Ellen Stofan saw her first rocket launch when she was 4 years old. Now, more than 50 years later, she's director of the National Air and Space Museum — the first woman to hold the position.
Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA, comes to the position with more than 25 years of field experience. But before all that, she was just a kid who fell in love with science — specifically, with rocks.
"When I decided at age 9 or 10 that I wanted to be a geologist, everybody encouraged me," Stofan told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I think having that strong base of encouragement made me feel like a STEM career was possible."
That encouragement came easy in a family dedicated to the field: Her dad was a NASA rocket scientist and her mom was a science teacher.
When she was 14, Stofan saw astronomer Carl Sagan speak at the launch of the Viking lander, which in 1976 was the first U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and send images back to Earth. It was then that she decided to study bigger rocks: planets.
"Carl Sagan started talking about why we were exploring Mars — the fact that Mars had this history of water; that potentially life could have evolved on Mars ," Stofan remembers. "I heard that speech and thought, 'that's what I want to do.' "
She did go on to do that, leading NASA's mission to send humans to the red planet. Today she's charge of the exhibit that displays a test version of the Viking lander in the Air and Space Museum's Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in Washington, D.C.
Though Stofan is the first woman to lead the museum, she insists that's not something she thinks about a lot.
"You want to normalize these things," Stofan says. "On the other hand, I've spent my entire career being one of the few women in the room, and I understand the significance of being able to say that women are starting to take on these positions."
Much of her focus as director, she says, will be on representing diversity throughout the history of aviation and space exploration, in order to have more of it in the future.
"One of the reasons that I'm so excited to come to the museum is to help tell the story that women have actually been involved in aviation and the space business from the beginning," she says. "Telling stories of people of color, telling stories of women — to me, that's what helps the next generation think, 'oh, well maybe I could do that.' "
She especially hopes some of those kids will be part of NASA's mission to Mars. She says humankind not only is just decades away from sending people to its neighboring planet, it's also "on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth."
"If we can inspire just one of those kids," she says, "we will have succeeded."
Alyssa Edes and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio story.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And for this next story we have traveled down to the National Mall. We're on the front steps of the National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian. It's a spring day. There's tourists lining up, trying to get in the doors. We have come because this museum is getting a new boss. And she's just waiting for us inside. Let's go meet her.
Good morning. I'm Mary Louise.
ELLEN STOFAN: Good morning. Nice to meet you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So nice to meet you. My producer...
This is Ellen Stofan. She's former chief scientist at NASA and, as of today, the new director of this museum. Stofan is the first woman to hold the position here at one of the most visited museums in the world. Today the place is packed, and Stofan is in her element.
STOFAN: I'm passionate about telling the story of aviation, of exploration, of people. You know, why does someone decide, I'm going to invent an airplane; I'm going to come up with a technology that's going to help us get to Mars? And to me, at least part of it is the kids that we see right now walking into this museum. One of those kids could be being inspired to be the first person to walk on Mars.
KELLY: Stofan found herself found inspiration in science as a kid. Her mom was a science teacher, her dad a NASA scientist, which brings us to her favorite exhibit.
STOFAN: The Viking lander was the first lander on Mars. But it has a really special meaning for me because my father was in charge of the rocket that launched the Viking landers. And at that time I knew I wanted to be a geologist, but I thought I just wanted to study the Earth. And my family went down to Florida for the launch. And while we were down there, they put on programs for the families. And this guy named Carl Sagan started talking...
KELLY: This guy, Carl Sagan, yeah.
STOFAN: ...To the families about why we were exploring Mars - the fact that Mars had this history of water, that potentially life could have evolved on Mars. And I heard that speech and thought, that's what I want to do.
KELLY: And she did, although it wasn't always clear NASA would be the best fit. We sat down in a quieter place to continue our chat.
