Remembering the Past Year as a New Season Begins

It happened again this past weekend. I was excited about my refreshing spring run, the bird songs, the beautiful flowers, and I remembered how much she loves spring. I wanted to tell her I am thinking of her. I was reaching for the phone. And then I suddenly remembered that my mother is no longer with us.

I still read her loving messages she sent me from her iPad – a skill she insisted she would never learn, then struggled with, and eventually mastered. This is how she watched me when I was on TV. This is how she read most news about me and the whole word.

She had a whole book of clippings of news articles about me – I never knew that until the very end. And it surprised me because I had sensed little interest in my work before. Obviously, I had been wrong.

I have been thinking a lot about the 500,000+ US families and millions worldwide and the tens of millions of children and friends whose lives will not be the same anymore, changed by COVID. I think about the grandparent who left prematurely, the mothers who will never be grandmothers, the Holocaust survivors whose stories died with them, those who were freedom fighters, the courageous immigrants who were finally brought down.

I received my second vaccine a few days ago. I am deeply grateful for the scientists and those who helped produce this vaccine in record time. I am happy and hopeful that we can soon wake up from this nightmare we have been in for over a year.

And when this is part of the past, let’s not forget that the scars from this will be a reality for millions of families for years. They too will have gaping holes in their lives they struggle with. And they too will need time to heal and learn what it means to have fewer people on Earth who truly love them. They too will need help.

My condolences and thoughts to all of you who lost loved ones this past year! May you feel the love and friendship in your lives and may you have the courage to ask for help when needed!

P.S.: Check out this 80s song I re-discovered recently. I really needed help when it came out in as I feared I had lost my family forever, and it therefore spoke to me then. It again speaks to me today as we all need to learn to ask for help and learn to listen to others when they need help. Most don’t do it as beautifully as Tina Turner: https://youtu.be/4cro7kZKG2c

