by Dr. Dava Newman
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that the “future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I want to thank the organizers of the Breaking Barriers event, the board members of the B.A. Rudolph Foundation, the sponsors, and all the STEM leaders here. I thank you for your creativity, innovation, imagination, and for your “belief in the beauty of your dreams”!
Why do we explore? I believe that we explore in order to answer three enduring scientific questions for humanity:
- Are we alone?
- Are there other habitable planets?
- Is there life somewhere in the universe?
I think the most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and to advance the kind of science, math and engineering education that will help young people literally take us to Mars. I call anyone who is in school today the ”Mars Generation”. Someone who is a student today will take the first steps on Mars in the 2030s. I have no doubt that we will become an interplanetary species within two decades, and that we will likely find the existence of life, or past life, on another planetary body, within the next decade.
Why is is so important that we go to Mars and answer these questions? Because the scientific discovery about life tells us about our own planet, which I call “Spaceship Earth”. We are all on this precious blue planet together, in the same lifeboat in the universe, traveling 67,000 mph orbiting the sun as astronauts on Earth, and we urgently need to take better care of it. We need the planet, we need Spaceship Earth. Earth really doesn’t need us, Earth doesn’t need humanity. Earth existed billions of years before we were ever here. Earth and Mars are sister planets each at 4.5 billion years old. About 3.5 billion years ago, Mars likely had life, water and was warm, but not today. Today Mars is cold, below freezing and if there is life, it might be frozen and fossilized. What went so horribly wrong at Mars? We’re actively learning how it lost 99 percent of its atmosphere. We need to know these scientific answers to help us better understand life here on Earth.
As an aerospace engineer and rocket scientist, I have spent my entire career dedicated to furthering STEM education, but I think we delivered the wrong message. We made STEM a thing that you were either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of. I often hear from young girls and boys, “that’s not me, I’m not good at STEM.” I’d like to change the conversation by changing STEM to STEAMD: science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and design. I want to bring in the Makers. I’m “STEAMD” that we’re not making more progress, more rapidly and we need to be more inclusive! We scientists and engineers need the artists, poets, historians, and visionaries to paint the pictures and tell the stories of our journey to Mars. During the Apollo program, we explored the moon, we pushed human scientific and engineering potential beyond what anyone thought was possible and reached another planetary body and looked back on Spaceship Earth. A most beautiful, fragile blue planet. Everything we know and love is here on Spaceship Earth. My message to the Mars Generation is this: You don’t have to be the best in biology, calculus, physics and chemistry. Those are just tools. As scientists and engineers, we use those tools, so you need to be proficient but if you want to discover the origins of the universe, find out if there are other habitable planets, build the spacecraft and technology to get humanity to Mars, or provide clean water for all, or cure disease then we need you. It’s my job as a teacher to filter everyone in! No more filtering anyone out, no weeding people out of the sciences. Whatever your passion, in any discipline, then we’re in this together. As an educator, teacher, and coach, it is my job to help you learn and be successful. Surely, if we change the conversation and help the students, the Mars Generation, realize their passions, then we will have the positive impact in the science fields that we intended all along.
I like the word STEAMD because I’m also steamed that women are so underrepresented in the workforce when it comes to science, engineering and math.
I’m steamed that Americans of color are underrepresented.
I’m steamed that this year there were eight states – eight! – where fewer than 10 girls took the AP (advanced placement) computer science exam.
I’m especially steamed that in my home state of Montana not a single high school girl took the exam. I’m also steamed that the same is true of Mississippi.
If our country is going to reach our fullest potential when it comes to science and discovery and economic growth, we must be a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. We all need to be a part of the solution when it comes to closing these disparities.
My goal: infinite diversity – infinite combinations! Thank you, Gene Roddenberry.
My next message can be summarized in two words: you belong
Be bold, be fearless, dream big dreams, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do something or you don’t belong. Don’t waste your time trying to explain yourself or your identity to anyone.
When I attended the University of Notre Dame, I was one of only two women out of 40 aerospace engineers in my class. When I joined the MIT faculty, again I was one of two women on the aerospace faculty with 35 male colleagues. Being first, second, or third is not important. It’s when we stop counting that we know we’ve succeeded. For two years, I had the distinct privilege of serving in the Obama Administration as the NASA Deputy Administrator. Our space agency depends on science, discovery, and engineering. And I, a woman from Montana and Massachusetts, got to help lead our investments in science and engineering.
I hope everyone has read the book and seen the movie “Hidden Figures”. It tells the story NASA pioneers – NASA’s first African American engineer, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. Katherine grew up in segregated West Virginia, where her father and mother had to move their family 120 miles so they could live near a school that allowed African American girls to receive a high school education. She is a mathematical genius, graduating high school at 14 and college at 18. She went to work at NASA’s predecessor the NACA as part of an all-women’s team who were referred to as ‘computers who wear skirts’. Yes, the first computers were human!
Within weeks she broke gender and race barriers, joining NASA Langley’s Space Task Force group as a computer. Astronaut John Glenn personally requested that she recheck the calculations made by the new IBM electric computer before his Friendship 7 mission, when he became the first American to orbit spaceship Earth!
She went on to play a role in virtually every major NASA human spaceflight from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Skylab to our Space Shuttle. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the President can bestow on a U.S. citizen. And at age 98, she joined us to watch the premiere of Hidden Figures a major Hollywood motion picture about her life’s story. Her story inspires us all to accomplish the impossible!
She did it, I did it, and I believe you can turn the impossible into possible!
For me, ultimately science, exploration, and discovery are about raising humanity’s potential. Investment in science, research, and technology helps cure disease, implement renewable energy, feed the world, and explore the oceans and planets. Scientific research is the lifeblood of a high-tech economy and plays a critical role in the economic and personal well-being of citizens. If America wants to maintain our innovative edge, create new jobs, and realize economic growth, then we must fund scientific research as a top national priority.
Amelia Earhart said, “Never do things others can and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.” We live these words daily, turning science-fiction dreams into science fact. Science expands the horizons of human possibility.
Finally, it is urgent that we heal Spaceship Earth! Scientific data shows that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded in the past 140 years. Then 2015 smashed the record 2014 set. Recently, 2016 just broke the record again for the hottest average year we’ve recorded. The past 12 months have all broken records for the hottest average months recorded. The glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than ever before. Oceans have risen 2.6 inches in the past 25 years. These are the scientific facts. The question is: What are we going to do to heal Spaceship Earth, keep our oceans, land and air healthy? There are solutions and I remain optimistic that collectively, we will march, we will vote, we will change our behavior, and we will take the corrective action for the betterment of humanity and for Spaceship Earth. For our children and grandchildren, we must all commit to leaving Earth better off than how we find it today.
In the words of R. Buckminster Fuller, “Make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
About the author:
Dr. Dava Newman is the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Harvard–MIT Health, Sciences, and Technology faculty member in Cambridge, MA. She is also a MacVicar Faculty Fellow (a chair for making significant contributions to undergraduate education) and has been a faculty leader in the department of aeronautics and astronautics and MIT’s School of Engineering for 24 years. The Honorable Dr. Dava Newman served as NASA Deputy Administrator from May 2015 through January 2017. Read her full bio here.