents of either party want to make their mark. But when you have an agency like NASA that doesn’t work on that four or eight-year time scale, resets are detrimental,” Stofan says. “It’s a waste of money.” Still, she praises the Obama administration’s decision to bring in the private sector, refocus NASA onto Mars (President George W. Bush had sights set on the moon), and encourage Earth observation. “I’d hate to see that all overturned,” she says.
Potential changes to climate research, which NASA’s Earth observations contribute to, concern her most. Stofan has been contrasting Earth with Venus, a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect, her entire career. To Stofan, the habitable zone isn’t just a region, it’s a moment in time: She points out that Venus, which is now 900 degrees at the surface, used to have an ocean. “Do we really want to mess with the planet when the stakes are so high?” she says.
But she’s an optimist, and a scientist. So she thinks of Venus as less a cautionary tale than a helpful data set. “It really sets climate change deniers back for a minute when they realize we’ve studied this happening on multiple planets,” Stofan says. Which is why space science is so vital. No matter how far-flung the target, the data always comes back around to tell scientists more about Stofan’s favorite planet: Earth. Thing is, those big steps only happen with proper leadership, latitude, and funding. “We can be the NASA that accomplishes great things,” Stofan says. “But only if we’re allowed to.”