Studying the Solar System and Beyond from 45,000 Feet

NASA science takes many shapes, and we’re always pushing the boundary of what is achievable. I’ve just had an incredible opportunity to take part in one of our amazing missions that is gazing beyond our solar system in a unique way.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman flies aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy New Zealand/ Ola Thorsen
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman flies aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy New Zealand/ Ola Thorsen

The flying observatory called SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is in Christchurch, New Zealand, to study parts of the universe more easily visible from the Southern Hemisphere. It carries a 2.5-meter telescope inside a Boeing 747SP jetliner to observe the cosmos at infrared wavelengths. These observations are not possible from the ground, because water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere absorbs almost all the infrared light before it reaches the ground’s surface. SOFIA flies above 99 percent of this water vapor, at 38,000-45,000 feet in altitude, while carrying some of the world’s most powerful instruments not currently available on space-based observatories.

These unique capabilities enable scientists to study the origins of our universe in ways that no other observatory can. Last night I flew with the SOFIA team as they observed multiple targets in space: a nova (explosion of a star) in the constellation Sagittarius; one of the biggest stars known, named Eta Carinae, that will explode as a supernova relatively soon; and a large, newly forming star called IRAS 16562-3959. The science flight lasted ten hours, and at 61 degrees south latitude we witnessed the amazing aurora australis.

In addition to its powerful observing capabilities, SOFIA also has the unique ability to allow guest investigators, educators, journalists, and other related professionals to fly on an observing mission and see the research process first-hand. The educators fly on the observatory as part of NASA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program, a competitive professional development opportunity designed to implement active teaching methods, inspire students, and enhance scientific literacy for learners of all ages. The educators take what they learn on SOFIA back into their classrooms and communities to convey the value of scientific research, the importance of scientific and design processes, and the wide variety of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career paths available to students.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) carries some of the world’s most powerful instruments not currently available on space-based observatories. Photo credit: U.S. Embassy New Zealand/Ola Thorsen
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) carries some of the world’s most powerful instruments not currently available on space-based observatories. Photo credit: U.S. Embassy New Zealand/Ola Thorsen

This program brings the excitement, challenges, discoveries, and teamwork of SOFIA operations to the public on a national and international scale. Indeed, SOFIA itself is a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) – our wonderful partner in many areas that also flies educators to the stratosphere aboard this incredible airborne science observatory. This one-of-a-kind program seeks excellence by promoting both advancement and literacy in science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, and design (STEAMD) to prepare a 21st Century, interdisciplinary workforce.

SOFIA investigates the infrared universe to make discoveries light years away. It’s an example of vital NASA science expanding our journey of discovery – and I look forward to following its scientific discoveries in the years ahead.

Exploring Together

We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been. A new consensus is emerging around NASA’s plan and timetable for sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. This consensus extends not only across the aisle in Washington, but across the world to the various corners of science, policy, academia, industry, non-profits, citizen scientists, students, and everyday dreamers who envision a future where there is a continuous human presence on Mars and where our own quality of life here on Earth is better because of the technologies that we develop to get there.

I find that less often are folks asking, “Why aren’t you doing things my way?” or “Is Mars the right destination?” Rather, they’re asking questions like, “How can we be a part of this?” and “What are some areas where we can work together?”

Mars exploration promises to answer enduring questions like: “Is it habitable and did life ever exist on Mars?”

One of the things I often find as I meet with stakeholders from across sectors and around the world is that our partners are looking to NASA (and to a larger extent the people of the United States) for leadership – and we’re happy to provide it!

In the international space community, gone are the days of the “space race” when the dominant theme was that of various nations racing against each other. Instead, we’re increasingly running together. Time and again I hear talk from our friends across the globe of how NASA’s Journey to Mars truly benefits all humankind.

At NASA, we have roughly 700 active agreements with more than 120 international partners. Tens of thousands of people from across 15 countries have been involved in the operations and construction of the International Space Station alone, and the Station has hosted more than 2,000 research investigations from researchers in more than 95 countries.

Here at home, we work with business partners to transfer 1,600 new technologies a year into the market for job creation and economic growth, and we’re constantly looking for partners both in and out of government who are interested in developing the technologies that drive exploration while also creating jobs and improving our quality of life on Earth.

