Ellen Stofan, who became the new director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum last week, wants museum visitors to feel the same thrill that she does about space, exploration, aviation, and other science topics.
“Some percentage of people we excite could be the people who are going to help combat climate change, who are going to be the first people to walk on Mars, who are going to be studying atmospheres of extrasolar planets. Some of those people that we are going to grab and get really excited are the future of STEM,” said Stofan, using an acronym that refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Big Changes Coming to the Museum
Stofan, a former chief scientist for NASA, is beginning her new job just months before the start of a 7-year renovation of the museum’s building on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. Different parts of the building will remain open during the phased renovation, which will replace the building’s mechanical systems, reface its exterior, and update or completely redo its 23 galleries and presentation spaces.
The museum attracts more than 8 million visitors each year and maintains the world’s largest collection of artifacts, archival materials, and artworks related to aviation, spaceflight, and the study of the universe. During the renovation, the museum’s other location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., will remain open.
Stofan told Eos that keeping people engaged in the museum during the renovation will be tough. However, she confided that she is eager for the challenge and coming opportunities for transforming the museum. “How can we maintain the level of excellence the museum already has and then move it to the next level with the renovation?” said Stofan, who has a research background in planetary geology and holds a doctorate in geological sciences from Brown University.
“Museums are so powerful, bearing witness to what has happened. They make things—that often in textbooks seem abstract—so real,” Stofan said. “They really do make history come to life.”
“To me,” Stofan said, “it’s actually a really fun time to be involved” with the museum.
Helping to Understand Space and Earth from Space
The museum, she said, certainly can help people to better understand space. Among the big issues that fascinate her are the exploration of Mars, the rise of the commercial space sector, and the search for extrasolar habitable planets and even for potential alien life. About the possibility of life out there, Stofan said, “I am confident we are going to find it someplace, and I think that’s a scientific confidence, not just a wishful confidence.”
The museum can also help people better understand our own planet, Stofan noted. It’s “an excellent place to help people understand how our long history of observing Earth as a planet from above has helped scientists assess how the climate is changing and why. We put Earth in the context of understanding climate on planets across the solar system, showing how this makes us confident as a scientific community that anthropogenic climate change is happening,” she told Eos.
“As we transform the museum, I hope we can even better illustrate the dramatic effects of climate change that are happening right now: how space and airborne observations are showing us the concerning pace and scope of climate change effects such as rising seas, increasing severe weather events, and the worrying and extensive changes in the Arctic,” she said.
Keenly Aware of Being a Role Model
Stofan, the first woman to serve as the museum’s director, also is keenly aware of being a role model. “I’ve spent most of my career being one of the few, if not often the only woman in the room. I have never liked that because it always has made me think, well if there are no other women here, do I really belong here?” she said.
“If I can convince one girl that, yeah, she really belongs in science, that’s incredibly important. I do think that when you have women in leadership roles, it allows girls to say, ‘well, maybe that’s something that I can do,’ and gives them that confidence.”
A Continuing Focus on STEM, Science Communication, and Outreach
Stofan told Eos that her job at the museum is similar in some ways to what she did as NASA chief scientist from 2013 to 2016, when she served as a principal adviser to then NASA administrator Charles “Charlie” Bolden. There, she worked on many different issues, including a big focus on STEM, science communication, and outreach.
Bolden, who was the director of NASA from 2009 to 2017 during the Obama administration, told Eos that the Smithsonian “could not have selected a better person” than Stofan to run the museum following the retirement of Gen. J. R. “Jack” Dailey.
“Ellen is a breath of fresh air, and I think she is going to transform the Smithsonian, bring it into the 21st century, and help it be more of a people’s museum,” he said. “General Daily headed on the way toward more interactive exhibits and the like, but I think Ellen is just going to shake people up. It will not only be the most visited museum in the country, but it will be the most influential museum in the country by the time she finishes her tenure, whenever that is.”
An Early Start
Stofan has been fascinated with space and science ever since she was a little girl. Her father was a rocket engineer at NASA, and her mother was an elementary school science teacher. At age 4, Stofan saw her first rocket launch in 1965, which she distinctly remembers “because it blew up quite dramatically” on a Cape Canaveral launch pad. Stofan also accompanied her mother on geology field trips and described herself as a “rock-crazy kid.”
She started visiting the air and space museum in middle school, and she interned there after her sophomore year of college. “Spending so much time as I did as a kid down at the cape and at the NASA center in Cleveland”—she grew up outside of the city— “to me, Air and Space was just this mecca,” Stofan said. “It’s always been one of my favorite places on the planet.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer