As a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Jessica Watkins wrote her dissertation on the extended landslides that occur on Mars. She relied on images from orbiting satellites and NASA’s rovers, the closest most planetary geologists will ever come to the martian surface.
But now, as one of NASA’s newest astronauts, Watkins just might someday get the chance to visit those terrains. This month, the postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena was one of just 12 people chosen to join NASA’s astronaut corps. And the new group may be uniquely equipped to help NASA achieve its goals of returning humans to space on an array of new vehicles and eventually sending them to Mars.
Although a majority of those deemed to have the right stuff are active military personnel with extensive flight experience, four of the new astronauts are civilians who hold science and engineering Ph.D.s. Watkins is one of two geologists in the class who have been keeping a close watch on the Red Planet. The other, Zena Cardman, a doctoral student in astrobiology at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College, has spent years working on projects that use Earth as an analog for understanding contemporary Mars and how it evolved.
The civilian science roster also includes Warren “Woody” Hoburg, an assistant professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.
Hoburg is the first astronaut candidate to be plucked from the ranks of a tenure-track faculty position at a major research university. “We are used to being raided by other universities in search of world-class scientists,” notes geophysicist Maria Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, which counts 41 alumni as astronauts, “but not by NASA.” (A fourth new astronaut, Robb Kulin, earned an engineering Ph.D. and works for SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, and two military pilots who were chosen also hold medical degrees.)
For Hoburg, Watkins, and Cardman—an assistant professor, postdoc, and graduate student, respectively—being selected for the astronaut corps fulfills a lifelong dream. However, none ever expected to be chosen, given the long odds. (There were a record 18,300 applications for this 22nd class of astronauts, bringing the total selected to 350.) And each one had already laid down a solid scientific base before they received that fateful call beckoning them to Houston, Texas, where in August they will begin 2 years of rigorous training. Their unique paths toward the goal of flying in space also illuminate how the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers are being trained. Here are their stories.
Hoburg: optimizing success
To understand what makes Hoburg tick, consider what he might have worked on next had NASA not picked him this year: an unmanned, solar-powered airplane that could fly nonstop around the world.
“That’s the type of thing I was excited to do,” says Hoburg, 31, who was an amateur rocketry buff as a teenager. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from MIT in 2008 and then returned in 2014 to take a faculty position after receiving his doctoral degree in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley.
If successful, Hoburg’s lab would have been the first in the world to accomplish such a circumnavigation. Pushing the envelope is a familiar theme in his life, be it as a skier, rock climber, pilot, EMT, or member of a search and rescue unit.
Equally important, however, the solar plane would have been built using GPkit, a software tool he developed that connects the mathematics of geometric programming with engineering design. GPkit had already helped him and his MIT colleagues choose the optimal design for Jungle Hawk Owl (JHO), a lightweight drone built for the U.S. Air Force to provide long-term communications in responding to a disaster anywhere around the world.
JHO was designed to meet the tight constraints imposed by the Air Force: a vehicle that could hold a 4.5-kilogram payload over the same location for 5 days at an altitude of 4600 meters. None of its current planes is well-suited for the job, Hoburg says. And GPkit helped researchers make the counterintuitive decision to go with a gas-powered plane rather than one powered by the sun.
“What we found is that the solar plane blows up in size to the point where it is ridiculously large,” says Hoburg, “whereas the gas-powered plane was reasonably sized. And GPkit allowed us to make a very informed decision early on, with limited information.”
JHO went airborne last month, although for only a few minutes at low altitude. Hoburg hopes the team will be able to demonstrate the drone’s staying power by the end of the summer.
The JHO project was carried out as part of a capstone project for seniors in MIT’s aeronautics and astronautics department. And Hoburg says not being able to work with college students may be his biggest regret in leaving MIT.
“As a NASA astronaut, I will have a lot of outreach opportunities to speak to school groups, and encourage them to pursue science and engineering and math,” he says. “And I’ll probably be more motivational as an astronaut. But what I’ll miss is teaching students. It’s awesome to be able to get into the technical details of how things work from an engineering point of view. I won’t be able to get as deep with these outreach efforts.”
Hoburg says being an astronaut “has been in the back of my mind since I began building rockets.” But he says he never gave himself permission to think that it might happen. MIT’s reputation as providing a launching pad for so many astronauts was “absolutely” not a factor when he applied for a faculty position, he insists, and even after he became one of 50 finalists in the new class, he kept the news from his parents.
“I didn’t want to get them stressed out,” he says. “It seemed so unlikely.” (His father, James, is a retired professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Hoburg grew up and where his mother raised him and a younger brother.)
Now that it’s a reality, however, Hoburg is working on a smooth transition that will allow his graduate students to continue their projects under other advisers. “I’m hoping to remain as an unpaid [principal investigator], so I can stay on my students’ [theses] committees.”
At the same time, he has forced himself to accept the fact that he won’t be around. “Once I report to Houston I’ll be gone for good,” he says. “I have a lump in my throat when I think about leaving MIT. But I can’t say no to NASA. It’s too crazy an opportunity.”
Watkins: a foot on two planets
If Watkins could walk on Mars, one place she’d definitely want to visit is the Naukluft Plateau. The planetary geologist would love to scramble over the rocks and ledges that were deemed too dangerous for NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has spent the past 5 years exploring the Red Planet’s Gale crater.
“It would be great to get my hands dirty, to examine those fractures and try to understand their origin and distribution and how they differ from one another,” Watkins says.
Watkins, at 29 the youngest member of the new class, has wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember. However, her love of geology came much later, as an undergraduate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and only after she scrapped her initial plan to become a mechanical engineer.
“I thought that [engineering] was the path I should take to becoming an astronaut,” she says. But “a devilish combination of engineering classes” during her sophomore year, taken in the midst of the rugby season, forced her to rethink her career plans.
“So I had to reconcile those two things,” she recalls. “I would either have to find a new way to be passionate about something that would help me attain that goal [of becoming an astronaut], or give up the goal. I looked for another open door, and that’s how I found geology.”
The long runoff landslides she studied as a graduate student at UCLA occur largely on Valles Marineris, a 4000-kilometer-long, 7-kilometer-deep canyon on Mars. But similar landslides take place on Earth, often on glaciers. Planetary geologists think the phenomena are related, and that connection is precisely what appeals to Watkins.
“It had always been important to me to keep a foot on Earth, as it were, and to have terrestrial geology be the foundation for planetary geology,” she says. So after graduating from UCLA, Watkins sought a postdoc with geologist John Grotzinger, then project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Grotzinger, now chair of Caltech's division of geological and planetary sciences, was already familiar with her work, which he says falls in the mainstream of the field. But her commitment to another career caught him by surprise.
“We were talking about rugby and I asked whether she planned to try out for the national team in preparation for the 2016 Olympics the next year,” he recalls. “Now, she doesn’t like to brag. But she told me, ‘I was on it. And I decided not to keep going because I want to be an astronaut.’”
“Holy smokes, she really means it,” he remembers thinking. “Now, I’ve had a few students over the years who’ve told me that,” he continues. “And I usually think, ‘Sure, but that’s not going to happen.’ However, there was something different about how she said it.”
Grotzinger says Watkins’s work ethic made it possible for her to contribute to both the operational and scientific teams working on MSL. “That’s unusual,” he explains. “Operations is very labor intensive, and mentally challenging, and most people don’t have the energy to get involved in the science, too.”
For Watkins, however, doing both was a no-brainer. “I felt so lucky to do both parts of the job,” she says. “To be one of the first people to see the images coming down from Mars, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I really enjoyed the operational side, too, helping to decide what data we wanted to acquire every day.”
She’s revising a manuscript describing an unconformity in the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, within the Gale crater, a record of the alternating wet-dry cycles on the planet. She hopes to finish it off before heading to Houston in August.
