Happy 60th Anniversary, NASA!

I gave 10 talks this week, the week right ahead of NASA’s 60th anniversary.

Each one of them had a different audience and purpose, and each of them was important to NASA. But, together they represent, in part, what NASA Science is all about, and also how we are part of an agency that seeks to lead during the next decades. Let me give you a few highlights:

NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen speaks to the 2017 astronaut candidate class, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

1) I gave a talk about NASA Science to the astronauts in training. This team of exceptional leaders stand for one of the key activities NASA has been about from its inception – the human space program. As the leader of NASA science, we do not see this program as competition, but a crucial part of NASA, enabling science we would never reach elsewhere. Some of these astronauts are not US Citizens, a testament to the fact that NASA does not see leadership and cooperation as a contradiction.

2) I gave a talk at a Foundation, which seeks to build bridges between the US and Switzerland by supporting young leaders. My team recommended that I do this, because the key audience were young, international leaders. To me, the most memorable part of this talk were two young female leaders. First, Aisha Bowe did a heart-felt introduction and told everyone how my mentorship helped empower her. Frankly, I struggled holding back my tears – it meant a lot to me and I am so proud of her and her achievements. I also met another young woman there named Lauren, standing next to me in the above picture. She led the charge to re-name her school after Buzz Aldrin. I spontaneously offered to take her to NASA HQ and she met all the astronauts. That was her lucky day ? Luck comes to those who innovate and work hard. So, I felt lucky to meet both of these young leaders.

3) My team had bi-lateral meetings this week with both Korea and China. Yes, we got congressional approval for one of these meetings, but we believe that NASA is a key part of the US diplomacy. We cannot work with all countries on all stages, but we seek to build bridges in science – we share the same planet, are warmed by the same star and look at the same night sky. That is why it is crucial to build bridges, just like NASA has done for 60 years.

4) I spent 2 days this week with the NASA Science leadership team, including all Center Directors and specialists on commercial and international engagement to chart out a new strategy for NASA Science they seeks to amplify excellence by recognizing both that NASA has a lot to offer and that we can now achieve things in partnership which were the stuff of dreams

I want to point out something obvious: there is no way I can do these talks at highest quality without a team who works hard to keep our messages on target and our visuals fresh. Credit for my successful talks always goes to our team; blame for my botched talks go to me, because frankly, the preparation to each and every talk is at highest quality.

Happy 60th anniversary, NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration!


“Let Me Tell You About It”

I spent many years teaching entrepreneurship and innovation programs designed to develop great ideas and to also make these ideas reality. There are many important lessons learned from this that transcend into my work at NASA.

One of these skill sets is to talk about the work you do, to inform and also to gain support. I am on the receiving end of such pitches and I often wish that more people – especially technical and science experts – attended some of the type of classes that are typically part of the entrepreneurship programs.

Let me focus on the two mistakes that  I see:

  1. The motivation and importance of the work is not clear
  2. The pitch does not consider who is listening 

To address the first mistake requires that the the speaker knows “the why” behind the organization or the projects she/he works with, and how her/his work relates to their overall objectives. Without a good understanding of that, pretty much any subsequent explanation falls flat, unfortunately.

The second issue is about a lack of understanding of the recipient of the pitch. The level of detail, the level of jargon, etc., should adjust depending on whether you pitch to an entry-level employee or a senior executive, whether you pitch to a technical expert or a business-focused  specialist.

Listen to these experts from NASA’s Glenn Research Center work on tough engineering problems, but they manage to bring across to me why their work matters to NASA, and I would like to learn more about each and everyone of them.

Amjad Almansour, Materials Science Researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. 

Taylor Pember, Data Systems Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

John Wang, Computer Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Ariel Dimston, Materials Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Humanity’s Search for Life Beyond Earth

Originally Published: Aug. 1, 2018

I testified on Wednesday to a senate committee about Space Science and especially about research we do in regards to “finding life beyond Earth”. Ellen Stofan, David Spergel, and Sara Seager were expert witnesses with me – it was an honor to be on stage with them.