Stories of Perseverance

The most recent robotic inhabitant of our planetary neighbor Mars is called Perseverance, as anybody knows by now. Many people have talked about how fitting this name is, and especially how it makes us all feel. Perseverance – doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success – is a quality we all need, and especially during the past year.
Each of us have stories of Perseverance, and here is mine.
As the head of NASA science, it is my job to select or approve the name of Science missions, and I had the task yet again approximately a year before launch to select from tens of thousands of names submitted by children from all around. A great team of NASA colleagues had taken the thousands and reduced them to a handful of finalists. One name that immediately stuck out in my mind was Perseverance, submitted by Virginia middle schooler Alex Mather. In addition to the compelling nature of his submission, this name also spoke to me.
I had experienced in my life how challenging so many things were for me and I had long felt that perseverance was in every way as important in both innovation and exploration as are vision and curiosity. I was immediately leaning towards Perseverance, but that scared me, because I had learned that my fastest decisions were not always my best.
I therefore asked the Mars2020 program manager Matt Wallace for a favor that would stray us away from the way things are typically done in this process. I asked him to bring no more than 20 Mars2020 team members into a room for a strictly confidential discussion about naming the rover. I arrived at JPL after a horrendous trip and only a couple of hours of sleep and walked into this room. But, I was not the one who looked the most tired – some of the individuals had just come from a shift and looked exhausted.
I had a simple question to them: “if you had my job, which one of the name finalists would you choose?” After a hour long discussion, it was clear: the majority of them would choose Perseverance, just like me. I made the final decision within a day of this meeting: the Mars2020 rover would be known as Perseverance, a choice I never regretted since.
Within hours of my visit to JPL, I received three independent phone-calls from NASA leaders who were part of my meeting with the staff. “Perseverance is not inspiring and no one can spell it”, said one of them. Another one worried about what others would think about NASA or JPL: “People will think that you are sending a signal of mistrust. You are making it feel like we struggled with this mission.” My simple answer was: “Thanks for your input. Just one simple question: didn’t you struggle?” I knew the answer and it is the same for all missions. And one academic leader I deeply respect called me and asked me: “Do you know who selected this name? I can’t believe this. NASA is losing it.”
And then came mid-March when all of the US was shutting down due to COVID and we were getting ready for an exercise in perseverance the likes of which none of us bargained for.
On the first day of the shut-down and after observing some initial decisions, I made two phone calls. The first one was to my then boss Administrator Jim Bridenstine and I asked him for his support to make Perseverance of highest priority to NASA throughout COVID. My arguments were simple. First and foremost, I knew quickly that we were going to be in for the long haul and I also believed that the country and the world would need something to feel good about. With both a launch and a difficult landing, Perseverance was the best mission we had for that. Secondly, I pointed out that a delay of Perseverance would cost the tax payers a billion dollars or more. Jim was supportive and committed his full support in this manner.
My second phone call was even tougher than the first one. I called up Matt Wallace and I told him that I and the agency had every intent to make Mars2020 Perseverance a highest priority mission and that he could count on all the support from NASA. But, I asked for a commitment from him: “If you ever feel that it is no longer safe for our people, call me. I will stop the project with no questions asked.” Matt said he appreciated that and committed that he would do so. He added “I will be sure that our people are safer at work than they would be at home”. The numbers support that he did just that.
Needless to say – what Matt and the team did is nothing short of extraordinary. Everybody pulled in the same direction. The JPL engineers in integration and test gave personal sacrifice, sometimes being separated from their families for months. The software teams worked harder than ever before and under difficult conditions. JPL leaders built safe protocols for work and for testing, often ahead of the entire agency. And at headquarters we helped the team with full support, including research aircraft to be utilized to transport both cargo and key personnel for highest safety standards.
I have never felt more close to Matt and the entire JPL leadership team than during this. Similarly, the CEO of the United Launch Alliance was making a commitment to launch Mars2020/Perseverance safely and on time. We all talked regularly and founds ways forward.
Billions around the Earth have seen Perseverance land and thousands of journalists have talked about the name Perseverance and how fitting it is for 2021. The world has gotten to know some of the amazing team members and listened to their excitement and their stories of perseverance. And their work has inspired many with cities and municipalities turning lights to red in the US and around the world in celebration. Most eloquently, the US president talked what he felt in his congratulatory call to JPL.
Finally, since its almost miraculous launch and landing in the middle of COVID, there has been not one person who told me that Perseverance is the wrong name. Middle schooler Alex Mather was right all along: Perseverance is the most important quality in humans who want to explore!

Looking Back at the Last 25 Years

This week 25 years ago I got on a plane from Zurich to Chicago. I had sold my belongings in Switzerland, packed two suitcases, and shipped a few boxes of office supplies and books to Ann Arbor. I was excited to spend one or two years as a research fellow in the United States, improve my English, and then go back to Switzerland. I had a plan!
In part, I was trying to get away from personal problems and a complex family situation that had weighed on my spirit for years. I did not see eye to eye with my parents and especially not with my father, an evangelist and leader of a Christian fundamentalist church. He was a great man by all accounts, but I was a bitter disappointment to him – he had hoped I would take over his church as he got older. Be in the family business, so to say.
In part, I was pulled to the US to learn and explore new things. When getting on that plane that week, I could count on one hand all plane trips I had ever taken before. And, even though I did not know anything about the US, I was excited to jump in with both feet and learn.
I am glad I did not know that day that my time in the US would exceed 25 years (not the 1-2 years I was planning), that I would find love and a new home and eventually build a new family. In fact, If someone told me what was going to happen as I got on that plane – about my family, my career as a researcher, a professor and as a leader at NASA – I would have ridiculed their assertions. The move would have been much much tougher: I know how to make a decision to move for 1 year, but not for 25 years.
I would have worried about the wrong things and ignored what is most important. It turns out I was successful here not because I achieved the goals I had that week 25 years ago, but because I found new goals I could not have even dreamt of.
So, as I look back on these 25 years, I have two conclusions:
First, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to all who helped me during these 25 years and especially to the United States and its citizens who over and over again surprised me with generosity and love and an open spirit. Yes, I know we are a complex country with important challenges. But, I have never regretted making this my new home! I am a direct manifestation of the dreams and hope that continue to build America.
Secondly, I think about the value of planning, and especially the usefulness (or lack thereof!) of long-term plans. Whether it is career planning or long term life plans – overarching values matter, planning is good, but plans are useless because they miss one major ingredient: at a given time – and especially when we are young – we cannot even imagine all the possibilities that we will learn about later. Life is so much more surprising and richer than we can ever guess!
No, we do not need a long term plan for a happy and successful life. Instead, we need big leaps of faith and great people who support and love us along the way, whom we can support and love in return!
Thanks to all of you who have been and continue to be part of my adventure!

