Embracing the Diversity of Our Journey: Aspirations for Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations

NASA continues to work hard to diversify our workforce and help to inspire the leaders of tomorrow. We’ve had numerous events at NASA Headquarters and our centers in the past few months to showcase the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Design (STEAMD) disciplines and how they relate to our Journey to Mars and all of our exploration and scientific missions. We have to take bold steps to ensure that we significantly increase the number of women and people of color in NASA’s STEM workforce because we need their perspectives and excellence. In order to be the best we can be,we cannot leave any untapped resources on the sidelines. I’m happy that this month, two more events, the Women of Color STEM conference, and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), gave us more opportunities to recognize leaders in these fields and to continue our efforts to expand inclusion.

At the Women of Color STEM conference (WOC) in Detroit Oct. 13-15, coordinated by Nola Bland at the Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, we held a pre-college event for middle and high school girls that included a Living on Mars Habitat Design Challenge, and a Solar Arrays for the ISS Space Station Design Challenge. Dozens of girls participated and interacted with NASA women who are doing this work today. WOC builds the STEM pipeline and expands our reach into the pre-college student community for those who might not otherwise aspire toward a career in science, technology, engineering, or math due to social and economic barriers. We have to ensure that these young superstars are welcomed and ‘see’ themselves and also know that they ‘belong’ in STEM careers.

NASA’s workshops were facilitated by Tiffany Williams, who received a Technology Rising Star Award, and Rochelle May and Terrian Nowden — all three are engineers at NASA GRC.  The students shared in hands-on, competitive activities that engaged and challenged them to consider STEM careers as real options. The interactive workshops were very well attended, with over 160 middle school and high school students in the two one-hour sessions. Another panel we hosted was Women to Women: Up Close and Personal, a roundtable discussion led by Robyn Gordon (GRC) and Michelle Ferebee (LaRC) that was very well attended.

I also want to give a shout-out to all the women awardees we recognized at a Technology Awards Recognition Luncheon. Recognized as Technology Rising Stars were Erica Alston (Langley); Dr. Diana Santiago-DeJesus (Glenn); Devin Pugh-Thomas (Langley); Yolanda Shea (Langley); and Tiffany Williams. We also held a panel discussion to give attendees a perspective from NASA executives and trailblazers, with moderator Michelle Ferebee (Langley) and panelists Dr. Marla Perez-Davis (Glenn), Julie Williams-Byrd (Langley), Robyn Gordon (Glenn), and Dr. Dionne Hernandez-Lugo (Glenn). NASA’s Panel Discussion was packed, with all seats filled and many standing! At the Gala Peer Awards we recognized leaders Darlene Baxter and Victoria Chung, both of Langley.

Last week, at the Society of Women Engineers conference in Philadelphia that was coordinated by Elizabeth Walker, Tania Davis, and Courtney Myers of NASA Headquarters and Janie Nall of Goddard, we hosted a panel session on How NASA is Empowering Women in Engineering.  It was moderated by Dr. Danielle Wood of Headquarters. It featured women who are contributing to cutting-edge NASA missions discussing how they handle challenges on the job, including mentoring, leadership roles and career advancement. We also held a recruitment fair.

Congratulations to Tracy Van Houten of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who received an award.

All of this work lives on beyond these conferences. We’re creating forums for communicating information on NASA’s workforce needs of the future, and at the same time, sharing promising and emerging practices to help increase underrepresented and underserved populations at NASA and in STEM education and professions.

Throughout my career, I have worked alongside many colleagues to look for ways to welcome women and underrepresented superstars into academia. Now that I am serving in government, I see many common challenges across government, academia and industry as we strive to increase diversity and inclusion. But this challenge is not rocket science! There are promising solutions we must act on and implement at once.

We know that diversity is key to achieving excellence, and excellence is required for the bold missions we are pursuing at NASA and in all of our institutions. Our Journey to Mars, to succeed, demands excellence, and excellence demands diversity and inclusion! We know the numbers are not what we want them to be. For example in 2013 in the United States, women accounted for only 25% of all earned doctorate degrees in engineering, and just 16% of those in aerospace engineering. In Physics, women account for 19% of all earned doctorates. African Americans and Hispanics account for less than 5% each of all doctorates in engineering.

This is our pipeline to NASA’s doors, and if that pipeline is not diverse, we are not diverse. Our Journey to Mars – boots on Mars in the 2030s! – relies on the strength of our diversity and excellence.

If we are looking to truly be more inclusive, we need to invite participation by all, including those who may not see themselves as scientists and engineers, but who connect with the arts, design and the Makers Movement.

Art and science are very complementary and go hand-in-hand. There’s also an intersection of design and engineering that goes hand-in-hand, and we have so much to learn from each other. Through expanding who we reach out to, who we recruit, and also how we are teaching — by changing the conversation to filter everyone ‘in’, rather than filtering anyone ‘out’ — we can truly make a difference in creating not just more diverse student populations in STEM, but more excellence in our professional work environments.

