Reflecting on Five Years at NASA

I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary at NASA. Over these past 5 years, we have seen great success with NASA’s Science missions. From landing on Mars to learning more about our home planet than ever before, teams across the agency are making the impossible possible. Without the incredible individuals that make up the excellent teams at NASA and its partners, none of this would be possible. So, thank you to all the people and teams that have worked with us over these 5 years to make new discoveries and push the boundaries of exploration.

With this 5-year milestone, I have been reflecting on a few of my biggest mistakes. I also hope this motivates others because it models a key truth of leadership that took me a long time to learn: “excellence is not the absence of mistakes, but a focus on constant improvement and learning”.

One thing that comes to the top of my mind is my failure early on to broaden my message regarding diversity and inclusion at NASA. This resulted in inadvertently putting up walls that kept some valuable communities out in ways I never intended. Let me explain.

When I joined NASA over 5 years ago, I was asked many times about the goals that I wanted to achieve here. I gave many answers, but none of them included the words “diversity” or “inclusion”.

But that changed based on three distinct experiences. First, we had an alarming lack of diversity in teams leading our mission proposals. With a couple of exceptions in planetary science, we did not have a single mission proposal in the rest of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) led by a female scientist, and that had been going on for several years. Additionally, mission teams were a lot less diverse than our community, perpetuating a lack of diversity even further.

Second, I witnessed instances in our own SMD leadership team that made me believe that we were caught in a situation that often leads to utter mediocracy – something known as “group-think”. I observed that important discussions did not happen and that diverse viewpoints were not heard. Even if there was some diversity in the room in terms of gender, race, etc. – these voices were not included in many of the discussions generally.

Third, roundtable discussions were implemented with early career scientists in all disciplinary communities and I was shocked by the prevalence of problems surrounding sexual harassment and just horrible experiences of biases many of our female colleagues were experiencing. There were stories I heard that literally took my sleep. It is tough to hear these stories as a father of a daughter interested in science.

We had some major problems that were holding us back from being a welcoming community, but equally importantly problems that prohibited us from getting to a standard of excellence that was otherwise possible.

It was important and urgent to embark on a journey of change. But the first challenge on this journey was one that led to one of my biggest mistakes: We needed to convince members of our team and the entire science community that we had this big problem. And I needed to do that the way scientists do – by using data!

Even though I was convinced from the beginning that we needed to focus on diversity in all dimensions, I focused my “proof of problem” and overall narrative on only one aspect of diversity – a focus on our female colleagues. Frankly, we did not have any data in NASA Science programs and competitions focused on this broader issue and the only thing we could do on the short time-scale required by the urgency of this challenge was to infer gender from names.

It was straight-forward to demonstrate the devastating impact of our implicit and explicit biases if 50% of the US was not represented in many teams, or if not one female principal investigator (PI) could be found in a research community consisting of 25-35%+ female colleagues.

I started talking about this and we started to make changes. But, I missed the importance of good language as we moved forward and fell into the trap of over-focusing on gender diversity problems in all my talks and writings. There is an important truth for all leaders: Our words matter. My failure to broaden both narratives and actions resulted in a sense in our community of color that we did not care about them in NASA’s Science Program. Similarly, our LGBTQ+ colleagues also did not see themselves in our narratives and neither did other communities. I had tidally missed the boat despite good intentions.

It took lots of engagement, mentorship and help from some of our team members as well as from trusted community members to actively and consistently helped address and mitigate my mistake. Thank you to each person who pushed to get us on the track we are on today in improving the way we welcome and include individuals from all communities into NASA Science.

We are still on this journey today. We have changed policies about how we handle harassment – we did so as an agency. We have added training, new policies and are having discussions and have made changes across our programs – from science proposals to standing review boards – to flatten the playing fields and make better decisions. We have experimented with new ways of selecting worthwhile proposals, including dual-anonymous peer reviews that have identified and removed or eliminated a number of biases. We keep experimenting and learning.

For example, No Due-Date (NDD) programs in Planetary Science launched with the release of ROSES 2021 resulted from researcher input into challenges faced during the COVID pandemic. NDD seeks to allow individual PIs the opportunity to better achieve work-life balance and to give smaller institutions with a less-robust proposal support system greater flexibility in submitting proposals. Noting the huge importance of our funding programs for the entire science community, we are also experimenting also with Inclusion Plans to put focus on these important issues. Furthermore, we are making an effort to increase partnerships across institutions to provide additional opportunities for engagement and increasing diversity of thought. Listening sessions at Minority-Serving Institutions and targeted activities in partnership with affinity groups help broaden our footprint across the research and academic landscape.

Although we have made some significant progress in parts of our ecosystem, we cannot be happy with where we are. We will continue to lend our voice and focus actions towards building a better science and technology community around NASA. For that, we need amazing vision, incredible perseverance, and follow-through, but – most importantly – the best and most capable teams we can build in all of that. And I already observe today, and I believe we will see even more clearly as we go forward, that some of the best teams are composed of wonderful individuals who never had a place in them in the past.

Hot News from Parker Solar Probe

I’m happy to announce today that for the first time ever, a spacecraft has “touched” the Sun. Three years after launch, our Parker Solar Probe has now flown within the Sun’s inner corona, sampling particles and fields still bound to the Sun’s atmosphere.