One of many examples is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, which launched earlier this month aboard a SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the space station for a two-year technology demonstration – one of two recent, successful resupply missions (the other being Orbital-ATK’s Cygnus launch in March). The BEAM demonstration is part of a public-private partnership contract with Bigelow Aerospace to study the radiation protection, thermal performance and general operations of expandable structures in space. President Obama’s budget proposal for the 2017 fiscal year provides $90 million for NASA to study approaches to creating the habitation systems astronauts will need for the journey to Mars, leveraging capabilities developed for the space station and using public-private partnerships.

With the award of our second space station Cargo Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts, we added Sierra Nevada Corporation, bringing to three the number of American commercial cargo service providers, along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK. We’re also hard at work with our commercial crew partners Boeing and SpaceX to return human space launches to American soil on commercial carriers, allowing NASA to explore farther, with an expanded focus on deep-space exploration – the proving ground for the human missions to the Red Planet that follow as part of our Journey to Mars plan. Our Commercial Crew Program will increase the space station astronauts from six to seven, effectively doubling the amount of crew time dedicated to research on the orbiting laboratory.

We also have Space Act Agreements with dozens of American commercial, government, and non-profit partners – from Google’s work on embedded smartphones to Arizona State University’s work on thermography for prognostics of composite materials, the State of Hawaii’s work on STEM initiatives … the list goes on and on.

Among the many exciting things we’re doing with American businesses, we’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company. In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.

As the saying goes, “spaceflight is hard.” Sending astronauts to Mars, which will be one of the greatest feats of human innovation in the history of civilization, carries with it many, many puzzles to piece together. That’s why we at NASA have made it a priority to reach out to partners in boardrooms, classrooms, laboratories, space agencies and even garages across our country and around the world.

We have more than half a century of experience and success exploring Mars to build upon, dating back to Mariner 4’s flyby in July 1965. Today, we continue to learn more about the Red Planet from NASA’s current robotic missions: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity), and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN). We also work with the Indian Space Research Organisation, providing our deep space network for their Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), as well as the European Space Agency and Roscosmos supporting their ExoMars scientific spacecraft currently enroute to Mars. We firmly believe that humanity is empowered when we collaborate in the peaceful exploration of space.

When he laid out his plans for NASA and the Journey to Mars in 2010, President Obama spoke of how partnership with industry could have the potential to “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.”

This is exactly what’s happening and it’s one of the reasons that we’re closer to sending humans to Mars than ever before.

“One Giant Leaf for Humankind”: Planting Out of This World Veggies With the First Lady

Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama, gardening and eating healthy are increasingly becoming “cool” among young people. Meanwhile, after millions of people across the world watched fictional astronaut Mark Watney plant potatoes on Mars in Hollywood’s The Martian, the intersection of botany and exploration has been capturing the imaginations of young and old alike — and rightfully so, the ability to grow nutritious food in space can play an important role feeding astronauts on long duration missions to destinations like Mars.

First Lady Michelle Obama, holds up NASA Veggie stickers while posing with Brad Carpenter, NASA chief scientist, Space Life and Physical Sciences, left; NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, second left; NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, second right; and Gioia Massa, science team lead, Veggie project, right; after planting the same variety of lettuce that was grown on the International Space Station in the White House Kitchen Garden on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
First Lady Michelle Obama, holds up NASA Veggie stickers while posing with Brad Carpenter, NASA chief scientist, Space Life and Physical Sciences, left; NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, second left; NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, second right; and Gioia Massa, science team lead, Veggie project, right; after planting the same variety of lettuce that was grown on the International Space Station in the White House Kitchen Garden on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

This week, my NASA colleagues, astronaut Dr. Cady Coleman, Dr. Gioia Massa and Dr. Brad Carpenter and I felt this excitement first hand, when we joined the First Lady along with school children from around the country at the White House. Together, we planted the White House Kitchen Garden – continuing an eight-year tradition the First Lady began in 2009 to inspire children to develop healthier habits, so we can raise a healthier generation of American children.

We talked to these students about the importance of studying science, technology, engineering, the arts, math and design. I was also able to share my motto:  love, act, discover, invent (LADI), which serves as my guiding principle.  They are part of what we at NASA call the “Mars Generation.”  Someday they might very well view a human presence on Mars as a fact of life,  much like the continuous human presence on the International Space Station has been for the last 15 years and counting.  