Please join me in recognizing the participants and award recipients at these conferences and help the NASA Family continue its work to make the Journey to Mars truly represent the excellence that is America. In the words of Gene Roddenberry writing Star Trek, we seek, “infinite diversity and infinite combinations.”

A Revolution in Small Satelites and Community Resilience

One of the reasons that Earth observation is a priority at NASA is that we know that the more a community knows about an impending hurricane or storm event, the better they are able to prepare and make themselves resilient.  Likewise, the more we in the global scientific community learn about our planet’s changing climate, the better we are able to respond and perhaps even reverse its effects.

This year we will be launching the first of five small-satellite, next generation Earth observation missions that offer much promise when it comes to measuring hurricanes and other critical aspects of Earth’s climate and weather.  The first of these missions, the RAVAN CubeSat, will advance our ability to track Earth’s energy budget.

One of the things that is so remarkable about these small-satellite missions is that they can have such a large impact on our understanding, while carrying such a small footprint.  These small satellites range in size from a loaf of bread to a small washing machine.  Some weigh just a few kilograms!

We are in the midst of what we at NASA call the “Small Satellite Revolution.”  Today, NASA has 71 CubeSat missions to fly almost 100 small spacecraft, which support 27 science, 15 technology, 6 exploration, and 23 STEM related investigations.

These missions are helping NASA advance scientific and human exploration, reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space.  As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the audience at the Satellite 2016 conference “…we recognize that when we’re able to make our launches more affordable and when we’re able to schedule our launches more rapidly, the results will be transformative and will potentially attract more young scientists and engineers into our field.”

From the standpoint of innovation, small satellite technology has the potential to be transformational.  Today, innovators both in and out of government are hard at work creating new architectures that were not feasible with traditionally sized satellites or spacecraft.  The innovation is staggering: the ability to take risk and significantly reduce the cost of demonstrating precursor technologies; the opportunity to flight test and demonstrate new sorts of revolutionary components; and the possibility of using swarms of multiple small satellites in tandem to achieve a broader array of coverage.

In the days, months, and years ahead we look forward to partnering across the public, private, academic, and non-profit sectors to leverage this innovative progress; progress that will help strengthen the resiliency of our communities for weather events and natural disasters, while strengthening our national economy.

Building a Commercial Market in Low Earth Orbit

By Tom Kalil and Dr. Dava Newman

“By buying the services of space transportation – rather than the vehicles themselves – we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies – from young startups to established leaders – compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

President Barack Obama
Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
April 15, 2010

This April marked the sixth anniversary of President Obama’s landmark address on space policy at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In his speech, the President set out the goal of sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, using a strategy that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship in space exploration through investments in new space technologies and partnerships with the private sector as well as academia and other non-traditional partners.

Six years later, we have made great progress toward our goals, and the commercial space industry is expanding rapidly. The United States is closer to sending human beings to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been. In the next decade, NASA’s human space exploration program will shift its focus from operations in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to moving out in to Earth–Moon orbits, namely, cislunar and deep space, where astronauts are days, or weeks, away from Earth. Deep space exploration is the proving ground where NASA will prepare by flight testing technologies necessary for the immense challenge of sending astronauts to Mars and back in the 2030s.

As NASA moves in to cislunar orbits, its commercial partners will need to take the lead in low-Earth orbit by building a space economy based not solely on government contracts, but on private sector supply and demand. NASA’s commercial cargo program has reinvigorated the American launch industry by helping Orbital ATK and SpaceX develop the Cygnus and Dragon capsules to supply cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA recently added a third US company, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, for ISS cargo resupply missions through 2024. Boeing and SpaceX are under contract to transport astronauts to the station within the next two years through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  For these vehicles to be economically successful in the long run, however, they will need to have private sector customers willing to pay to transport people and cargo to LEO.

Today, NASA is releasing Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit, a new collection of papers, written by prominent economists, that explores the question of how the private sector can take advantage of government investments in LEO.  As the NASA collection’s editors, Dr. Patrick Besha and Dr. Alexander MacDonald, explain, “after the government pioneers, develops, and demonstrates a space capability—from rockets to space-based communications to Earth observation satellites—the private sector realizes its market potential and continues innovating. As new companies establish a presence, the government often withdraws from the market or becomes one of many customers.”

We are currently at the threshold of this sort of opportunity when it comes to low-Earth orbit. We hope to advance the important conversation about the opportunities and challenges ahead of us; opportunities that can have a real impact for the exploration of space, and challenges that we will need to work together to overcome. We hope that through these discussions we will increase our ability to further expand economic opportunity and growth to more Americans and more American businesses.