A question asked by Senator Cruz was truly interesting: “Why is it important to search for life elsewhere?”

Each of us was asked to respond and – I believe – together we came up with the most compelling answer I ever heard to this question.

So, why is it important for NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration to search for life beyond Earth?

1) It is to make history – answering this question in a compelling way will be one of the most important breakthroughs in science history. It will not only change what we know, but how we think, as a human species. At NASA, we want these breakthroughs to come from the USA.

2) It is to drive transformative industries – asking big and very hard questions has benefits that we cannot even guess. The internet, integrated circuits, and so many transformative technologies came from asking big science questions and reaping the benefits. This is not about creating a few startups, it is by opening up new, paradigm altering Industries.

3) It is because this question matters to everyone. Everybody is affected by this question somehow, no matter what the background. Together, this can provide motivation to engage and inspire and connect to science in a fashion that is rare.

4) It is because working on this question can inject a whole new workforce into the STEM community, a workforce that will advance prosperity and well-being of all similar to the transformative effect they the Apollo program had onto the US economy.

This is precisely why we see this question as one of three themes that drive all of NASA science!

Kepler: A True Discovery Machine

Originally Published: July 7, 2018

NASA’s Kepler mission is on standby, waiting to download its possibly final data to the Earth. A sudden drop of fuel pressure as observed recently may be an indicator that the spacecraft is running on fumes now. Perhaps we can get a few more days and weeks in, but perhaps not!

With this, this mission will soon be coming to an end, a true discovery machine, with well over 2500 exoplanets (planets that orbit stars outside our solar system) confirmed and many more candidates found. Kepler also made remarkable progress on other astrophysics research, such as providing some of the first full supernova time-curves including their initial rise phases, and thus providing an unprecedented test of our understanding of these exploding stars and our ability to use them as standard candles to help assess the characteristics of the expanding universe.

It is worth talking about Kepler because it is a mission that is not a flagship class – like Hubble, Chandra, or Webb – but conceived and developed by a team run by a principal investigator (PI).

I have personally spent much of my career on PI-class missions such the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) (PI: Stone), and MESSENGER (Solomon) and I am compelled by their value. First, consider their speed: MESSENGER and Bepi-Colombo are both Mercury missions conceived in the same time-frame. The MESSENGER mission completed years ago with a 100% success and Bepi-Colombo, a strategic class mission, is launching onto its 7 year journey to Mercury this October. Principal Investigators can make trades between scope, schedule and funding of missions and have generally had very strong management performance: ACE, OsirisREx (Lauretta), GRAIL (Zuber) and several other PI-class missions were developed on schedule and below cost. And finally, PI class missions allow us to fly more often and develop talent across the entire community with both science and engineering focus.

Make no mistake, we want to build big strategic missions like Hubble, like Parker Solar Probe and like Webb, even if they are sometimes tough and challenging. We cannot imagine astrophysics today without Hubble, and Webb will take the same place in our minds once this mission finally delivers science data. Strategic missions transform our thinking and regularly create civilization class missions – they don’t just change how much we know, but how we think about nature as a civilization.

But, we always want to develop PI class missions as well. Guess who is taking over the reins from Kepler in hunting exoplanets? Another PI class mission called TESS (Ricker), which is soon moving into science operation.

When it comes to space research, there is not just one size that matters – a diversity of approaches always beats a single approach, no matter what it happens to be.

Read more about this story here: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/nasa-s-kepler-spacecraft-pauses-science-observations-to-download-science-data

Critical Discussions When Developing Strategies

Originally Published: May 26, 2018

Sometimes, one deliberately loses for the community to win!

Yesterday, after months of deliberation and tension in the community, I accepted the Academy’s recommendation to start the Astrophysics decadal activities right away. The Academy’s recommendation went against my own – so, obviously I lost this one. Right?

