Dr Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, has been named the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science and Research, effective 14 March 2021.
In this role, she will lead the Smithsonian’s collective scientific efforts and commitment to research, overseeing the institution’s science museums, science research centres and Libraries and Archives.
Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the National Air and Space Museum, is the first woman to hold the position. She has been leading the museum’s research on aviation, spaceflight history and the planetary sciences since April 2018.
In July 2019, Stofan oversaw the museum’s landmark 5-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Under her leadership, the museum has also begun a major seven-year renovation of its building on the National Mall.
A career in space
Dr Ellen Stofan has more than 25 years of experience in space-related organizations and a deep research background in planetary geology, focusing on the geology of Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan and Earth, Before joining the Smithsonian, she was also chief scientist at NASA from 2013 to 2016, serving as a principal advisor to NASA’s administrator.
She spoke to Blooloop about her career, the National Air and Space Museum, the importance of encouraging people to bring an understanding of science into decision-making, and the possibility of finding life beyond our planet.
The National Air and Space Museum
The mission statement of the National Air and Space Museum is ‘to inspire the next generation of explorers and innovators.’
“That really means, how do you tell an amazing story of what is, basically, people defying gravity?” says Stofan. “People want to fly. They want to go into space. How did that happen? What is that story of innovation, of questioning, of defying expectations?”
“We find the wonderful stories of people like the Wright brothers, bicycle makers who figured out how to make the first aeroplane; stories of the 400,000 people that it took to make Apollo happen.
“And then there are the great individual stories, such as that of Katherine Johnson, [the NASA mathematician] whose story was told so wonderfully in Hidden Figures; the less well-known stories that really show that in this great story of defying gravity, of flight, people who look like everyone have been part of it, and there is so much more that everyone can contribute.
“We have, as a museum, such inspiration. Look what people can do when they put their minds to it.”
Exploration is not something limited to a chosen few:
“It really does involve everyone, and that’s one of the things we try to get across,” says Dr Ellen Stofan. “It’s something we’re thinking about as we renovate the museum because people still have this idea that ‘Oh, aviation and space flight – it’s for engineers and guys only.’
“No. First of all, it’s for everyone. It always has been; everyone’s always been involved. You need designers; you need science fiction writers, and you need artists. We want to show that it’s the story of everyone and everything; you don’t get to the moon without all talents and all skills.”
Women remain significantly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) workforce.
“We do have a long way to go,” she says. “In the Biological Sciences, women make up slightly more than 50%, but if you look in engineering, if you look in computer science, the numbers are low and, frankly, they are staying low.
“Computer science, where the numbers are staying flat, used to be dominated by women. It’s not true that, as some people say, women just aren’t good at it, or they’re not interested. If that were the case, why, at the beginning of computing, was it dominated by women?”
Women in STEM
“Our job at the National Air and Space Museum is that inspiration piece, to show girls that people who look like them have always been involved in this; Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson, so many other figures. Women have already always been making big contributions,” adds Dr Stofan.
“Secondly, look at all the cool things you could be working on: getting people to Mars; designing a fuel-efficient aeroplane. “
“A lot of studies have shown that girls tend to be attracted to careers that are about problems. So we show that engineering isn’t just about ‘how do I put these two bolts together?’ ‘How do I make this electrical system work?’ It’s about ‘How do we save the planet by making air travel fuel-efficient and net-zero carbon?’
“Showing problems that actually tend to attract girls is part of our role.”
Exploring climate change at the National Air and Space Museum
Having touched on the importance of carbon neutrality, Dr Ellen Stofan adds:
“In the renovated museum, we are going to have a gallery on innovation which will open around 2024-5.
“In a part of the gallery, we are going to talk about how part of the reason we understand human-induced climate change is happening is because of aviation and space flight. The sensors on aircraft and spacecraft are part of how we know climate change is happening, and what the effects on the planet are.”
Another part of the gallery will focus on the other side of this:
“Aviation and space flight, however, are also contributing to climate change. Where is the innovation happening? It’s in areas like synthetic fuels, electric aircraft. There are all kinds of cool things going on right now, where people are trying to solve that problem.
