NASA’s Chief Technologist and Scientist Look to Future of Space Program

On July 20, 1969, NASA Chief Technologist David W. Miller watched from his house in Chautauqua as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

After 56 summers spent visiting the Amphitheater, Miller, along with NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, will take to its stage to give a lecture at 10:45 a.m. July 22 in the Amp. The lecture, titled “Looking Outward, Inward and Homeward,” will cover how and where NASA is looking for life beyond this planet and what work must be done to find it.

“I really do think we’re on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth in all of our lifetimes,” Stofan said. “And we’re going to talk about why we believe that and how we think that’s going to happen.”

If their titles aren’t explanation enough, Miller and Stofan are important people in the world of space science. Miller’s job is to keep new technologies arriving in the toolbelts of all NASA engineers. Stofan, a geologist, leads studies of just about everything imaginable: the universe, the sun, the moon, the solar system and Earth.

The pair’s take on the week’s theme is practical. The title isn’t meant to invoke philosophical ponderings — it’s a simple outline.

Looking outward is simple. There’s a whole universe out there waiting to be discovered. If humanity is going to find habitable planet and even life, there is a whole lot of looking to be done. So far, it’s going well.

“In 1995, we knew of nine planets,” Miller said. “In the early 2000s, we demoted one so we had eight planets. Now we know of 3,000 planets. It’s just a field that is expanding in an extraordinary way.”

Looking inward is more scientific than it sounds. Humans aren’t built for interstellar travel, Stofan said, and coping with the physical toll of space is one of NASA’s challenges right now. Moving beyond the moon, astronauts will have radiation to worry about and rampant muscle deterioration to boot. NASA scientists are even learning about how gravitational differences can alter human genes.

Finally, Stofan and Miller said humanity ought to look homeward to Earth to see what characteristics to look for in other planets. Water is the obvious sign, along with things such as methane vents and comparable distances from a star.

Both agree that many questions about extraterrestrial life might be answered within this solar system. Brave investigations on a little red planet some 140 million miles away may answer David Bowie’s famous 1971 question: “Is there life on Mars?”

Somewhere on the cold, rusty surface of Mars a little rover about the size of a golf cart is wheeling its way around the desert planet. It’s powered by solar panels and covered in dust. The Opportunity rover has been exploring Mars for 12 years now, and it’s only seen about a marathon’s distance of its surface so far. For comparison, the Apollo 17 astronauts covered that much ground in just three days.

“We’re going to need boots on Mars,” Stofan said.

NASA scientists believe water flowed on the planet long ago. With a POTUS-initiated plan to put humans on Mars in the early 2030s, Miller and Stofan’s current efforts may one day confirm the existence of a wet Mars. The place may even still be habitable, but it’s probably long devoid of any living creature.

“I really do believe that it’s extremely likely that life evolved on Mars,” Stofan said. “But the problem is that because of the conditions, life probably didn’t persist very long on Mars. Life there probably didn’t get very complex, which means it will be very hard to find.”

Stofan has a particular interest in another potential source of life within this solar system. The biggest of Saturn’s 62 moons, a frozen, murky sphere called Titan, contains liquid in its roughly minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit mass. Somewhere below the surface, liquid may flow and lifeforms very unlike the Earth’s may have evolved.

Miller is excited for the 2018 completion of the James Webb Space Telescope. With most NASA efforts focusing in on the long trip to Mars, the telescope will offer the ability to peer into the atmospheres of distant planets and long-gone light. The telescope will be able to see some of the first light in the universe, dating almost all the way back to the Big Bang.

But until humans can understand what’s relatively nearby, distant planets may be looking a little too outward for this morning’s talk. The immediate future is piling up work for Stofan and Miller, and they’re sure to have a lot to say about their efforts.

“Humans have wondered if we’re alone in the universe since there were humans that could look up at the night sky,” Stofan said. “The fact that we’re on the verge of actually answering the question, I think, is tremendously exciting.”

Tanner Cole

The author Tanner Cole