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A woman standing in front of a plane at a museum

AT WORK: Ellen Stofan in front of Amelia Earhart’s plane at the museum

PHOTO BY JIM PRESTON/SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM (NASM2018-01471).

Museum Director

Ellen Stofan is the first woman to head the National Air and Space Museum

Ellen Stofan has long been fascinated by rocks—and not just those on our planet. She’s studied the geology of Earth, Venus, Mars, and Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Stofan spent more than 25 years working as a planetary scientist for organizations like U.S. space agency NASA. As chief scientist, she held NASA’s most senior science position. Now, Stofan is taking on a new leadership role as the first female director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Air and Space Museum, located on the National Mall, is the most visited museum in the United States. More than 7 million people a year come to check out its one-of-a-kind exhibits. They include everything from some of the first airplanes ever to take flight to artifacts from historic moon landings. The museum first opened its doors in 1976. After four decades in operation, it needed a renovation. Stofan spoke with Science World about her career and overseeing the museum’s redesign, which she hopes will inspire future generations of scientists.

PHOTO BY JIM PRESTON/SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM (NASM2018-01471).

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Workers adjust aircraft in the updated Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles exhibit.

How did you become interested in space science?

I was exposed to careers in aerospace at an early age. My dad was an engineer at NASA. He took me to see my first rocket launch when I was 4 years old. I knew I also wanted to be a scientist—I just wasn’t sure what kind. Then one day, my mom, who was taking a geology class, asked her professor if I could come along on a field trip. I asked the teacher a million questions. When we got home, I announced, “I want to be a geologist!” Later, I learned that studying rocks on Mars could help us learn more about how Earth formed. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. That’s when I decided to study rocks on other planets.

SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

GETTING THERE: Stofan visiting Washington, D.C., shortly after her internship (right) and studying lava in Hawaii as a planetary scientist

What’s it like being a woman in the aerospace field?

When I was a kid, I thought everyone at NASA looked like my dad. They were all men. But my parents encouraged me to pursue my passions. They said, “If you want to be a scientist, then that’s what you should do.” So I studied to become a planetary scientist. In college, I interned at the Air and Space Museum, but I never thought I’d come back as director. At the time, I didn’t think people who looked like me ended up in those types of positions. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I’ve done a lot of great science and had an amazing time at NASA, but I want to help change the types of faces people see in the fields of aerospace and engineering.

RANDAL ARMSTRONG/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

WORLD OF WINGS: The Boeing Aviation Hangar at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center stands 10 stories high and is the length of three football fields.

What is your biggest goal for the new museum?

Our society doesn’t do a great job of highlighting the diverse people who got us to where we are today. I want anyone who visits the museum to know that people like them can get involved in aerospace—and that they’ve already been involved for decades. People just don’t know their stories. For example, nearly everyone has heard of Amelia Earhart. She was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. But how many people know about Bessie Coleman? In the 1920s, she became the first African American woman to get a pilot’s license. She took a stand against racial discrimination by flying only in air shows that were desegregated, allowing black people and white people to stand together in the audience.

I want people to get a broader picture of achievements in air and space. I want to make sure that every kid who walks into every gallery at the museum can see people who look like them. We have staff members at the Smithsonian doing research, including a curator who will be documenting women in space science. Their stories aren’t going to be on display in a special box meant to highlight diversity. They’ll be part of the fabric of the entire museum.

PLANETPIX/ALAMY LIVE NEWS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

SPACE HISTORY: Stofan speaks at the opening of a display featuring astronaut Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit in July 2019.

Why is diversity so important to the future of aerospace?

It’s predicted that there will be a shortage of up to a million pilots over the next 15 years. Less than 10 percent of commercial pilots are women. But women make up 50 percent of the population. If people involved in aviation better reflected the makeup of our population, we would have plenty of pilots.

Also, we’re entering an age of space tourism. Private rocket companies are changing who has access to space. Ordinary people—not just astronauts—could soon book a flight beyond Earth. Flying cars might exist in the next decade. We’re trying to get the first humans to Mars. If we can get all kids engaged in science, technology, and math, together we can make these things a reality. It’s a really exciting time in aerospace engineering, and we need everyone’s talents to get where we want to go.

What advice do you have for someone who wants a career like yours?

Follow your dreams and don’t get discouraged. You have to work hard to become a scientist or head a museum. But most of all, be curious and enthusiastic about the things you love. That’s more important than anything else.

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