Well, here is some context: The topical strategic studies recommending the most important science to be pursued during the next decade (aka “decadals”) are the most important strategic ingredients to NASA Science and accepted by all key stakeholders. They provide both the framework for prioritization, and also persisting strategic goals that help focus and align. Missions like Hubble, Chandra and Webb are the results of such recommendation. Some decadals were strong and pushed communities, and some of them are like a bag of rocks a community has to carry on their backs for a decade, trying to do the very best with a strategy that missed its target.

There are at least two ways a decadal strategy can fail. On the one hand, a strategy can be based on dreams and unrealistic expectations – a “miracle strategy”: “Let’s do missions x,y and z – they will be great!” Well, they would be, except that we need a whole bunch of “miracles” to make them happen. Or, collectively, the missions are so expensive that they just are not possible, except if they become a national priority and thus the budget massively increases. The Academy did some very good things to protect the science community from itself and to try to ensure the community knows what they are actually proposing, with cost, new technology, etc implications.

The second failing strategy is a “defensive strategy”, one that misses ambition and is often dominated by a community who seeks to never again make the same mistakes that led to challenges they have now- often, a community recovering from the ills of a “miracle strategy”. Here is the problem with a defensive strategy: even though there might be some nice recommendations in there, this type of strategy does not allow for true upside, true inspiration, alignment, and a chance to expand. A decade is a long time if you are stuck with a defensive strategy like this! It is a lot harder for the Academy to protect the community from itself when the community feels bad about its current status quo.

That is why I spoke up when it came to the Astrophysics decadal. All signs looked to me like we were going down the path to a defensive strategy and discussions with community groups – especially up-and-coming leaders – worried me. No, we cannot protect the community from itself either, but we can talk about the importance of ambition and alignment in a decadal strategy. It would be a lot easier to do a decadal when there is a clear success is sight, than when two or more challenges are pulling the collective psyche of the community down. One point that made less news, but was very important to me, is to ask the Academy to ensure that the decadal is also relevant in other ways: a strategy cannot be important if it is put together by representatives of the top-10 University programs, and by a community group that is all male and has an average age north of 65! Diverse groups make better strategies, and provide better alignment and buy-in.

So, do I really care when the Astrophysics decadal is going to be? No – the decadal belongs to the community, not to me. But, I truly care to have had the discussion we just had about ambition, about alignment, and about inclusion of the broad community which makes up one of the world’s best and most exciting science communities in the history of science!

That is worth losing for.

Taking Strategic Risks in Space

Originally Published May 6, 2018

We launched a mission to Mars on Saturday, a risky mission – humanity’s record to land on Mars is only 40%. In fact, the US is the only country to ever successfully accomplish a landing and surface operation on this planet.

We think and talk a lot about risk at NASA. We are an agency whose very purpose implies that we *have* to take risks – do things that nobody has ever done before. NASA processes are built around that, have been successfully implemented many times, and have evolved as we learn. And, it has not all been great!

Robert Lightfoot, in his last speech as outgoing Acting Administrator told his audience that NASA needs to reconsider how we take risks, and do so deliberately and with focus. I think that everybody who works on big projects – especially for and within NASA. You can read full the full remarks on NASA’s website.

Here is what I learned about taking risk from the helm of NASA Science and during my career in innovation as a whole:

1) Innovation and iteration always go together. The kicker: to an outsider, especially one who is not innovative, iteration looks like failure. Yet, the world of innovation is not a linear world imagined in many management courses in highly ranked schools, and the most detailed plan does not imply the most progress – perhaps the opposite is true. But, most stakeholders do not understand this.

2) “Pounding risks flat” has opportunity cost, and they are often not part of the discussion. Yes, we can chase every option of failure we can think of, but that has real costs and slows us down. What are we *not* doing during this process? What are we missing by going slower?

3) Process does not eliminate the need for sound judgment and deep skill. Of the 10 signatures supporting a decision, how many indicate a detailed understanding and focus on the issue? These are the only signatures that count!

4) The best decisions are the ones scrutinized by great people with a diversity of view-points. Yes – innovative decisions require tension in the team. That implies a strong focus on talent and career growth and experiences. How do we attract and enable growth of our top talent? How do we learn from other stakeholders, such as commercial companies or other innovators?

5) Projects, like investments, should have a portfolio approach when it comes to risk. We need parts of the project portfolio where we focus on experimenting and learning. Because of that, we at NASA Science recently changed the way we manage lower cost science missions to include less oversight, fewer reviews, and higher speed. We are thus creating elements in our portfolio where we can take more risks and learn from innovators outside of the agency.

6) Finally, managing risk is a leadership challenge. Lacking risk tolerance is not the fault of our engineers and lower level managers, nor those tasked with risk assessment, but a reflection of values and ambition driving leadership. So, what are we saying about our projects, about risks? How do we react to iterations/learning experiences when they happen in our organization?

In summary, taking risks is a necessary ingredient of innovation and leadership! Thus, how we handle risk needs to remain a topic of discussion not just focused on “the how”, but also “the what” and “the why”!

One Sun, One Moon, One Nation

On August 21, the first total solar eclipse across the continental U. S. in almost a century moved our nation to hit the pause button of our hectic lives, to look upwards, and be part of a celestial moment provided by nature to all of us. As the leader of NASA Science, I also was transfixed. But I was also holding my breath hoping that the celestial event would pass without incident.  NASA had done all we could to prepare.  Requiring all of our 120 official events to have safety plans prepared and requesting our partners across the land to do so too.  When we identified any uncertified solar viewing glasses we could find, we worked with the American Astronomical Society to spread the word so everybody would be safe that day.

Yet, across this great land for those 90 minutes of lunar passage, celebrations and exclamations of awe and inspiration brought our country together.  Connections on a deeply human level were felt. People with glasses you met for the first time became part of that experience, no matter their background, their history – we all felt like one.  Afterwards, while hundreds of thousands of homeward bound citizens endured hours of traffic–the day passed without any major incident, and I felt a lot better.

As a professional scientist, I have devoted my life to learning about the mysteries of the universe and inspiring others to seek answers.  I knew that previous eclipses spurred scientific advances from luminaries like Edison, Eddington, and Einstein.  Imagine my elation that the object of my lifelong pursuit provided such a great opportunity for science today and it brought together the Nation that I love so much, looking at the star that affects them each and every day.  Science is not only inspiring, it is imminently useful in our daily lives. Our investments in space science pay dividends for decades to come. They result in better forecasts for Earth-based quantities that affect our lives on all time-scales, they safe lives, they are at the heart of new companies, and support National defense.

My sincere hope is this eclipse inspires a new movement of citizen scientists, science hobbyists who do important work together, just because they can.  All NASA science data is online, freely accessible and ready for use.  In fact, never before in human history do we have the entire span of knowledge at our literal fingertips.  These data enable citizens of any type to do what professional scientists do: true science starts with questions or suspicions, and with an open mind. Yes, all questions are ok to ask. In the realm of science, doubt is not feared, but welcomed. In the end, we don’t believe in the opinions of individuals, but in what nature answers us to these questions through experiments that we do in our laboratories and also in flight. These answers again should always be open to scrutiny and doubt.

When new data are observed, new questions are asked, and knowledge is expanded.  In 2014, headlines shocked with the National Science Foundation survey results that one out of every four adults in the U.S. could not accurately answer whether the Earth rotated around the Sun or Sun circled the Earth.  That one metric created a NASA science literacy goal to improve results by the 2020 survey.  My hope is that with this year’s total solar eclipse the public has an improved sense of the relationship of our Earth/Moon/Solar system. To everybody who does not believe in these scientific facts, here is a simple challenge: predict the next solar eclipse using your own theory!

Just as the “can do” optimistic culture of NASA attracted me to leave a tenured position in academia, NASA’s involvement in the eclipse across 14 states, in 6900 libraries, over 200 museums, planetaria and science centers, 40 Challenger Centers, NASA Visitor Centers, national parks, zoos, and even baseball stadiums provided a connection. We had over 5 billion engagements of social media, more than 50 million unique viewers watched our TV broadcast, and another 50 million users watched our YouTube channel either real-time or since then.

