At the core of every successful space mission is a team that is defined by their technical abilities, their perseverance, and especially their optimism – to fuelan entire journey of exploration and discovery. Motivated by their curiosity, they start to work on a project with a can-do attitude that may seem entirely unrealistic to many. As they go through iterations of their design, they hit hurdles, often putting into question their very ability to do this mission. Yet they stick with it, often defying odds, and holding on to the vision of the lofty goals they hope to achieve.
This is the power of optimism – bringing to life something that is much harder than it looks, and to have the resilience to continue despite the challenges. There is no question in my mind about the crucial role that optimism plays in what we do. However, if someone asks me about the biggest challenge I see in developing missions to not only be technically successful, but also to be within anticipated cost and schedule, the answer may surprise many: excessive and blinding optimism. Imagine yourself in a room listening to a team that is making a presentation about a new project – a project that truly makes your heart sing. They talk about the amazing possibilities and impacts, and they talk about their elegant technical solutions. Generally, and without any bad intent, teams will tend to over-stress the benefit and under-emphasize the challenges that go into this new design. If they don’t get through this buy-in phase, there is no mission! If you look at similar initial presentations from the point of view of wisdom gained during the 5-6 years of the development of this mission, this pitch – if not challenged by facts and deep independent analysis – becomes a jump off point that leads to deep regrets and agony for years to come. I have been inpresentations where I wish I had caught that the assessments were simply unrealistic – assessments that can haunt an otherwise amazing engineering team for decades as they can’t match the reality to the original hope.
Unmanaged excessive optimism can be harmful to the team in the long run and a reason for mistrust by the broader community. It is therefore critical to address this issue and do so in ways that make success more likely. I have seen leaders address this quandary in multiple ways. The simplest but least successful way to tackle it is to take the optimists entirely out of the equation. Clearly, this solves the aforementioned challenges of the rude awakening of a project that was over promised and underfunded. But, it also pours the baby out with the bath water. Without optimism, and the desire to stretch, we remain in the comfort zone and ultimately lose the very thing we are supposed to do: attempt things that have never been done before. The second path is to identify and manage the impact of over-optimism using several specific tools. 1. Create a trusted environment that encourages the team to voice their worries It is very easy to never get bad news, especially if you create an environment that publicly shames or even attacks the first person who brings up these points.Instead, reward those who are comfortable identifying and discussing their worries.As leaders, it is our responsibility to create an environment in which worries can be discussed without adverse consequences. A trusted environment does not happen automatically but requires vulnerability and humility from all sides. 2. Deliberately create an independent and dispassionate view of the project Independent views are critical when we seek to achieve excellence. Having the input of a team that is free to analyze and speak their opinion is a welcome addition into the discussion. However, it is critical that the input truly is — and demonstrably remains — independent throughout the process. Otherwise, such independent assessments may make us feel better, but they surely do not add the desired value. It is also critical that these independent assessments focus on the core of the idea and not some bureaucratic aspect that is peripheral to the question whether or not a given mission is thoughtfully designed and planned. Otherwise, independent reviews become maligned entry points to bureaucratic creep. 3. Continually build out the startup team by adding diversity of opinion, approach and backgrounds As a team starts maturing and moving towards detailed design and implementation, the optimistic leaders on the team continue to have a critical voice. But the team needs to improve both in depth and breadth. A team with a broadened viewpoint is less likely to fall in the trap of group think or sliding into an “us vs them” approach that tends to slow down the resolution of problems and may even grow small issues into huge challenges, while losing trust among stakeholders.
Just as anything in life, moderation is key. As we continue to embark on these journeys of exploration, we must apply that same mantra. Optimism has great benefits and has been the igniting fuel to many success stories in space and beyond. But we should also stay vigilant to creating a culture where challenging viewpoints is welcome and the norm.
I have made many mistakes over the five and a half years at NASA and over time have gained more experience about this important topic. I hope you too can take something from these lessons and apply them to your own worthy endeavors.
It is hard to beat the collective achievements of NASA’s science teams, especially over the past year. We’ve landed on Mars, flown the first helicopter beyond our world, launched and deployed the most magnificent science mission ever conceived, observed our home planet, and so much more. Learners of all ages and those looking for hope during a bleak time saw almost unmatched excitement as teams across NASA worked to realize tremendous feats of exploration. These achievements are historic and you may rightly ask:
What is in store during the next year that can match the excitement and attention given during the last 12 months?
This is in the eye of the beholder, but let me tell you my top 10 reasons for excitement in science during the next year.
First science images from Webb
After over 50 years of space-based astrophysics first imagined by Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, we will be able to look at the universe in an entirely new way with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Cooling down in the shade of the large and complex sunshield, a new generation of space instruments will peer into our celestial history in an entirely new way. I can’t wait to see what we discover!
Celebrating 50 years of Landsat and the start of Landsat Next
It is time to celebrate the progress made during the last 50 years of Landsat. Together with the US Geological Survey (USGS) we have followed our changing planet from space, the only vantage point that sees no borders and sees humanity as one.
Landsat has observed natural disasters and also massive progress. In 2021, USGS has moved the entire Landsat archive into the cloud and has seen more use in 6 months than in the nearly 50 years prior. Landsat Next is a totally different approach to Earth observations, one reflecting technological progress and especially the advancement of an industrial sector not previously seen. Landsat Next will use a multi-spacecraft approach and commercially gathered data to add value to the communities in need of this important data.
