NASA’s New Science Head Sees A Bright Future

17:02 minutes

Dr. Nicola Fox, NASA's new head of science, speaking.
Dr. Nicola Fox to serve as the associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, effective Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Last month, NASA announced Dr. Nicola Fox as the agency’s new scientific leader. Fox is taking on a critical role at NASA, shaping the agency’s science priorities and overseeing roughly 100 missions, with a budget of $7.8 billion.  

The portfolio includes space science from astrophysics and Earth science, covering the planets in our solar system to exoplanets far beyond. Previously, she was the director of the heliophysics division at NASA, which studies the Sun and its role in the solar system. 

SciFri senior producer Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate for NASA, about her new position, career path and plans for science at NASA.  

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Segment Guests

Nicola Fox

Dr. Nicola Fox is the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And I’m Charles Bergquist. Last month, NASA announced a new scientific leader, Dr. Nicola Fox. She’s taking on a critical role at NASA, shaping the agency’s science priorities and overseeing roughly 100 missions with a budget of over $7 billion. Her portfolio includes space science from astrophysics and Earth science to the planets in our own solar system to exoplanets far beyond. Previously, she was director of the heliophysics division at NASA, which studies the sun and its role in the solar system.

Joining me now to talk more about her new position, career path, and plans for science at NASA is my guest Dr. Nicola Fox. Her official title is associate administrator for the science mission directorate based at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Fox.

NICOLA FOX: Thanks so much.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this is a big job. Are you having the kind of kid in a candy store moment or a, oh my, what have I done moment here?

NICOLA FOX: A little bit of both I think. Definitely kid in a candy store because when you– I think the first time I gave a talk and instead of just having the heliophysics fleet, I had the entire science mission directorate fleet, all of those missions that you were just talking about around all of the different areas, and that was a, oh, golly, look at all the things that I have to worry about, to manage, to enjoy.

And then there’s also the good grief what have I done moments, too, when I described it as when Wil E. Coyote’s running along and Road Runner holds up a sign that says turn back and then he keeps going and she– turn back and then he’s off the cliff and falling. There was a moment where I kind of felt like, oh, I’m off the cliff.

But I quickly scrambled back on, but it is as you say, it’s a very big job. And there’s so many different aspects to it. And I really do feel that I am responsible for the success of NASA’s science program. And so there is that kind of, oh, this is a huge, huge job, and, yeah, we all have confidence crises every now and again and think golly can I really do it. But I’m taking it one week at a time. And so I’m now in week 4, and we’ve had three successful weeks. So I think that’s great, and there’s always new challenges and new things to do every single day.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Right. But you’re not new to NASA. Before this, you ran the heliophysics unit as I mentioned. You oversaw the Parker Solar Probe mission, which touched the outer surface of the sun for the first time. What was the big thing you took away from that experience?

NICOLA FOX: So being with the Parker Solar Probe team, which I did before I came to the agency, I was at the applied physics lab– Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and I was the project scientist for Parker Solar Probe, and that was an amazing, amazing experience. It’s an incredible mission, 60 years from initial sort of, oh, that would be good to us actually launching.

For me, the thing I learned from that one was just the power of working in a really high performing team, and just learning to rely on people, and learning that it’s OK to ask for help, and there’s always someone that’s got your back. You know, that kind of feeling.

And so when I came to the agency, to the heliophysics division in 2018, I jumped into the middle of a really high performing team, you know? And it was just a pleasure to work alongside them, and to lead them, and to really lead the heliophysics division to do great things.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Tell me a little bit about your own science interests. What questions are you really interested in from a scientific perspective?

NICOLA FOX: Oh, golly. I mean, so many actually. I mean, if I stick with my sort of training, then I’m interested in the sun and how the sun works, but more importantly to my own research was really how that continually streaming solar atmosphere, the solar wind, how that impacts the Earth, and what sort of space weather phenomena it causes.

My PhD was studying the Aurora, and kind of when the Aurora maybe formed under conditions that you might not think it would form under, and so there’s always part of me that still in the, oh, we’re talking about the Aurora.

That’s great, but we have Aurora on other planets. We have solar activity on other stars in other stellar systems, and so I think that for stepping into this role, it’s really the excitement of how the questions that maybe we ask in heliophysics, how they transfer into the other divisions and the sort of synergies of the type of science we do.

