Profile | Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist

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Ellen Stofan grew up at NASA. She attended her first launch at the age of 4 because her father, rocket engineer Andrew Stofan, spent decades at the space agency in a variety of roles including director of NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland (now NASA Glenn Research Center) and associate administrator for NASA’s Space Station Office.

Since elementary school, Stofan has been extolling the virtues of space research and exploration. “I thought it was normal to argue with my classmates at age 7 or 8 about why it was important to go to the Moon,” Stofan said.

Stofan, a planetary geologist with master’s and doctorate degrees from Brown University in Rhode Island, worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., from 1989 to 2000. There, she served as deputy project scientist for the Magellan mission to Venus, experiment scientist for the space shuttle’s Earth-observing Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C and chief scientist for the New Millennium Program, an effort to validate technologies with applications for future spaceflight missions. 

After leaving NASA in 2000, Stofan worked at Proxemy Research, a consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md. Until her Aug. 25 appointment as NASA’s chief scientist, Stofan served as principal investigator for Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a proposal to send a floating probe to investigate the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn’s largest moon. TiME was one of three finalists selected in 2011 to conduct concept studies under NASA’s Discovery series of cost-capped planetary missions. In 2012, NASA chose another mission, a Mars lander designed to examine the red planet’s geological evolution, to proceed toward launch in 2016. 

Stofan spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner on Sept. 30 as it became increasingly apparent that congressional gridlock would lead to an Oct. 1 government shutdown.

How has your background prepared you for this job? 

I’m primarily a planetary scientist. I don’t just study one planet, I study all of them, including Earth. So that has definitely helped me. Also, while I was at JPL in the mid-1990s, I worked on an instrument that flew twice on the shuttle. I went to the Johnson Space Center to help train the crew and stayed for the mission. I gained a huge amount of respect for the human spaceflight side of NASA. I also worked on New Millennium, a program focusing on technologies we need for missions not just five or 10 years in the future but 20 to 25 years in the future. So I have had exposure to the technology side of NASA and its importance. The advantage to my background is I’ve touched on most of the overall science themes. 

What do you hope to accomplish in your new job?

A big part of my role is to communicate to our stakeholders the great science we do here at NASA. This agency gives tremendous bang for the buck in terms of the science: from researching and developing new technologies to understanding the sun and space weather, from understanding the Earth not just in terms of our changing climate but in terms of things like using soil moisture maps to help people better manage water resources. Our science goes across the board. A big part of my job is communicating just that to everyone from the general public to our stakeholders here in Washington. Also, part of my job is understanding the science we do internally and supporting our scientists who work in the NASA centers and in academia. 

What challenges do you foresee?

Right now we face two challenges. One of them is certainly sequestration. The president and Congress have asked us to do great things. We have a plan to do amazing things, and sequestration is definitely making that more difficult. I look at NASA as the keeper of the future. We’ve got the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer on its way to the Moon. We’ve got the Curiosity rover on its way to Mars’ Mount Sharp. We also are investing in technologies that will allow us to retrieve an asteroid. Sequestration makes our job extremely difficult and it’s harmful to the long-term health of the agency. 

And, obviously, right now it’s 2:30 p.m. on the East Coast and we don’t know if we are going to work tomorrow. That kind of uncertainty in the budget makes planning and doing our job more difficult. All the hours we have to put into dealing with these situations are hours away from doing productive work that the taxpayers want us to be doing. 

How can science progress at a time of severe budget constraints?

We are not in a fiscal environment that is going to allow you to say, “I want to make every measurement. I want to go to every destination. I want to do everything I can.” I’m not sure we ever were. The benefit of processes like the decadal survey is that they allow the science community to prioritize, to determine the best science, the best bang for the buck. Increasingly we need to fold that as closely as we can with budget realities. It’s not a surprise to find that every day those budget realities seem to be getting a little tighter. To me, the positive thing I’ve seen coming out of this is that people get really innovative. Especially when there’s competition, people in industry, academia and government agencies work together to find ways to do smaller, more focused, more affordable things. There are paths forward. We just need to tap into all our partnerships. Is it going to be everything everybody wants? No. But we are going to do great things. 

Do you still have a hand in your proposed mission to Titan? 

I’ve turned that over to my deputy principal investigator, Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University. I’m no longer involved. What I think is the great thing about that mission is what I was just talking about. A lot of people said, “You can never conduct a mission to the outer solar system for under $1 billion” and “You can never do it in a framework like Discovery.” I think that over time, we were able to show that when you get people together and let their creative juices flow, we can do great fundamental science, infuse technology and accomplish important things even in a tighter budget scenario. Flagship missions are great and they certainly have their place, but lower-cost mission lines can accomplish great science. 

The proposed Titan mission is powered by an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG). Any thoughts on that technology?

I was involved back in 1992 with an early study looking at using Stirling engines on a Venus lander. I also co-chaired a 2006 National Research Council study with Bill Anders [former NASA astronaut and General Dynamics Corp. chief executive] on the use of nuclear power and propulsion in space. 

There is so much we need radioisotope power for. If we want to go to the poles of Mars or shadowed regions of the Moon or to the outer solar system, we need radioisotope power. It is critical. Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators are good for some things. ASRGs are good for others because they are highly efficient and they use smaller amounts of plutonium. 

How was the first month on the job?

Every day I learn things that are awe-inspiring. I go around and ask people to tell me all the cool stuff they are doing so I can tell other people. It’s really a uniquely fun job, except for all the budget stuff, of course. 

One of the other things I’m interested in is working with kids. I’ve asked people to try to get me into classrooms. I’m passionate about science, technology, engineering and math education. I am trying to encourage more underrepresented groups to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math. That is something I care quite a bit about and intend to work on while I’m in this job.