July 22, 2014

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NASA’s top scientist, Oberlin native returns home to inspect Glenn facility

Ellen Stofan,  chief scientist at NASA, visited the NASA Glenn Research Center on Friday. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA, visited the NASA Glenn Research Center on Friday. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

CLEVELAND — Oberlin native Ellen Stofan, who was appointed as NASA chief scientist last year, fully appreciates the painstaking work and brain power going into development of a deep-space propulsion system at NASA Glenn Research Center designed to one day take people to Mars.

During her visit to the center Friday, Stofan expressed great respect for visionary thinking in the sciences.

“You have to imagine it first before you can do it,” Stofan said of the quest to attain seemingly impossible goals. “That is what drives us … invention and innovation.”

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA and an Oberlin native, looks into the interior of the large test chamber at NASA Glenn Research Center. She was in Cleveland to visit the center Friday. The chamber was open because it is undergoing renovations to house larger engines.

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA and an Oberlin native, looks into the interior of the large test chamber at NASA Glenn Research Center. She was in Cleveland to visit the center Friday. The chamber was open because it is undergoing renovations to house larger engines.

Stofan’s imagination was first captivated by space and space exploration watching numerous televised rocket launches as a small child with her father, Andrew Stofan, director of the center from 1982 to 1986.

“My father’s proudest years were spent leading this center,” Stofan said. “Being here elicits many memories of being in the (former NASA) offices across the road with my dad,” she told a small gathering of NASA Glenn officials and staff inside the Electric Propulsion Lab.

The lab is where the Solar Electric Propulsion Project is designed to produce a cost-efficient means of propelling spacecraft using electric power derived from solar arrays while consuming one-tenth the propellant burned up by the type of chemically powered engines used on the space shuttle.

Development of propulsion systems is a topic Stofan is familiar with, having worked at NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Lab in California from 1989 to 2000.

A planetary geologist with master’s and doctorate degrees in geological sciences from Brown University, Stofan’s appointment as NASA chief scientist last August now sees her serving as principal adviser to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the agency’s science programs as well as its science-related strategic planning and investments.

Born in Oberlin, Stofan and her family lived in Berea and Strongsville, but she recalled making many return trips to Oberlin to visit her grandparents.

“It was a great time and a great place,” she said.

Stofan’s career also was nudged and nurtured by her mother, Barbara, a science teacher in the Olmsted Falls system.

Ellen Stofan left Ohio during her junior year at Strongsville High School when her father moved the family to Washington, D.C., to take a NASA post there before returning to Ohio some years later.

Stofan noted the work being done by the Electric Propulsion Lab is also key to the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is intended to grapple with what Stofan termed “the incredible threat” posed to Earth by asteroids, which have been passing by and occasionally striking the planet for millions of years.

An “Asteroid Watch” display at www.nasa.gov offers a continual update on the dates and sizes of asteroids projected to come within 4.6 million miles of Earth.

The ARM program looks to “retrieve an asteroid (or small piece of one) using a robotic probe and put it into a parking orbit around the moon so it can be studied,” Stofan said.

NASA is working toward a 2025 deadline for retrieving an asteroid as set by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Stofan stressed the importance of the asteroid mission by recalling the spectacular meteor that exploded in a brilliant fireball over Russia in February 2013, shattering thousands of windows and causing other damage by exerting a force up to 30 times as powerful as the H-bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.

Stofan’s tour of the lab by NASA electric propulsion senior engineer Dan Herman included a large cylindrical propulsion and power test chamber approximating the size of a space shuttle bay.

The same questions that have long intrigued the public in general inspire Stofan and her NASA colleagues.

“Are we alone?” she said. “That is why we want to explore Mars, to see whether life evolved there before it did on Earth, as well as planets around the stars.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.