Previous total solar eclipses have spawned cadres of chasers that travel the globe seeking those brief eerie minutes of totality. But my hope is that this eclipse creates a new appreciation for and relationship with our nearest star and the tool that allow us to learn about nature.  Learning about nature is inspiring and important and always rewarding. My only suggestions:  Start making plans for the next total solar eclipse in this country on April 8, 2024.  Check out science.nasa.gov and nasa.gov to learn about this past eclipse, the next one, as well as other science!

Parker Solar Probe

Originally Published June 3, 2017

The Parker Solar Probe is in the news everywhere!

Prof. Eugene Parker at the University of Chicago is a truly amazing scientist with an overall impact for the Nation’s space program that is rarely matched. Looking at the current NASA mission lists, we have more than 10 missions today we are working on or flying for which Parker has done foundational work.

I was therefore really excited to be a key contributor to the effort that renamed Solar Probe after Parker – he had predicted the solar wind and its magnetic field in the ’50s before it was experimentally confirmed. But, what happened at this renaming event really was not only a home-run, but a ball flying two, three blocks beyond the stadium! We had expected this to be a rather local event and I therefore decided to move the event to the University of Chicago, so he could attend and the community could celebrate him. I called up the president of the University to ask whether he would be willing to partner, and he was.

The rest of the story is pretty much about Nicky Fox and her team at APL, Steven Clarke & Dwayne Brown and their teams at NASA HQ, and a superb PR crew at U Chicago, who came together as one and put a program together that included public talks in Chicago, a Parker Solar Probe tech and science exhibit.

The renaming ceremony which was standing room only, included around 10 TV cameras, radio and written press. You have seen the story on TV all around the world – the story we assumed would be local, turned global. We were live on NASA TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRyKWzTT6kg) and within a couple of hours of the event it was on Swiss TV (I know because I got texts), it was on US National TV, and many stations everywhere. I heard from John that the local Chicago stories entirely focused on Gene, which is exactly what we hoped for. But, many stories focused on the mission that Nicky so well described. It is the “coolest, hottest mission” ever done, “a mission of extremes”, and one that only happens because of a team coming together as one and working harder than they ever thought they could – the Parker Solar Probe.

I was so happy to work with Steve to give Parker the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest recognition given by NASA to non-government employees. He will also forever be the first living human ever with a NASA mission named after him!

I want to thank all the Parker Solar Probe PIs (Justin Kasper, Stuart D. Bale, Marco Velli, Dave McComas, Russ Howard) for making this event a priority. I also appreciated seeing Stamatios Krimigis there, without his effort there would be no Solar Probe today, and Thomas J Bogdan, one of Parker’s students, who took this picture.

My Week at NASA

Originally Published: April 29

One of my friends asked me about my work this week at NASA.

Well, here are some highlights under the rubric, #myWeekatNASA:

1) I testified to the House Science Committee this week, with approximately a dozen members present during this highly bi-partisan hearing. It was all about “finding Earth elsewhere”, an objective that was added to NASA’s mission-statement.

2) I commissioned an independent review of the approximately $3B next-generation telescope (WFIRST) that is early in its development. This review was recommended by the National Academies. Sometimes, the best thing we can do to get new science we are all excited about, is to scrutinize how we do it.

3) This week, NASA put Cassini into an orbit inside of Saturn’s rings. This allows to do science we have never done – truly bold move, though, that is part of Cassini’s Grand Finale!

4) We were getting ready this week to ship the biggest space telescope ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope, to NASA Johnson for cryo-test. This is a critical test before finally launching in 2018.

5) We spent a week doing under-flights of the new GOES-16 NOAA/NASA spacecraft using one of our highly equipped NASA airplanes. These measurements are critical for calibration of this next-generation weather satellite.

6) I spent time focused on one of the most epic science shows this year, the August 21, 2017 eclipse (https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/) – can’t wait.

7) This week, we integrated NASA’s GOLD mission into a commercial communications satellite, a novel type of partnership between NASA and commercial entity, increasing the science/dollar spent by NASA. GOLD focuses on the boundary of our atmosphere/ionosphere to space.

8) We launched a novel long-duration balloon from New Zealand this week. This balloon is floating at around 100,000 feet and looking at the signatures of high-energy cosmic rays interacting with the Earth atmosphere.

9) We had some amazing science news this week: another set of new exoplanet observations and also the discovery that tropical storms emit gamma-rays, and many more…

10) And, of course, we are all excited to celebrate Peggy Whitson, the first woman to command the space station, who broke the record this week for the longest duration in orbit of a US astronaut.

Worlds Beyond Our Solar System

Originally Published: April 9, 2017

A few weeks ago, NASA announced a stunning news-story which became one of the biggest NASA science stories ever: over 3 billion interactions with NASA’s online content, hundreds of newspapers (including New York Times) carried the story on the front-page, tens of thousands of articles were written in the worldwide press, and a Google Doodle topped it all off (https://www.google.com/…/seven-earth-size-exoplanets-discov…).

The story is compelling: Based on NASA Spitzer observations, Trappist-1 is a newly discovered mini-solar system with 7 rocky planets, 3 of which in the habitable zone where water can pool on the surface. This post is about things that happened since, and that shows how exoplanet research is becoming increasingly inter-disciplinary.


A couple of weeks after the initial announcement, Kepler on its K2 mission provided 74 days of monitoring of the Trappist-1 system and its cosmic neighborhood (https://www.nasa.gov/…/nasas-kepler-provides-another-peek-…/). Within 2.5 hours, the first tweet came out indicating a result: An astronomer had found a second pass of planet H, the outer-most planet. Within weeks, that result was already summarized online as part of the arXiv e-print series (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2017arXiv170304166L): planet H is at the snow-line, beyond which water can exist only in its frozen state. Many of the other results of the initial paper were also confirmed. Obviously, these results (as well as others mentioned below) will have to go through review before the results are fully accepted.

The data also provided important additional information about the activity of the star. Just like our Sun, Trappist-1 has magnetic activity that leads to flares. In fact, astronomers know that this type of dwarf star tends to have a very violent past when it comes to stellar activity – possibly providing an important ingredient whether or not life can persist on this planet.

One researcher told me that using the data about the magnetic field known from this star, it seems that the field is such that the planets sit in a subsonic part of its stellar wind, and not the super-sonic part as all planets here in the solar system. If this is correct, the Trappist-1 planets have a fundamentally different space weather environment than the Earth with stellar wind coming towards them from all directions, not just from the direction of its star.

There is another result that is important in this context, and this one is from our neighborhood – from MAVEN, currently orbiting Mars. Based on their data of atmospheric loss of specific components, the team concluded that Mars lost most of its atmosphere and its water during its history, making it far less hospitable than the Earth. According to the authors, the culprit for this loss is the absence of a global-scale magnetic field that suppresses such loss to space. Do Trappist-1 planets have magnetic fields? We don’t know at this point.

Finally, a submitted paper by Wolf (https://arxiv.org/abs/1703.05815) does the first analysis of a climate model for the Trappist-1 planets. Needless to say, there are lots of assumption in there, put the paper points out that – under several assumptions – planet E has the best chance to be a habitable world. To me, the paper indicates how many observations about the planets’ atmospheres we need to make to actually nail down some of the very hard questions about the habitability of these strange worlds.

In summary, the Trappist-1 discovery announced a few weeks ago is already spurring research that goes far beyond the initial observations. The follow-up studies give an indication that to answer the fundamental question: “Is there life out there?”, is a fundamental question that will require scientific breakthroughs from many different science fields, including ones who currently are not deeply engaged in this exciting research.

This demonstrates the nature of great research: it’s not just about answering questions that have been asked in the past, it is about asking entirely new questions that will have impact for a long time to come!