The official “go” for the Earth System Observatory and Open Science
Bringing together multiple spacecraft in an entirely new fashion, the Earth System Observatory partnership between NASA and commercial and international entities will revolutionize Earth Science.
In addition to the enhanced instruments, this system of systems is built around a common, cloud-based infrastructure and a focus on Earth action desperately needed. Yes, we want to learn more about our changing planet, but we need to move with urgency towards those who need it most by using an open science paradigm that further eliminates hurdles from our data so that we can have an impact on mitigating Earth’s changing climate.
This year will also see the launch of two significant weather satellites that will continue NASA’s collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Like our partnership with USGS, our collaboration with NOAA has lasted more than 5 decades. GOES-T will launch in March 2022 and JPSS-2 is scheduled to launch this September. Not only are these missions essential to NOAA’s role in protecting life and property here on Earth, they also provide a trove of data that are used by the research community.
Going forward to the Moon with commercial providers
Within the next twelve months, we seek to land on the Moon with commercial providers using an approach that is in every way as transformative as the complex sunshield and optics system deployed for Webb.
NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative allows us to leverage the capabilities of industry vendors to quickly deliver scientific instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon. As part of this initiative, two young companies – Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic – will be among the first to not only enable entirely new science, but also a brand new way to achieve it. This novel approach is a totally creative way to advance lunar exploration. With more and more science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface, we can help prepare for sustainable astronaut missions through the Artemis Program.
The growing drumbeat of small spacecraft doing big science
Six years ago, NASA Science had 20 SmallSat and CubeSat missions under development and 2 in operation. As of today, we have 54 under development and 16 in operation. This includes many unique and intriguing missions like Janus, which will send a pair of small satellites on the longest deep space journey to date for this class of spacecraft to better understand the evolution of “rubble pile” asteroids. The six CubeSats of the TROPICS mission will study storms and other meteorological events in new detail. These spacecraft will launch on a venture class launch vehicle, an entirely new generation of small launchers that create lower launch costs while also increasing access to space. Also this year, the 8 satellite CYGNSS mission will have its sixth anniversary of studying tropical cyclones. To date, the mission has yielded at least 105 publications in refereed journals and is referenced by over 2,100 scientific publications cataloged online.
Additionally, two NASA Science CubeSats will hitch a ride to space onboard the Space Launch System rocket during the Artemis I launch – CuSP, which will study the dynamic particles and magnetic fields that stream from the Sun and LunaH-Map, which will orbit the Moon and determine the amount of water ice in the permanently shadowed lunar polar craters.
Next generation Heliophysics missions in time to observe and protect from the awakening Sun
A new generation of heliophysics missions has already begun with the launch of the Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer 3 or MinXSS-3 on February 13, which will study X-rays coming from solar flares.
This mission is one of 10 CubeSat and instrument missions going into orbit in 2022 that will be aimed at helping scientists understand and, ultimately forecast the vast space weather system around our planet. This new approach to missions related to the Sun integrate data to have a comprehensive look at the impact of space weather on our planet. Currently, the heliophysics division has an astonishing 14 missions under development and 20 missions in operation, all of which are focused on better understanding the impacts of the Sun and solar wind in our solar system and protect our technology from its effects. This fleet of spacecraft is helping us gear up for what is expected to be a more severe solar maximum than the previous one. The combination of a more active solar maximum, the advancement of space technologies, and greater access to space, increases our need to better understand and predict space weather events. A much-enhanced number of government and private sector players are relying on several space assets that is 4-10 times larger than the number during the last solar maximum.
Observing our star up close and in unprecedented detail
These next 12 months will demonstrate the power of three revolutionary and ground-breaking assets whose time has come to shine.
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Hawaii-based Daniel K Inoue Solar Telescope, the largest and most powerful solar telescope in the world, has just become operational and will make unprecedented observations of our star. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will complete its fourteenth perihelion – the location in the elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. The European Space Agency (ESA) led Solar Orbiter Mission will use its recently commissioned advanced sensors to take images of the Sun at distances closer than any other spacecraft. These monumental measurements have been decades in the making and promise to revamp how we think about our star and its interactions with space surrounding it.
One of them, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will intentionally crash into an asteroid on September 26, 2022 as a way to test a technique that could be used to deflect harmful asteroids away from Earth in the future, should one ever be discovered. Later this year, we will also mark 1 year until OSIRIS-REx drops off its precious cargo from asteroid Bennu in September 2023. It is a new and unprecedented time of learning about the history of our solar system. I am looking forward to all that we discover.
A year for teams
Every year in science we focus on the incredible teams making the impossible, possible. But in 2022, we are moving the ball towards implementing the most forward-leaning policy changes and habits focused on growing our science community in both size and diversity in all dimensions. We will launch the NASA Science Bridge Program, a signature initiative designed to advance our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) goals by creating research partnerships between Primarily Undergraduate and Minority Serving Institutions, high research activity institutions and NASA Centers. We are expanding what we want to see in proposals by asking for thoughtful and intentional diversity and inclusion plans that will then be evaluated. Our successful inclusion plan pilot program started last year with three programs. In ROSES-2022 ten program elements will require inclusion plans. These plans will be evaluated but will not factor into the proposal grades or selection decisions. For more information see Section IV(e)ii of the ROSES-22 Summary of Solicitation and the Astrophysics Division Inclusion Plan Pilot Program Report. We want to make sure inclusion is indeed not just a word for any of our teams but a value by which we live. We cannot be the best community if we keep out some of the best or systematically silence them.
A year for science inspiration
Together with all of our mission teams, our cross-agency, international and commercial partners we want to double down on everything we do to share our science to inspire hope for a weary world. In social media, we already aligned our accounts, reduced them by 2/3 and doubled our followership! Now, our attention is to modernize our web-presence for NASA’s Science-funded website to engage the public. Our goal is to build the most effective, next generation science website for audiences to experience science discoveries in and from space. I am optimistic that pandemic restrictions will improve, so for upcoming launches, we will work with our STEM programs and commercial partners to bring more US-based youth to our launches. And we will continue to focus on our internships around the agency.
I am so excited for all that 2022 holds and I hope you will join us on this journey of exploration. To learn more and to stay updated on all things NASA Science, visit: https://science.nasa.gov/
There is much power in Yes! Finding a way to Yes! is finding a pathway to life-changing experiences, to entrepreneurial successes, valuable friendships, and even to love. Yes! is powerful.
This post, however is about the enormous power of No!, as a positive and life-changing force. In fact, the older I get, the more I recognize and appreciate the importance of No! to help guide my life, and focus on excellence. Even though there are many examples, I want to focus this discussion on the power of No! in time-management, and in driving culture change.
When I started my job at NASA I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of time pressure from tag-ups, meet-and-greets, councils, and other meetings that filled my schedule. With my family still in Michigan, I decided to come to work super early and I left very late – and all I did is meet, often for 12+ hours per day. Some of these meetings were useful and necessary, and others seemed repetitive even after 2-3 weeks, with little value and purpose, but I attended all of them.
I did so until I noticed that I started falling behind on my work, that I caught myself making important decisions without enough consideration, and frankly that I did not think deeply enough. I started to feel miserable. I felt like I was “trampled by ants”, as my friend Tony England once called it (this is the man who figured out how to turn CO2 into O2 during the Apollo 13 crisis – you saw the movie). I was completely focused on small and often unimportant activities and I was living entirely reactively – and I hated it. To do my job well, I needed to manage my time proactively and learn how to use the power of No!
One day, I talked about this quandary to my administrative assistant who bravely filled in my schedule with lots of people urging her they needed to meet with me. In a discussion one morning, she told me apologetically that she can only accommodate between 15-20% of all meeting requests. I walked away from this like someone had hit me in the face. Here I was working 12+ hours mostly in meetings, and I was not even fulfilling a quarter of all requests!
After a brief moment of desperation I realized the liberating aspect of that number: no matter how many hours I spent in meeting, even with no sleep at all, there was no chance to fulfill the external demand put on me by these requests. I finally felt empowered to use the power of No! to change how I spent my day and how I constrained when I schedule meetings. I have been sticking to such hard limits since then.
For example, each day, no meeting can be scheduled before 8 am and after 5 pm without approval from me, and exceptions are rare. Furthermore, I want 2 hours of unallocated time to work actions between 8 am and 5 pm blocked on my schedule. Again, these times cannot be over-written without my approval. These constraints give me time to prepare and think through priorities and this time allows me to work proactively.
I recognize that everyone is different. I suspect that some can do more meetings and function just fine. But, this is “my marathon speed” – the way I can get work done, the way I can think, make good and thoughtful decisions and be happy – in the long run.
There is much liberating power in No! when it comes to schedule management. Use it – don’t get trampled by ants!
We rightly talk about culture change as being enabled by a new shared vision, strong values, and a team that is encouraged and empowered to make that vision a new reality. However, I believe that it takes both the power of Yes! and the power of No! to create such a major culture change. Let me explain.
I have observed many leaders who build new organizations or improve already existing organizations using the power of Yes!. Great leaders use the power or Yes!, and explain the importance of a worthy future that does not yet exist. They get the best from the team to define this new vision. Great leaders and their teams spend a lot of time and focus to talk about this new future and the underlying driving values as they gain momentum. Without that, the change in momentum is often weak and it fizzles out at every obstacle that is encountered. The power of Yes! is magical.
But, here is something really important I only learned in the past couple of years: The power of Yes! – setting a new vision and driving momentum toward it is only one critical ingredient of lasting culture change. The other one is the power of No!
As we start building this new culture, we will find behaviors and actions in our organizations that are no longer desirable or no longer acceptable. So what do we do when they pop to the surface and keep pulling us back? – with the power of No!
I believe that only if we have the courage to address and even cut bad and mis-aligned elements out of our organization do we build lasting change. Even though patience is often a virtue, we cannot be too patient addressing outdated thought-patterns, negative thinking, and sometimes toxic behaviors and power dynamics that hold us back from progress. We need to address them with the power of No!
Having guided multiple organizations through culture change and having observed many more, I am convinced that utilizing the power of No! is as important as utilizing the power of Yes! to achieve lasting success. If we are not willing to use the power of No!, we confuse our own teams about how serious we are about the intended change, and how committed we are to building the new future!
Only when we are ready to cut the mooring line that ties the ship to the shore will the ship sail towards a new destination. Putting up the sails and ringing the bell is not enough.
As we move into this near year, may we all understand better the powers of Yes! and No! in our lives, and may we get ever-more wisdom about how and when to use these powers.
Celebrating the Global Space Apps Community and Reflections
NASA’s 10th annual Space Apps Challenge was held in Oct. 2021 and it was the most successful such event to date. Not only was it the largest all-virtual Space Apps event, it also broke its own records for the number of local virtual events, participants, and project submissions.