Asked whether she could imagine returning to academia at some point, Watkins says she’s taking life one step at a time. But Grotzinger is skeptical she’ll ever return to campus. “Academic research is so competitive,” he says. “Once you’ve been away, it would be hard to catch up.” And there’s another reason. “Jessica has a burning desire to be an astronaut,” he says. “It’s just part of who she is.”
Cardman: seizing her opportunities
Before Cardman decided she wanted to go into space, she took aim at the most remote destination on Earth: Antarctica.
“I read an article about a student who had gone there to do research, and I set my heart on it,” says Cardman, 29, who had just entered the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she would eventually major in biology. “I wanted to see that extreme environment for myself and do research. So I looked up 80 scientists who had done work in Antarctica and shamelessly wrote to them, saying: ‘Hi, my name is Zena. I’m an undergraduate and I don’t have any [research] experience. But please take me with you.’”
Not surprisingly, most ignored her unsolicited query. A few politely brushed her off, citing a lack of funding or a full roster. But Darlene Lim, a geobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, offered her a chance to do something almost as cool: a research project at a Canadian lake that would examine the early fossil record and also provide the chance to simulate what it would take to do science on Mars.
Cardman immediately said yes, and for the past decade she has spent a few weeks every summer at Pavilion Lake in British Columbia. “It’s been a joy to have her,” says Lim, who launched the project as a postdoc. “It was a small team, and everybody had to do everything. (“I think my official job description was to schlep the scuba tanks to the lakes,” Cardman recalls.)
“Zena excels at everything she does,” says Lim, a Canadian citizen who once made it to the final round of a competition to choose that country’s next crop of astronauts. (There have been only 12.) “She can lead and also be part of a team. She just makes everybody better.”
Lim now also runs a similar dual-purposed research project, called Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains, that is looking at hydrothermal variations in the basalt terrains of volcanoes in Idaho and Hawaii. Cardman also works on that project, which is helping lay down rules for the fledgling field of analog science, in which terrestrial studies also simulate working conditions on other planets.
It’s a direct line from those projects to what Cardman hopes to be doing next. “It simulates having an astronaut collecting the samples who may not be the actual expert in that science, and then relaying the correct information back to a remote team that does include the experts,” she explains. And the logistics required to make that chain function properly are daunting, from coping with transmission delays of up to 30 minutes to making sure the astronauts and the experts are working as a team in choosing the most promising sites to sample.
Maximizing the technology being deployed is another goal. “We’re also learning where to put the camera,” Cardman adds. “That requires deciding between getting a close-up of the sample versus showing a larger context, as well as whether it’s important to see [the astronaut’s] hands to know they are collecting the sample correctly.”
Cardman has been able to participate in these and other projects thanks to funding from two federal programs now under attack by the Trump administration. Her initial visits to Pavilion Lake and some of her work toward a master’s degree were subsidized by the North Carolina Space Grant program, which gets a block grant from the same NASA Office of Education targeted for elimination in the president’s 2018 budget request. And her pursuit of a doctoral degree has been fueled by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which has proposed shrinking the prestigious program by half to cope with a proposed cut of 11% for 2018.
In fact, Cardman has chalked up so many valuable field experiences that her current Ph.D. adviser, Penn State geomicrobiologist Jennifer Macalady, says that “I made an executive decision in planning her graduate program that I didn’t need to schedule a ton of field work.” (Cardman eventually made three trips to Antarctica as an undergraduate, working on a long-running ecological research project at the U.S. Palmer Station on the western peninsula.)
Cardman was halfway through her doctoral work on cave biofilms when NASA called, and she says she’s not sure whether she’ll ever complete it. “Our schedule is very regimented for the first 2 years,” she says. “But then there’s more flexibility.”
“Maybe at that point I’ll decide I really want to finish my Ph.D.,” she muses. “Or maybe I’ll feel that it won’t make me a better astronaut, and that it might prevent me from being assigned to a ground projects, or even to a flight.”
Whatever she decides, Lim will be rooting for her. “My place is to do the very best I can so that, when Zena goes to Mars, she’ll be totally set up for the trip.”