STOFAN: To be honest with you, I really didn't think about working at NASA because I thought that everybody who worked at NASA looked like my dad. He would every once in a while tell the story of these women who did all the math for them that would sit in a room and do all their computations that we all know about so much now because of "Hidden Figures." But NASA to me really wasn't a place for women.
KELLY: What changed your mind and made you think, OK, maybe this NASA space stuff is for me after all? I'm a woman, but I can do this.
STOFAN: (Laughter) Well, you know, I think part of it was that everybody encouraged me. And having that strong base of encouragement made me feel like a STEM career was possible. And then the inspiration I got when I realized that studying the geology of Mars was actually a thing and that NASA did that kind of thing, I thought, OK, I can combine my love of rocks, my...
KELLY: And actually get paid for it. How fun is that? Yeah.
STOFAN: (Laughter) Yeah, and get paid for it. And my lifelong sort of involvement with NASA - I mean, it gave me that inspiration to say, oh, maybe NASA does welcome women.
KELLY: So fast-forward. You grow up. You become NASA's chief scientist, a position that you left right as the Trump administration was coming in. And I have to ask you why.
STOFAN: You know, the chief scientist position has been an advisory position that comes in and works with the administrator. You're normally there for two to three years. And after I had been there sort of 2 1/2 years, I said to my boss, my time's sort of coming to an end. And he said, would you stay until the end of the administration? And so I did.
KELLY: OK. So for the record, this was not a political statement. This wasn't a vote of protest against the incoming administration.
STOFAN: Definitely not. I had decided to leave before the election.
KELLY: Tell me about some of the changes you hope to bring here.
STOFAN: Well, it's a great time because you look at the fact that NASA just awarded a contract to think about developing the next supersonic aircraft. You look at the fact that humans are thinking now we're going to move beyond the space station out to the vicinity of the moon, maybe down to the lunar surface and then on to Mars. So it's this incredible period over the next decade or so of change. And we're on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth. And I want the public to know that they can come to the Air and Space Museum and help understand those events in the context of the past.
KELLY: You said we're on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth. Are we?
STOFAN: Yeah, I really think we are if you look at the fact that we have been really exploring our own solar system, understanding the environments, places like the surface of Mars, under the icy crust of Jupiter's moon Europa, under the icy crust of Saturn's moon Enceladus where we think there could be life, if you look at the fact that in the last, you know, five or 10 years we've discovered thousands of planets around other stars.
And when we launch the James Webb Space Telescope in a few years, we're going to be looking at the atmospheres of those planets around other stars, looking for gases that might be indicative that they could be at least habitable, if not inhabited.
KELLY: We have been chatting for a few minutes, and I think you've mentioned Mars half a dozen times. You - when you were at NASA, you helped lead the efforts in terms of sending men to or sending people to Mars.
STOFAN: Humans (laughter).
KELLY: You were about to correct me. I'll correct myself. Sending men and women to Mars - where does that effort stand?
STOFAN: You know, I think it's right on track. We're certainly using the International Space Station to do the research to make sure we can get humans healthy and sustainably into deep space. NASA's working on a plan to put a station around the moon. We'll potentially get down to the lunar surface. All of those things are really saying, can we develop those technologies, get ready to go to Mars, and then by the 2030s take that first trip to Mars?
KELLY: I was going to ask you what the timeframe is - 2030s?
STOFAN: 2030s is realistic.
KELLY: Circle back to where we're sitting right now in this museum, which you take over today. You're the first woman in that job. Is that something you think about a lot?
STOFAN: You know, no, it's really not. I mean, to me you want to normalize these things.
KELLY: The goal is to get to a point where that's not noteworthy anymore.
STOFAN: Yeah, that's certainly my goal. On the other hand, I have spent my entire career being one of the few women in the room, and I realize the significance of being able to say that women are starting to take on these positions.
KELLY: Thank you so much.
STOFAN: Thank you.
KELLY: That was Ellen Stofan, director as of today of the National Air and Space Museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.