Welcoming NASA Science’s New Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration

I am happy to announce that I have made a selection to permanently fill the Science Mission Directorate’s position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration (DAAX). Dr. Joel Kearns will join us on February 1 to begin working with us and our stakeholders in this critical role at NASA Headquarters. 

I would like to give my appreciation and thanks to Dr. Dave Burns, who has done an excellent job in keeping the Exploration Science Strategy and Integration Office (ESSIO) portfolio moving forward by developing and strengthening partnerships,  strategies and activities for robotic and human exploration at the moon and beyond.  Most notably, Dave has been instrumental in leading the efforts managing the Commercial Lunar and Payload Services initiative.  Dave and the ESSIO team have been absolutely critical in the burgeoning lunar economy that will deliver payloads to the lunar surface at a cadence of approximately two per year beginning in 2021. 

Joel has more than 32 years of experience in leadership roles at multiple NASA centers and in private industry.  He is currently the director of Facilities, Test and Manufacturing at NASA’s Glenn Research Center  in Cleveland. He leads efforts that encompass facility infrastructure, aerospace testing, flight research aircraft, on-site manufacturing and environmental management.  

He previously served as the deputy director of GRC’s Space Flight Systems Directorate, providing executive direction of projects assigned to Glenn in human exploration and operations, space science and space technology 

Joel also previously served as an executive at NASA Headquarters in human spaceflight, and at both the Ames Research Center in California and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where he worked on programs as varied as the space shuttle and SOFIA. He has also held positions in industry. 

Joel was awarded the U.S. Government’s Presidential Rank of Meritorious Senior Executive in 2009. He is also an inventor on four patents for single crystal growth technology! We look forward to his insight and expertise as we move ahead with the many facets of critical work to return to the lunar surface. 

A Dashboard and a Declaration

We all know what a tough year it’s been. At this year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), however, it’s been great to see so much hope delivered by science, to see how much discovery and enthusiasm for exploring our world and our universe continue no matter what. The AGU always provides thought provoking presentations and discussions. But this year in particular, it demonstrates the power of science to bring us together as a community to explore unique questions and look at our planet and the cosmos through fresh eyes.

Our world’s quarantine for much of the year has resulted in some dramatic observations from our Earth orbiting satellites, and those findings have been on display with posters and presentations and many dialogues at AGU.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is a partnership in response to the global pandemic by NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), who joined forces this summer to use the collective scientific power of their Earth-observing satellite data to document planet-wide changes in the environment and human society. And we made the wealth of our agencies’ collective information available at the touch of a finger, free and open to all.

In an unprecedented collaboration, the three space agencies created the joint COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard, which integrates multiple satellite data records with analytical tools to allow user-friendly tracking of changes in air and water quality, climate change, economic activity, and agriculture.

This tri-agency data resource gives the public and policymakers a unique tool to probe the short-term and long-term impacts of pandemic-related restrictions implemented around the world. The dashboard will continue to grow with new observations added over the coming months as the global economy gradually reopens.

And now at AGU, we three agencies have signed a declaration to continue this valuable global resource through June of next year. Below, I’ve pasted the text of our shared declaration, read at and AGU at the panel ‘Science in the time of COVID-19,’ but I want to leave you with the words of my friend, Dr. Michael Freilich, about why we do things such as the COVID-19 Earth observation dashboard.

Mike said, “Earth system science is bigger than any particular agency.  It’s bigger than any single nation.  It’s bigger than any single continent. And I surely hope, because humanity requires it, that we make some significant progress in understanding it.”

With that strong message from an inspirational leader, here’s the declaration: 

Joint Declaration at the American Geophysical Union, December 2020, by NASA, ESA and JAXA

Today NASA, ESA, and JAXA commit to continue through June 2021 to advance their joint work in understanding the environmental changes in air quality, greenhouse gases, water quality, agriculture, and economic activity due to COVID-19, an effort that began in April 2020 with the establishment of a tri-agency Earth observation dashboard. This decision continues the unprecedented collaboration, and open sharing of data, modern indicator analysis, open source analytical tools and scientific knowledge and expertise involving our agency experts to integrate agency datasets to observe, analyze, and communicate COVID-19 related environmental changes to the public and to policymakers around the world. Over the next 6 months, the agencies will continue to jointly advance our understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on the Earth from the unique perspective of space while making the data openly available through the joint dashboard.

Over the next six months, additional data will be collected to further enhance the indicators and to allow the study of more regions and hot spot areas impacted by COVID-19. Socioeconomic and other field experts will be invited to collaborate and accelerate the analysis and understanding of the impacts enabled by the open dashboard datasets.

In addition, NASA, ESA, and JAXA will welcome other space agencies and organizations sharing similar values to join this initiative and contribute with their data and expertise to further expand this international Earth observation dashboard.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator Science Mission Directorate at NASA

Josef Aschbacher, Director, Earth Observation Programmes at ESA

Koji Terada, Vice President and Director General, Space Technology Directorate I at JAXA

Family Traditions

As we have gone to virtual meetings, we get to look into the lives of our collaborators and friends in ways we never see under normal circumstances. And as we start December and holiday season, we also remember our traditions that are defining, in part, where we are from and who we are. Let me share a glimpse into one of my traditions and specifically what I did all Sunday.
Besides Holy Evening and Christmas on December 24th and 25th respectively, and St. Nicklaus Day on December 6th, there was ONE holiday tradition that meant everything to me as a kid – the day we made Christmas Cookies.
Many of you know that my father was a preacher and leader of a religious evangelical community, but few know that he was a professional baker before that time. He had gone through an apprenticeship and learned how to make bread, assemble cakes, bake cookies and much more.
So that day in early December each year was a family highlight: we would all come together as a family and contribute as best we could as my father was stepping  back to his first career as a baker. When we were little kids, all we could do is cut stars or hearts out of the cookie dough or eat some left-overs and later we got to do more. But my father set the speed and accuracy in a logistically challenging activity of baking 5-10 types and batches of cookies with one oven in sufficient quantities to last for the entire holiday season.
I have lived in the United States for almost 25 years and I have never baked any of the Swiss cookies until this year. I honestly cannot explain why not – too busy, too lazy? I always loved them and they fill me with the inner warmth of memories of a great family holiday tradition.
So, when our daughter Maria returned from her exchange year to Switzerland, she brought with her the same love for these cookies. And now, there was no escape.
On Sunday morning around 9 am, and after the necessary coffee, we made a plan to bake 7 different batches of cookies. We got help during a phone call to my older sister in Switzerland – the keeper of our family traditions – who gave us some “how-to”s and tricks and we were off to the races!
I totally loved the 5-6 hrs of family-time and the satisfaction of making something with nearly instantaneous and beautiful results! (In the pictures you’ll see  Zimtsterne, Mailänderli, Vanille and Choco Sablés, and Spitzbuebe.)
And I loved remembering the childhood memories and even some tricks my father showed me. I specifically remembered his soft hand guiding mine as a kid and me observing him in the kitchen and how he handled steps in the process.
And I profoundly missed my father and my mother who have left this world within the last few years. In moments like this, it feels like we chatted only last week and we said good bye with a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek just a month ago! And the sorrow is right back in my life and a big awareness of the hole that will never be filled again. We will always love them and miss them.
With that, I wish all of you, our NASA colleagues and collaborators nothing but the best for this months and for the year to come. I hope you have already ordered our amazing 2021 calendar – another SMD tradition – and if not, you can do so, here: in English and in Spanish.

