New brooms at NASA?

Ellen Stofan (10409828915).jpgFrom Jeff Foust at

Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, Departs Space Agency

She served three years.

In the NASA interview, Stofan cited a range of “fun challenges” she worked on while chief scientist, including helping develop NASA’s long-term strategy for human Mars exploration. That effort, she said, is a key part of a broader scientific theme of searching for evidence of life beyond Earth

Institutionally, she said one of the achievements she was most proud of as chief scientist was getting the agency to voluntarily request demographic information in grant proposals submitted by scientists. That information, she said, is important to understanding any biases in how the agency awards those grants.

“Implicit or unconscious bias is all around us; we may act on deep-seated biases that we don’t even know we have,” she said. “The first step in dealing with bias is seeing if you have a problem, and that is what the data collection will tell us.”

What “demographic information” did NASA have in mind? Are you a Mormon? Are you divorced? How many children do you have? Or even: Do you think fine-tuning of the universe is a matter of evidence or does a multiverse obviate discussion of evidence?  (This last question probably code for “traditional thinker” of some kind, not post-fact progressive.)

Stofan’s departure coincides with NASA selecting a new deputy associate administrator for science. In a Dec. 20 internal memo, the agency said that Dennis Andrucyk will take the position effective Jan. 17. Andrucyk, currently the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and acting chief technologist, will split his time between the science and space technology directorates until his formal start date.

“Dennis brings to this position a wealth of organizational and leadership experience within NASA,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in the memo. “His deep technical knowledge and innovative forward thinking will further enhance our ability to build successful and new missions that help answer some of the most fundamental science questions of our time, including the search for life beyond Earth.”More.

Might there be a new focus on hands-on exploration of possible life sites for Mars, as opposed to, say, the sociology of religion or whether They are out there?

If so, it might be a welcome change from 2011. See, for example, A physicist reflects on the end of space accomplishment – now that speculation has replaced exploration, on recent political hostility to the Mars missions:

The first casualty was the NASA director, replaced with a person of no particular engineering or scientific training. After a year, the second casualty was the Constellation program to the moon. But now the scientists were beginning to feel the heat. So there was a brief public relations noise about robot missions to an asteroid. It’s a pipe dream. As long as engineers who may not be politically loyal run the manned program, the current administration will not fund it.. So until either California or Maryland turn their robotic NASA centers into manned spaceflight centers, there just won’t be any funding, now or in the future.

It’s all a consequence of making everything into a short-term political game.

NASA-watching readers, what do you think?

See also: NASA cares what your religion thinks about ET: One would expect that those world religions that care much one way or the other if NASA finds bacteria in space could fund their own examination of the question.


The aliens went extinct before we found them—there, that’s the answer! But now, consider all the other theses about why the aliens, they never write, they never phone. Lotsa good sci-fi novels in there…