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NASA’s Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Spirit of exploration

With her sights set on Mars, NASA’s Dava Newman knows the sky is not the limit

By Emma-Kate Symons on April 25, 2016

She’s an explorer by nature who’s circumnavigated the globe by sailboat, flown multiple spaceflight experiments, and designed a pioneering skintight ‘BioSuit’ set to transform the way astronauts move without gravity.

And now Dava Newman, the first woman scientist-engineer to be named NASA Deputy Administrator — the second most senior job at the $19 billion budget agency — is shooting for Mars.

But sending humans out into deep space and putting “boots” on the red planet doesn’t just mean getting the boys there.

Nominated by Barack Obama to the prestigious NASA role from her post as Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Newman wants to make sure today’s girls in science also have every opportunity and the self-belief to be on board too — and she hopes, in the commander’s seat — for the first crewed Mars mission, projected for the 2030s. “I’m here to empower the next girl who steps in to her back yard, looks up into the nighttime sky and thinks — ‘I want to explore the planets and heavens’,” is how Newman describes the sense of responsibility she feels to young women considering careers in what she prefers to call STEAMD: Science, Technology, Engineering,
Arts Math and Design.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman volunteers at the Joyful Food Market during a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service at Plummer Elementary School on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 in Washington, DC. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman volunteers during a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service at Plummer Elementary School on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 in Washington, DC. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

In an interview with Women in the World, conducted at her office in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in Washington, DC — decorated with a replica of one of the first astronaut suits worn during the Apollo moon landing era — Newman laughingly admits she became accustomed early on to being the only female, or one of only a very few.

It began with engineering classes at college, when she was surrounded by boys and men and never met or was taught by a female engineering professor. What helped of course, was that Newman “always knew” she wanted to be a rocket scientist, from her childhood growing up in Helena, Montana, where she was an avid basketballer who loved learning. “My big inspiration to dedicate my whole career to exploration was really the Apollo program. “I was a young girl growing up in the sixties so I got to see the Apollo 11 on a little scratchy TV. It really had a huge impact on me.”

As Newman progressed through her studies and took up her first faculty positions at the University of Houston, and later at MIT, where she earned three degrees and was invited to join the astronautics faculty as the only woman among 35 men, Newman said it felt “a bit weird” to always be in the tiny minority of one or two. “You get used to it,” she says, pointing out that she always managed to “get along well with the gentlemen.”

“You also have to have a thick skin. But I never wanted to change my ways. I wasn’t going to become like one of the guys. I just figured ‘well they’re just going to have to accept me — I’m pretty obstinate — how I am.

“Sometimes you’re lonely or you wish there could be a more critical mass [of women.] I love it when there’s more critical mass. It’s nice and it’s just a comfortable environment when it’s diverse — diversity of genders, diversity of races.”

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman has a moment of silence during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of NASA's Day of Remembrance on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident, Thursday, January 28, 2016, at Arlington National Cemetery. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman has a moment of silence during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of NASA’s Day of Remembrance on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident, Thursday, January 28, 2016, at Arlington National Cemetery. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Unfortunately, that diversity of the sexes has been too slow to come to Newman’s field of engineering.

Asked whether she was as positive as other leading women in the Obama administration, like Attorney-General Loretta Lynch who applauded the changes in her legal profession that mean women are just as likely to study law as men and are increasingly reaching for partner, Newman responds that her discipline is still a special case. “Our numbers are worse in engineering. For females the gender discrepancy is more. We have to do better across the board.

“There is a little bit of a higher percentage of women scientists and PhD’s, but for women engineers it’s even lower and we have a lot of work to do.”

“When I joined the faculty down in Texas [at the University of Houston] I was one. I was THE female — they’d never had a female before. Then I came back and had my faculty job at MIT and I keep the photograph cause it’s so funny.

“So I’m one [woman] of 35 and then they would remind me ‘no, no we have two women on the faculty’.”

Except the other woman was Professor Sheila Widnell, a very distinguished professor, who like Newman today, was away in the nation’s capital, in her case as Secretary of the Air Force. “So I said, but wait you guys count two but she’s busy in Washington!

“Well it’s a different story today — there is the same 35 aerospace faculty at MIT but now about 8 women. So you work on these things.”

NASA is gradually lifting the proportion of its science and engineering staff who are women. Men made up almost 97 per cent of the total technical workforce back in the early 1970s and today women are edging towards 23 per cent.

To mark women’s history month Newman published a blog praising the work of past NASA women like Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, “an astronomer known as “the Mother of Hubble,” [who] not only helped design the great observatory, she worked tirelessly to get NASA and the Congress to make it happen.

“We celebrate the great women’s accomplishments — the scientists and engineers and the great folks that have come before in aeronautics and space — but we are realistic about how much work we have to do. We have a lot of work to do in the future.”

That future is heavily Martian-mission dominated in the next few years and decades. It’s hard not to get excited about the voyage when Newman talks about the program she and NASA administrator Charles Bolden are tasked with directing and explaining to the American and international public of scientific researchers and ordinary space buffs alike. “The Journey to Mars is a huge part of my portfolio and we explain it is in three phases”, she said, pointing to a NASA chart and noting that the last 15 years have been about continuously having astronauts on the space station, such as Scott Kelly who just returned from a one-year mission.

Now NASA is developing its Space Launch System that the deputy administrator says is “huge — it’s bigger than Saturn 5 and more powerful.