NASA’s current partnerships with commercial cargo and crew providers are already putting Americans to work at more than a thousand companies across nearly all fifty states. With the recent, successful SpaceX and Orbital ATK resupply missions, our commercial partners have now delivered 24,874 kilos (54,837 pounds) of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts on the ISS recently expanded an experimental habitat, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was delivered on the most recent cargo resupply mission. Members of the crew also entered the module for the first time. Over the next two years, testing of the BEAM and the capability of expandable habitats could lead to future development of commercial habitation systems.   Commercial cargo missions have also included hundreds of experiments that utilize the unique microgravity environment on the ISS, such as a biomedical experiment from Eli Lilly and the first space-based 3D additive manufacturing facility, developed by Made-in-Space.  ISS National Lab manager CASIS continues to provide vital support for these and other commercial initiatives.

NASA’s mission is to explore and reach new heights for the benefit of all humankind. In transitioning LEO to commercial partners, we have an opportunity to do just that: expand economic opportunity for American business and hard-working families, while advancing new technologies, research and discoveries that benefit the entire human family.

Although the focus of the collection of papers being released today is on the potential for economic development in low-Earth orbit, commercial and international partnerships are also an important part of NASA’s Journey to Mars – and we encourage you to learn more about NASA’s plan here. At NASA, we are in the business of turning the impossible in to reality and raising the bar of human potential.

Dr. Dava Newman is deputy administrator of NASA. Tom Kalil is deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Honoring NASA’s Katherine Johnson, STEM Pioneer


By Knatokie Ford

This blog was originally published Nov. 30 by the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/25/honoring-nasas-katherine-johnson-stem-pioneer

President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2015, President Obama noted, “Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history—even if they weren’t always given a voice.” Most will think of this in the context of the civil rights movement, where black women helped plan the March on Washington, but were largely absent from the program, or perhaps even in the fight for women’s rights, from suffrage to the feminist movement. Very few, however, may know the role that women, particularly women of color, have played as innovators and leaders in the domains of science and technology.

On November 24th, President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, to Katherine Johnson—a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician who exhibited exceptional technical leadership, calculating and verifying trajectories that took the first Americans to space and to the moon.

Johnson’s recognition by President Obama marks a proud moment in American history because until recently, Johnson’s critical technical contributions to the space race were largely unknown to the world. The contributions and leadership of countless scientific and technical women and people of color who have been tremendous innovators have been left out of American history books, unfortunately. That’s why the Obama Administration is deeply committed to illuminating the great work and “untold history” of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as also shining a light on the great potential of all of America’s children to lead the world as the next generation of discoverers, inventors, and high-tech entrepreneurs.

In addition, a feature film is in the works to share Katherine Johnson’s story, along with the other three black women that were crucial to the success of the NASA space missions of the 50s and 60s. It is truly an exciting time—there is momentum building where a number of organizations seek to harness the power of media and storytelling to incite change, specifically in the STEM inclusion domain. Popular entertainment media (e.g. television and film) can influence the public’s perceptions towards STEM by shaping, cultivating, or reinforcing the “cultural meanings” of STEM fields and careers. Currently, STEM men outpace STEM women 5 to 1 in family films. Entertainment media can, therefore, play a dichotomous role—it can either reinforce biases and stereotypes that discourage girls and minorities from pursuing STEM careers, or it can help to paint pictures of the inclusive STEM workforce the Nation aspires to achieve.

White House Office of Science and Technology staffers meet with Medal of Freedom recipient Katherine Johnson. From left, Afua Bruce, Johnson, Knatokie Ford, and Payton Iheme. (Photo Credit: OSTP)
White House Office of Science and Technology staffers meet with Medal of Freedom recipient Katherine Johnson. From left, Afua Bruce, Johnson, Knatokie Ford, and Payton Iheme. (Photo Credit: OSTP)

A number of exciting developments seek to change not only the way history has been written, but also help shape the future of who constitutes America’s STEM workforce. In 2014, the White House unveiled the Untold History of Women in Science and Technology site where female leaders from across the Administration share stories of their personal STEM ‘sheroes.’ Earlier this year, Wikipedia, which is among the leading online educational resources, launched a Year of Science initiative that aims to not only improve the quality of science articles on Wikipedia, but also expand Wikipedia’s representation of women scientists. Earlier this year, OSTP held an “Edit-A-Thon” during Black History Month to help source and share inspiring stories of African Americans who made important contributions in STEM.

Role models play an important role in shaping the future aspirations of youth and adults alike—they can help students envision themselves as STEM professionals, enhance perception of STEM careers, and boost confidence in studying STEM subjects. Katherine Johnson’s recognition by President Obama along with the plans to share her story mark a proud moment in American history—she is a role model that we are excited for the world to know.

Knatokie Ford is a Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.