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Ellen Stofan, new Air and Space Museum head, talks NASA, Star Trek

Q&A: Ex-NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, who'll be the first woman to run the National Air and Space Museum, also discusses rockets, Mars and discrimination.


Ellen Stofan continues her space-filled career as the incoming director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Callie Broadus

Ellen Stofan's career reads like a lifelong date with destiny. Her mother was a science teacher and her father a NASA rocket scientist. Growing up, she witnessed fiery rocket launches and fell in love with geology while on a field trip with her mom. Put the two together, and you get a planetary geologist.  

Finding her life's passion was just the beginning for Stofan, who went on to work on NASA's Magellan mission to Venus, the Saturn-studying Cassini mission and a proposed project to send a floating lander to Saturn's fascinating moon Titan. Stofan served as NASA's chief scientist from 2013 to 2016. 

Stofan will take the helm at one of the world's most-visited museums on April 30 when she steps in as director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, with locations in Washington, DC, and Chantilly, Virginia. Stofan will be the first woman to lead the museum.

I caught up with Stofan to talk about why she never wanted to become an astronaut, her challenges as a woman in science and her plans for the museum.

The following is an edited transcript of our talk. 

Q: When did you first discover an interest in space and science?
Stofan: I was always one of those kids who picked up rocks and shells and was really fascinated with the natural world. The twist to my story is that my dad worked for NASA, so I went to my first rocket launch when I was 4.

NASA is just something I grew up around. Everybody I knew who worked there, they were all men. I looked a lot for role models for women in science: Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, but there just weren't that many.

When I was about 14, we went down to watch the first two Viking landers launch to Mars. At that point, I realized studying the geology of planets was actually a thing. Weirdly enough, at age 14, I decided I wanted to become a planetary geologist, and that's what I did.

What did it feel like to see the Viking launches?
If you haven't seen a launch, get to one. It's the most amazing thing. Even from miles away, the rocket launch sets off car alarms. It's an extremely physical experience, because when the sound waves hit you, they actually hit you. It's something you feel in your entire body.

Were you ever interested in becoming an astronaut?
I really wasn't. That first rocket launch I saw when I was 4, it went up about a foot and exploded very dramatically on the launchpad. Throughout my dad's years developing rockets for NASA, I saw an awful lot of rockets explode. That had a big influence on me.

Fortunately for Ellen Stofan, the Enterprise model from the original Star Trek series is housed at the National Air and Space Museum.

Dane Penland/National Air and Space Museum

Are you a fan of science fiction?
I'm a huge fan of science fiction. Science fiction to me is a way of thinking about what's next, and usually in a positive way. There are dystopian futures that we imagine, but I like to focus on Star Trek and Star Wars, which is really an incredibly positive view of species leaving their planets, cooperating and moving outward.

Do you have sci-fi favorites?
I'm definitely a Star Trek fan. That was always the most inspirational. You look now at the International Space Station and you have these countries cooperating in space. We've all managed to keep working together in a really positive way in space no matter what issues are going on on the ground. To me, that harks back to this idea of the Federation and people working together.

Who is your favorite Star Trek character?
Oh, Spock, of course.

What real-life people have inspired you along the way?
Certainly Carl Sagan. I met him on and off throughout my career. He knew my father quite well. He's one of those people who remembered you, remembered what you were doing, and just really took an interest. He was hugely supportive. He was a huge influence.

Charles Elachi, who was the director of JPL for years, was not just a mentor, but a sponsor. He was someone who helped you figure out not just how to be a good scientist, but a good manager and a good leader. Charlie Bolden was my last hero. He was a Vietnam war fighter pilot, flew on the shuttle and led NASA. He was just incredibly supportive. 

When you think of how few women there are in science, there's no way a woman in science can really flourish without having some hugely supportive men, because they dominate the field. I was lucky enough to work with supportive men at every stage in my career.

Did you ever feel that your gender was a challenge to your chosen path in science?
I did. You can't help but look around and realize you're one of the few women in the room, if there are any other women at all.

I had a fellow student say to me, "You don't need a job, you have a husband." Up until that point, I hadn't thought of us as men and women, but it was clear to me he had. He clearly saw me as something lesser. To me, we were all just scientists.

I had a guy that was working for me on a technology project call me "little girl" when I was 32 and try to scold me. You have these episodes. I forget I'm a woman and then they remind me. That's incredibly discouraging and you just have to say, "I'm not going to let this happen."

You hear stories like the story of Katherine Johnson and Hidden Figures. You have to have the Katherine Johnson spirit and say, "I'm going into a room where I'm not really wanted because they need me."

Has this gotten better?
I feel like things are getting better, but it's at too slow of a pace. When we look at the fact that the number of women in computer science and engineering has actually declined over the years, that's not good.