This monumental achievement is more than 60 years in the making, the goal of a mission concept and dreams of scientists that predate NASA itself. Just as the Moon landings revolutionized our ability to study the Moon and our solar system, our first close encounter with our star marks the beginning of a new phase in solar science, one where we can ask and answer questions that had previously been out of reach.

This milestone is even more meaningful considering that this technologically-advanced spacecraft was named in honor of astrophysicist Dr. Eugene Parker. It is the first and only time a NASA spacecraft has a living individual as its namesake. I chose to advocate for naming this spacecraft after Dr. Parker as a testament to the importance of his entire body of work, work that I felt had been overlooked by many – even though it’s hard to find a scientist with a bigger or broader impact on space science.

At the heart of this work is a story of pioneering science with much perseverance: In 1958, Dr. Parker, a humble but somewhat stubborn mid-westerner, published an article sharing his theory that high-speed matter and magnetic fields were constantly – and supersonically – escaping the Sun.  He predicted that this constant torrent of what came to be known as solar wind affected all the planets and space throughout our solar system. This important prediction, and eventual confirmation, ultimately informed our understanding about how stars and other astrophysical objects throughout the whole universe interact with the worlds and space around them. Not only did Dr. Parker’s work introduce a new field of science, he inspired my own research as well as crucial science questions that NASA continues to study to this day. More than 20 missions in heliophysics, planetary sciences, and astrophysics currently focus on scientific fields he significantly affected. Adding Parker Solar Probe to Dr. Parker’s legacy is among my proudest accomplishments and one that is meaningful to me even today.

What it means to “touch” the Sun requires some defining, since the Sun doesn’t have a solid crust like Earth. But it does have an invisible boundary where solar material stops being “stuck” to the Sun, and instead is free to decouple from its source and escape outward as the constantly streaming solar wind. We call this boundary the Alfvén critical surface, named after the Swedish scientist and Nobel Prize winner who made many notable contributions to plasma physics. At the Alfven surface, the solar wind begins to travel faster than the speed of the waves that can couple the wind to the surface of the Sun – which implies a speed where the solar material is traveling fast enough that it can decouple from its source in the solar atmosphere. Freed, the solar wind can now escape into space.

We have long known the Alfvén critical surface exists, but not exactly where it was located or what was within it. Based on remote images of the corona, as well as solar wind measurements in space, estimates had put the boundary somewhere between 10 to 20 solar radii (4.3 to 8.6 million miles) from the photosphere, or solar surface. But we’ve never had a spacecraft close enough to confirm those estimates and we have never gotten close enough to see what’s on the other side.

Until now.

During Parker’s eighth flyby of the Sun on April 28, 2021, the spacecraft passed within 18.8 solar radii (8.127 million miles) of the photosphere when it detected the conditions scientists had long awaited. Parker was passing through what’s known as a pseudostreamer, a giant magnetic loop that extended from the corona, when the magnetic field intensified and particle speeds slowed. A combination of measurements from multiple sensors revealed that Parker had indeed crossed the Alfvén critical surface and was sampling particles that were not part of the supersonic solar wind, but the slower-moving solar atmosphere itself.

So what are we seeing on the other side? For one thing, an answer to a question that Parker Solar Probe identified soon after it launched: What is causing mysterious hairpin bends in the solar wind called “switchbacks”?  We have known about switchbacks since the NASA/ESA Ulysses mission in the mid-90s, which observed S-shaped kinks in the solar wind where the Sun’s magnetic field abruptly reversed direction like a magnetic zig-zag. Due to assumptions that the solar wind was fairly stationary, we had suspected these switchbacks were relatively rare phenomena restricted to the Sun’s polar regions.

In 2019, Parker upended those assumptions when it revealed that switchbacks were plentiful in the solar wind, even in regions far from the solar poles. The new observations suggested that switchbacks would tell us more about the Sun than we had expected – but how and where they formed remained unknown.

Parker’s close pass within the solar atmosphere got us close enough to find out. On its sixth flyby, Parker measured clusters of switchbacks and found that the percentage of helium in them matched the composition of solar material at the photosphere, the solar surface. During the same flyby, a different analysis showed that the switchbacks were aligned with magnetic “funnels” in the photosphere. Together, these facts suggest that the switchbacks start near the solar surface, a dynamic, roiling region of solar material and magnetic field that looks somewhat like a searing frying pan of oil at home.

Parker will continue orbiting even closer to the Sun on upcoming flybys, reaching as close as 8.86 solar radii (3.83 million miles) from the surface at its closest approach. The next perihelion in January 2022 will likely pass through the solar atmosphere, the corona once more – meaning we are now in a very exciting time for solar science, a time when we can directly sample the Sun itself. This opens a whole new realm of solar and heliospheric science!

Finally, I want to thank Dr. Eugene Parker for the time he took with me and so many other early career scientists over 20 years ago. May we all take his intellectual courage and steadfast perseverance as an example for us as we move into the new era of science enabled by these new data. And let’s also learn from Parker’s senior colleagues who were less than welcoming of new thought when as an early career scientist, Parker brought forward his novel ideas about the solar wind and its embedded magnetic field.  Instead, let’s celebrate new thought and insights, especially if they come from new community members!