Since its inception in 2012, Space Apps has engaged over 178,000 people from across 162 countries and territories. But Space Apps is so much more than just the numbers.
In a recent blog post, I reflected on my time here at NASA, including the lessons I’ve learned. Two of those lessons were related to understanding how to enable true diversity and inclusion and recognizing and combating “group-think,” where individual voices are not heard. The Space Apps Challenge is an opportunity for us to participate in creating an environment that welcomes diversity, promotes inclusion, and proactively fosters disparate thought. This challenge helps remove walls by enabling participants across the world to form teams and work together to find solutions to some of Earth’s most pressing problems.
Our goal is for the next generation of explorers to not only learn about NASA’s data, but to share in the process of using that knowledge – to create and apply that data to solutions to real-world concerns. The continuous uptick in global participation in this challenge exemplifies our commitment to creating opportunities that are accessible and equitable to all.
Here are a few tangible ways Space Apps has impacted communities globally:
Space Apps is a virtual launch pad for ideas to take shape in specific locations around the world. Local Leads – the volunteers who host Space Apps events in their local communities – sometimes use Space Apps as a platform to launch accelerators, enrich educational curriculum, and create businesses.
Space Apps serves as the inflection point for innovators worldwide to create, innovate, and develop ideas using open data and resources from NASA and our space agency partners. Open innovation concepts have allowed some participants to translate ideas generated during a challenge into physical products and companies. A Local Lead in Guatemala has been working with the Space Apps community to cultivate interest in space-related opportunities. The vision is to support projects beyond the Space Apps challenge weekend to develop the initial project ideas into meaningful solutions.
This open innovation only happens because our data is openly accessible. As we move from Open Data to an Open Science paradigm, the toolset for open innovation will dramatically increase and we will empower more teams to have positive impacts on their own communities, no matter where they are worldwide.
The Space Apps challenge is also like an on-the-job training environment, as it provides opportunities for participants to hone and learn new skills. The challenge environment not only encourages learning, but helps participants adopt a growth mindset. Whether it be through exploring scientific subject matter, defining team roles, learning a new skill, or addressing obstacles that may arise during the challenge, the Space Apps experience promotes a culture of collaboration, innovation, and teamwork – key skill sets in today’s modern workforce and classrooms. We’ve received reports that some people have even integrated Space Apps into their science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) curriculums.
Diversity & Inclusion
The Space Apps motto, there’s always space for one more, underpins this endeavor’s intentional effort to be inclusive. We know that at the heart of true innovation, there tends to be a diverse team whose members are fully included into the decision and implementation process. This is why the virtual bootcamp included a YouTube video playlist dedicated to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and featured videos such as “Building a Diverse Team is the ‘Secret Sauce’ to Success.” The playlist was devoted solely to highlighting the link between innovation and diversity and provided advice to participants on how to create and work in teams with different skills sets and backgrounds. In 2021 alone, nearly 30,000 people from around the world participated in the challenge and as the program grows it continues to attract participants that range in experience from students to seasoned professionals, from aspiring engineers to seasoned, award-winning technologists, and from citizen scientists to globally-recognized subject matter experts.
As part of our effort to ensure that the Space Apps community reflects the diversity that exists globally – including race and ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic status, and natural talents, skillsets, and interests – the challenges presented by Space Apps cover a wide variety of interests and levels of experience.A great example of this purposeful intentionality took place in Bangladesh. To ensure that women were not excluded, the Local Lead in Bangladesh required that all local teams include at least one woman. As a result, 90% of all teams in Bangladesh had at least one woman participating.
The challenges themselves were crafted in a way to attract teams that represent a variety of skill sets, ranging from media, art, storytelling, computer science, engineering, and a host of other fields. This intentionality encourages diverse individuals to come together around a shared passion for creative problem solving.
The Future of Space Apps
What started as an exploratory effort in 2012 is now a thriving global community built over the course of 10 years. The sustained growth of Space Apps during this time illustrates that this challenge has and will continue to contribute to the advancement of science and will empower the next generation of space professionals. I am committed to working to continuously broaden and improve this annual event to provide a richer, more accessible, and impactful experience for years to come. Looking ahead, I hope that Space Apps serves as a model for how we as a world approach problem solving.
And finally, I want to thank one more time all leaders within NASA and our partner agencies, the local Leads, and – in particular – all Space Apps participants worldwide. I absolutely love this program and I cannot wait for future implementations of this amazing innovation and engagement tool.
I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary at NASA. Over these past 5 years, we have seen great success with NASA’s Science missions. From landing on Mars to learning more about our home planet than ever before, teams across the agency are making the impossible possible. Without the incredible individuals that make up the excellent teams at NASA and its partners, none of this would be possible. So, thank you to all the people and teams that have worked with us over these 5 years to make new discoveries and push the boundaries of exploration.
With this 5-year milestone, I have been reflecting on a few of my biggest mistakes. I also hope this motivates others because it models a key truth of leadership that took me a long time to learn: “excellence is not the absence of mistakes, but a focus on constant improvement and learning”.
One thing that comes to the top of my mind is my failure early on to broaden my message regarding diversity and inclusion at NASA. This resulted in inadvertently putting up walls that kept some valuable communities out in ways I never intended. Let me explain.
When I joined NASA over 5 years ago, I was asked many times about the goals that I wanted to achieve here. I gave many answers, but none of them included the words “diversity” or “inclusion”.
