Franz Lino/Photography Editor

Pipe Dream sat down with Ellen Stofan, chief scientist of NASA, before her TEDx speech. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pipe Dream: What brings you to give a TED talk at Binghamton University?

Ellen Stofan: You know, I got the invitation and I was really excited because I’d never been invited to give a TEDx talk before. I thought “this is a great opportunity.” I love to go anywhere where there are students to talk about all the amazing science we do at NASA.

PD: Have you ever done something similar to a TED talk?

ES: I do a lot of public speaking because I’m really passionate about all the science that we do at NASA. Getting the message out and getting the public excited about the science we do — whether it’s studying this planet and all the changes that are taking place because of climate change, whether it’s our telescope studying the planets around other stars or whether it’s the research we do every day on the International Space Station — it’s an amazing range of scientific research, and the public a lot of the time doesn’t know about it. I try to get out there as much as I can and talk about how cool NASA is.

PD: The theme of this year’s TEDx is “Flip the Script.” What did that make you think of and how did it influence the talk you prepared?

ES: I think a lot of people have the perception that we know so much, that we’re in this era where we’re at the peak of knowing about the world around us — how it works, all that information. I would argue that we know nothing, and we’re on the verge of knowing so much.

We’re on the verge of, I think — in the next 10 to 20 years — finding life beyond Earth. In the last five years, we’ve discovered over 5,000 planet candidates around other stars. And so we’re on the edge of this revolution of knowledge that I think is tremendously exciting. To me, that really is flipping the script. I think a lot of people just don’t realize this brink of discovery that we’re sitting on. That information will change so much, if you just look at life beyond Earth. How profound is that, to realize that we’re not alone, that there is life elsewhere in our solar system and maybe on planets beyond us?

PD: Could you tell me a bit about your TEDx talk?

ES: What I’m going to do is walk through the amazing discoveries that we’re on the edge of. I’m talking about Kepler [Space Telescope] and all the planets it’s discovered around other stars and the implications of that. We’re following that up with a new telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope, that will launch in 2018. James Webb will actually be able to look at atmospheres of planets around other stars. What you’re trying to do is say “is this a potentially habitable planet?” So we start looking for gases like the ones we find in our own atmosphere — oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane — especially gasses like methane and carbon dioxide which are associated with life. Now, that’s not proof of life, but it’s certainly a first step towards habitability. Eventually, to be able to image planets around other stars, we’re going to need a huge telescope. It will probably have to be built in space, so that’s a ways down the road.

If we turn to our own solar system, we have moons of the outer solar system, moons of Jupiter and Saturn, that have icy crust. But underneath that crust is a sub-surface liquid water ocean. We really think that water is critical to life. Life here on Earth evolved in the oceans and it stayed in the oceans for over a billion years. So that’s why we’re looking for ocean worlds beyond Earth.

I’m going to talk a little bit about Europa, moon of Jupiter; and Enceladus, which is a moon of Saturn. Both of those have these sub-surface liquid water oceans that we’d like to explore. And I’m going to talk about Titan, which is a moon of Saturn, which doesn’t have water, but it actually has seas of liquid gasoline — liquid methane and ethane. And that helps us push on that question: “what does life mean?” Can life evolve in circumstances very different to those here on Earth? Does life really need water, or not? Titan can really help us answer that question.

And then, finally, I’m going to talk about Mars. Right now, NASA is very focused on getting to Mars, getting humans to Mars. I actually think it’s going to take humans on Mars breaking open rocks to actually find evidence of life. Because we’re looking for, you know, not little green men, but fossil microbes. And a lot of people say “why is that exciting? Why is that interesting?” But when you think of it, we want to answer questions like “does it have cell structure like our cells have? Does it have RNA, DNA — the things that we associate very much with all life here on Earth?”

Finding this life, I think, will be profound from that point of view, because we can start understanding better how life evolved on this planet and how similar it is to life elsewhere. Mars really holds the answer to that.

PD: Last year you made headlines saying humans would find evidence of life in space within the next 10 years. Where do you stand on that statement? And if you were to come back and do a TEDx talk 10 years from now, what would you be addressing?

ES: I do stand by it. What I said — and sometimes I was misquoted — was that 10 years down we’ll have strong indications of life on another planet, and within 20 to 30 years we’ll have proof of life on another planet. I very much tied the proof to the very issue of getting boots on the ground on Mars and being able to actually bring back samples. Because, you know, scientists love to argue. And while I think we’ll have indications of life — and most of this really does center around Mars — we have the Curiosity Rover on Mars right now, we’re going to follow that with another rover in 2020 and then we think in the mid 2020s we’ll have another mission to Mars. And really, at this point, we know where to look, we know what kind of instruments to send. But, frankly, finding indirect evidence of life — for example, finding organic molecules you can start arguing look like life — without a lot of samples, and without humans being able to analyze them the scientific community will probably argue about it.

So if I came in 10 years I think I’d be talking about that evidence we found on Mars and how it remains controversial, but how we really believe it is an indication that life indeed did evolve on Mars. And then, hopefully, if I came back 10 or 15 years later, I’d be showing slides of rocks from Mars where we had found evidence. And, of course, in the meantime we’re also going to Europa. If, somehow, that liquid ocean is erupting onto the surface and into space and we can access it, we may get some kind of positive indication of life soon.

Some of the scientific community thought I was being too optimistic, and some thought I was being pessimistic, which I loved. If you’ve got people on both sides disagreeing with you, you might be right. I had no idea it would get the press it would!

PD: You’re a well-known STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] advocate who has lent her voice to the effort to increase diversity and representation in the field. Could you talk a little bit about that?

ES: When you look at the challenges we’re facing today as a country, cyber-security issues, climate change — which, to me is the most profound problem facing us — the solutions are going to come out of the STEM field. The problem is, right now, when you look at a lot of the numbers, we’re still not accessing enough of our population. We don’t know who the next Einstein is going to be. We don’t know who the next person is who is going to help us figure out what to do about all the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

I think there are kids from a lot of underrepresented groups in STEM — women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans — who don’t see themselves as scientists. And they think “Would I be welcome in that field? I don’t see anybody who looks like me in those fields, so do I belong there?” I think we’re not accessing the talent of our population unless we make it clear everybody is welcome and, in fact, everybody is needed.

I do think that arts and design are really critical. I was listening to an NPR show, and they were talking about things in science fiction that had become real. Somebody said “nobody ever invented anything that someone didn’t imagine first.” And I think the arts are a critical part of that. So it’s not just STEM, it’s STEAM, because we need innovation, we need new design to solve these tough problems we have in front of us. And, again, if we’re not accessing our population, if we’re not making everyone feel welcome, I don’t think we’re going to solve these tough problems we have.

PD: As Chief Scientist of NASA, where do you see the organization in terms of being welcoming and diverse?

ES: NASA does pretty well in the sense that you could say we have the same percentage of women, about 33 percent, that are in the STEM workforce. I’m not satisfied with that. I’m not going to be satisfied until we’re 50 percent women. I’m not going to be satisfied until we have significant representation from underrepresented groups, from people with disabilities. Because, again, if we’re not accessing those groups fully, we’re losing talent.

As an agency, we do pretty well. We work hard at not just diversity, but at inclusion. Because if you don’t make people feel welcome, then you’re not doing your job. We do well, and we’re always striving to do better. Our administrator of NASA, Charlie Bolden — this is a huge passion of his and he is always doing everything he can, especially as one of the first African-American astronauts. This is an issue that he is incredibly passionate about. And until we are leading every other agency and company in the country, we’re not going to be satisfied.

PD: What are you hoping people take away from your speech?

ES: Sometimes, after I give a talk, I’ll have somebody come up to me and say “you’re like a child with your enthusiasm” and I try not to be insulted by that. But to me, what we’re doing fills me with wonder and excitement and energy. I can give some small part of that to the audience, of looking deep into the universe at the beauty and the wonder and the amazingness of it all. I hope to transmit that to the audience so that everybody just takes a step back and feels like they’re staring up at the night sky and wondering “are we alone?”