NASA is on a Journey to Mars that will send American astronauts – perhaps one of the students we met at the White House yesterday! – to the Red Planet in the 2030s. Science tells us that the healthier our children are outside of the classroom, the healthier and better prepared to learn their minds will be in school.

Therefore, in addition to some delicious and nutritious veggies, the seeds we planted today might grow into the discovery, imagination, and innovation that take us all the way to Mars.

With this in mind, we were thrilled to plant the same variety of lettuce that has been grown on the International Space Station and to do it mere days before NASA’s Veg-03 experiment will travel to the Station aboard SpaceX’s 10th Dragon spacecraft on its CRS-8 mission as part of our commercial cargo initiative.

Veg-03 will make use of the Veggie plant growth facility, a deployable plant growth unit that’s capable of producing salad-type crops in space, thereby providing astronauts with palatable, nutritious fresh food, along with a source of relaxation and recreation … gardening!

You may have read about astronaut Scott Kelly harvesting and sampling red lettuce grown with Veggie during his Year in Space.

As we advance further along our Journey to Mars and prepare to send astronauts on long – duration exploration missions, the ability to grow nutritious food in space holds tremendous promise.  Therefore, Veggie might very well lay the groundwork for feeding the astronauts who reach Mars in the 2030s, and give them a source of recreation.  At the same time, Veggie could also improve growth and biomass production at home here on Earth.

So “Let’s Move!” Let’s move to join First Lady Michelle Obama in raising a healthier generation of children. Let’s move to inspire America’s children to reach for new heights.  Let’s move to plant seeds of progress both here on Earth and in space.

The benefits are truly out of this world!

Women Have Always Been NASA Pioneers

by Dr. Dava Newman and Dr. Ellen Stofan

If you ask someone about the history of NASA, they will likely talk about the Apollo moon landings, the space shuttle, the Hubble Space telescope, or landing on Mars. But the people of NASA, especially the women, behind these great achievements remain little known.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Dava Newman explores a prototype Orion spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA
NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Dava Newman explores a prototype Orion spacecraft. Photo credit: NASA

The men and women of NASA have achieved incredible things, working as a team to push back the frontiers of technology and science. But with women making up only about a third of our science, technology, engineering and math workforce, we are not tapping into the talent to solve the challenges of NASA and our society. In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to highlight just a few of the many women who have moved this agency forward over its 58-year history.

NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan meets with Melissa Trainer in the SAM Testbed Lab during her visit to Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan meets with Melissa Trainer in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Testbed Lab during her visit to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Hrybyk.

Female pioneers from the entire history of aviation and space history have helped us get to the point where were are now – on a journey to Mars and with many capabilities to help us search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.

One of those pioneers, Dr. Thora Halstead, passed away last week. Thora was a mentor to many, and her work benefited thousands. She’s been credited with helping to establish the field of space biology before there was such a discipline, and the mentors of many of today’s scientists working in the field can credit Thora with direct mentorship or inspiration.

Thora’s numerous experiments and more than 40 published papers explored how the cells of living organisms respond to a low-gravity environment. As we move closer to Mars, we see that work in many ways, from the VEGGIE experiment that has produced the first lettuce crop in space, or research to show us how plants communicate within their systems in microgravity. Thora also founded the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB), a 500-plus member society with worldwide scientific community membership (now the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research). The legacy of exchange and collaboration that she began will continue to advance space biology for years to come.

By remembering the contributions that the women of NASA have already made, hopefully we can help to inspire the next generation of Thora Halsteads. There have been many. Katherine Johnson, for instance, was recently recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to NASA’s earliest days. A mathematician, her calculations helped the Mercury program soar, and helped land those Apollo astronauts on the moon. As an African American woman, she helped open the doors to many who followed, including Dr. Christine Darden who, in 1967, began crunching numbers and writing some of the complex programs for engineers at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and developed a computer program for minimizing sonic boom.

Our first class of astronauts to include females was selected in 1978. While the legendary Dr. Sally Ride eventually became the first American woman to fly to space, her fellow classmates Dr. Shannon W. Lucid, Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon, Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Dr. Judith A. Resnik, and Dr. Anna L. Fisher (who became the first mother in space) also went on to make their mark in space. Many of the women who helped their space shuttles return to flight again and again on many missions were also women, working diligently behind the scenes.

Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Program, pioneered research on how living in a microgravity environment affected the health of astronauts.  Jeanne Crews was an engineer at NASA from the mid-1960s onward and helped us achieve many of the space program’s early milestones. Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer known as “the Mother of Hubble,” not only helped design the great observatory, she worked tirelessly to get NASA and the Congress to make it happen.

Several women have served as NASA’s Chief Scientist, including Dr. France Cordova, Dr. Kathie Olsen, Dr. Shannon Lucid and, currently, Dr. Ellen Stofan.

Many women have led NASA in senior management positions, from Dr. Carolyn Huntoon, the first female center director, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who currently leads Johnson, Lesa Roe, who led our Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and is now NASA’s deputy associate administrator, Dr. Harriet Jenkins, a mathematician who also served as NASA’s assistant administrator for equal opportunity programs, and Shana Dale, the agency’s first female deputy administrator – who has been followed by Lori Garver and Dr. Dava Newman.

There are many stories to tell, and many being written right now. The Women@NASA website is a good resource to find out more about how women today are more than ever involved in every aspect of NASA’s work.

In this field where milestones are the norm, we are standing on the shoulders of many giants, and we celebrate that legacy by advancing it and reaching new heights.

Dr. Dava Newman is NASA’s deputy administrator. Dr. Ellen Stofan is NASA’s chief scientist.

Celebrating Women in STEM

NASA women are not just part of history. We are making history in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To mark Women’s History Month this year, several of us spent the day with about 100 students from high schools in Washington, Baltimore and suburban Maryland. We met up at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and talked to them about our jobs – what we do, what we love most about what we do, how we prepared to do our work, and where we find our inspiration. This is the story I shared with them.

When I started college, I expected to become a lawyer. I enjoyed basketball and many sports agents were lawyers, so combining a law degree with athletics seemed like a sure way to succeed. I dreamed I would be the world’s best sports lawyer and I would represent one of the legendary names in my favorite game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My older brother, who already was a lawyer, reminded me I also was a whiz at science, math and loved art. He urged me to build a career on those talents instead. Great advice!

Later in my freshman year at Notre Dame, U.S. space policy ignited my passion for the peaceful exploration of outer space and changed my mind about my future. I ended up being one of two female aerospace engineering majors in my graduating class. I went on to earn advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, technology and policy, and aerospace biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I became a university professor and have loved teaching students and performing space research. I’ve flown four spaceflight experiments. I designed a spacesuit for Mars. I wrote a textbook to introduce college freshman to the field of engineering. I also taught leadership development at MIT. The proudest moment of my career was in 2014, when President Obama asked me to serve as deputy administrator of NASA.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my life, and I even used my scientific know-how to save it. Another dream of mine had been to sail around the world. My husband and I were making that dream come true in 2003 when our sailboat lost hydraulic steering. We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from any land. We tried everything to steer the boat, but fluid it needed had drained away. Nothing was working, until I remembered the gallon of extra virgin olive oil we bought for the Pacific crossing. Maybe we could substitute it. I did a mixing experiment or two to prove olive oil has the same viscosity as hydraulic fluid, and we rigged up an IV-like system to feed the autopilot that enabled us to steer and sail the remaining 1,000 miles to safety in the Marquesas islands. Eureka! I couldn’t have done that with a law degree!

It was a fantastic day at Goddard, but it’s not all about me. I was among my women heroes all day and honored to hear a keynote from Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as eight NASA colleagues who are brilliant examples of what women can accomplish in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (and I also include art and design – STEAMD) careers. They are Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station; Sandra Cauffman, deputy system program director for the GOES-R satellite program; Aprille Ericsson, manager of the SBIR/STTR Program; Lori Perkins, a scientific data visualizer; Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut; Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist; and Lesa Roe, NASA deputy associate administrator.

My message to the students was simple and I shared my motto: Love – Act – Discover – Innovate (LADI). Be open to possibilities. Know your talents. Rely on your strengths. Follow your passion. You will succeed!


NASA Communicates Harassment Policies to Grantees

All of us in our Agency’s leadership team believe very deeply that NASA’s most important asset is our people. It matters to us intrinsically that we reach for new heights not only in aeronautics and space, but also in how we treat one another, advance the cause of equal opportunity, and make NASA an inclusive, cooperative, and safe working environment worthy of the recognition we’ve received as the #1 best place to work in the federal government. This is the right thing to do; and it’s the right way to manage for results.

Today, Administrator Bolden sent a letter to institutions receiving NASA grants to remind them that “any behavior that demeans or discourages people from fully participating is unacceptable.” Specifically, it reminds our partners that NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment: not at our own Agency and not at any of our partner institutions.

To quote from Administrator Bolden’s letter: We view an inclusive working environment “not as ‘something nice to do’ if the time can be spared, or something that human resources or the diversity and equity offices are responsible for, but rather as an integral and indeed necessary aspect of all educational program environments.”

I encourage you to visit the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity’s website at to learn more about our work to make NASA a model agency for equal opportunity and diversity.

A Star-Spangled Evening on The White House Lawn

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember being mesmerized by the stars and by the news of the Apollo 11 mission (which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon with Michael Collins in orbit). Almost all of us who work in space-related fields have a similar stories to share of being inspired at an early age. President Obama himself has talked about being inspired during his childhood, when his grandfather lifted him on his shoulders so he could wave at astronauts arriving in Hawaii.

It’s the President’s belief that by encouraging more young people to engage with science, technology, engineering, the arts, math, and design we will be able to encourage a new generation of Americans to reach for new heights.

To help capture the imaginations of young people throughout our country, the President hosted a wonderful White House Astronomy Night. Joining the President on the South Lawn of the White House were students, scientists, engineers, makers and astronauts. We were also joined by Americans throughout the country who participated virtually via live stream and at events hosted by national parks, observatories, schools, museums, and astronomy clubs.[/embedyt]

Once the sun set, we gathered with the students around telescopes with NASA astronomers and observed some of the stunning spectacles in our night sky. Earlier in the day, we shared some images from some of our space-based telescopes on the White House’s Instagram feed.

Perhaps one of these students will someday be the first American to set foot on Mars. Five years ago, President Obama came to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and laid out a transformative agenda for NASA, highlighted by a Journey to Mars that will culminate in sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

Today, we are closer than ever before in human history to sending our astronauts to Mars, and it quite possibly will be one of the amazing students I met at astronomy night that will take that first step, or who will provide the logistical support, design, orbital calculations, imagination, persistence, or vision to ensure mission success.

As our nation continues along our Journey to Mars, it is absolutely essential that more and more of our fellow citizens study the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s why the President has proposed preparing 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade, while broadening participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool.

Monday, the President spoke to Astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and we saw the ISS pass overhead in the DC night sky. In just a couple weeks NASA will mark 15 years of continuous human habitation aboard the Station.[/embedyt]

This means that kids younger than 15 have never known a day that human beings were not living and working, continuously in space. In the future, American children might never know a day where human beings are not pushing ever deeper into space.

If we are able to encourage a new generation of kids passionate about STEM subjects (and I include arts and design as well), then, as the President has said, “we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space — we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.”

More Links:

#AskNASA Chat with NASA commercial crew astronauts.

Photos from Astronomy Night 2015.

Video of the President’s remarks at Astronomy Night.


Proving Amelia Earhart Right

Amelia Earhart is reported to have professed: “Never do things others can and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.” All across our country, hardworking NASA employees and contractors live these words on a daily basis. They are turning science fiction into fact and expanding the horizons of human possibility.

I’ve had the honor of working with members of the NASA community for the past three decades, and since formally joining Team NASA in May, I’ve made it a priority to visit the NASA workforce and to see our centers and facilities throughout the country.

Having the opportunity to speak with NASA employees and to hear firsthand about the world-changing work they are doing has been nothing short of inspirational and remarkable.

Most recently, I had the chance to visit the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field and Plum Brook Station in Ohio.

At both centers, our teams are making significant and substantial progress to advance NASA’s Journey to Mars – from Team Goddard’s work on MAVEN and Sample Analysis at Mars to the progress being made on the next generation of Solar Electric Propulsion at Glenn.

