NASA chief scientist's message to the incoming administration

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist of NASA. Photo by: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA / CC BY-NC-ND

Whenever Ellen Stofan visited a school somewhere in the world during her time as chief scientist at NASA, she asked students how many astronauts are on the International Space Station. Stofan remembers one science and technology high school in the Philippines where every student knew the answer: six.

The Philippines is one of the several developing countries now interested in starting their own space agency, something that Stofan hopes will help inspire a new generation of science and technology graduates there, just as the Moon landing did in the United States. Youth in impoverished countries are often the most eager to ask her how they can be the first to walk on Mars, the outgoing chief scientist told Devex. The inspiration to dream big is just one of the ways that space-based science is impacting local conditions of poverty back on earth, Stofan says.  

As Stofan departs her post, the space agency faces many unknowns under President-elect Donald J. Trump. Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine is reportedly the likely choice to replace Charles Bolden as NASA administrator. Some analysts worry the incoming administration may cut back on NASA’s climate research in favor of space exploration.

Stofan, who was a speaker at Devex World in 2016, said she expects many of her questions will remain unanswered until she sees the space agency’s next budget. In an exit interview, she spoke with Devex about the connections between the space industry and the development sector, the importance of observing our planet as well as exploring the solar system, and her hopes for NASA under the new administration.

There have been some reports that the incoming administration is likely to strip NASA’s Earth Science Division of its funding. So far, this is speculation based on comments from a senior campaign adviser for the president-elect. But what is your reaction to this possibility and its implications?

I was surprised by the news, but frankly I think it’s premature to say the administration is going to do this or the administration is going to do that until they actually start making decisions and actually start doing things. Until then, I think what’s most important is to talk about the value of these programs, and not just in understanding climate, but in understanding a much broader set of issues, like food security.

When countries don’t have enough food, when they don’t have enough water or when they have too much water — when they face massive weather changes — all of that leads to mass movements of people, which mean government instability, which means insecurity around the world, and that affects us right here at home. If NASA is not making those measurements, it makes this country less secure.

NASA’s Earth Science Division should be one of the things in this country that we’re the most proud of, because we lead the world — though we do partner very closely with space agencies around the world, to make measurements to really understand the planet. We really are the space-based earth observation agency, and it goes so far beyond climate.

The Journey to Mars presents new opportunities for the space industry and development sector to work together, Ellen Stofan, chief scientist of NASA, tells Devex.

Some argue that NASA should move from climate change research to deep space research. If the new administration withdraws its support from earth-centric science at NASA, what can fill the void?

People say, “Maybe NASA shouldn’t do it. Maybe other agencies should do it.” But other agencies are much smaller than NASA. They don’t have the expertise. And we cannot afford a gap. We don’t have time to not understand this planet.

With the private sector, we see some really exciting things happening. Companies are coming forward and putting up microsatellites and doing earth observations. The problem is, when you’re trying to understand this planet, you need continued observations over long time periods that are made globally, and that doesn’t necessarily translate into profits for the private sector. Those are things that space agencies from around the world do that the private sector really doesn’t do.

That being said, most of those spacecraft aren’t built by governments but by private companies, our contractors around the world. It’s not that there isn’t private sector involvement in this. It’s just that the the government is the one ultimately writing the check.

I think the government does play a strong role in earth observations and to have a break — have any kind of break in the kind of measurements that we make at NASA — is dangerous. It’s dangerous for understanding this planet, understanding the fate of this planet, and for keeping people safe and secure on this planet.

Let’s talk a bit more about public private partnerships, an important theme in both the space industry and the development sector. You’ve spoken to Devex before about SERVIR, NASA’s partnership with U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as partnerships with other private companies, like SpaceX. Can you expand on these public private partnerships and your hopes for their future?

What I love about SERVIR, and why I think it is a good use of U.S. taxpayer money, is because we are helping countries around the world cope with the issues particular to that country, using the freely available NASA data that in some cases they don’t know exists or they know it exists but they don’t know how to use it or apply it to their particular problem. So we go into a country or region, whether it’s the Mekong region or the new hub we just opened in West Africa in Niger, and we can go in and help departments of interior in those countries — help universities in those countries — to access NASA data or freely available earth observation data, and figure out how to apply that to their particular problem, so that those countries can become more resilient and economically stable.

NASA and SpaceX are working together on something called Red Dragon to send capsules to Mars. We want to focus on learning from their entry descent landing technologies, and we can help them with deep space navigations. How that evolves as they get more ambitious, as as NASA concentrates its plans on getting humans to Mars, is a really exciting area — to see how that SpaceX move to get humans to Mars goes forward. I don’t believe they can do it alone, and I don’t believe NASA can do it alone. I think it’s going to take partnerships like that, as well as international partnerships, to make sure it becomes a reality.