But that changed based on three distinct experiences. First, we had an alarming lack of diversity in teams leading our mission proposals. With a couple of exceptions in planetary science, we did not have a single mission proposal in the rest of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) led by a female scientist, and that had been going on for several years. Additionally, mission teams were a lot less diverse than our community, perpetuating a lack of diversity even further.
Second, I witnessed instances in our own SMD leadership team that made me believe that we were caught in a situation that often leads to utter mediocracy – something known as “group-think”. I observed that important discussions did not happen and that diverse viewpoints were not heard. Even if there was some diversity in the room in terms of gender, race, etc. – these voices were not included in many of the discussions generally.
Third, roundtable discussions were implemented with early career scientists in all disciplinary communities and I was shocked by the prevalence of problems surrounding sexual harassment and just horrible experiences of biases many of our female colleagues were experiencing. There were stories I heard that literally took my sleep. It is tough to hear these stories as a father of a daughter interested in science.
We had some major problems that were holding us back from being a welcoming community, but equally importantly problems that prohibited us from getting to a standard of excellence that was otherwise possible.
It was important and urgent to embark on a journey of change. But the first challenge on this journey was one that led to one of my biggest mistakes: We needed to convince members of our team and the entire science community that we had this big problem. And I needed to do that the way scientists do – by using data!
Even though I was convinced from the beginning that we needed to focus on diversity in all dimensions, I focused my “proof of problem” and overall narrative on only one aspect of diversity – a focus on our female colleagues. Frankly, we did not have any data in NASA Science programs and competitions focused on this broader issue and the only thing we could do on the short time-scale required by the urgency of this challenge was to infer gender from names.
It was straight-forward to demonstrate the devastating impact of our implicit and explicit biases if 50% of the US was not represented in many teams, or if not one female principal investigator (PI) could be found in a research community consisting of 25-35%+ female colleagues.
I started talking about this and we started to make changes. But, I missed the importance of good language as we moved forward and fell into the trap of over-focusing on gender diversity problems in all my talks and writings. There is an important truth for all leaders: Our words matter. My failure to broaden both narratives and actions resulted in a sense in our community of color that we did not care about them in NASA’s Science Program. Similarly, our LGBTQ+ colleagues also did not see themselves in our narratives and neither did other communities. I had tidally missed the boat despite good intentions.
It took lots of engagement, mentorship and help from some of our team members as well as from trusted community members to actively and consistently helped address and mitigate my mistake. Thank you to each person who pushed to get us on the track we are on today in improving the way we welcome and include individuals from all communities into NASA Science.
We are still on this journey today. We have changed policies about how we handle harassment – we did so as an agency. We have added training, new policies and are having discussions and have made changes across our programs – from science proposals to standing review boards – to flatten the playing fields and make better decisions. We have experimented with new ways of selecting worthwhile proposals, including dual-anonymous peer reviews that have identified and removed or eliminated a number of biases. We keep experimenting and learning.
For example, No Due-Date (NDD) programs in Planetary Science launched with the release of ROSES 2021 resulted from researcher input into challenges faced during the COVID pandemic. NDD seeks to allow individual PIs the opportunity to better achieve work-life balance and to give smaller institutions with a less-robust proposal support system greater flexibility in submitting proposals. Noting the huge importance of our funding programs for the entire science community, we are also experimenting also with Inclusion Plans to put focus on these important issues. Furthermore, we are making an effort to increase partnerships across institutions to provide additional opportunities for engagement and increasing diversity of thought. Listening sessions at Minority-Serving Institutions and targeted activities in partnership with affinity groups help broaden our footprint across the research and academic landscape.
Although we have made some significant progress in parts of our ecosystem, we cannot be happy with where we are. We will continue to lend our voice and focus actions towards building a better science and technology community around NASA. For that, we need amazing vision, incredible perseverance, and follow-through, but – most importantly – the best and most capable teams we can build in all of that. And I already observe today, and I believe we will see even more clearly as we go forward, that some of the best teams are composed of wonderful individuals who never had a place in them in the past.
I’m happy to announce today that for the first time ever, a spacecraft has “touched” the Sun. Three years after launch, our Parker Solar Probe has now flown within the Sun’s inner corona, sampling particles and fields still bound to the Sun’s atmosphere.
This monumental achievement is more than 60 years in the making, the goal of a mission concept and dreams of scientists that predate NASA itself. Just as the Moon landings revolutionized our ability to study the Moon and our solar system, our first close encounter with our star marks the beginning of a new phase in solar science, one where we can ask and answer questions that had previously been out of reach.
This milestone is even more meaningful considering that this technologically-advanced spacecraft was named in honor of astrophysicist Dr. Eugene Parker. It is the first and only time a NASA spacecraft has a living individual as its namesake. I chose to advocate for naming this spacecraft after Dr. Parker as a testament to the importance of his entire body of work, work that I felt had been overlooked by many – even though it’s hard to find a scientist with a bigger or broader impact on space science.
At the heart of this work is a story of pioneering science with much perseverance: In 1958, Dr. Parker, a humble but somewhat stubborn mid-westerner, published an article sharing his theory that high-speed matter and magnetic fields were constantly – and supersonically – escaping the Sun. He predicted that this constant torrent of what came to be known as solar wind affected all the planets and space throughout our solar system. This important prediction, and eventual confirmation, ultimately informed our understanding about how stars and other astrophysical objects throughout the whole universe interact with the worlds and space around them. Not only did Dr. Parker’s work introduce a new field of science, he inspired my own research as well as crucial science questions that NASA continues to study to this day. More than 20 missions in heliophysics, planetary sciences, and astrophysics currently focus on scientific fields he significantly affected. Adding Parker Solar Probe to Dr. Parker’s legacy is among my proudest accomplishments and one that is meaningful to me even today.
What it means to “touch” the Sun requires some defining, since the Sun doesn’t have a solid crust like Earth. But it does have an invisible boundary where solar material stops being “stuck” to the Sun, and instead is free to decouple from its source and escape outward as the constantly streaming solar wind. We call this boundary the Alfvén critical surface, named after the Swedish scientist and Nobel Prize winner who made many notable contributions to plasma physics. At the Alfven surface, the solar wind begins to travel faster than the speed of the waves that can couple the wind to the surface of the Sun – which implies a speed where the solar material is traveling fast enough that it can decouple from its source in the solar atmosphere. Freed, the solar wind can now escape into space.
We have long known the Alfvén critical surface exists, but not exactly where it was located or what was within it. Based on remote images of the corona, as well as solar wind measurements in space, estimates had put the boundary somewhere between 10 to 20 solar radii (4.3 to 8.6 million miles) from the photosphere, or solar surface. But we’ve never had a spacecraft close enough to confirm those estimates and we have never gotten close enough to see what’s on the other side.
During Parker’s eighth flyby of the Sun on April 28, 2021, the spacecraft passed within 18.8 solar radii (8.127 million miles) of the photosphere when it detected the conditions scientists had long awaited. Parker was passing through what’s known as a pseudostreamer, a giant magnetic loop that extended from the corona, when the magnetic field intensified and particle speeds slowed. A combination of measurements from multiple sensors revealed that Parker had indeed crossed the Alfvén critical surface and was sampling particles that were not part of the supersonic solar wind, but the slower-moving solar atmosphere itself.
So what are we seeing on the other side? For one thing, an answer to a question that Parker Solar Probe identified soon after it launched: What is causing mysterious hairpin bends in the solar wind called “switchbacks”? We have known about switchbacks since the NASA/ESA Ulysses mission in the mid-90s, which observed S-shaped kinks in the solar wind where the Sun’s magnetic field abruptly reversed direction like a magnetic zig-zag. Due to assumptions that the solar wind was fairly stationary, we had suspected these switchbacks were relatively rare phenomena restricted to the Sun’s polar regions.
In 2019, Parker upended those assumptions when it revealed that switchbacks were plentiful in the solar wind, even in regions far from the solar poles. The new observations suggested that switchbacks would tell us more about the Sun than we had expected – but how and where they formed remained unknown.
Parker’s close pass within the solar atmosphere got us close enough to find out. On its sixth flyby, Parker measured clusters of switchbacks and found that the percentage of helium in them matched the composition of solar material at the photosphere, the solar surface. During the same flyby, a different analysis showed that the switchbacks were aligned with magnetic “funnels” in the photosphere. Together, these facts suggest that the switchbacks start near the solar surface, a dynamic, roiling region of solar material and magnetic field that looks somewhat like a searing frying pan of oil at home.
Parker will continue orbiting even closer to the Sun on upcoming flybys, reaching as close as 8.86 solar radii (3.83 million miles) from the surface at its closest approach. The next perihelion in January 2022 will likely pass through the solar atmosphere, the corona once more – meaning we are now in a very exciting time for solar science, a time when we can directly sample the Sun itself. This opens a whole new realm of solar and heliospheric science!
Finally, I want to thank Dr. Eugene Parker for the time he took with me and so many other early career scientists over 20 years ago. May we all take his intellectual courage and steadfast perseverance as an example for us as we move into the new era of science enabled by these new data. And let’s also learn from Parker’s senior colleagues who were less than welcoming of new thought when as an early career scientist, Parker brought forward his novel ideas about the solar wind and its embedded magnetic field. Instead, let’s celebrate new thought and insights, especially if they come from new community members!
It’s not a Hollywood movie, but it could be: The mathematical probabilities align such that an object in the main asteroid belt from the swarm that orbits our Sun intersects with Earth’s orbit, resulting in an asteroid impacting our planet.
On a small scale this happens all the time—causing the mesmerizing shooting stars we see in our night sky, as these objects disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere—and of the over one million known asteroids, we know that none are coming anywhere near us for at least 100 years. However, ancient craters in the Southwest United States and elsewhere serve as a reminder of large objects that have hit our planet in the past, and if one were ever to find itself headed our way again, we want to be prepared. Thus, one of NASA’s jobs is to find, track, and monitor these near-Earth objects (NEOs) and, if necessary, protect Earth should one and our planet ever find themselves on a course to be in the same place at the same time.
While it is true that some asteroids could pose a potential impact hazard to Earth, we also study them because they are mysterious relics that have existed and persevered through the solar system’s formation and evolution. They are ancient time capsules that bore witness to the formation of our cosmic neighborhood, and they are pieces of the material that formed the many bodies in our solar system—some of which coalesced into planets and stars, and others that remain orbiting the Sun, flung out as remnants of dust and rock.
