In the latest episode of Sidwell Friends’ podcast, Lives that Speak, Head of School Bryan Garman talks with Andrea Johnson Razzaghi ’78, the newly named director of the NASA Office of JPL Management Oversight at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A curious explorer at heart with an engineering background, Razzaghi has played a significant role in many NASA endeavors over the course of her career. She has worked on missions that earned the Nobel Prize, landed an SUV-sized rover on Mars, helped to unravel the mysteries of the big bang, and discovered planets beyond our solar system, just to name a few. Razzaghi has won many awards for her service to NASA and the nation.
BRYAN GARMAN: What was the experience of Sidwell Friends like for you?
ANDREA JOHNSON RAZZAGHI: It was definitely an adjustment from the school where I was before. I felt Sidwell Friends was very open to the students’ views and opinions in a way that was a little more freeing. There’s a lot of inquiry about what the students thought about things and more open discussion. The introduction of the Meeting for Worship was very interesting and something I’ve really come to value in life.
BG: Science and discovery is such a creative process.
AR: “Discovery”—I love that word. Every job I’ve had at NASA has been about enabling scientific discovery, and so much is about the unknown and trying to fill in the blanks of what we know with new information. One of the things that’s really key is revising what you think you know based on new information and being very curious. In the real world, when you’re doing complex engineering endeavors, you will run into problems. Things don’t always behave the way you predicted they were going to behave when you were in design, and you’re never, ever going to get it perfect. One of the things about engineering is you learn to live with less-than-perfect solutions. If you tried to get to perfection, you would never, ever get anything done.
BG: What role has failure played in your career?
AR: It’s very important. I was the assistant director for planetary science at the time that we launched and landed the Curiosity rover. The Curiosity is going on like 10 years now, since it landed on Mars, but at the time, it was the biggest rover ever landed on Mars, way bigger than the Spirit and Opportunity that came before it. Spirit and Opportunity looked like miniature golf carts comparatively. I have this fullsize, full-scale model of Perseverance, the most recent rover, and it’s very similar to Curiosity. It’s like a huge Hyundai, a huge two-ton rover, and we had to use this system for getting it to the surface that we never used before. And mass is everything when you’re dealing with trying to launch something off Earth. You really have to get everything down as small as possible, yet still be able to do the job. I knew all the general things that could happen. But I also knew in detail all the little things that could happen. I knew all the problems we had encountered that had to be solved in order to get it there. So what we do when we are planning for something like this—and this is a big, expensive mission—is we have to plan for what we call a bad day. A whole team is figuring out, if this doesn’t actually make it to the surface in one piece, how do we talk about this? We have to face a reality that failure is absolutely a possibility. We have to model the failure. It is always a part of our conversation through the whole design process. We do what we call “fault analysis,” which is all the possible failures that could happen, how they could ripple through the system, and how the system is or isn’t resilient to this failure. Sometimes things absolutely do fail, and it can be really emotionally crushing for the people who work on these missions. You have these really high-performing teams that do these amazing things— and we’re always doing things that have never been done before. It’s a little different than, say, if you’re designing cars.
BG: You’re always on the frontier.
AR: Yes. We’re always going to do something that’s never been done before, so we can find things that we don’t currently know. You need a can-do attitude, which is a really important element, but it also creates blind spots. To manage that, we have these independent teams that come in and poke holes. These independent experts, who are not emotionally attached, are critical. We are human, we get emotional, and we get attached to the work. So, these independent teams come in and say, “I think you need to have a redundant system there, because there’s a chance this one’s going to break.” And we take that process very seriously. I’ve seen that evolve over my career from my early days. It also helps us be more predictable in how long it’s going to take to do things and how much it’s going to cost to do them. My most stressful day in my entire career was landing Curiosity on Mars. There’s a phrase we use called “seven minutes of terror,” because seven minutes is the time it takes to get from the top of the Mars atmosphere to the ground. Due to the transmission times for the signal, you’re actually going to be on the surface of Mars for seven minutes before you even know whether it’s there in one piece or in multiple pieces. (See “Don’t Hold Your Breath,” on page 41.) I definitely experienced that seven minutes of terror in a very visceral way. Then when you get that signal, it’s a really incredible feeling. I love to show it to children, and they go, “Those grownups are crying.” I’m like, “Yeah, those grownups are crying.” I’m getting chills just thinking about that right now.
BG: NASA has a special place in the American imagination. It’s the place through which we all touch the cosmos. What’s it like to work there?
AR: I’m coming up on my 37th anniversary. It’s a family; it really is. Sometimes you take it for granted. I have this expression, “Sometimes you’ve got to stop and smell the science.” Just take a step back and take a look at what we do. We’re always trying to do things that haven’t been done before, and it can get pretty stressful at times. Every now and then, we have to just stop and smell the science and take a look at what we’ve done— like to look at how textbooks have been rewritten based on the data that we have collected and the discoveries that we have made in our endeavors.
BG: Talk about your former position overseeing astrophysics at NASA.
AR: That was just such an amazing job. I love my job description, because it was really: “Discover how the universe began. Discover how the night sky came to be and what’s happening right now. Then find out if we are alone in the universe.” This is literally part of my job description. It’s very humbling. Our quest is for the things we don’t know. Let’s figure out what we don’t know or what we need to know better, and let’s be willing to revise what we think we know based on new information and continual curiosity and quest for discovery. I think about how big the universe is. If you look at the grand scheme of things, it has been over 13 billion years since the big bang. This is a timescale that is so large compared with our human existence, but the fact that we’ve been able to place ourselves in that context is pretty amazing. Then if you think about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, and there was a finding from the Hubble Space Telescope that there could be as many as 2 trillion galaxies. Do the math: That’s a lot of stars. Another big area of discovery in astrophysics has been the search for planets and other star systems—exoplanet exploration. From the Kepler Mission, we now know that every star you see in the night sky has at least one planet and likely more. Just looking at one little, tiny slice of our Milky Way, we have confirmed over 5,000 planets. But we can extrapolate that and think about how many planets there are in our universe. It’s just mind-boggling. It’s a very humbling experience to think about where we sit in this vastness of time and space and what that means as far as the possibilities of what’s out there.
BG: You mentioned that you were charged with exploring if we alone in the universe. Are we?
AR: We certainly have not found any evidence of any extraterrestrial technology or life. But where we’re looking is farther out and is maybe not complex life. Ancient microbial life on Mars is still a question we’re examining. We’re also looking at the moon Europa on Jupiter as having what we call biological potential. It’s got this huge ice shell around it, it has more water on it than Earth, there’s evidence of an underthe- ice ocean. Based on our remote sensing, we could see some of the chemical composition, so it’s an area that we have a lot of interest in that could have biological potential. Another one is Enceladus, a little moon around Saturn. It’s the brightest object in our solar system, and it also has an icy shell and internal heating that could have water in that surface. There are some really fascinating targets that we are looking at in our own solar system. I led a study on what it would take to do a mission to Enceladus several years ago; it was very compelling. Then of course, there are exoplanets, these planets that we’re finding outside of our solar system and seeing if we can collect more data to see if there’s any evidence of anything that could be non-natural processes. So this is a big question. We have a field study in planetary science called astrobiology. How do you study life that didn’t evolve on Earth? How do you detect life as we know it? How do you send your sensors and be able to find life as we know it? That’s a big question. So we look at extremophiles [organisms that live under extreme environmental conditions] here on Earth, and our definition of habitability just keeps expanding. We used to think that water was rare, but every place we’ve looked in the solar system now, we have found water. We have found water on our moon, even water in pockets on Mercury so close to the sun. For life as we know it, that’s essential. So we used to think water was rare, but we find it’s abundant. We’re finding that life is robust, and habitability for life is broader than we probably originally thought.
BG: When you think about where our country is today, what worries you most as a scientist and citizen?
AR: I do worry about people not understanding and not trusting science. In the course of my career, starting with climate change, I saw what I thought were just basic scientific discussions turn into political hot topics. It is a shame that things that should not be political have become political. So that is a concern. And there are movements to minimize the kind of education children receive. For this country, it’s really important for children to see themselves as little scientists when they’re playing in the dirt, being curious about why the bark is peeling off the tree, and understanding that what they’re doing is engaging in scientific curiosity and exploration. We need to make scientific thinking more accessible to people and to keep scientific education strong. So as a citizen, I think we need a scientifically literate citizenry for everyone. We need science to solve vexing problems. And we need education, especially higher education, to be more accessible to people in every way, financially and intellectually.
BG: Where do you find your inspiration and hope and opportunity?
AR: I take stock of the beautiful world that we live in. Of course, that comes with the responsibility of trying to keep it. Where I live in California, I see the sunset almost every single day. It’s either from my vantage point on the ocean or over the Santa Monica Mountains, and I just stop. I feel like I have no excuse but just to go out there and watch it every day and take in. It’s a little different every day, and it’s beautiful every day. I take inspiration from that as a reminder that we are part of this big system. To watch that sunset, it’s like, “Yep, it’s reliable every day.” It’s going to be majestic. It’s going to be unique. To be able to take that breath in and be happy and grateful that I’m here and I’m fortunate to have a good life, I do not take that for granted.
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