NASA’s Former Chief Scientist Speaks to R-MA Students

On Wednesday, January 11, 2017, Randolph-Macon Academy students were treated to a presentation by Dr. Ellen Stofan, former Chief Scientist at NASA. 

Stofan’s presentation touched a variety of topics, displaying the depth and breadth of NASA’s programs and the importance of the organization. She shared with the students that in addition to exploring other worlds, NASA’s programs provide information that allow scientists to better understand Earth as well. 

Stofan touched on the evidence of life, such as water and amino acids, found on other planets, but also talked about the lack of any other evidence of life. “What we’ve been finding with our Curiosity rover are little fragments of organic molecules,” she explained. “What did they once add up to? Did they add up to life? We’re not sure. We’re going to keep looking.” 

Upon explaining her background studying volcanoes on other planets as well as on Earth, she admitted to her own “bias that it’s going to take humans, on the surface of Mars, breaking up a lot of rocks, because it’s not going to be one piece of evidence that convinces us that there was life on Mars. It’s going to be lots of pieces of evidence.” Stofan pointed out that the students gathered would be the ones to do it, calling them the “Mars generation,” because they are the right age to be astronauts in the late 2030s, when NASA hopes to begin sending people to Mars. Dr. Ellen Stofan, former NASA Chief Scientist, speaks to the students of Randolph-Macon Academy.

Stofan spoke of the challenges of keeping people alive and healthy in space, noting that recent findings have shown that what is needed in space is similar to living a healthy lifestyle on Earth—90 minutes of exercise each day, and a low-salt, nutritionally balanced diet. 

Stofan also shared the coming challenges the Earth faces. A graphic display of the overall temperature of the globe from the 1800s to 2014 and a photo of a large crack in the ice shelves of Western Antarctica were sobering reminders that global warming is a real and dangerous trend. Another digital image showed the world’s rain storms over the last year, reflecting the deluge on Texas and Louisiana as they received ten years’ worth of rain in three days. At NASA, these problems are noticed and addressed, Stofan said. For example, California farmers, who grow 30% of the nation’s produce, have endured the equivalent of a 15-year drought and, as a result, have relied on the aquifers below ground to obtain water for irrigation. However, over-drawing on the aquifers has resulted in the valley floor sinking. NASA has helped the farmers find ways to reduce their water usage by 35%. 

Besides demonstrating the diversity of NASA itself, Stofan issued a plea for the students to engage in their world as scientists and mathematicians, emphasizing that the strength of NASA and organizations like it comes from “different people from different backgrounds coming together to solve complex problems.”  Her visit to Randolph-Macon Academy coincided with the release of Hidden Figures, a movie about three African-American women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan) working at NASA and serving as the behind-the-scenes brains for launching astronaut John Glenn into space. During her presentation, Stofan showed a photo of Johnson (now 98 years old) and described her tenacity. 

“She was an amazing mathematician,” she said. Johnson went to work for NASA at the Langley research center, and, Stofan reminded her audience, this was the early 1960’s. “Jim Crowe was in effect, segregation was in effect,” she said. “They didn’t even let the African-American women work in the same room as the white women.” In this time before computers, Stofan explained, “These women would serve as a giant human computer.” 

Johnson was working on the trajectory calculations necessary to propel someone into space, get them into orbit, and return them safely. In spite of her intelligence, she was told she “didn’t belong” at meetings. Johnson, however, refused to back down and insisted that not only did she belong, but they couldn’t accomplish their goals without her. In the end, she was vindicated. As Stofan shared with the students, “John Glenn, when he took his first flight, said, ‘Has that girl from Langley checked these numbers?’ So that’s how valuable she was.”

“But it’s a lesson for all of us,” Stofan said, “because if anybody ever looks at you and says ‘I don’t think you belong here’ or you’re thinking about yourself and saying, ‘Should I sit at the table? Am I the one that can answer this questions? Maybe I can’t do this.’ I want you to think about Katherine Johnson and say, I’ve got Katherine Johnson somewhere inside of me, and I’m going to sit at the table. I’m going to speak up, because I know what I’m doing. I can contribute. They need me.” 

Stofan’s visit was a hit; the students were full of questions and many stayed afterwards to speak with her further. 

“Dr. Stofan's visit was extremely interesting,” said Jacob Gehly ‘20. “I love the work that she has done and would like to learn more about it.”

“I thought that her visit was a unique opportunity for us to learn about the different things NASA is currently researching, and what they hope to accomplish in the future,” Noelle Kramer ‘19 noted.