When White House Rang, Dava Newman Thought it was a Prank
Profile | NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman
Articulating the Journey to Mars
Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thought someone might be playing a practical joke when the White House called asking if she was interested in serving as NASA’s deputy administrator.
She soon figured out that the call was genuine, and confirmed she was interested in the job. That started a long nomination and confirmation process that culminated with a unanimous vote by the Senate in April.
Now on the job for six months, Newman is focused on several key issues. First and foremost is NASA’s long-term plans to send humans to Mars, something she was already familiar with from her role supporting a recent National Academies study on human spaceflight that was, in some respects, critical of NASA’s plans. Technology development and education and public outreach are also priorities for her, a natural extension of her academic background.
Newman spoke recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust at her office at NASA Headquarters.
How did you go from MIT to NASA Headquarters?
It was a call from the White House that invited me to consider the position. At first I thought it was a prank call, something one of my students or faculty colleagues put me up to. Then in short order I realized what the Presidential Personnel Office was and said, “Oh.” I said, “Sure, I’d be very interested in considering it.”
I think — no one has ever told me this — that I was picked for being a senior aerospace engineering professor and the head for 12 years of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program, MIT’s largest graduate program in technology and policy. Perhaps the aerospace engineering and running that program was what people were looking for. It’s also my pleasure to serve the president, so any opportunity to serve, especially at this high level, is at first humbling and then quite an honor. And then to join the administrator, whom I’ve known for quite some time and always admired, and the team here, meant it didn’t take me too long to think about it. It took a little longer for the vetting process.
Then you were nominated, and you had to wait, and then had to be nominated again. What was the waiting process like?
The vetting process is interesting. It is very detailed. The nomination is when it became public and so I could tell folks about it. Given the nomination was at the end of the 113th Congress, there was a little optimism that I could be confirmed in time. Really quickly, in the first week of January, I got nominated again. This is actually fun: You have to, in person or on the phone, say, “Yes, I’d like to be renominated.” I said, “Yes, absolutely, I’m still interested in it.”
Then it went through, as I understand it, a really expeditious process. I had a lot of meetings, met with a lot of senators, and that was fantastic. That was in January, February and March when I was talking there. The Senate vote was unanimous in April. I was at MIT for the vote. I had all my undergraduate and graduate students there, gathered together. We watched that on television; that was really fun to be surrounded with all of those folks.
That was the end of April, and I then finished up the semester at MIT. I had a whole bunch of students about to graduate in the Technology and Policy Program. I took a couple of weeks to get everything done. I was champing on the bit to get started, thinking about my priorities. In hindsight, it was probably just the right amount of time. I got to finish up a lot of responsibilities, transition other things at MIT, and then come down here and be really ready to start.
What priorities did you have coming into this job?
Definitely exploration and our journey to Mars. That’s my top priority now here. Previously I served on the NASA Advisory Council, on the subcommittee on technology and innovation. So I’m always thinking about technology and innovation from the viewpoint of an external reviewer looking in. This is really great since this is my chance to see it from the inside. I’ve learned a lot in six months.
The other thing in preparation for the job was serving on the National Academies’ Pathways to Exploration study, and specifically on the technology panel, which wrote Chapter 4 of the report. There were a lot of good people coming together and putting in a lot of hard work. Personally, before I got here I thought that maybe we made it a little bit complicated. It was a good analysis: lots of options, lots of pathways.
But given those different pathways and different options, the story is we’re on the space station in low Earth orbit now. We have to get to cislunar space before getting to Mars. Mars is the horizon goal. With Mars as a horizon goal, we’re trying to be clear and concise about what we’re learning on space station about buying down risk for human health and our technology investments. The end goal is Mars, and if you have your end goal as Mars, then I think we can work backwards so that our Mars requirements really inform what we’re doing in deep space.
What specifically is your role in this effort?
There are a few pieces. One is working with the administrator. We’re kind of the external voices articulating our journey to Mars. I think that’s first and foremost. It’s not just externally, but internally as well.
