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Born to Explore

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments for probing hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the elementary schooler wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Laurie Leshin sits next to a meteorite in snowy Antarctica
It wasn't until August of last year that Laurie Leshin became the director of sciences and exploration at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. But exploration was a passion for her long before her job title contained the word.

Image to right: Laurie Leshin searches for meteorites in Antarctica. Credit: NASA

Leshin has explored the universe as a student, a teacher and now a scientist. Not even a failed mission to Mars deterred her pursuit to find water and life in the solar system. Space Science Explorers talked with Leshin about her past, present and future endeavors in space science.

Space Science Explorers: How did you first get interested in science?

Leshin: I grew up enjoying the outdoors and loved rocks and stars. My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I was interested in. I also had some great science teachers in high school and college. They convinced me that I wanted to study science.

SSE: How did you get to where you are now?

Leshin: During my college years, I worked for a summer at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, right next to the NASA Johnson Space Center. That got me hooked on space science research. I studied hard, got my Ph.D. and became a professor at Arizona State University. There, I got to teach great students and study what meteorites tell us about the origin of the solar system and the planets.

In 2004, I was lucky enough to be asked by the White House to serve on a commission that helped advise NASA on how to execute the president's new Vision for Space Exploration. After that, I really wanted to be part of the team that would be building and launching missions to carry out this vision. So, I was thrilled when I got the chance to come and lead the science and exploration division at Goddard, which I think is the largest organization of Earth and space scientists in the world.

Laurie Leshin
Image to left: Laurie Leshin has explored the world as a student, a teacher and now a scientist. Credit: NASA

SSE: What is your typical workday like in your current position?

Leshin: We are working on so many projects -- from giant space telescopes to missions focused on observing hurricanes -- that my day is filled with lots of discussions with different people. I make sure that all of our programs are progressing, and try to get new programs started. The exciting thing is that on any given day I may be talking in the morning about a mission to the moon, at midday about the latest research on pollution, and in the afternoon about the latest laser or X-ray technology.

SSE: What NASA missions have you worked on in the past?

Leshin: I was on the science team for the Mars Polar Lander, which crashed when it arrived at Mars in 1999. I was on live TV when it crashed -- not fun. It was an incredibly difficult few days while we tried to figure out what happened and whether the mission might be recovered. Missions involve hundreds of people, and it's hard to lose something that you've put so much work into. But I was also amazed at how quickly I got involved with another mission, and then another. Once you get that close to realizing the dream of exploring another planet, it makes you want to do it even more.

Now I'm on the team for the next big Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, which will launch in 2009. It will explore even more of the planet than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that are there now, and will carry the most sophisticated instruments we've ever sent to the surface of another world.

Related Resources
+ Vision for Space Exploration

+ Solar System Exploration

+ Mars Exploration Program

+ Mars Science Laboratory

+ Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

+ NASA's James Webb Space Telescope

+ NASA's Exploration for Life

+ Marsbound! Mission to the Red Planet

+ Previous Space Science Explorer Series Articles
SSE: What future NASA missions are you most excited about?

Leshin: I'm very excited about two missions we are working hard on at Goddard: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the James Webb Space Telescope.

The LRO is scheduled to launch in 2008. It represents the first step toward returning astronauts to the moon. Its job is to orbit the moon and make a very accurate map of the surface, so later, when we send people back to the moon, they can go to the most interesting places and get there safely. The LRO will also search for signs of water near the poles of the moon. If found, this water could be used to help support a lunar base.

The JWST, scheduled to launch in 2013, will replace the Hubble Space Telescope. It will look farther into the universe than any telescope ever has. It will see back to the very first galaxies, and help us understand how we got here.

SSE: Why are scientists so interested in finding evidence of water on other planets and bodies in our solar system?

Leshin: Liquid water is a necessary ingredient for life. We need water to do all the chemical stuff that life needs in order to thrive. So, if we find evidence for liquid water on a planet, it means that there might be environments suitable for life to form on that planet. Can you imagine any discovery more exciting than finding life on another planet?

SSE: Besides Earth, what is your favorite planet and why?

Leshin: Mars, definitely. Mars is so much like Earth in some ways, and yet just different enough to make it so interesting. It has volcanoes, ice caps, canyons and dried -up riverbeds. And we have the ability to find out whether there is, or was, life on Mars. I can't wait to find out the answer.

SSE: What advice do you have for students who are thinking about pursuing a career in science?

Leshin: Go for it! Nothing stands in your way. The exploration you get to do every day as a scientist is one of the coolest things I can imagine being able to do. Every day, you are trying to do things that have never been done before. If you even think you want to be a scientist, make sure you take math and science courses, visit science museums, and take advantage of activities in your area where you can actually meet scientists and talk to them about what they do.

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies