First woman: Smithsonian Air and Space director looks from the moon to Mars

Ellen Stofan made history this summer when she became the first female director of the third-most-visited museum in the world

Claire Foy

On the red carpet beneath an Apollo lunar module and Charles Lindberghs Spirit of St Louis, actors Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy mingled with astronauts, Nasa engineers and members of the US Congress. Washington was staging the national premiere of a Neil Armstrong biopic. But before it saw First Man, it heard from the first woman.

Ellen Stofan made history this summer when she became the first female director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the third-most-visited museum in the world after the National Museum of China and the Louvre in Paris. More than 8.6m people passed through its doors last year and 350m have done so since it opened in 1976, a total higher than the US population.

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Before a popcorn-chewing audience in the museums Imax cinema, Stofan introduced the ravishingly shot film that recreates Armstrongs small step for man in 1969. He was the first of 12 people to walk on the lunar surface: all Americans, all white, all men. As Nasa turns its eyes to Mars, Stofan has a different vision.

I hope this museum inspires the first woman to step foot on Mars, and I hope shes the first person to step foot on Mars, she told the Guardian. Research shows that diverse teams perform better than non-diverse teams, multi-gender teams perform better, and so why wouldnt you do this? Its an imperative to make sure that were doing our best.

The space shuttle Discovery on display at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy center. Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian

The museums flagship site in Washington, which has a prominent exhibit about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is about to undergo a seven-year, $900m renovation that will include structural upgrades and new galleries drawing on the collection of more than 65,000 objects. Under Stofan, it is a safe bet the displays will be sensitive to Americas changing demographics.

[Civil rights and childrens activist] Marian Wright Edelman said: You cant be what you cant see, and I do believe that, she says. When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and I would look for stories of women scientists and they were pretty few and far between. So I think its incredibly important for any child who comes into the museum, whether its a Latino boy, whether its a Hispanic girl, whether its an African American girl, to see stories of themselves.

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My position as director of the museum, I hope, does allow girls to say: Thats a thing girls do, not something thats foreign. Obviously the aerospace industry historically has been dominated by men and you could say: Well, why does that matter? To me its because youre leaving talent on the table and youre really not tapping into the talent of all your population. If we want to move forward, be innovative and know whats the next Wright Flyer and who are the people who are going to work on the next form of getting people to Mars, we need that workforce, we need kids to get inspired and say: I can do that.

I went to my first launch when I was four

Our interview takes place at the 15-year-old Steven F Udvar-Hazy center in Chantilly, Virginia, where vast hangars contain an Air France Concorde, the space shuttle Discovery and the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Stofan speaks in an airy boardroom graced by the museums little-known Apollo-era art collection, including a Norman Rockwell painting, Astronauts Grissom and Young Suiting Up.

Astronauts Grissom and Young Suiting Up by Norman Rockwell at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy center. Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian

It soon becomes clear Stofan has star stuff in her blood. She grew up in Ohio, the home of Armstrong and other pioneers. Her father was a Nasa rocket scientist, her mother an elementary school science teacher.

I went to my first launch when I was four, which is why I have such an incredible affinity for rockets and launches, she recalls. I always had an interest in science but I really didnt think of Nasa as a career path because everybody who worked there looked like my dad.

My dad was in charge of the rocket that launched the Viking landers to Mars and [TV astronomer] Carl Sagan was talking about going to Mars and searching for life and I was like, OK, thats cool, I want to do that. So at age 14 I decided to become a planetary scientist. I think that role model business is incredibly important.

After university she joined Nasas Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the Magellan Mission to Venus and the New Millennium Program, where she managed a hundred scientists working on new technologies. She lived in the UK for eight years and is an honorary professor at University College London; her youngest daughter just graduated from Edinburgh University.

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For 13 years, Stofan was vice-president and senior scientist at a Washington consulting firm specialising in planetary research. From 2013 to 2016, she was chief scientist at Nasa, where her work included helping develop a long-range plan to get humans to Mars.

At 57, she is part of a generation that might have had reasonable expectation of exploring the red planet. Although robots have got there it is, she says, incredibly frustrating that Mars remains out of reach to humankind. She believes Nasa is on track to send a crew to the surface by the late 2030s, with potential to get into orbit sooner.