It's about what talent are we leaving behind? Are we missing the next Einstein, the person who is going to deal with climate change, because they're an African-American boy or a young girl somewhere who is told girls don't do science? That's what I worry about. It's that talent that we're losing.

Will your role at the Air and Space Museum put you in a position to help that?
I hope so. If I can go give a talk at a school and make one girl think that she can be a scientist, then I'm doing something. By leading the nation's premiere aviation and space museum, I hope I'm a visible signal of look, this is what women do.

I want to make sure the museum is telling those stories of women and underrepresented groups and the contributions that have already been made in aviation research and space research. Some of those stories are already told in the museum, but I think we could tell more.

You've said Cassini was your favorite mission you worked on. What is it about Saturn's moon Titan that you find so compelling?
When I started out on Cassini, I was more of an inner-planets person. I worked on Mars. I worked on Venus. I worked on Earth. When I started studying the geology of Titan, I was so amazed that here was this world over 100 million miles from the Earth and yet it rains and there are rivers eroding the surface and flowing down to seas. There are volcanoes and huge fields of sand dunes. Here were all these Earth-like geologic features we could study.

Titan is the only other body in the solar system that has open bodies of liquid that are exchanging gases with the atmosphere. You can learn more about the Earth by studying Titan. I fell in love with this amazing little world is that is really complicated and a magical place.


Saturn's moon Titan is a fascinating place.


Do you think we will send a boat to Titan at some point?
I think we will. Ultimately, I think we will explore Titan's seas because they are an interesting counterpart to Earth. Could there be life in Titan's seas? We don't know. It's not water, it's hydrocarbon, but it's a liquid.

The problem is the seas have to be big enough to land in and Titan's big seas are all at the north pole. In the mid-2020s it goes into Titan winter and it goes dark and stays dark for about seven or eight years. We're going to have to wait until the mid-2030s to get back to the seas.

You said in a 2015 CNN interview you expect to see evidence of life beyond Earth within the next 20 years. Are we on schedule?
I think we're more or less on schedule, but I've gotten a little worried about it. The prime targets for life are really Mars, Europa, the moon of Jupiter that has an ice crust with a subsurface liquid water ocean, and Enceladus, which is another moon of Saturn, but has an ice crust with an ocean below.

Right now, NASA has a plan to return a sample from Mars in the late 2020s, which puts us on track to find indications of life within the next decade or so. 

Finding really strong evidence of life on Mars is going to take a whole lot of samples, and for that you're going to need people on the surface of Mars. If we can stay on track to get humans to the surface of Mars in the late 2030s, I am optimistic. If that falls behind, it will just take longer, that's all.

With space tourism plans developing from SpaceX and others, would you consider going into space if you had the opportunity?
As a geologist, my goal is always to get to the solid surface of a body. If Elon Musk was going to get me to Mars, I would consider signing on. But just to go up and and come back down again doesn't hold a lot of interest for me. I can understand why people want to do it and I do think it's exciting. That really is science fiction come true.

Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927 in the Spirit of St. Louis.

Eric Long/Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

What attracted you to the job of leading the Air and Space Museum?
I interned there when I was in college. For me, like for so many people, it was an amazing, inspirational, magical place where you could see the Spirit of St. Louis. 

You could see how aviation had changed. We went from being trapped on the surface of the planet to flying and then on to space in a really short period of time. 

Have you had the chance to set some goals, and what do you see for the museum's future?
The building downtown on the National Mall has a lot of issues. The stone on the outside needs to be replaced, there is a lot of basic wear and tear that needs to be taken care of. That will begin this summer. We're going to take this opportunity to renovate and update all of the galleries.

We're going to really modernize it with a lot more digital technology. How do we reach out to people who can't make it all the way to Washington? How can we reach them digitally? We can take it from an inspiring place to a place that's even better.

The museum will never close during the renovation. We'll do half the building and then the other half and the half that isn't being worked on will remain open.

This rendering shows what the new entrance to the National Air and Space Museum will look like after the renovation.

National Air and Space Museum

Do you have a favorite exhibit?
I hate to play favorites. Even though I'm a space person, my two favorite things at the museum are the Spirit of St. Louis and the SR-71 that's at our Udvar-Hazy Center, so I have a favorite thing at both of our locations. [Note: The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is a Cold War-era reconnaissance aircraft.]

You look at the Spirit of St. Louis and see this is how we began it all. We learned to get off the surface of this planet. It shows the American character and drive for innovation. And the SR-71 because it's just really cool.

How is the Smithsonian's tribble-breeding program going? It was a fabulous April Fools' joke from 2016.
I'm not aware of that. That's excellent. My daughter is 22 and hasn't seen much original Star Trek. My husband and I just made her watch the tribble episode. She said she liked it, which is the only right answer.

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