“There is a problem. It’s real. We know it’s real because here are all the observations we have that prove it is real. But you can use innovation to help create positive change.”
Reaching a wider audience
There is a certain section of the population that visits museums. Part of the work Dr Stofan does at the National Air and Space Museum is aimed at reaching the rest.
“We focus so much on that,” she says. “Part of it is storytelling. Are we telling inclusive stories so that everyone feels welcome; so that when they come into the museum they see people that look like them? And are we not just telling stories about history, which appeals to some people, while others want to hear about the future?
“In our museum, we have to balance stories. We want to talk about the Wright brothers, who were amazing individuals – it’s such a great story of innovation.
“But we also want to talk about how we get to net-zero aviation, and when we’re going to have flying cars, and how the Space Agencies of the world are working together. We want to look at what’s up with all these crazy commercial companies that are sending people into space; and at people moving on to Mars, eventually.
“We want to balance talking about history and how we got to where we are, and the lessons from that, with being forward-leaning and future-leaning. And I think that expands the audience.
“The last part which is really critical is that we are the most visited museum in the United States. We normally have 6 to 8 million visitors a year, which is an incredible number for a museum. But that also means there are a lot of people who aren’t coming to the museum. How do we reach them? This is something we were really thinking about before COVID-19.”
Dr Ellen Stofan on the impact of COVID-19
“COVID has made us laser-focus on it, but we needed to do it anyway,” she continues. “We need to reach people in the UK who might never come to the Air and Space Museum. We need to reach those across the United States who may not come, in every community. That digital outreach, that digital presence, is something we have spent the last year really focused on.”
The pandemic has, she says, brought initiatives and innovations forward, in many cases.
“It’s been an incredible crisis, obviously, with such a horrible human toll that it’s really daunting. But if there’s anything good that’s come out of it, I think it’s been showing that something like a museum, that you think of as an entirely in-person experience, can become a meaningful experience for kids, for parents, for everyone.
“We’ve been able to do some incredibly fun programming. Whether it’s a tag-up with Victor Glover, who’s on the International Space Station right now, or interviewing a bunch of people who are working on flying cars. We had a series of three Facebook Live sessions exploring different aspects of how we’re moving towards flying cars.”
Flying cars and other topics from the world of sci-fi
Dr Ellen Stofan qualifies this. Flying cars, as a real-world prospect, aren’t quite the way they’re depicted in comics:
“’Flying cars’ is slang. It’s more properly referred to as ‘urban aerial mobility’, and there is a huge amount of work going on. Again, our role is to explain to the public ‘why’. Why are there all these people investing huge amounts in this thing that has been science fiction forever?
“There are a couple of reasons. One of the chief ones is drone technology. Suddenly, we have the lightweight materials, advanced artificial intelligence, and advanced control systems that are needed for drones, which, for military and civilian use, are everywhere.”
“There is also this increasing realisation that we need modes of transportation that are more energy-efficient. Most of the flying car models that are being looked at are electric, and designed for short hops.”
The congestion problem in cities has been a challenge for some time:
“Now these technologies of autonomy, machine learning, and drone technology have come together to take something that’s been science fiction forever, to make it a real prospect within the next 10 years. I think we’re actually going to see these in cities; slowly, at first, and then growing.
“The thought of not sitting in a traffic jam forever is really appealing.”
Updating the National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museums has two locations: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dallas Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, and the museum on the National Mall.
Dr Stofan explains: “That building [on the National Mall] was 43 years old. Its heating and cooling systems were hopelessly out of date. We were having trouble maintaining the temperature and humidity in the building. On top of that, there were problems with the stone on the exterior of the building, which was starting to fail.”
“At present, we’re in the middle of a seven-year project where we are taking the building apart down to the structural steel, reinforcing it, and rebuilding the building in place.
“Because the building is about two city blocks long, we closed the West half of it, leaving the East half open. Before COVID, the public was coming into the East half of the museum. We took all the artefacts out of the West half and put them in storage out at the Hazy Center. Many were cleaned, restored and worked on. In the meantime, the West end was taken down to its bones.
“We have been rebuilding it, and we just put the first aeroplane back into the museum on Monday.”