Museum visitors look at rockets on display at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy center on 7 September 7. Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian

Were thinking about this a lot at the museum because were really focused for the next year on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions, she says. You had this charismatic president [John F Kennedy] who set this very specific goal well land a human on the moon within a decade and that goal motivated everything. The initial rocketry programme had started but they had to invent new math and build incredible infrastructure and that took a lot of money.

So it was a combination of a specific goal, the will to follow through on that specific goal and money and also, frankly, an attitude about risk. If you add those things together budget, will, risk posture thats why we are not yet on Mars. I get frustrated sometimes when I hear people say: Oh, we dont have the technology. If we had the will to get to the moon in eight years starting from where we started from, we could get to Mars.

Despite the vast distance and the vast expense of getting there, crewed missions to Mars have been put back on the political agenda by Donald Trump, who revived the National Space Council under the chairmanship of the vice-president, Mike Pence. Stofan says: I think theres a lot of positive momentum right now. So you say, all right, can we just keep it moving forward and thats what everybodys waiting to see.

Pence has a tendency to use combative, jingoistic language about putting American boots on the face of Mars and ensuring American dominance in space, echoing the way the cold war-era lunar landing was regarded as a statement of US supremacy. Stofan is more diplomatic, noting that Nasa is among more than a dozen space agencies working on a roadmap that leads from the international space station to the moon and then Mars.

She says: When I was at Nasa we certainly spent a lot of time talking to our foreign partners about do you want to partner on going back to the moon, do you want to partner on going to Mars, and so I have no doubt that that first crew will be an international crew. The best, the smartest, the most innovative people are located all over the world, so if youre going to do something audacious it is still pretty darn difficult to get humans to Mars and safely back home again youre going to need to get the talent of all the world involved and Im sure it will be an international mission.

As for the presidents controversial plan to create a space force, the museum has artifacts reflecting how governments have used space for national security purposes for decades.

So if there is a space force then well be able to put that in its historical context, Stofan says. What I do think is important is Nasa is a civilian space agency. Its about exploration, its about science, its about discovery. Is always existed side by side with the military but not connected and thats something I certainly hope continues going forward.

An incredible platform

But for an institution that was supposed to be about futuristic, cosmic ambitions and instilling a sense of wonder, the Air and Spaces lead building is starting to creak as it approaches its mid-40s, with moisture creeping in and damaging the interior structure. A rebuild of the shell, along with new entrance security glass and a new heating and cooling system, has been ordered at a cost of $650m provided by Congress.

A refit of the galleries inside will cost a further $250m, raised through private philanthropy, a big part of Stofans job. Some 1,400 objects will go on display for the first time, including a Martin B-26 Marauder plane nicknamed Flak-Bait, which survived 207 missions over Europe, more than any other American aircraft during the second world war. Its pilot, James Farrell, named the shot-up bomber after Flea Bait, his brothers nickname for the family dog.

Part of a Martin B-26 Marauder, nicknamed Flak-Bait in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar Steven F Udvar-Hazy center. Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian

Stofan says: To me, especially coming from my background, this place is an incredible platform to say how do you really energise the next generation around science, technology, engineering and math, and to me if its not just something that Im passionate about, its future workforce. How do we get kids to realise these future careers in aviation and aerospace?

The golden anniversary of the Apollo missions represents one small step. On 11 October, Apollo 7 pilot Walt Cunningham was present for the unveiling of a commemorative coin design. A week-long celebration is planned for July 2019, including the return of Armstrongs Apollo 11 spacesuit for the first time in 13 years following conservation funded by thousands of public donations. But Stofan is also looking forward.

If we have just a total retrospective celebration were going to lose this opportunity to inspire this next generation to say Lets make this Mars landing happen, she insists. I also think its a good time to reflect on what were capable of as humankind. To me, the space programme really is the better angels of our nature. Right now theres incredible international cooperation in space and that is whats going to help us get back to the moon and on to Mars. That was not really a factor during Apollo.

Were talking about whats different now and how positive that is, and how sending humans on this great voyage to Mars would be an incredible achievement for humankind, and an incredible positive achievement.

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

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