Q&A: NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan on the organization's future and our place in the universe

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If you need to need to know something about the terrain of Venus, Mars or the Saturn Moon Titan, planetary geologist Ellen Stofan is the person to ask. Now as NASA's new Chief Scientist, she also has to a be an expert in the terrain of government funding.

Stofan is a planetary geologist and has been Chief Scientist for about three months. She visited Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Wednesday and spoke to KPCC's Nick Roman.  

How do you get enough money to do planetary research when you’re faced with budget cuts?

"Well, it's not just planetary, as Chief Scientist, I actually sort of oversee all of the science that goes on at NASA from astrophysics, looking out into the universe, to looking at the sun, to looking back here at our own home planet. So NASA's science actually covers a huge realm.   

We actually look to the scientific community to kind of come back to NASA and tell us what the priorities should be. And then at NASA, we try to look within our budget and say ‘what can we accommodate and what are the most important things for the nation?' Things like studying climate science, things like studying mars, things like moving humans out into the solar system beyond Earth’s orbit."

What are those scientists telling you?

Well, certainly, for here in our own solar system we're thinking about life. Where can we go in the solar system to better understand the origin and evolution of life — from studying asteroids and comets, which are sort of the building blocks of the planets to Mars, which is the only other place in the solar system that humans could actually someday inhabit. We have a spacecraft on their way to Jupiter, on their way to Pluto, and certainly right now the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn.We go to all these places to understand the fundamental questions of 'how did life evolve in the universe?' 'How did these planets form? why are they different from the Earth?' How can we use what we learn to better understand the Earth?'"

You were part of the Cassini Solstice Mission to study Saturn and its moons, she mapped Venus with Magellan, and was part of Mars Express… I assume those kind of missions have a special place in your heart. Do you lean towards those a little bit when it comes to choosing missions, or can you not do that in this job?

“To me all of these different things we’re doing at NASA are so critical. And as Chief Scientist it’s sort of my job to look at bridges between what we do and to see the connections. But when we try to understand how are planets around other stars habitable … to looking back at the Earth ‘how are the changes that are taking place, how are they going to affect humanity?”

What inspired you to get into planetary science? 

“Well, I'm kind of an unusually story. I’m actually a NASA brat. My father was a rocket scientist. He started working at NASA before it was NASA in 1959.  I grew up in this business... A lot of my life has been centered around this question about how NASA is helping us to understand our own home planet … and to understand our place in the universe.”

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