“It’s actually six-and-a-half meters in diameter by 21 meters high. It’s the world’s largest heavy lift rocket that we’re developing. And the Orion capsule goes on top.”

The international space station might be “only” 400km up but it is “our brightest star in the sky,” Newman explains, before she throws forward to the 2020s. Next decade NASA plans to “prove out” new systems for cislunar or ‘deep space’ between the earth and the moon, with robotic and eventually Orion-crewed missions of up to 12 months that will nonetheless be able to return to earth within days. There will be a focus on solar electric propulsion or converting solar energy into electricity to power space missions, as well as deep space habitats and developing life support systems.

“The 2020s is going to be called the proving ground,” Newman says. “We’re investing in technologies. We call it EM1: Exploration Mission 1. It will launch in 2018. We will have a test flight so that’s pretty exciting for us. It won’t be with astronauts.

“That’s EM2 when we have our mission to have the first astronauts in to deep space further than humans have ever gone. Because we went to the moon before but we’re planning on even deeper space — past lunar orbit but before earth independent.”

A frequent reference in her interview is Newman’s 18 month-sailing trip around the globe with her husband, architect and designer Guillermo Trotti, with whom she later collaborated on the revolutionary BioSuit (“science and engineering by Newman, design by Trotti.”) During their ‘Galatea Odyssey’, an educational project involving them giving classes to young students as they stopped off frequently during the marathon circumnavigation, the boat lost its steering system in the Pacific. First mate and engineering professor Newman quickly came up with a solution to replace the hydraulics fluid that had leaked away — with a vat of olive oil.

“I’m a sailor so I always use a sailing analogy. [In Mars phase one] this [earth] is 400km away: it’s a day cruise. We’re hours away in an emergency for the crew. But in the proving ground [Mars phase two] you’re days-to-weeks to safety, so that’s my analogy with crossing the oceans.

“When we lost our steering in the middle of the Pacific — our hydraulics — it was our Apollo 13 moment because we were 2,000 miles away from the Galapagos [Islands] but we still had a thousand nautical miles to get the nearest rock. So you’re not hours — you’re days to a week to get help. And that’s why we go to the proving ground. All successful exploration has to invest and see what you do [in an emergency.]”

Phase three is when the Mars mission finally gets to the planet’s orbit “and eventually boots on Mars,” in the 2030s.

“We call that earth independence and that’s really critical because all of our systems must have 100 per cent water and air recycling,” Newman says. “You have your spares but you have to be creative and hopefully we learn to live off the land as well.”

Of course NASA will have time to be creative because it plans to be in the phase two proving ground for ten years.

“We’re learning more about Mars every day. We have all of our rovers and orbiters. There’s a lot of methane on Mars and you probably know we found water — briny, high salinity water. We know why Mars lost its atmosphere from our MAVEN orbiter: the solar winds have depleted it.

“But the enduring question in all of our exploration is are we alone? Are there other inhabitable planets? We’re in the search for life and in the search for life at least carbon-based life you follow the water.”

Anxiety is the last thing that you feel interviewing Newman who has all the excited curiosity and fascination for science and engineering design that obviously drove her interest from a very young age. Yet she is concerned about why young girls start off so interested in science and math then start dropping off drastically when they’re in their early teens. “I worry about them in middle school. Last week I met with some fourth graders and we talked about the journey to Mars. They were so engaged. All the girls and the boys — the whole class — was asking questions.”

In contrast, during an earlier high school visit with accelerated math and science students, Newman was dismayed because she had to “do my darnedest to try pick some young high school girls that would ask questions. So we don’t want them to drop out or drop off the STEM track.”

Part of the problem is the way the conversation is framed around STEM, says Newman, in agreement with the National Academy of Engineering. “As an engineer (I believe) we’ve done our profession a disservice. Because I was told for sure you have to be the best in math, the best in calculus class, and the best in science. Well that’s not the message! These are tools and you have to be proficient but if you want to be an engineer you want to build and design rockets or spacesuits or spacecraft and fly things.”

Newman taught engineering design and her speciality is aerospace bio-medical engineering or “how do we keep astronauts healthy and well and safe.”

“Designing for astronauts in extreme environments from space station and back, to the proving ground and then further on to Mars, is my passion as a researcher and teacher,” she says. “It has always been around engineering design.”

“Yes you have to work hard and enroll in some special courses but we have to change the conversation and make [STEM] appealing to everybody — girls, boys, minority folks — so they can envision themselves and say ‘Oh, that’s a great job.’”

Newman confesses she didn’t know what an engineer was until she became one and wrote a book about it: “No one could tell me so I needed to write a [text]book to introduce young girls and boys — college folks — to it in an introduction to aerospace engineering.

Her advice to budding young science and engineering buffs who, like her have other interests including in the arts and design, and humanities, is to “go with their passion but don’t make it exclusive STEM.”

“And that’s why I am very explicit about bringing in the artists because we’re on a journey to Mars.

“You’re into art? Well I need you to paint my pictures of how we get to Mars. We haven’t been there yet with people so what’s it going to look like? We need the writers, the, journalists the storytellers we have this amazing story to tell and then we need the designers — all these kids doing amazing work with 3D design.

“I don’t want them to have any mental blocks because they don’t see themselves as an engineer or a scientist.”

Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons