Ellen Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA, has become the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum.
Stofan comes to this position after more than 25 years of field experience – but her interests weren’t always pointed towards the skies. It was rocks here on Earth that first sparked her interest in science.
In an interview with NPR, Stofan said that “When I decided at age 9 or 10 that I wanted to be a geologist, everybody encouraged me…I think having that strong base of encouragement made me feel like a STEM career was possible.”
While women make up a large portion of fields like Biology and Psychology, they’re still underrepresented in other scientific fields – making Stofan’s appointment as the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum a significant achievement both for her herself and for gender equality in the high levels of astronomy.
The encouragement to pursue science came from parents who were also dedicated to the field, with a father who was a NASA rocket scientist and a mom who was a science teacher. While Stofan’s career ended up taking a different path than geology, that early encouragement that told her she could accomplish whatever she put her mind to was likely a large contributing factor to her eventual rise to become the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum.
When she was just 14, Stofan saw the astronomer Carl Sagan speak at the launch of the Viking lander – becoming the first US spacecraft to successfully land on Mars back in 1976. It was at this point that her attentions turned to planets rather than rocks here on Earth.
“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…I heard that speech and thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ ”
As chief scientists of NASA, she ended up leading NASA’s mission to send humans to the red planet. At this point, she is in charge of the exhibit that displays a test version of the Viking lander – the same craft that inspired her to start her journey to becoming the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum back in the 70s.
Although the achievement of becoming the first female director of the National Air and Space Museum is no doubt significant, Stofan doesn’t think much about her gender in the context of her achievement.
“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….”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. 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.’ ”
Stofan believes that the next couple of decades will provide huge advancements in the field of space travel – even suggesting that we’re “on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth.” Her goal is to inspire new generations to pick up where he left off – adding diversity to a male-dominated industry and ensuring that talent can thrive regardless of minority status.