NASA’s DART Makes First-Time Test of Planetary Defense Experiment

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.

I hope you will join our planetary defense efforts by signing up to become a Planetary Defender, and by watching the DART launch on Nov. 23 from wherever you live for the start of this next chapter.

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.

Launching Lucy to the Trojan Asteroids

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!
Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
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!

The Incredible Landsats Continue an Unprecedented Record Studying Earth

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.

New Horizons

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!

Launching the World’s Biggest Space Telescope

We are getting ready to launch the biggest space telescope ever built – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Its scientific promise is breathtaking. Discoveries ranging from imaging the first galaxies in the universe, analyzing the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, and even making discoveries in our solar system – the Webb space telescope is a dream come true for astronomers and science fans alike.
Later this year, we expect to see Webb leave our planet on an Ariane V rocket. I attended a launch a couple of days ago which used the same Ariane V vehicle design and launch-pad (see pic below). It was amazing.
For most missions, launch contributes the majority of mission risk – if the spacecraft is in space, most risk is behind us. There are few types of missions that are very much different with most risk coming *after* launch.
We have already performed one such mission in February when we landed on Mars. For the Perseverance rover, only 10-20% of the risk was retired during launch, perhaps 50% during the landing, and we are in the middle of the residual risk burn down as we are getting ready to drill and collect the precious Mars samples with the most complex mechanical system ever sent to another planet.
The second such mission this year is Webb. Like a transformer in the movies, about 50 deployments need to occur after launch to set up the huge system. With 344 so-called single point failures – individual steps that have to work for the mission to be a success – this deployment after launch will keep us on edge for 3 weeks or so. For comparison, this exceeds single point failures for landing on Mars by a factor of 3, and that landing lasted only 7 minutes.
Those who are not worried or even terrified about this are not understanding what we are trying to do. We have worked hard to build the team for this task and it has been a tough journey at times. This mission has a long story with chapters that required perseverance and strength. But the team is strong, and has overcome some of the toughest challenges, which leads us to today.
We are where we are because Webb has some of the best engineers and leaders I have ever met and they have continued when others were ready to give up. And now, they are closing off the final checkouts and folding the telescope for the last time on Earth. Webb is nearly ready to take flight. And that puts the team in position to set up this magnificent telescope one million miles from Earth!
I have been thinking about what I have learned since I have become part of the Webb team and it’s leader during the past 5 years. Here is the most important one: the power of purpose and hope!
I know each of my colleagues is different in how they handle this. Personally, I deal with the challenges of Webb and it’s scary aspects with focus on that future and think about it – all the time. And I think about how I can take that energy and help the team even more.
It is incredible how much power and energy can be derived from hope of achieving something totally worth it! And thinking about it and talking about it pulls us into this desirable future that seems so elusive at best.
Hope it is not an empty feeling and self illusion, it is locking onto the goal and not allowing anything to pull the attention off it! It is allowing this desirable future pull us towards it – step by step, together as an ever-improving team!
So, on Friday, when I watched and felt the Ariane 5 rocket lift into the clouds and disappear into the sky, I thought of the tremendous work and hope that will sit on top of a similar rocket later this year.
I can’t wait to see it leave Earth, finally. It is time for another shot at making history!

A New Perspective

I got glasses. Not sunglasses , not cool shades to wear on a boat or a deck with friends in shorts and gym shoes. Actual glasses – ones that make the fuzzy world sharper again, make us look and feel older, and ones that allow me to read books again with ease. I did not want glasses, but I needed them.
Even though I had noticed a slow deterioration of my eyesight during the years prior, I never had glasses or contacts my entire life and throughout the past year, when I started staring at monitors 8+ hrs per day.
We all struggled over the past year in more ways than one, but the part that was most discouraging for me personally was the increasing lack of sharpness in my eyesight up close and over time also at computer distances. Finally, and being fully vaccinated, there was no escape – I signed up with one of the local eye doctors and got glasses. They work like magic.
With this experience, I have been thinking a lot about getting better vision, and primarily from two perspectives – about getting old, and correcting a perspective that got out of whack.
With the death of my good parents and so many friends and mentors especially during the past year, I have been becoming more aware that I am getting older. More people ask me for my opinion now then when I was young. As a result of this, I have been thinking a lot about the important difference between having experiences and having wisdom.
Being older, we have seen more situations, we have experienced more leaders – good and bad ones, and we have observed ideas of all quality levels show back up after 10+ years, pushed by people who are not aware of their sorry history. We have read more books and listened to speeches – both trivial and profound ones. We so often sit in meetings and notice that have more experience than most in the room! But, do we have wisdom?
Wisdom is not the sum of our experiences, but the ability to see within these experiences principles and values of broader applicability and potential to improve the human condition. It takes much work to gain wisdom from experiences – deep reflection, and thoughtful and iterative analyses of self and others.
Instead, as we get older, we risk looking at the world in ways that are decreasingly flexible like the lenses in my eyes. We are sure we know! We may blend out entire spaces or only look at them with such prejudice that learning cannot occur at all. We do not feel comfortable facing questions anymore, questions that broaden our field of vision. Instead, we look at ever less with ever more certainty. And we do not notice that we may have experiences but lack wisdom.
So, as I get used to my new glasses, I also want to broaden my field of view and be open to new perspectives. I want to read more, listen to podcasts, meet different people, and learn from them. In doing this, I try to not just get older and more experienced, but to further gain wisdom that affect positivity those I encounter each day and others, too.
I like my new glasses because they remind me to keep a close eye on my perspective!