I’m very fortunate in terms of timing. The “Journey to Mars” report is now out, and when I joined I got to contribute to that. But I can’t take too much credit for that. The nice thing for me is to say that this is spot-on and really important. It’s teamwork. This is a NASA agency document. It’s human exploration, science and space technology. Everyone is contributing to that. So we’re really all on the same page. That’s really critical, and that’s what’s happened over the last few months.
It’s serendipitous that the report came out at the same time as “The Martian.” I’m usually pretty critical of anything coming out of Hollywood, but this one I love, because we know exactly what’s realistic about the technology in “The Martian.” It gave us this huge opportunity to stand up our real Martians and tell you what we’re working on, and tell you the reality of these technologies, be it propulsion or life support, all of these things NASA is working on. Anything that the general public is interested in, we can really hone in on the details, and that’s what I love to do.
What other priorities do you have?
If you go down to the next level of my role and the pieces that I’m shepherding, it’s technology and innovation, and education and outreach. There’s a lot of other things in the day in the life of the deputy administrator, but those are really my foci. They all go together: If I talk about education, the next thing I’m going to be talking about technologies, trying to inspiring kids. So to me it’s all really related.
Of course, I get to celebrate all of NASA. New Horizons was a great mission in July that I got to celebrate. All of these things that I get to learn about myself and then really celebrate them: I’m kind of a spokesperson for them, but not the expert. A lot of that is just kind of being the cheerleader and giving people thanks because it’s a really complex portfolio. We’re doing so much, but we’re doing so much that’s excellent.
You mentioned technology and innovation. What are you specifically involved with there?
I want to start at the space station. We’re using space station as a world-class laboratory. I can talk at length about the human health and performance risks — that’s my background, that’s what I know. Now the fun things I get to talk about are some of the different technologies that we get to demonstrate. We have to keep doing that: We have nine more years to keep buying down human health risk and technology risk. In deep space, it’s about technology investments, and these technologies are completely tied into the mission to Mars.
The other focus area you mentioned was education. NASA’s education programs have gotten a lot of attention and scrutiny. What are you doing to shape them in any particular way?
I’m trying to leverage all of education. They way I look at it, NASA has a whole bunch of promising educational practices. I think they’re excellent, but we’re always learning more. The Office of Education is great, but there’s so much going on from our communications and our four mission directorates. I’m looking across the agency and my goal there is to specifically leverage this investment with our limited budget resources. We have to be strategic since the investments are small, but I think there’s huge potential to leverage all of the good education and outreach.
I make no bones about it: I’m an educator, so I do think about the education process and encouraging students and the public. I’ve been doing science festivals, and the audiences have been fantastic.
You were very familiar with NASA before taking this job. Now that you’re on the job and toured the field centers, was there anything that particularly surprised you in one way or another about the agency?
The people. The people are great. Going to all of the centers in July and August was really fun. I got to have all-hands meetings and meet our summer interns. It was really impressive. I had worked at about half of the NASA centers, but that means half of them I didn’t. So it was so fun to go and to see them.
Are there certain things that you want to see achieved while you’re here?
The top priority is our journey to Mars, articulating our plans so that they’re sustainable. Can we sustain this path that we’re on that we think is absolutely the right path, the best path? That’s my No. 1 hope and goal, so that all the work we’re doing just keeps the momentum going. We’ve got huge momentum. We’re building and designing the [Space Launch System] that takes us to deep space. Orion is coming onboard. We’re still on ISS. If we keep focused on the goal, and it’s sustainable, that’s the No. 1 priority.
Then, because I’m a nerd and proud of it, technologies and innovation. We wish we could do it all, but we can’t. So we have to have a really good prioritized list of what are the technology investments that we’re making, that we can invest in, that will help us get to Mars.
And then, every day is fun when I get to do something on education and outreach. It’s so important because, guess who’s going to Mars? I want to see it, but it’s going to be the next generation, all the kids that I talk to. That’s not hard work for me at all. That’s just kind of a great day.