What do you see as the legacy of the current administration when it comes to the role NASA plays in climate change research and global development? And as you look to the role of NASA moving forward, how would you highlight the impact its work can have on sustainable global development?

There’s been strong support of private space in terms of really moving toward: How do we utilize the private sector? How do we turn over to the private sector what they can do and have NASA focus on the bigger and further our goals?

There has been huge support of science from this administration in terms of determining what is the best science and using science to guide decisions. This administration has put a huge effort into NASA’s earth observations program. We’ve had a lot of launches that have really come about because of the renewed emphasis on earth observations. And again, this isn’t just for climate — this is for overall understanding, how does this planet work? How can we live safely and productively on this planet?

This administration extended the International Space Station to 2024, which is allowing us to do the work to get ready to send humans beyond low Earth orbit out to the vicinity of the moon and then eventually to Mars. And we really need the ISS as a testbed to do a lot of research we do for human health.

As we move humans out in the mid-2020s to the vicinity of moon, we will have to develop better life support systems, even better water recycling systems, a better ability to remove carbon dioxide from the air in stations we put around the moon. It’s all about sustainability. How do we explore space sustainably? Because we have to. Because we can’t rely on the Earth anymore. That concept of sustainability is obviously something we’re really struggling with on this planet. And all of the technologies we invest in have direct benefits to us here on earth. Our water recycling system on the ISS has a portable version that’s taken into disaster areas. That’s just one example of how these technologies are really applicable.

In terms of deep space exploration, discovering planets around other stars, and exploring the planets of this solar system, it always to me comes back to: How does it help us understand this planet? Where we came from as humans, where we’re going, what the ultimate fate of the planet is. That research that we do, the instruments we develop for deep space, we turn back and look at our own planets with those instruments and vice versa. There is this very tight interplay between the observations we make away from home and the observations we make here. And with everything we do at NASA — when we search for life in the universe, life beyond earth — to me it’s about coming back and saying what can we learn from life here on earth by going to another planet?

What can the development community learn from NASA? Ellen Stofan speaks at Devex World.

A number of developing countries are now introducing space agencies of their own. Can you talk about that?

That is one of the things I’m most excited about. I think two things have lowered the barrier to entry. One of them is that there are more players coming into the rocket business, and that’s lowering the cost of getting things to orbit. The other is the development of technology that has resulted in cubesats. For these developing countries, developing their space programs is good for their economy and for their country. It is that second part of it that is a passion of mine.

In the years after Apollo, there was a huge peak in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field Ph.D.s. Most of those people didn’t go work for NASA. They went into the U.S. workforce and made this economy and country strong. Those countries need their kids to go into STEM fields, to create companies that move economic development forward in this increasingly technological world.

Every country needs a strong STEM workforce and space programs excite kids, motivate kids, lead kids to say, “Maybe I can be an engineer and I can go build a spacecraft.” To me, everything always wraps back around to climate change. Developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change and they need strong STEM workforces even more than developed countries do. They really need structural engineers, civil engineers, computer scientists — and space programs provide the inspiration that get kids to say, maybe I should go do that.

To close, do you have any final message for Devex readers or the incoming administration?

There’s generally a lack of awareness of how powerful space-based data is in terms of putting information in the hands of people. And I think when you look at the trends going forward of more ubiquitous internet access, more ubiquitous cellphone penetration, you can start saying, what if a farmer in the developing world had better not just seven day forecasts but 20 or 30 day forecasts? What if a farmer knew how much water his or her crops needed on any given day so he can really be careful about how he or she uses water? What if, by finding new planets and having a human walk on Mars, we’re inspiring kids in every country to become doctors, to become engineers, to become computer scientists in those countries? So to me, while some people would look and say the space program has nothing to do with poverty, with lifting people out of their circumstances, I would say it is integral. It’s not the whole solution but it’s part of the solution.

Knowledge is power. What NASA is about is gathering knowledge. How you use that knowledge is up to any given administration. But understanding this planet, understanding its weather, understanding its climate, understanding the state of its agriculture, the state of its forests, the state of the atmosphere, being able to predict weather being able to predict climate, being able to predict harvests, that’s all information. And that information is critical to making decisions.

Governments have to make decisions everyday and what NASA does is provide information. I’d say, look, we are here to serve. We are the gatherers of information, we are the agency that pushes technology, that moves this country forward, and every dollar we spend has returns. Because every dollar is an investment in the U.S. economy and it keeps our country safe in the long run. I hope any administration would see the appeal in that.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.