Marking the Earth Observing Dashboard’s One-Year Anniversary with a Hackathon

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage last year, I thought about how NASA could marshal its resources to help benefit people worldwide. We know that Earth observations provide us with a satellite view of our home planet and offer a unique perspective on any number of macro changes happening here on Earth. So together with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), we combined resources to strengthen our understanding of the effects of the global pandemic. As a result, we unveiled the Earth Observing Dashboard in June 2020. I am really proud of this effort because the dashboard offers the public access to an array of COVID-related Earth observation data captured by the three space agencies. It allows anyone to see, from a satellite-view, the effects that COVID-19 is having on our economies, our environment, shipping patterns and more around the globe.

June 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the dashboard’s creation. We thought a great way to commemorate the occasion would be to host a global hackathon and invite participants to tackle challenges related to the intriguing data contained in the dashboard. If you’ve ever been curious about how people’s shopping behaviors changed during COVID, or how the lockdown orders affected carbon dioxide levels or water quality, check out the dashboard. If you’re interested in solving challenges using this data or helping to improve the dashboard itself, we would welcome your participation in the Earth Observation Dashboard Hackathon from June 23-29, 2021.

 

To give you some examples, the dashboard includes a nighttime lights indicator derived from the Suomi-NPP Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which shows how the pandemic lockdown measures affected businesses, highways, and nightlife by revealing changes in light activity at night by tracking changes in energy use, migration and transportation activity patterns.

Second, when the pandemic impacted the ability of governments to perform in-person field surveys to monitor the progress of food crops, Earth observation-based data used for the Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) Global Crop Monitor provided evidence and reassurance that the food supply was adequate from afar.

Also, some parts of the world are currently experiencing lockdowns due to the second wave of COVID-19. The dashboard shows human activity slowdown (SAR Proxy maps) and a similar environmental response (NO2) to the second lockdown as the first one. Data collected and carefully curated for these waves of COVID-19 periods could provide further insights into environmental responses and economic impacts.

As countries continue to battle COVID-19, I am proud that the dashboard can be a tool that enables people and governments to better understand how the pandemic is affecting our world. I hope that seeing the impacts of COVID from such a vantage point can help spur innovation and spark new ideas. I hope you will join us for the hackathon!

Modernizing Science Websites

More so than ever, our Science Mission Directorate (SMD) websites are the front-door to our worldwide community of enthusiasts and learners. Upon an in-depth analysis of our web presence, I believe it is time for us to elevate the way we communicate and enhance the breadth of our audiences using a focused approach on great content, and best-in-class optimization techniques. As will all of our communication activities, we will do this as one team, and driven by the desire to enhance the impact and inspiration of our science throughout. This is a core-element of our NASA Science strategy, which focuses deliberately on inspiration and communication.

Soon after being established, NASA was directed by the U.S. Congress to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has an extensive public web presence, from the flagship website https://science.nasa.gov to mission-specific sites to topic-based websites. As sources from which people get their information change, NASA Science must continue to ensure its message is easy to find, available to all, leveraged, and managed per federal and Agency policies and procedures.

For NASA Science, we deeply care about communicating in audience-appropriate language and enabling science enthusiasts and learners of all ages to actively participate in science. Among the several types of opportunities for such engagements are exciting research, student collaborations, challenges, citizen science, science activation projects, and others. Disseminating such information is key and with the expectations for digital content being raised every more, NASA Science must embrace these changes and modernize our web presence to reach the widest possible audience and share our message.

Recently, our social media presence went through a major refresh, with a more focused and aligned effort that resulted in higher followership for these accounts and broader engagement. It has been a great success thus far with enhanced visibility for our project, new audiences we gained as a result of it, and larger user engagements per post than before. And we are still learning to improve and elevate the game. Now, we plan to do the same for our web presence.

As part of an agency-wide modernization and consolidation of NASA websites, SMD will unify its public engagement websites under a newly designed and freshly built https://science.nasa.gov, consistent with social themes. Sites in scope of this effort include those with the extension *.nasa.gov in their URL which are mostly funded by SMD. Types of websites include public engagement deep dive sites, programmatic sites, and science sites for kids.  Websites that are not part of this current consolidation include those sites whose main purpose is to serve data to the science community (we will address these at a later date), sites that are hosted at partner institutions (i.e. hubblesite.org), and sites where SMD is just one of the funding sources. This strategic approach will enhance user experience and allow NASA Science and its broad impact on society to be seen and appreciated by more. The main goals will be to:

  • be an example of excellence in public trust in science exploration, discovery, and knowledge
  • timely, secure, accurate, and audience-focused dissemination of NASA Science content
  • ensure that top entities – person, place, thing – never compete with each other, but instead enhance each other
  • ensure site owners have a robust platform and tools they need to innovate and share development using a “One Team” approach
  • improve search rankings and search engine optimization (SEO)
  • build a robust multimedia database capable of housing all the media NASA Science produces, including spacecraft raw images, data-driven interactives and large-file videos.
  • ensure the site is responsive and functions well on devices of varying sizes (i.e. cell phone, tablet, laptops, desktop, and what may show up next as technology changes)
  • design a site that exceeds the Section 508 requirements and provides a truly accessible experience for the widest audience possible

Rest assured, there will be flexibility built into this process. In particular, we want to encourage content owners to pitch new tools, content, etc., and build them out on science.nasa.gov, as appropriate. We need all of our experts and our engaged champions to help shape the end state.

Soon, you will see these efforts taking shape across our websites – we do not want to drag this out. We recognize, of course, that this process will take significant effort and will take many months to complete. As we proceed, remember that having great content is an important starting point of a great site. However, equally important is ensuring people can find our content.

As mentioned before, this SMD-wide effort has one sole purpose – we all deeply care about communicating the value and excitement of science, and to do so by setting a new standard of excellence for science websites. And we can only be successful achieving this audacious goal by working together as one team!

Thanks for being part of this worthwhile effort!

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!