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!

Welcoming NASA Science’s New Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs

I am happy to announce that I have made a selection to permanently fill the critical position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs (DAAP).  Dr. Wanda Peters will join us on August 31 to begin working with us in this important role for SMD.  I  want to extend my sincere appreciation for Mayra Montrose, who has done a wonderful job filling this critical role in , serving as the acting DAAP.  I particularly want to recognize all of Mayra’s efforts working with the NASA centers to understand and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our projects.  She was also a critical part of the team that helped ensure the successful launch of Perseverance last week.

Wanda has more than 35 years of extensive technical and programmatic experience, which includes approximately 25 years serving in leadership roles. She has worked at the directorate, division, and branch levels, gaining valuable experience in the areas of program, project and business management, institutional operations, mechanical systems engineering, space technology development, and safety and mission assurance.

Currently, she serves as deputy director for planning and business management at Goddard, where she is responsible for strategic planning, policy development, program, project and personnel management, and programmatic oversight of the Flight Projects Directorate (FPD) portfolio. That portfolio consists of over 80 missions in various phases of the life cycle with a combined annual budget of $3.5 billion.

Wanda received both a Ph.D. in systems engineering and Master’s degree in engineering management from George Washington University, a Bachelor of Science in engineering from the Catholic University of America, and a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

Wanda’s extensive technical and programmatic expertise demonstrated by her accomplishments over the past 35+ years clearly demonstrates her ability to succeed in this critical position overseeing and assessing SMD’s multi-billion dollar portfolio of over 100 missions.

Please join me in welcoming Wanda to Headquarters!

Tribute to NASA Earth Trailblazer Dr. Michael Freilich

Today, NASA and the entire science community mourns the loss of Dr. Michael Freilich, former Earth Science Division Director and trailblazer. Mike was a force of nature in Earth Science for decades, and his loss will be deeply felt.

It was NASA’s great privilege earlier this year to join our European colleagues in naming an ocean observing satellite launching this fall in his honor, and in that spirit, I want to celebrate Mike’s life and accomplishments, and his legacy.

I had the pleasure of serving with Mike during the early days of my tenure as head of NASA science, and I quickly grew to respect his keen mind and his passion for telling the story of our planet and what we could learn from it as well as about it.

Earth Science shows perhaps more than any other discipline how important partnership is to the future of this planet. Mike exemplified the commitment to excellence, generosity of spirit and unmatched ability to inspire trust that made so many people across the world want to work with NASA to advance big goals on behalf of our planet and all its people. The fact that ESA and the European partners gave him the unprecedented honor of naming a mission after him demonstrates that respect and admiration. When Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich launches this fall to study Mike’s beloved oceans, he will truly take to the heavens.

Those who worked with Mike respected him. His knowledge and his forthrightness. His willingness to make the hard decisions. These were all characteristics that made him the leader he was. He always wanted to do the right thing – for NASA and for Earth Science – and I learned a lot from his example. His strength was in his directness. You always knew where Mike stood! And that counts for a lot, not only in the workplace, but also in science as a whole.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Because of that quality, and the breadth of knowledge backing it up, people across the world trusted Mike. He had high standards, and held no one to a harder standard than himself. Many missions launched under Mike’s watch, and things happened that wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t been there to push them through, to see that NASA remained true to its spirit of international partnership as we study our home planet – the only one we have!

We’ve lost a trailblazer, but we will feel his presence as his namesake orbits above us, continually reminding us to be vigilant sentinels, to keep learning, and to keep doing the right thing for each other and our planet. Godspeed, Mike Freilich. You are missed already.

Perseverance: The Mission and the Team

As we went through the countdown, just minutes before the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover, we got a message that seemed fitting: “there is an Earthquake in Pasadena.” MiMi Aung, the project director of Ingenuity, the pioneering Mars helicopter was just on air from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when her world started shaking. “She seemed a little more nervous than normal.” somebody remarked and wondered why. Minutes later, the same person wondered: “how did she keep it together during all this?”

