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Profile Of A Scientist: Exploring The Universe With NASA

To Ellen Stofan, the chief scientist of NASA, all of the space agency’s various research initiatives – from roving the craters of Mars to photographing the icy surface of Enceladus – are in pursuit of one basic question: Are we alone?

Short of finding life on other planets, however, NASA scientists are advancing the fields of astrophysics, astronomy and planetary science every day. Stofan joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson for a look at scientific research at NASA.

Hear more from our series on science in America

Interview Highlights: Ellen Stofan

On the basic question of whether or not there’s life beyond earth

You know at NASA, we study everything from our changing planet, to the behavior of our sun, to the mysteries of universe, to what’s going on on all the planets of the solar system. But if you want a theme that really unifies all those, it’s really this fundamental question that we have of, “Are we alone? Is there life beyond earth?” So from in astrophysics our search for planets around other stars, to our studies of Mars, to looking at the moons of the outer solar system like Europa and Enceladus, it’s really all about, can we figure out if there’s life beyond earth.

On the biggest obstacles currently facing space research

There’s so much that we don’t know. When I go out and talk to school kids, I like to tell them, “Oh my gosh, everything is out in front of you, from figuring out a propulsion system that will get us faster out to those plants around other stars, to really trying to understand what are the over 2,000 plants that we’ve now discovered from Kepler, what are those plants going to tell us about how planetary systems form? How common really are habitable planets? How easy is it to get complex life like us?” Because life formed so quickly here on Earth, we think that life might be common, even in our solar system, in the universe. But complex life, things like us, that took a really long time on earth, is that the situation elsewhere? We really don’t know. We’re really on this verge of being able to understand at least the basic question of where else could life have evolved in our solar system.


On what inspired her career

I’m actually a NASA brat. My father worked for NASA, I went to my first launch when I was 4. It didn’t affect my sister, she’s a lawyer. But to me, exploration science was something I was always fascinated in and the ability to be part of this nation’s space program to move humans out beyond earth was always my dream and luckily I get to do it everyday.

On what she would tell someone who’s skeptical of funding space research

You know, if the fact that we’re trying to answer this fundamental question of, “Are we alone?” If the fact that with our earth science data we’re doing things like helping farmers get higher crop yields, and use less water. If the fact that we publish a book every year that’s about an inch thick, on spinoffs of NASA technologies that don’t go into the aerospace industry, they go into industries that help save life, help companies save money, help small businesses start all over this country. It’s actually estimated that for about every dollar spent at NASA, about $4 is returned to the U.S. economy, so that when you invest in space, you’re actually investing in your country.

If that all doesn’t get them, I like to talk about the inspiration, I really do think it’s a fundamental part of human nature to explore, but more importantly when you want kids to go into fields that help build your economy like science, technology, engineering, math, computer science, if you want kids to go into those field with technology, space is something that inspires them to follow those careers.


Ellen Stofan, chief scientist of NASA. She tweets @EllenStofan.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.