Studying near-Earth objects and understanding Earth’s relationship to them is a cornerstone of our science. A sample of asteroid Bennu is currently speeding toward Earth aboard OSIRIS-REx for a Sept. 2023 delivery of what will be one of the most precious 60 grams (or possibly more!) of substance on the planet. Last month, the Lucy mission launched to study eight asteroids—the most ever visited by a single spacecraft—and will visit the Trojan asteroids that swarm Jupiter in front of and behind the gas giant’s orbit far out into our solar system. Next summer we launch Psyche to analyze a unique and metal-rich asteroid by the same name that could be the exposed core of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago. And now, we have the Double Asteroid Redirect Test, or DART, which will be humanity’s first test for planetary defense — to see if we could change the course of an asteroid should we ever discover one headed toward Earth. DART is scheduled for launch no earlier than 1:20 a.m. EST Wednesday, Nov. 24 (the day before Thanksgiving on the East Coast; 10:20 p.m. PST Tuesday, Nov. 23), on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
When DART arrives at the Didymos binary asteroid system next fall (currently scheduled to arrive between Sept. 26 and Oct. 1), it will need to differentiate between its impact target Dimorphos and the larger parent asteroid that Dimorphos orbits, Didymos — all while millions of miles away from Earth. It will do this with the help of its single instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) camera and a sophisticated suite of algorithms called SMART Nav. Once DART identifies and locks onto Dimorphos, it will kinetically impact the asteroid moonlet at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour—for reference, this means DART will cover its last four miles in one single second—which will change the amount of time it takes Dimorphos to orbit Didymos. This change in time will be measured through an international observation campaign and will be key to proving that asteroid deflection though kinetic impact is possible.
Ten days prior to impact, DART will release the LICIA CubeSat provided by our partners at ASI, the Italian Space Agency, to observe the entire operation from afar and gather further data about DART’s kinetic impact test. ESA, the European Space Agency, will also be watching closely as they look to visit the two asteroids with the HERA mission in 2026 to further examine DART’s impact site.
To be clear: The Didymos system is not a threat to Earth, nor could we nudge it and cause it to come toward Earth. This is simply a test to determine if pushing an asteroid is a repeatable, viable technique we could use in the future. If detected at a far enough distance from Earth, even a minute change that alters an asteroid’s trajectory could make the difference between an asteroid impacting our planet and avoiding it altogether.
DART is part of a new concept in spacecraft that are much smaller, more focused, and quicker to realize. Our use of CubeSats is another welcome trend that is helping us to conduct great science both near and far from our planet. We look forward to working with our Italian partners to reap all the benefit of our traveling partner LICIACube. The DART satellite also carries innovative roll-out solar arrays, a cutting-edge propulsion system, and navigation that enables it to pinpoint a small object in space and hit it even though it is moving at thousands of miles per hour. No small feat!
Yes, we need to be prepared should we ever be threatened by one of these enormous bodies emerging from the void of space, but we will remain fascinated by asteroids because of all we can learn from them. Our observation efforts are increasing, our study of these amazing relics of ancient history is unfolding their secrets, and the story of asteroids is a growing part of our scientific inquiry.
We’re exploring the solar system and the universe together – as a NASA Family and an international community who depend on the space agencies and space programs of nations of all sizes around the world to keep us safe and uncover the secrets of the cosmos for the benefit of all.
On October 16, NASA launched “my first mission”, the Lucy mission to the Trojans, a hitherto unexplored population of ancient building blocks of our solar system. It was an amazing launch!
Let me explain why I call it “my first”: From the decision to fly a mission and/or selecting it for flight, there is about 4-5 years until that mission is ready to leave this planet and launch into space.
Until today, all missions launched into space since since I started working at NASA were essentially defined or started before I joined the team. No matter what I thought of them, I lived with prior choices made without any of my initial input.
There are many truly exciting missions in this category, such as two landings on Mars, seven missions focused on our most beautiful planet Earth, the Parker Solar Probe, the James Webb Space Telescope getting ready for launch later this year, and many more.
I loved working on these marvelous missions. But, even though I tried to consciously stay away from that, I noticed that (at least in my head) I had a tendency to blame some problems/issues with them on “prior decisions”. I comforted myself sometimes with an assertion that I would have predicted certain challenges and would have addressed issues immediately, making thing better and easier for our mission teams.
Well, I now live with the good, the bad, and the ugly of total accountability with the missions I either selected or managed to get into the budget for the first time. With these decisions, I have no excuses, not even in my head.
There is good (or even great!) like today’s launch of Lucy, exactly on schedule like we imagined it in late 2016 when I made the decision. I had put a lot of effort into trying to understand the leadership team and mission. I must say I was wrong in the sense that I thought they would do well, but they did much better than I thought! It has been inspiring to watch them gel into an incredibly effective team. I thought the science was incredibly compelling and it will take 12 years for the team to harvest that. Make no mistake – there is still a long path to go, but I feel good about it based on what I saw thus far.
I also selected IXPE, an x-ray astrophysics mission and managed to get DART into the budget, both slated for launch later this year and doing well!
And then there are some bad things. For example, I thought I could overcome some systemic issues holding us back through improved decision making or implementing new leadership ideas. Well, some of our new ideas did indeed work, but giving myself a “good” across the board would be grade inflation still.
And finally, there are a few decisions I would file into the “ugly” category. Over time, I observed that decisions in this category seem to have some common sources. For example, I have gotten projects into trouble because I failed to identify or massively misjudged either a hidden political or long-held cultural influence. I think of these like dark matter in the universe – just because we cannot observe it directly does not make it any less real.
During the past years, I have learned – despite progress in many areas – that some things are just harder than I guessed. I am also even more appreciative of the many great “prior decisions” leaders have made before I joined NASA. And I am proud of our team as the vast majority of our missions are in the “good” category.
Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
I am still in awe about the most amazing launch this morning, as the Atlas V took off the launch pad in a bright light and massive thunder and moved it from earth into its exciting orbit between the planets that will surely make history yet again. One of the best teams I have observed anywhere willed this mission into being, on schedule and below cost, despite COVID.
Although this mission is nowhere near over, and problems surely will arise as they always do, I am already quite certain: This was an excellent selection – I am glad I made it, and I thank our team for their leadership and support!
Every planet changes. To document these changes and what we know about them across millennia is the goal of some of our flagship missions at Mars, Jupiter and elsewhere through our solar system.
Our own planet is another story. Because we live here, those changes in our landscape take on a more urgent, vital concern. Documenting our home from many angles and wavelengths are a fleet of Earth observation satellites operated by many nations as well as commercial entities. NASA and its agency partners help manage an incredible array of these assets.
Now we are targeting Landsat 9 for launch Sept. 27. It carries on a grand tradition that for nearly 50 years has generated a data record of our planet and its changing land, and the imprints that natural disasters and climate change have made visible from space. The world has never seen anything like the Landsat missions before. The continuity of measurements they have provided is an invaluable global asset free to all that helps us understand the very place we live – not just our continent or our nation, but our region and our city and local environment.
Begun in the early days of the 1970s during a time of heightened awareness of threats to our environment, Landsat has continued to remain relevant today. These missions help us see where the place we live – the land we depend on for survival on this ocean world – continues to evolve. We can see the decades of recovery from the Mt. St. Helens eruption, or the effects of fires that raged across the Amazon recently.
Thanks to Landsat we can see how urbanization has changed over two generations. How crops have shifted and where they are grown and how well they’re doing. And how much of our precious water there is to grow them. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Extreme weather of all sorts. We can help see what’s happened and how the environment recovers.
The Landsat missions have had perhaps more impact on peoples’ daily lives than any other Earth observation mission. They’ve had huge economic impact and are the crown jewels in our Earth fleet.
Together with our Landsat partners at the U.S. Geological Survey, we have surveyed our planet rigorously and continuously and stored and shared that information. The earliest geological surveyors plodded across massive landscapes barely scraped by human eyes and now we image the entire Earth in around two days by teaming up with the Landsat 8 satellite we’ll be working with on orbit, and a Sentinel satellite from ESA. Scientists who were not born when Landsat first began to study our planet now look forward to carrying its tradition forward.
Just imagine — at every point in our planet’s life over the past 50 years, Landsat was working hard to help us see our world. Through wars and famines and droughts and storms and manmade events. The data Landsat provides helps us understand how to live better together on the ground. End users of its data are people like farmers and disaster preparedness staff, urban planners, crop managers and food sustainability professionals. And the artists and creative among us who see how an image of a river delta can also be a tree, and about the beauty in the processes constantly shaping our changing planet. #LandsatArt
So join us Sept. 27 at 11:12a.m. PT for the launch of Landsat 9 on nasa.gov/live. Or join our Facebook event page for behind the scenes tours. And please join the global #Landsat conversation about how we study our planet and how that matters to us all.
I visited Europe this past week, from France, to Switzerland and then Spain. It was my first international trip across the Atlantic since the beginning of COVID, the longest time I have ever been away from Europe and Switzerland since I left in 1996 to build a new life on the other side of the Atlantic.
I really missed traveling. No, I do not particularly like sleeping on planes – I am too tall for the seats they build. Sitting there with a mask makes it less comfortable still. And I feel like a small part of my brain was pulled out on numerous swabs used for COVID tests. But it remains important to travel safely and I will do what it takes to protect me and others.
I still admire those flying machines that lift us above the clouds into the sky, and toward distant shores. I recall how long a boat trip would have taken in ancient times for the same trip. And, I think of the interplay of the incredible technologies associated with the first A in NASA – aeronautics.
There are few technologies and industries that bring people together more, and create understanding or even friendships where they seemed elusive at first. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, said Mark Twain, and that still holds true today.
There were many highlights on this trip – here are just a few.
I enjoyed visiting my friend and colleague, European Space Agency Science Director, Günther Hasinger. This was my first trip to Madrid and I loved it. We spent a day and aligned our programs in ways many phone and Zoom calls cannot. I will never forget our dinner together with wine, cheese and Spanish charcuterie under the Spanish night sky.
I gave a talk at the Swiss Economic Forum aligned with thier conference theme “New Horizons”. It allowed me to spread what we do at NASA to a broad audience. This mission is still the stuff of dreams. One cannot give a talk about new horizons, without talking about Pluto.
My talk was focused on the new horizons we have when exploring the universe – moving the boundary of ignorance back as fast as we know how. And it is about the important of new horizons and unprecedented and urgent collaborations as we focus on our own planet, the Earth, the most beautiful planet we have ever known. The talk was given in (somewhat broken) German. Check it out at this link.
This long awaited trip reminded me of the international and worldwide character NASA Science really does have. Whether it is visiting the company, Maxon, that built electric motors for the Ingenuity helicopter and that enable Perseverance’s sample acquisition, or the international partners in France who helped build the seismology instrument on Mars now, the best science is done when we do it together, with transparency and trust. I am proud of NASA for its aspirational goal to be the favorite and most reliable collaborator to countries around the globe seeking to explore space. For us at NASA, leadership and partnership is and remains linked, as we have a critical role in efforts of US diplomacy worldwide. We have trusted friends in so many countries, friends we look forward to seeing in person as soon as it is feasible and safe!