This is the question many have asked many times, and the Perseverance team answered it over and over, not by words, but by actions. Here are some Perseverance moments during the past few years.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We really struggled building a coherent team and executing on schedule. When Administrator Bridenstine came into his job, I had a briefing of all the missions and issues. I flagged Mars2020 to be yellow trending orange. In NASA-speak, this means we had too many issues, too many challenges and we could not resolve them as quickly as we wanted.

With several new leaders on the team (including me!), we struggled building a coherent and trusting team that could achieve. Eventually, I asked for a monthly status meeting, spending almost a half a day per month personally over and above the regular updates and comms, and we started listening to each other. We all figured out how we could help accelerate solutions to problems. I was always up to date and could answer questions from Capitol Hill and Executive Offices with data that was never older than days or weeks.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help keep us on schedule, we ran termination/continuation reviews of two instruments that we could fly without. The teams locked onto them and both instruments are now en route to Mars – fully tested and completed. I still do not totally know how they did it. But they did, with renewed focus, and led by experts like Howard Eisen. Somebody needs to do a study on him and his magic.

Just when we thought it could not get much worse with instruments, one of our international partners had a test failure and over-tested their flight electronics, setting them back tor months. That instrument, too, is on the way to Mars now. The team broke every record rebuilding and testing.

During a static test, the shell protecting the rover during entry descent and landing cracked and we needed to rebuild it! We had no reserves on top of a very aggressive plan. But, the team showed up within the initially agreed upon schedule with a new shell. which is now on the way to Mars.

Building an excellent and hugely dedicated team, and with the huge dedication of the team, we started to turn green on schedule, although we used more money than we intended to. But because of the tremendous transparency throughout, our stakeholders agreed with us that after mission success, schedule was a higher priority than cost for this mission at the given time. This is what made us successful because it created enough reserve for us.

Photo credit: NASA/Christian Mangano

I remember us shipping the rover to Florida and a day before I called the manager with a simple question: “did we do everything we could have, without shortcuts, to make this rover successful”. He said “absolutely – we did it as well as we know how”.

And then came March and we shut down as a country and as a world. Within 24 hours of this, we made a plan, as a team – it took everybody. Using NASA airplanes, we allowed integration and test engineers to remain in a bubble  as they traveled to their important work and keep the teams safe. Some engineers moved to Florida for months and never returned to their families till now – with the rover on the way to Mars. Perseverance.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The launch vehicle contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) led by Tory Bruno also kept their team in a bubble and kept on moving toward launch. And when in June a resurgence of COVID in Florida started driving up the number of positives, the company again shut everything down to help prioritize. We lost a few days of the launch window due to COVID and within a week or two the problem was addressed. Perseverance.

And when the wet dress rehearsal revealed a technical flaw on the third stage motor, the NASA and ULA team came up with a fix. We had one meeting on a particular day at 3 pm with a conclusion that said “it is either this fix, or we are not launching this year.” The diagnosis was correct. We launched.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

We had to change the entire launch two weeks ago into a virtual experience. The team used this as an excuse to do a better job, telling the story of this mission like none before. Perseverance.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Besides the Earth quake, the launch was picture perfect and about an hour after launch, Perseverance was released towards Mars. The picture below shows a candid shot of ULA CEO Tory Bruno, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and I about 30 seconds after that moment.

We immediately got carrier signal, and knew all was good, but the signal was too strong for our sensitive ground based antennas and it took us a couple of hours to match them and another few hours until Perseverance was in a nominal mode and we knew it was happy and healthy in its new home in space. We purposely went on camera for our press conference without waiting for that resolution because we want to share with everybody using the same values that got us to launch: trust, perseverance, technical excellence, and ONE team with everybody pulling in the same direction – towards mission success.

We will have more challenges, I am sure, it is a space mission after all. But, the same values and characteristics that got us here will give us the best chance to be successful throughout the mission: trust, perseverance, technical excellence, and ONE team supporting each other.