Rebuilding the galleries
The painstaking process of creating galleries has begun:
“As the construction firm finishes a gallery, they give it to us,” says Dr Ellen Stofan. “We paint, we install lighting, put in cases, and then we start putting artefacts in. The aeroplanes obviously have to go in first, because they’re big, so we bring them in, and lift them back up to the ceiling.”
“It’s an absolutely huge enterprise. Just imagine moving aircraft through Washington DC out of Virginia in the middle of the night, and bringing them back in early in the morning. That alone is a huge undertaking.”
Appealing to new generations
The new West End will open in mid-2022 with all new galleries. The process will then be repeated with the east half of the museum, with the entire project completed by 2025.
“In the three years I’ve been at the museum, I’ve really been focused on the issue of how we use this opportunity of redoing all the galleries, some of which had been there since 1976, to tell new stories.”
“How do we show new artefacts? How do we appeal to a different, more digitally oriented generation? When our museum opened, the Apollo programme had only ended four years before; the Space Shuttle had yet to fly. Now we have the International Space Station. From the perspective of anybody under 20 years old, there have always been people living in space.
“We have to think about how we tell these stories to a different generation with a very different perspective. It has been really fun to think about how we’re going to do it; about the galleries; about the kind of museum that we want to be when we open in 2025.”
Dr Ellen Stofan on life beyond Earth
On Feb 18, 2021, the world watched as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, its mission to seek signs of ancient life, and collect samples of rock and regolith, loose rock, dust, sand, and soil, for possible return to Earth.
During a talk in Washington in 2015, Dr Stofan, then chief scientist at NASA, predicted that life would be discovered beyond Earth within the next 10-20 years.
Does she still feel this?
“I do,” she says. “Though I always put a caveat. Part of that was dependent on getting humans to Mars in the 2030s.”
“I have huge faith in a lot of things. First, we know the conditions on early Mars were the same as on early Earth when life evolved, so Mars should have been an environment in which life could have evolved. I’m really excited about what Perseverance might find.”
Future space missions
However, she adds:
“Perseverance is never going to be able to give us definitive proof. There is this whole struggle for scientists concerning what constitutes an indication of life. We are already at the point on Mars where we know it had habitable environments around 3 1/2 billion years ago. The question is, were they inhabited? The habitable part is just the first part.
“Perseverance has a number of instruments that will get us further down that path.”
“There is also a mission being planned to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, for the next decade. Jupiter has a sub-ice ocean that is also an environment that could be habitable, so there will be a mission going there in the next decade.
“I’m involved with a mission called Dragonfly that’s sending a [drone-like] rotorcraft to Titan in the early 2030s.
“We’re not sure how far Titan, as an environment, could have gotten towards life. So we have all these opportunities, these environments we’re in the midst of exploring, in our own solar system. If none of them turns up any strong indication of past or present life, I’ll be scientifically surprised.”
Progress in space exploration
Part of the reason, Dr Stofan explains, that we are so involved in exploring these environments in our own solar system is that, over the last couple of decades, thousands of planets have been discovered around other stars, some of them in the right place to have water on the surface.
“We don’t yet have the telescopes to be able to image those planets; to see, for example, if we can see changing colour that would indicate vegetation, which would prove life,” she says.
Soon, that will no longer be the case.
“With the James Webb Space Telescope that launches later this year, we are going to start looking at the atmospheres of those planets, to establish whether there is the methane, carbon dioxide, oxygen, gases that we associate with life.”
“But as we look across our own solar system, if we can find evidence that life evolved on not just the Earth, but in multiple places, that tells us that as we start looking beyond our solar system, life is going to be ubiquitous.
“If it is ubiquitous in our solar system, it’s going to be elsewhere.”
“If we don’t find it anywhere besides Earth, to me, that does lower the chances, though not completely, of finding it beyond the solar system.”
The truth is out there
But what sort of life?
“What is fascinating to me is the fact we have such fundamental questions,” says Dr Stofan. “Is it going to look like life as we know it? Are we even going to be able to detect it? A whole body of scientists now are studying life as we don’t know it.
“What if life didn’t have RNA and DNA? What other ways can we imagine that life could evolve? We want to make sure we’re designing our experiments right, because we could easily do what the Viking Lander did, when, 40 years ago, they looked for signs of life on Mars, and didn’t find it. We know now that, because of the way that experiment was designed, it was going to fail, but we didn’t know that at the time.
“Now, our big question is, are we thinking about life in the broadest way, so that we actually find it?”
An early interest in science
Dr Ellen Stofan offers an insight into the inception of her fascination with planetary geology:
“My father worked for NASA, so I grew up defending NASA against my 10-year-old compatriots who would say NASA is a waste of money. But everyone who worked at NASA looked like my dad; I envisioned it as all engineers like him. So it wasn’t that interesting to me.
“I was really interested in science. I picked up rocks everywhere. At one point my mom was getting a Master’s degree in Education. She took a geology course. I went with her, and I realised that picking up rocks was actually a profession, not just something that little kids did. So I decided I wanted to be a geologist at 10.”
When she was 14, Dr Stofan’s father was in charge of the rockets that were launching the first of the Viking Landers to Mars.
“We went down for the launch – I went to a bunch of rocket launches when I was a kid, which was awesome. The scientists associated with the mission were giving talks, and I figured out that planetary geology is a thing: ‘The whole rock thing – people do that on planets. That’s cool.’
“They were talking about Mars, searching for life, and learning more about the Earth by studying other planets. I was hooked. So at age 14, I decided to become a planetary geologist.”
Becoming a planetary geologist
Because of her father’s involvement with NASA, Dr Stofan was able to go to planetary geologists to ask for advice on how to achieve her objective.
“I knew I needed to get a PhD. I decided to go for my undergraduate studies to the College of William and Mary, here in Virginia, to get a traditional geology education so that I really understood and was grounded in how we understand the geology of Earth.”
If you’re going to go and start making up stories around other planets, you’d better have a really solid grounding in Earth geology
“If you’re going to go and start making up stories around other planets, you’d better have a really solid grounding in Earth geology.”
She then went on to graduate school at Brown University. She explains:
“I wanted to work on Mars, because I’d done a summer internship out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, working on Viking data of Mars, but when I got to Brown, the then Soviet Union had a spacecraft that was just arriving at Venus.”
Data from Venus
Dr Ellen Stofan’s advisor, James W. Head, asked if she wanted to work on the new data from the planet Venus obtained by the Soviet Venera 15-16 mission.
“I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ Venus is covered in clouds, so you need a radar instrument to see through the clouds to the surface.
“I just absolutely fell in love with Venus, because here you have this planet that’s about the same size as the Earth, and it’s made of about the same stuff as the Earth. It should only be about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the Earth because it’s closer to the sun, but it’s 500 degrees Celsius on the surface. It has this runaway greenhouse atmosphere.”
“If you start with two chocolate cake mixes, you put them in the oven and one comes out chocolate and one comes out lemon, what the heck happened? Why did Venus go down this completely bizarre path? We even think early in Venus’s history it had an ocean on the surface like Mars did.
“So this concept of habitability is also really interesting because it can be brief. On Earth, we’ve had really good, habitable conditions for a long time. Mars and Venus had them and lost them.
“I became really fascinated with studying Venus, but also became an expert at using radar data to look at planetary surfaces.”
When Dr Stofan finished Graduate School, the US had a mission to Venus called Magellan. She says:
“I was really lucky because I literally got to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher two months before we went into orbit around Venus. I had this brand-new mission of incredible data that I could work on, and it was really fun.”
The Jet Propulsion Lab had a radar instrument that flew twice on the Shuttle in 1990. Looking at Earth with radar:
“I worked on that mission helping organise the scientists, in more of a management role: how do you take this team of 50 scientists and the Shuttle going around the earth, and figure out how to make a science mission out of it? That was fun, too.”
Her next role was on the Mars Express, a space exploration mission conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA):
“I was working on a radar sounder that was looking below the surface of Mars, so I finally got to be on a Mars mission.”
Planning a mission to Titan
At this point, her husband needed to move to his company’s London office.
“So we came and lived in the UK for about five years,” Stofan says. “At around that time also I became a team member on the Cassini mission, which is the mission to Saturn where I worked on Saturn’s moon Titan. When we moved to London, I decided to start working part-time.”
She did so for a decade.
“I was partially working at UCL. My kids were growing up. Then we moved back to the States. I was still working on missions, and I got approached by Lockheed Martin to look at planning a mission to send a boat to Saturn’s moon Titan, which has seas of liquid methane and ethane.”
Initially Dr Stofan was hesitant:
“In typical girl-fashion, I was like, ‘You don’t want me. You must want some much more talented guy…’ But they said, ‘No. We want you.’ I ended up really loving it.”
She worked on the mission for five years:
“We made it part-way through some NASA competitions. In the end, we lost to a Mars mission. I’m now on another Titan mission, which is great, but it’s not my boat mission. I’m still sad about it.”
The next chapter: NASA
When the boat mission ended and the team were beaten in the competition, Dr Stofan felt at a loss.
“I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life and I felt maybe I should do something different.”
At this point, she was called and asked if she would like to interview to be the chief scientist of NASA.
I’m passionate about this issue of girls and STEM education and how we get kids inspired
“I Googled, ‘What does the chief scientist of NASA do?’ I ended up working for Charlie Bolden, who was then the administrator of NASA and I was there for about 3 years till the end of the Obama administration.”
While trying to figure out what to do next, she heard that the Director of the National Air and Space Museum was retiring.
“I loved the Air and Space Museum,” she says. “I worked there as an intern when I was in college. I’m somewhat passionate about this issue of girls and STEM education and how we get kids inspired, and it just seemed like the best place to go.”
Science and politics
Dr Ellen Stofan retired from NASA at the end of the Obama administration since her boss, Charlie Bolden, a political appointee, was leaving:
“I was his science adviser, basically. He was amazing to work for. I had a huge amount of respect for him, and, at that point, I just couldn’t imagine working for anybody else. If Charlie was leaving, I was leaving, too. Who I work with is important to me.”
She was also a member of the Joe Biden transition agency:
“It was really a great experience, and I’m excited for NASA going forward.”
The interplay between politics and science is, she says, interesting:
“We have been encouraging people to understand that this whole focus on STEM education is not just because we want a million little scientists and engineers out there. It’s because we want people to understand the importance of evidence-based decision making, of bringing an understanding of and respect for science into decisions.
“When you look at a problem like climate change or artificial intelligence, the public needs some understanding of the science: How did we get here? What’s behind it?”
The importance of understanding science
Vaccines are a case in point, says Dr Ellen Stofan:
“I have heard so many people saying that ‘this vaccine came out of nowhere.’ It didn’t. It’s based on over 20 years of research; on trying to find a vaccine for AIDS. That is what the mRNA vaccines are based on.”
“So this issue of how you get past the politics to try to get people to understand evidence-based decision making is where we should be. It is a challenge because politics gets involved, and then, somehow, some of that evidence-based decision making seems to diminish.
“I’m really encouraged as the Biden administration comes in that this is their priority. That is certainly what we’re about at the Smithsonian. We’re about educating on not just what the science is, but how we figure the science out.”
The coronavirus pandemic has given science deniers a platform.
“It’s really discouraging, as a scientist,” says Dr Stofan. “In a sense, our prime job as a scientific community has been to talk to each other. We are trying to get the best science. So we focus on ‘How do I present my science to my peers so that they can judge whether I’m on the right track or not?’
“We all, as a community, move science forward. We lived in that world, by and large. But while we were living in our great science bubble, the public got left behind, to some extent. How do we fix this? How do we learn how to talk to the public better?”
The role of museums
Dr Ellen Stofan answers this:
“A lot of it is about what we do in museums. It’s about storytelling, it’s about making something relatable. It’s bringing it down to the human level; talking about not just the how and the what, which is where science tends to fall, but the ‘Why’. The ‘Who cares?’ The ‘How does this affect me?’”
Rather than dumbing the subject matter down, this is about making it relatable and relevant so that it has more impact.
“That’s our motto at the Smithsonian,” she adds, “Reach, relevance, and impact.”
Images of Dr Ellen Stofan and the National Air and Space Museum are kind courtesy of the Smithsonian