An Exciting Day for Science and Exploration

Today marks an exciting and historic event as precious samples from asteroid Ryugu have been brought to Earth by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 mission. This is an extremely challenging endeavor and we commend and congratulate Japan on being not only the first nation that has been able to carry out a successful asteroid retrieval mission, but to now have done so for the second time!

We are excited about our collaboration between JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission and NASA’s asteroid sample return mission – OSIRIS-REx, which extracted a sample from near-Earth asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20. Our mutually beneficial partnership with Japan allows us to share samples from NASA’s mission at Bennu and receive a portion of JAXA’s sample from Ryugu. Together, we will gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, and the source of water and organic molecules that could have seeded life on Earth.

Asteroid Ryugu
Asteroid Ryugu Image Credit & Copyright: ISAS, JAXA

Our model of sharing samples is a testament to the unprecedented partnership For the U.S. and Japan have built over half a century in aeronautics research and human and robotic space exploration. Together, our two spacecraft have traveled millions of miles to touch the ancient solar system. With Hayabusa2’s return today, and OSIRIS-REx’s return in less than three years, we will be able to share the science and insights we gain from these invaluable samples with all of humanity.

The fact that humans can launch a spacecraft from Earth, have it rendezvous so accurately with a small target and delicately touch the surface to collect a sample is just incredible and shows the tenacity of the human spirit. Missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx give us hope. They inspire us to persevere through the many challenges faced with such challenging endeavors, and they teach us the power of working together – not as one nation or as one agency, but together as humans who share a home on this pale blue dot.

Asteroid Bennu
Asteroid Bennu Credit: NASA

And what’s most exciting is that this is just the beginning. The return of Hayabusa-2 is the start of a decade of trailblazing missions to explore the Moon together, as part of Artemis, and to return samples from distant bodies, including JAXA’s upcoming Martian Moons eXploration mission and NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission. Our collaboration with Japan will provide invaluable science and critical knowledge for expanding humanity’s presence deeper into the solar system.

Congratulations again to JAXA and its partners, the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Government of Australia including the Australian Space Agency), and to the Japanese people. This is a great day for science and exploration.

 

Striving for Excellence in Everything We Do

After the excitement of the successful OSIRIS-REx Touch-and-Go that collected what is probably a very large sample of asteroid Bennu, I left Colorado where the mission was being controlled a week before its first snow fall of the season. Among all of the East Coast travelers, I was the only one who was truly sad about this. Yes, I love winter and snow, and especially the one outdoors activity I love more than anything else: downhill skiing.

My favorite version of downhill skiing is one that combines solitude, nature experiences, and a great workout. It is therefore not bound to tracks and slopes, but to deep snow, trees, chutes and moguls. Achieving mastery skiing in this expert terrain is something I have been working on for decades, and I have enjoyed seeing how my kids have moved from novices to experts over the years, and how they have achieved mastery in this challenging activity. Mastery in any sport or in challenging aspects of our work is truly exhilarating and a source of joy and satisfaction.

As a former professor and now leader of NASA’s science program, I have been thinking about achieving mastery — whether it is in rocket science or on the ski slopes — and I thought I would share some of the thoughts that are most important to me.

        • Achieving mastery is a continuing process, not a goal that is achieved in one day

I need to ski every year, and push against my limitations, otherwise I lose my edge. In my professional life, I have been asked many questions along the lines: “what do I need to do to achieve this huge performance goal?” revealing an underlying assumption that there is a single or best path to that goal. Achieving big goals is not about a given path, but the process of relentless searching and iterating, about learning from others and about continual improvement.

        • Apprenticeship and mentorships are critical for progress

I improve most when I ski with people who are better than me. I have friends like Dave Dougherty, Heidi Voelker, or my cousins Matthias and Trude, who ski at a level I likely will never achieve. Some of them are world cup champions and Olympians. But, every time I manage to even spend a day with them, I get better. Similarly, I learned building space instruments from experts. Some of them had Ph.Ds like me, but some of the most relevant lessons came from engineers, and technicians who taught me the discipline of doing space hardware.

        • Fake it till you make it

When you get into tough terrain, you just have to have the courage to ski. Heidi Voelker told me: just fake it till you make it. There is no book you can read about skiing moguls that makes you a substantially better mogul skier. Reding books is good, but you need to ski. Just fake it till you make it. That optimistic approach is one common togreat space mission teams as well. There are many instances, there is no rulebook that tells you what to do. You just have to try. OSIRIS-REx, for example, was confronted by a landscape unlike what had been expected, and the team, from millions of miles away, had to adapt and find new ways to reach their goals – doing exploration in real time!

        • Follow the first rule of tree-skiing – focus on the gaps and not the trees

Skiing in deep snow and within trees is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life, but it is also scary. If you hit an obstacle with speed, the best outcome is that you only miss the rest of the day of skiing. There is a simple rule: look at where you want to ski and do not get sidetracked by the rocks and trees in the way. That focus on the goal must be in all we do. If we start primarily focusing on obstacles we will surely fail.

        • It is all about rhythm

Skiing at the expert level has a lot of similarities to dancing – it is about rhythm, about repetition and about movement. If you are not loose, you cannot ski for a whole day. Similarly, achieving mastery for most people is about rhythm, about repetition and approaches that repeatedly help them find success. If each of the steps is unnatural and forced, it is hard to be the best version we can be, no matter what the task at hand. But we must also work to enforce what is blocked to achieve that rhythm.

        • It is important to take breaks

One of the most important lessons in expert skiing is to stop when you are tired. People who disrespect that rule tend to run a much higher risk of injuring themselves. Breaks are not about being weak, but about nourishment and refocusing. I believe that is also true for rocket science. Yes, there are times we just have to push through, but in the long run, teams who do not take breaks will themselves break, and leaders who do not know their own limitations will hurt their teams.

I do not know whether I can ski this season due to COVID, but I will do whatever I can to get in a few days. In the meantime, I find my skiing lessons in my space projects.

According to my observations, the OSIRIS-REx team achieved full mastery of many of these lessons. I saw them practicing approaches for months, dealing with challenges in Bennu’s orbit and working to build a cohesive well-trained team. I saw them handle surprises and managing them while focusing on the goal, while staying loose and focused. And, I saw them take a break one late evening to ensure that the team was ready the next day, to handle any issues that could result from the sample container not being locked in – a good problem to have due to the incredible success for which they’d worked so hard.

I never get tired of observing a team that is achieving mastery, just like I can’t stop watching skiers from the ski lift managing tough terrains. It is beautiful and it motivates all of us to get even better at what we do.

Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team for their historic achievements during the past three weeks! And for anyone seeking mastery over life’s challenges – keep working at it!

Making Progress Through Ups and Downs

Here are two anecdotes about personal growth and about achieving goals.

About three years after my PhD, I received a note from NASA that I had lost another proposal and I was distraught about my self-assessed lack of success in my scientific career. To discuss whether there was any hope for me, I walked into Len Fisk’s office and I learned something that has turned into one of the best lessons I received in life.

Len Fisk is a member of the National Academies, a former NASA Associate Administrator of Science, and the guy who gave me my first job after my PhD. In his cool way, swinging his legs up on his desk, and slowing his language down for emphasis, he said: “When it comes to the important things in life, focus on the low frequencies!” He added, “It is never about just one proposal, and one talk, one disappointment or one joy; it is about making progress through ups and downs, learning new things over time even if it feels hard. That is how to build a career.”

What he meant is that there is merit in plugging along and methodically working at things and succeeding in solving the smaller problems (low frequencies), rather than waiting and focusing on those larger-than-life transformative things all of the time. There is room for both, and it’s important to remember the balance.

Everybody who has worked with me knows about my impatience and how it can be a strength but – even more so – when it can be a weakness: “Focus on the low frequencies.” Yes, change needs to occur, if we want to lead, but lasting change – in our lives and in the world – never depends on one single win or one loss. It depends on the low frequencies.

I had started the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, and we were making great progress towards building some of the most creative and impactful curricula anywhere, and some of the companies we helped foster were starting to turn into successes. Just like at the beginning of this experience, I asked my mentors about what I should be doing now. My biggest worry was that, although I had learned much about innovation, I was not a tried and true business entrepreneur. I discussed with this Fred Gibbons (go look up his resume, and you will understand why I was intimidated). This startup entrepreneur and mentor has been at the heart of the technology revolution in my lifetime and has personally affected Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, as well as many others.

After listening to me with patience, Fred said: “You are doing great – congrats! It would be a huge mistake if you left now. You would never learn what the actual problems are”, he continued to explain, “innovation takes time and people who leave too early never learn how big their ideas can be.”

I remember being disappointed leaving this meeting. Why did Fred not see the amazing work I did and why did he not understand my weaknesses that surely were going to affect the trajectory of this experiment in entrepreneurship and innovation? Nonetheless, I took his advice and stayed on for another few years.

I left the UM entrepreneurial programs after about 7 years. I can now look at the first 3.5 years and the second 3.5 years and judge both the impact of my work and my own learning. Perhaps as much as 80% of our impact and most of my learning came from the second half, just like Fred had predicted.

I have mentored many young leaders and professionals and I have learned the value of Fred’s wisdom: many are driven by impatience and worry about speed. They miss, just like me, a healthy assessment of their own progress and their own learning – innovation takes time, change takes time. Yes, the low frequencies also count when it comes do career decisions – don’t hasten, give yourself time to grow and learn. And when learning slows, move on without regret.

Len Fisk’s lesson about focusing on the low frequencies is about the wisdom of leading a proactive life, whether it is in science, in our personal lives, and also when it comes to societal issues that we deeply care about. Real and lasting change takes time – it takes a focus on the mountain climb and not the rocks in our path.

Just before I walked out of his office on that day, he said “Thomas, one more thing”. I stopped at the door and turned around with surprise – it felt I already got a good dose of mentorship, what else was there to say?  With the same calmness, he gave me the next lesson, looking directly into my eyes: “Thomas, when are you submitting your next proposal?”

The recognition that we should “focus on the low frequencies” in our lives should never be understood to slow down action and lessen drive towards our goals. We want to be patient and impatient at the same time – patient for the impact to evolve, impatient in trying to make it so. And, like Fred told me: we want to be sure that we grow and learn in the process. Because ultimately, we want to be ready to support our teams once we reach that goal and we find an even better one at the horizon!

Finally, many may think that this post is about patience, and focus in our lives. That is true. It is about something else just as important: mentorship is a precious good that can truly change our lives. It changed mine.

Find great mentors and listen carefully! But just as importantly, be a great mentor to others – that too is to focus on low frequencies, because our mentees will surely surpass us if we do it right!

Inspiring Through Science

Inspiration is defined as “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”. I love that definition, especially because “inspiration” is a crucial part and high-level priority of NASA’s Science Program. Inspiration is not just about information – it is about something much tougher: “to have somebody feel something,” and – even tougher: “to have somebody do something.”

I have been thinking a lot about inspiration during the time of COVID. There are three questions that have been on my mind – why? who? how?

Why inspiration from science? If there is anything we have learned from the last few months, it is that science is about two key values that matter today – collaboration and hope.

We inhabit a single planet, and we are deeply interconnected to each other. We look at the same amazing night sky and we breathe the same air. In the same way, science is cross-cutting, international and connecting. Even though funded by countries and – in most cases – national entities like NASA, science is an activity where human energy is truly aligned. I am proud that NASA understands that at its core, and NASA Science has over 400 agreements with international entities to prove it.

I remember attending my first science conference. Even though I did not understand much about the technical topics presented, it was clear that we were one team of people working on the same thing. Some of them were part of the former Soviet Union and others from Europe and the US, but they knew and respected each other. Science is a language that connects us and allows us to make progress together using the same rules and playing field. It is sad to see when national actions take the power of science away for short time gains. We know of other challenges as well. But what makes science inspiring and enduring is that it builds bridges and increases the space we live and think in for all of us.

Science is also about hope. If you do not believe that, listen to any well-researched broadcast about COVID anywhere on Earth. When and how we can go back to work in person, depends on the struggle of an international science community pushing towards better understanding, a vaccination, and a cure. There is also hope and inspiration in exploring Mars, our universe, our Sun, and our planet – each project demonstrates the power of teams to go beyond their own limitations and to transcend obstacles. What worries me most about those who do not understand science take away from that hopeful experience. Instead, in times of crisis, we need hope more than ever, we need inspiration to light the way.

Who should inspire? It turns out that really matters, and even more so than I thought before I joined NASA. I know I lead NASA’s science program and it is important that I am part of its inspirational activities. And when I speak, I am more inspiring to a kid growing up in the mountains, who sees himself in me, than when others speak. I have observed young girls react positively to female leaders because they see themselves in them. I have seen friends doing outreach in other languages, and I have observed how people react to them. I have observed young kids of color react very differently to my friends talking who look just like them. If we want to reach the broadest audience possible, we need ourselves to have breadth in various dimensions. We have taken deliberate actions to address that. For example, I was proud of the Mars 2020 Perseverance broadcast because we celebrated our team and not just the top three people. We need to do better consistently when it comes to “who,” and we are committed to increasing our reach by focusing on that.

And how should we inspire? The most important element of inspiration is what I mentioned at the very top: it is about making others feel and do things. The “how of inspiration” is therefore all about them and far less about us. For science stories to move people, they need to be understandable and not naïve – nobody wants to feel like people don’t actually try to explain and instead give shallow answers. Great communication and great inspiration starts with caring for the other, getting to know them, and by empathy for them. It is about learning and doing better continually. Yes, science is about beauty and the sense of awe you feel when looking at the sky, or the sea. It is about the devastating power of a thunderstorm, a hurricane or a solar flare, and exploding stars. It is about the vastness of space, full of our curiosity about the rules and order that permeates apparent chaos. It is about the order of atoms, about chemicals that are made up by this and possibly turn into something incredible – life itself.

Yes, science is also about people, about their stories and about struggle. Before our solar mission was named after Dr. Eugene Parker, it was a great engineering project, once it was attached to the story of our friend Dr. Parker, it inspired. I remember how worried my good friend and public relations lead was when I wanted to talk about our struggles developing a mission during a press conference. I don’t know about you, but I am not inspired to feel and do by people who are perfect – I may admire heroes, but I am reminded every day that I am not a hero – they do not inspire me. I want to work with people who – like me – struggle. Because that gives me hope that I can do something as well. My life can matter also. So, why do we think people listening to our stories are different than us in that way?

My biggest worry about the “how of inspiration” of science is that many of us are happy to inspire people who are already “in the choir” – the <1% of people who read our stories and love them already. Trust me, it feels great to give a speech with rousing applause from thousands of people who know you and at the end queue up to get an autograph. But, I always wonder who is NOT in the room. Who are the people we are missing? And, how can we find additional ways to talk to them and open up doors so they too can get that amazing sense of hope and excitement that not only gives good information, but inspires them – they are stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative!

Finally, I want to thank all who in their lives work on this important challenge – your work of inspiring others really matters!