10 Questions for Dava Newman

The new NASA deputy administrator chats about her influences and the space agency’s big plans for Mars.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Dava Newman walks to a meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, on Monday, May 18, 2015, her first day on the job at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls

“Oh yeah!” That was Dava Newman’s reaction when asked if she’d be willing to jet off to Mars.

The best way to describe the aerospace engineer, who’s currently on leave from a professorship at MIT, is an explorer. From sea (she’s an avid sailor) to space, Newman is enthusiastic about breaching new frontiers. Known as the creator of the skintight Biosuit™ concept, she’s been a prominent leader in thinking creatively about future space exploration—so much so that President Obama tapped her to be the new deputy administrator at NASA, a post she was sworn into this past May.

Newman has also been an avid advocate for STEM outreach, even preferring to use the acronym STEAMD in recent talks—the added A standing for “arts” and the D for “design.” “I do include the arts; I think it’s critically important,” she says. “I need to recruit every young girl and boy out there, and it helps to be very inclusive.”

Newman spoke with SciFri about her interests, NASA’s vision for the future, and her thoughts on exploring the great beyond. (Note: Much of this interview occurred before she assumed her new position and has been updated accordingly.)

What got you interested in science?
I pretty much just love to learn. I loved school, but it was everything equally in terms of English, science, math—all those things. And then I became an engineer at Notre Dame. It was actually perfect for me because it was a liberal arts school, and I loved philosophy, so some of my favorite courses were in philosophy.

Who’s your favorite philosopher?
I’ve always been fascinated by Plato, by Socrates, in terms of teaching and the Socratic Method. I got interested in the period when philosophy and early science meet—when we get a little bit of the juncture, and the prevailing of science methodology. I like to see what the thinkers and writers are saying at those cross-sections. I’m interested in the different viewpoints, and the debate.

Who are your scientific idols?
I kind of look at it in terms of leaders, which of course can be across the spectrum. So there’s definitely some science and engineering leaders in the world. Buzz Aldrin. [Astronaut] Dave Scott is still doing a ton of great work on lunar analysis. Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist on the moon in Apollo 17. All of those guys I hugely admire, and it’s been nice to meet and work with them over my career.

I’m so fascinated by exploration, not just in space, but also on earth and the oceans. My husband and I do a lot of sailing, so the explorers and racers [at sea] always kind of captivate my interests. [The couple has circumnavigated the globe by sailboat, teaching students on remote islands worldwide.]

What led you to want to design the Biosuit™?
I call the spacesuit one of the world’s greatest engineering feats, because it keeps people alive; it provides all their life support. Basically my whole career has been looking at all the world’s spacesuits, really, so I’ve probably analyzed and looked at the designs of pretty much every spacesuit that’s out there. The team at MIT is trying to push innovation and creativity and think about how you could possibly have a really mobile, lightweight suit. Unfortunately, those are some of the constraints of any of the current suit systems for NASA or for the Russians and the Chinese.

Where do you see the future of space exploration?
I see humans getting to Mars, hopefully with very advanced suits and systems and rovers—a complete exploration system. It’s not a couple people implanting a flag. It’s a very different era of exploration. We will be more like the early ship explorers who were so successful, and even Antarctic explorers who were successful. It wasn’t about colonization for any of the initial explorations.

The very successful exploration expeditions were groups and teams of people, so I definitely see teams of folks going. And hopefully we’ll learn to live off the land, and use in-situ resources for life support. Resources can’t be completely supplied in trips back and forth from Earth. All successful exploration expeditions learn how to live off the land. The ones that were not very successful imported all of their goods from home and tried to go to a new place and have the exact same lifestyle. Those ended up in failures in terms of the history of exploration. But when you have creativity and innovation, kind of on the spot and in real time—those always seem to be the most successful explorers.

And now you’re helping NASA with its plan to explore the Red Planet—the Journey to Mars initiative?
The important point is that NASA is already on our journey to Mars. We’re at the International Space Station right now. We have six astronauts and cosmonauts up on the station today, busy running experiments, performing science, and doing technology demonstrations. And then the second phase of our Journey to Mars is in the 2020s. That’s what we like to call “the proving ground” to get to Mars, where we get to demonstrate our technologies, prove capabilities that we don’t have currently and test them in Earth-moon orbit—for instance, new in-space propulsion technologies, like solar electric propulsion. We’ll be looking at habitats, looking at life-support systems that will last well beyond what we have now. And then the final phase of the Journey to Mars gets us into the 2030s, and that’s when we finally get to Mars and we become earth-independent. In the meantime, we’re building the heavy lift launch capability, the Space Launch System.

What else is in the future for NASA?
I’ve learned a lot about the James Webb Space Telescope when I was at Goddard Space Flight Center. Now, this is one huge, large, gorgeous telescope, and it’s going to blow us away. Remember how phenomenal Hubble has been? We’re still celebrating Hubble all the time here. Well, James Webb coming up is going to see into the universe and reveal so much in a different spectrum. I think it’s really going to be a breakthrough in terms of looking beyond what Hubble’s shown us. We’re searching for the answers for dark energy and dark matter, and we’re talking galaxies and galaxies and galaxies. It’s kind of hard for me to get my head around.

What space movies do you enjoy?
2001: A Space Odyssey is pretty fantastic. I loved the visual effects in Gravity. The two nights after I watched the movie in 3D, all my dreams were about floating in space. It was fun. I thought those visual effects were beautiful and wonderful. There’re parts I was, of course, critical about, in terms of the plot and physics of things, but in terms of entertainment and the visuals, I liked it. I’m kind of like that about all space movies—as an engineer, you critique in different ways: They should have consulted with us and gotten the physics right, what kind of suits are they using, and all those kinds of things. But the entertainment value is always fun.

All fall we’re going to be celebrating The Martian. It’s such a great opportunity because we can say: ‘And then here’s what NASA’s doing on our journey to Mars.’ We have a whole bunch of material, so people will go and see the movie and have a lot of fun, and then they can learn about the technology that NASA’s really working on right now to help get us to Mars. [From the NASA homepage, click on ‘Real Martians’ to access factual materials regarding NASA’s Journey to Mars.]

Related Segment

Science Goes To The Movies: The Martian

What inspires you?
I’m inspired a lot by art and design. They inspire my thinking all the time. There’s been a lot written on art and science and how they are so complementary and go hand-in-hand, but I think that there’s another intersection of design and engineering that go hand-in-hand, and we have so much to learn from each other. My work kind of stands in all four quadrants—art, science, design, and engineering.

What advice do you have for young people who want to pursue science?
Just go for it. We need every single one of them. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do it, because I think everyone is just a born little explorer. They just have to go with their passion. The other advice I have for them is to have fun and play and build and fail. If one thing succeeds out of 10, especially building with your hands and designing, you’re going to learn a ton from failures. If you’re a designer or engineer, learning is in the journey, in the process, not usually in the end product. I’m an experimentalist at heart.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Meet the Writer

About Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

Explore More