At Glenn, NASA teams are doing important work to further our goals for making flight safer, cleaner, and quieter. I was really impressed by the research to simulate the impact of ice crystals on jet engines in the Propulsion Systems Laboratory. Glenn is a big part of the reason we’re able to say that “NASA is with you when you fly.”

The work of Goddard’s teams on marquee missions like the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, contributes (and will continue to contribute) breakthrough scientific understanding of our solar system and beyond.

At NASA, we are, to paraphrase President Obama, reaching farther into our solar system at the very same time we are strengthening our nation’s leadership here at home. When our astronauts put their feet on Martian soil in the 2030s, we’ll be able to look back at this time knowing we laid the groundwork.


Embracing the “Grandest of Challenges”

There is a new consensus emerging in the scientific community around NASA’s plan, timetable, and vision for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Our teams at the Stennis Space Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility are a big part of the reason why.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman watches an RS-25 engine test at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.  Photo credit: NASA/Stennis
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman watches an RS-25 engine test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Photo credit: NASA/Stennis

I recently had the opportunity to attend the successful test of the RS-25 rocket engine at Stennis. Nicknamed the “Ferrari of rocket engines,” it is a critical component of the Space Launch System (SLS), which will someday launch our astronauts to deep space, and eventually to the Red Planet itself.

I also had the chance to visit with the very talented women and men of Marshall and its Michoud Assembly Facility (where the SLS is being assembled). They showed me demonstrations of some of the innovative things they are doing to advance the SLS, support the astronauts and their scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station, and advance technologies like composites, which drive exploration.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman visits the Marshall Space Flight Center's Environmental Control and Life Support System facility. Photo credit: NASA/Marshall
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman visits the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Environmental Control and Life Support System facility. Photo credit: NASA/Marshall

All in all, our NASA teams are doing some of the most impressive work anywhere on Earth to support exploration, discovery, and technology off of it.

This work is impressive for both its “outputs” and its “inputs.” What I mean by this is that not only are we delivering some game-changing results, we’re also changing the way we work together across sectors to turn science fiction into science fact.

At Stennis for example, more than 40 resident federal, state, academic and private organizations and numerous technology-based companies are all innovating in the same place. You can feel the energy in the air.

The soccer star Mia Hamm (who grew up only about 3 hours away from Marshall), once said that “there are always new, grander challenges to confront, and a true winner will embrace each one.”

I am so proud to work alongside the people of Stennis, Marshall and Michoud, as they continue to embrace the grandest of challenges, reach for new heights, and work to expand humanity’s presence in the solar system while strengthening America’s leadership here on Earth.

Visiting NASA Innovators in California

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Armstrong Flight Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. These two innovative hubs are unique. At the same time they share the larger mission of NASA — to propel us on our journey to Mars and drive technologies that advance our missions and also improve life on Earth.

At JPL, center director Dr. Charles Elachi showed me the scale model of the Mars Curiosity rover. It’s like being next to this intrepid explorer! Later I also got to see Mission Operations, where so many great missions have returned their first data and images to Earth, and where we have celebrated many successes towards expanding the frontier of human achievement. It was a thrill to see the work that JPL is doing for the Mars 2020 rover, which will study the rocks on the Martian surface to search for signs of microbial life and help us understand how resources such as oxygen may be extracted from the soil in the future. All of our Mars missions are helping pave the way for human missions to the Red Planet. At JPL, you can definitely see that intersection between science and human exploration — both in science and technology development.

It was a great pleasure to visit with JPL’s Earth science team. Of course, a primary focus of NASA research is studying our own planet and continuing to improve our understanding of the dynamic global system.

Armstrong – auspiciously celebrating the birthday last week of namesake Neil Armstrong – is home to strong science as well as aeronautics under the leadership of center director David McBride. It was great to be onsite close to the place where so many space shuttle landings took place. It is also a place where so many aeronautics innovations are happening right now, such as recent work on engine health. Armstrong’s Flight Opportunities Program is doing cutting edge work, such as drop tests for future sample return missions and suborbital opportunities that help us prove technologies before they have to go to the harsh environment of space. At Armstrong, they’re supporting commercial launches that are happening right now out of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Both Armstrong and JPL have their own personality, and I was happy to get to know both of these West Coast innovators better. The tour continues!