Certainly, you can’t not look at a James Webb Space Telescope image and not go, wow. And just thinking about the fact that we can study our own sun because it’s kind of a star in our backyard, and not that it was easy to get to. It took 60 years to develop that technology to get the mission to do that, but we are able to study that star kind of close up, and what we learn about that star, we say it’s an average star, which makes it sound like it’s nothing to get excited about.

But it’s a star that actually supports life on Earth, and so actually learning about that average star, and then looking for other average stars in other systems that could also have planets around them that could sustain life. And so they’re the things that are really exciting. How do we– building blocks of the solar system.

We have OSIRIS-REx coming back in September, bringing samples with it from an asteroid, Bennu, which is a very old asteroid that has those precursors of our solar system embedded in it. So what are we going to find out from that asteroid that enabled our planet to form, that enabled it to sustain water, to sustain life? So it’s those kind of links that we have from almost any area of the science at NASA that just organically link to other areas of science, so they’re the things that get me the most excited.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So there are so many of these links and so many questions out there. No project is ever going to say, oh, we need less money. We need less telescope time. How do you even start trying to balance them all?

NICOLA FOX: Well, so we have, obviously, agency priorities. We have things that we want to do as an agency. We also have a lot of community input through our national academies, and so every 10 years, we have a decadal survey that is done, and members of really diverse group of scientists, and engineers, and people that know how to do missions get together, and they give us our decadal survey, and there’s one for each of the different divisions here in the science mission directorate that really tells us what our priorities for science are going to be or should be.

And so we get a lot of really great input about what the exciting science, what our priorities should be, and then obviously, as you say, nobody ever says, oh, no, no. We only need half that budget. We’ll do half the science.

I mean, we’re always trying to do more. More science, more technology, more everything else, but you just have to balance it. I mean, there is a finite amount of resources that we have, and that’s not just budget.

That’s also the number of people that we have available to work on missions, so there’s lots of things we have to balance. So there’s a lot of constraints, but golly, still the best job on the planet, so–

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Speaking of limited budgets, limited time, there was a planned mission to Venus, Veritas. The recent budget request doesn’t have any funding for it in the coming year. What happened there?

NICOLA FOX: Again, it’s actually just balancing priorities. So we have a mission that is going to be launching at the end of this year called psyche. They had some issues. They missed their launch window, and you don’t want to stop a mission that’s about to launch. You’ve put a lot of effort– a lot in it, and so that mission is going to go ahead and launch in October.

And unfortunately, because of the finite budget, Veritas had to be delayed. Not canceled, delayed. And so they will get their shot, but unfortunately, it’s not as early as they would have liked it, but Veritas is still very much in our plan moving forward.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: There’s research at NASA that is sort of focused on where we came from, the star origin, planet origin. There’s research that looks at where we are now with all of the Earth observing programs, and then there’s research that looks at where we’re going with exoplanets and planetary habitability and things like that. Where do your interests lie?

NICOLA FOX: Literally across all that you just said. I mean, that’s what I said about the linkages between the science, and honestly, heliophysics is kind of– I mean, obviously, I’m biased. I’m a heliophysicist. I’m going to like heliophysics, but it actually touches every one of the others. There’s a big overlap between heliophysics and each of the other divisions, you know, and so that’s what I was saying about the science is just so exciting.

And just as you start learning about it, you just find, oh, the questions that you were asking in your little field of research are applicable in all of the others. And so, you know, where– OSIRIS-REx telling us about where we came from, looking at– Webb looking further back than anything possibly can to the beginnings of our universe. I mean, there’s so much exciting stuff. I literally could not pick a favorite.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You mentioned OSIRIS-REx and Psyche. Are there other upcoming missions that you’re especially excited about?

NICOLA FOX: I’m excited about just about everything that we have in the portfolio as we start to do the Earth system observatory, really putting all different ways that we’re going to be looking at our planet. How we protect planet Earth.

We have tempo coming up that are looking at how pollution sort of evolves over the day and night looking 24/7, looking down at, I think, it’s got a field of view from like the Gulf of Mexico up to the oil flats of Canada, and it goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

I mean, I’m just going to shamelessly plug a little mission for heliophysics called AWE, the atmospheric wave experiment, and it’s a little instrument, and it’s going to go on the International Space Station, and that’s launching at the end of this year, too. We also have a mission going to Mars called Escapade that is going to look at the solar wind and how it impacted Mars.

And actually, we also are kicking off the heliophysics big year, which is we’ve got eclipses that you’re going to be able to see from the US. Later this year, they will have an annular eclipse, so that’s when the moon isn’t quite in the right place to block out all of the sun, but you’ll see a sort of ring of fire around the sun.

If you’re going to look at that, you must wear your glasses. Must, must, must wear your glasses for that one. Eclipse glasses. But then next year in April, we’ll have a total solar eclipse, which if anyone saw that in 2017, is just the most amazing experience. So much exciting going on, just– that’s just in the next year.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: The plaque on the door says you’re in charge of science, but obviously, in any government role, there are political considerations here, too, right?

NICOLA FOX: Yes, I mean, some of the really exciting things actually are working with our government friends in the White House and planning out how just science is going to grow overall, working with the Office of Science Technology and Policy, about their priorities, and how we can help. How we can actually literally lift science up for everybody, I think, is just a great experience to be able to do all this.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You’re listening to Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case, you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at NASA. You’ve said in the past that it was sort of a dream to work for NASA. Tell me a little bit about your career path and how you got here.

NICOLA FOX: I had always loved science. Definitely, science was 100% my favorite subject. I went to college, studied physics, didn’t really love it when I was at college, not going to lie. Had some definite sort of imposter syndrome, and some issues with physics at first.

I went and did a master’s in satellite communications and telecommunications, and when I was there doing my master’s, I mean, literally every one of my professors said to me, you don’t think like an engineer. You think like a scientist. You’re worried about– you’re not worried about the how. You always want to know why, and you ask, in quotes, “the wrong questions.”

And so I went back to Imperial College in London is where I did my PhD. I also did my first degree there. I went back there, and I did space plasma physics PhD, and loved it, and was obviously very excited about my work as one is when you’re doing a PhD. You think it’s the best thing ever. And I was at a meeting in Alaska, and I was presenting my work, and a scientist came over and said, would you be interested in applying for a postdoc at NASA?

And, you know, I didn’t even know that was a possibility. Coming from the UK, it never occurred to me that I actually could go and work for NASA, and so I jumped at the chance, applied for the postdoc, was lucky enough to be awarded it, and moved to Goedert Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

I was there for about three years, and then I went up to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and worked on a number of different NASA missions, the last one being Parker Solar Probe. After that, I came here for heliophysics.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Do you have any advice for any young scientists who might want to follow in your footsteps and get that great NASA job?

NICOLA FOX: I think the most important thing is to do what you love. Do whatever is in your heart. That’s really the most important thing. If you do what you love, you may find that opportunity opens up for you, and honestly, if you want to work for NASA, there’s so many different careers and so many different types of jobs that are necessary to get missions off the ground or to get people to different destinations. And so really, whatever you want to do, there’s probably a career path for you at NASA.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Aside from the sun, do you have a favorite space object, some planet or galaxy that really speaks to you?

NICOLA FOX: I have to say, I’ve always just– I’ve always been a sucker for Saturn. I have. It’s always been my favorite planet. I think it’s because it has the rings, but it’s just always been the one that I love looking at it through the telescopes and all the amazing work that’s been done with Cassini and just studying Saturn. That’s probably my favorite one if I had to pick one. I love them all, of course.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Do you have a favorite space fact? The thing that makes you just say, wow, that’s so cool.

NICOLA FOX: So this is going to sound really pathetic if I give you what I– the thing that honestly I think is so cool, but the fact that when we send missions, we look at the sun, we’re studying it in all different ways.

And then the fact that the sun is a star, and there are so many other stars that are like our sun, you know? And so for me, it’s just that feeling that we’re in the solar system, and it’s great, and we think that’s the be all and end all, but we’re a little tiny piece in this huge universe, you know?

And so we can study everything and then how we apply it to other places, but just that feeling that we have this opportunity to study a star up close. We have an opportunity to study planets, and then we have the ability to sort of look into the depths of the universe and apply all the knowledge that we have from here to all those far reaching places. So it’s kind of cheesy, but it’s just that feeling of what we do here has so many bigger impacts on everything else.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: That’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guest, Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at NASA. She’s based in Washington DC. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

NICOLA FOX: Thank you so much.

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