Celebrating Earth

Earth is our precious oasis in the cosmos. Out of all the planets in the solar system, our own is the only one we know with certainty to have life. Motivated by the potentially habitable worlds we find our solar system and beyond, we look at our planet in new ways. At NASA, we monitor, study and observe our planet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – attempting to learn even more about this complex rock on which we live, and to protect and improve life on Earth through it.

Each year, to celebrate our home on Earth Day, NASA Science Art Director Jenny Mottar designs a beautiful poster. Last year’s Earth Day artwork and messaging was inspired by a Carl Sagan quote, stating that the “…Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean.”

Earth Day 2018 poster

This year’s artwork expands upon this theme and dives into the depths of the universe in search of our cosmic origin.

Earth Day 2019 poster

A bioluminescent jellyfish is at the forefront of the composition, composed of DNA strands, vines and trees, meant to represent life on our planet from a new perspective, motivated by our questions about life beyond Earth. A second jellyfish floats in the distance, depicting the possibility of life on planets that orbit other stars. In the cosmic depths we discover ourselves, and “the water seems inviting.”

I hope you enjoy this beautiful creation and it allows you to appreciate the incredible planet we call home.

To download a free copy of the poster, visit: https://go.nasa.gov/EarthPoster2019

Happy Earth Day!

The Hidden Value of NASA Leaders

Last week, Mike Freilich, the director of NASA Earth Science retired after dedicating a dozen years of his life to NASA Science. Mike has been truly excellent and he has already won all kinds of awards, and will hopefully win even more. He is credited with turning around a failing science program and creating a program with vitality and excellence. But his retirement made me think: Mike is a lot better than most people know. Let me explain.

Here is something I learned during the last 2.5 years in government, which would have changed how I felt and talked about Mike and others who worked within the government in the previous decades, especially civil servants in leadership positions.

There are two ways NASA leaders have value. On the one hand they do good things, on the other hand they prevent bad things from happening.

The first bucket of actions are what earns applause and recognition. There is a new mission, a launch, a discovery and societal impact like better weather forecasting. It is what award citations are made out of, honorary doctorates, etc.

The second bucket – the actions that prevent bad things from happening – is far less glamorous. It is often full of disappointments and challenges, and there is not one thank you or recognition for it.

Some of this hidden work relates to hard decisions that are made to protect the program and the greater good. To protect the viability of NASA’s science program, we need to sometimes stop activities that under perform. Sometimes, such tough decisions come from constraints that are not obvious. But, in all cases I have observed or have been part of, these decisions are made to protect NASA Science and for the health of the community. But, there has never been an award given for cutting back a mission with bad financial or technical performance, even though such an action is in every way as important as starting a new mission because it is the only way to maintain a balanced program of excellence.

There is another way NASA leaders add value, which is by preventing bad things from happening. This is done through discussions and negotiations with various government stakeholders, a game with ever changing rules but big consequences for all. For example, within weeks the 2020 budget proposal will come out. Do not forget: prior to that release, lots of work occurred, work nobody will ever know. It is tough work, sometimes taking over weekends and family time of the dedicated individuals who are tasked with it. And recognize there are many often scary threats that did not materialize because of the hard work of these leaders.

If I had to estimate the value Mike had for NASA Science in “do good”, vs “prevent bad from happening”, I would think the ratio may be 25:75 in favor of the second category. And, you should not be surprised if many of Mike’s colleagues, including me, score in very much the same way.

People on the outside of the agency often miss that, perhaps they sound off sitting in a tenured university position like I used to, and do not see or understand 75% of the value a given person is adding for their own benefit. They are in every way as wrong as I used to be.

With that, I want to thank Mike for his honorable service – all 100% of it- and wish him the best for whatever is next for him. I am attaching a picture of Mike in tears, signing the launch vehicle of ICESat2, the last mission he launched as director of NASA Earth Science.

We will miss Mike, but I want to thank all of the members of our NASA Science leadership team for their service and hard work! Let me ask you a favor: when you see them next, please thank both Mike and the other leaders for their dedication and service to the benefit of many!

Science: A Deeply Emotional Affair

In many popular movies scientists are cold, analytical men and women who run almost exclusively on the left side of their brains. Often, scientists and engineers are considered loners and the successful ones do not make mistakes.

