Ellen Stofan, NASA's former chief scientist, recently became the first woman to lead the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. At NASA, Stofan supported commercial activity in low-Earth orbit, helped to develop a long-term plan to send humans to Mars and gave talks at schools around the world to encourage children—especially those in underrepresented groups—to pursue science careers. At the museum, she plans to further that commitment by overseeing a sweeping, multiyear upgrade meant to improve the experience for all of the museum's seven to eight million annual guests. Shortly before starting her new job, Stofan spoke with Scientific American about the power of museums to influence the next generation of scientists and to reverse attacks on science. An edited excerpt of that conversation follows.
Scientific American: How did the museum influence you as a child and in your early career?
Ellen Stofan: It was just this awe-inspiring place. There's a difference between hearing the stories of the Wright brothers and looking at the Wright Flyer airplane in front of you or seeing an Apollo capsule and rubbing a moon rock. Then, after my sophomore year in college, I had an internship at the museum, where I did whatever needed to be done as the low-level intern coming in for the summer. And I loved it. To me, it was the biggest thrill in the world to walk through those doors in the morning before the museum opened and just look around that place and think, “This is magical. It can't get any better than this.”
How does it feel to be the museum's director and the first woman leader?
It's daunting. It's intimidating. I feel incredibly honored to lead the museum, and I'm incredibly excited.
If you could accomplish one goal in your new job, what would it be?
I'm always asking, “Are we doing the best possible job we can to inspire that next generation of explorers?” I want to make sure we're telling the stories that haven't been highlighted before, like what we've seen in the past few years with the book and film Hidden Figures, about the African-American women who supported the space program. No matter what child comes into the museum, they should see themselves in those accomplishments. To me, that's what helps to inspire the next generation. I want them not only to look at the amazing time period we're walking into but to ask, “How can I be part of this?”
Why do you think the museum is so popular?
I think that space and aviation—pushing the boundaries, getting off the surface of Earth, up into the sky and then out into space—inspire all kids and the kid in all of us. I believe that's what drives people to the museum—that wow factor: “Wow, what great things we can accomplish when we put our minds to it.”
Can museums like yours help to combat the so-called post-truth era?
I hope so. I think a lot of people honestly are confused. They don't know where information is coming from. But we are a museum that says, “Look, we can lay out for you step by step where this information comes from and how our scientists use this information to better understand not just our planet but all the planets of the solar system and worlds beyond our solar system.” We can help people put science, the scientific process and fact-based thinking into practice.