I believe that such perceptions are not only dead wrong, but also discouraging to those who are thinking about their futures. “Who wants to work alone? Who is good enough to enter careers where perfection is needed? Not sure – but certainly not me!”

I spent this week, in part, at JPL bidding adieu to NASA’s Opportunity, which – together with Spirit – formed the Mars Exploration Rover mission. This mission started at the edge of disaster: JPL has two Mars mission failures in a row, putting its very existence at risk.

The Mars Exploration Mission was an attempt of a turn-around, a 3 year crash program targeted at re-establishing excellence. Lead by Pete Theisinger, a space legend and manager, and Steve Squyres, a youthful Cornell Prof and science lead, an exploration team was assembled.

It was a huge success when first Spirit and weeks later Opportunity responded from the surface of the Red Planet. The missions, initially designed to last 90 days each and good for 1 km of driving, exceeded their mark manyfold. Opportunity drove longer than a marathon and lasted over 55 times longer than designed. And these missions changed entirely how we think about Mars now.

By any measure, this exploration team is one of the very best and most successful. Yet, if you try to find the stereotypical engineers and scientists I described earlier, you will be disappointed.

Many remember the pure joy and elation at the beginning of the mission. The team members were deeply passionate and excellent during this mission. They decided to forego the proprietary phase of their schedule and directly released the data that came down from Mars – to the elation of millions worldwide. Joy, inspiration and love were words heard in pretty much any science meeting focused on this.

But, what struck me is how the end of the mission felt.

The team was prepared: Spirit was lost years ago, and Opportunity had been silent for 8 months due to a dust storm, even though the team sent over 1000 commands to wake it back up. It was my job to decide when it was over. We pulled the team into a room on Tuesday and told them that we would try one more time and – if not successful – I would declare the mission complete on Wednesday.

This session felt like a memorial to a loved family member. Tears were flowing freely as scientists and leaders shared their memories and told each other how much they loved being part of this team – with two robotic emissaries on Mars.

Men and women of all ages talked about their passion, their worries they they would lose contact with the team that became family to them. They reminded each other of challenges, near-death experiences their missions overcame – by them working together. They were vulnerable, often dissolved in tears, and visibly touched, but deeply proud.

Many team members came to the command center in the evening. Squyres chose the last wake up song – Billie Holiday’s “I’ll be seeing you”. The team was there and talked about common experiences, about love – the raw emotion of individuals who put their heart and soul into something that gives purpose and a sense of community. The picture below shows Steve and I in the ops center as the final commands are sent out.

No, these are not left-brained analysts who work alone. I am sure there are introverts and extroverts, but they work together, passionately.

Great, history-making science of the type we do at NASA is a team sport, a deeply emotional affair. Exploration is about individuals with mistakes and deficiencies coming together and struggling, transcending their limitations to create something that is as close to perfection as it can be.

I wish we could explain that to children and to their parents.

A Lifetime of Opportunity

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “opportunity” as a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement or progress. To me, Opportunity’s legacy embodies the name she was given. This rover, along with its twin – Spirit – not only gave us a better understanding of the Martian landscape and its history of water, but significantly improved our knowledge about how to navigate on other planets – something that will help future robotic and human exploration of Mars.

Opportunity can arise when we least expect it, or it can be a product of hard work and preparation. In the case of the Mars Exploration Rovers, it’s both. NASA’s robot geologist duo, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the Red Planet in 2004 with the goal of searching for clues of ancient water activity on Mars. While the missions were prepared down to the very last detail, the unexpected opportunity arose when both rovers exceeded their planned 90-day mission lifetimes by many years.

Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its original design and sent its final communication to Earth on March 22, 2010. Twenty times longer! That’s incredible. Even more impressive is that Opportunity continued to operate for more than 14 years after landing on the Red Planet. Eventually, all missions operations come to an end and their legacy is used as a foundation for future missions of exploration.

As we reflect onOpportunity’s legacy, I’m reminded of my fondest memory of its mission – its first encounter with Mars. I was a professor at the time and was so excited about the incredible feat humanity was about to attempt: bounce onto the Martian surface with the rover inside a landing craft protected by airbags. The week before landing, I showed my class an amazing animation of the intense landing that was ahead. I wanted them to realize how difficult this endeavor actually was.

The night of landing I was alone in my living room with a laptop watching the NASA livestream of the Space Flight Operations Facility. You could there was an eerie silence in the room – each person waiting, listening, hoping. You could almost feel their energy through the screen, and then…confirmation! The room busted at the seams with joy and tears of happiness and relief. Humanity just accomplished a nearly impossible feat and I am so thankful I was able to witness it in real time.

Last night, the team made their final attempt to contact the rover. I was in the room when the command was sent – this time felt much different than the last. There was a heavy feeling in the air, which was filled with many team members, some of which have spent a majority of their careers assisting this rover as it explored a planet more than 33 million miles away. The humans behind the robot. Secretly we were all wishing that Opportunity would suddenly wake up and ping us back. That did not happen, as we all expected.

Farewell, Oppy. Thank you for all the science.

Leading Through Ambiguous Times

What can Ernest Shackleton teach us about leadership in ambiguous and ill-defined times, such as during a government shutdown? During the past month, I have been thinking a lot about the story of Shackleton, one of my favorite leadership stories I have ever read.

A brilliant explorer and seafarer, Shackleton is best known for his leadership during his failure to achieve his goals. When his exploration got into trouble and the Antarctic sea and ice tore apart his ship, he lead his team to safety using a series of techniques that remain relevant today. First responders, military and other emergency leaders I have talked to have often told me about these techniques as well.

This shot from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a maelstrom of glowing gas and dark dust within one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

The challenge, of course, is to lead during a time that is ambiguous or even chaotic. Here are some of the techniques that I use during such times of ambiguity and challenge, and which Shackleton has masterfully demonstrated.

#1 Stay focused on the goal! Through regular communications consistently focus on the goals at hand. NASA Science is equally important whether or not there is a government shutdown. When working with our teams, we focus on that, focusing forward and upward.

#2 Stay focused on the team! Everybody deals with pressure and worries in different ways, and Shackleton knew that. To focus on his team, he used various techniques, but most importantly created opportunities for the team to connect and build each other up. We were deliberate about this during the past month, reaching out. Only last week, did we have an informal get-together in a bar and a significant fraction of our team – civil servants and contractors – showed up and were there for each other.

#3 Lead tighter to create more certainly where that is possible. Shackleton knew that emptiness, boredom, and ambiguity can rapidly give way to desperation and hopelessness. To keep his men busy, he made up a regular and strict schedule and even an Olympiad of sorts in which two teams were competing against each other. Our leadership team worked consistently and coherently through a series of teleconferences and meetings that were run the best way we could during this time, and focused on creating the best status quo, but also focused towards the most effective way to bounce back once we were going back. Guessing from my many emails, texts, and statements to me, this leadership technique Shackleton used still works today.

#4 Communicate what is happening, do so truthfully and consistently. A key element of Shackleton’s challenge was to recognize that food needed to be rationed increasingly and hard decisions needed to me made as things became more desperate. To build a resilient and successful team, the trust that comes form such communication is not only good to have but absolutely necessary. It may be counter-intuitive, but this trust comes particularly from sharing and managing bad news, factual and accurate – not with emotional and sarcastic overtone, but reflecting a trusted leader!

#5 Be a relentless advocate for hope. In the darkest times, when it looked like the crew was doomed, they were working up plans for the rescue! At times, these activities may have felt a little bit unreasonable. Why do we plan for this now? What is the likelihood we will use this solution? We have worked on a number of startup plans these past few weeks. We will be better next week for it. And no, not all of the plans will be 100% useful as we worked on multiple scenarios.

My favorite part of Shackleton’s story is what happened months and years after their emotional and unlikely rescue. Being a seafarer and explorer at heart, he put together a new expedition and asked from volunteers. And guess what – of the crew stuck out there on the ice, nearly freezing and starving to death – most if not all volunteered again! Most people who have seen true leadership immediately understand – they would rather be part of a great team in horrific circumstances, than part of a horrific team in great circumstances.

We are hiring a number of people right now to be part of our team. I hope they see on our team what we see: a group of great individuals who are coming together with their strengths and weaknesses to learn and excel because what we do in importance by far exceeds the challenges that we face in our environment that is sometimes unpredictable and ambiguous und illogical. I am sure I feel like so many of our team-members: we can’t wait to go back to work full-time!

Here is one favorite books on this story: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance:_Shackleton’s_Incredible_Voyage?fbclid=IwAR1R-70ewtKugwJi0Y-4Mb9330v59_lATwu5JR1W0mVaB3lT2OuoYL3aBhU

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.