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Ellen Stofan saw her first rocket launch when she was 4 years old. Now, more than 50 years later, she's director of the National Air and Space Museum — the first woman to hold the position.
Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA, comes to the position with more than 25 years of field experience. But before all that, she was just a kid who fell in love with science — specifically, with rocks.
"When I decided at age 9 or 10 that I wanted to be a geologist, everybody encouraged me," Stofan told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I think having that strong base of encouragement made me feel like a STEM career was possible."
That encouragement came easy in a family dedicated to the field: Her dad was a NASA rocket scientist and her mom was a science teacher.
When she was 14, Stofan saw astronomer Carl Sagan speak at the launch of the Viking lander, which in 1976 was the first U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and send images back to Earth. It was then that she decided to study bigger rocks: planets.
"Carl Sagan started talking about why we were exploring Mars — the fact that Mars had this history of water; that potentially life could have evolved on Mars ," Stofan remembers. "I heard that speech and thought, 'that's what I want to do.' "
She did go on to do that, leading NASA's mission to send humans to the red planet. Today she's charge of the exhibit that displays a test version of the Viking lander in the Air and Space Museum's Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in Washington, D.C.
Though Stofan is the first woman to lead the museum, she insists that's not something she thinks about a lot.
"You want to normalize these things," Stofan says. "On the other hand, I've spent my entire career being one of the few women in the room, and I understand the significance of being able to say that women are starting to take on these positions."
Much of her focus as director, she says, will be on representing diversity throughout the history of aviation and space exploration, in order to have more of it in the future.
"One of the reasons that I'm so excited to come to the museum is to help tell the story that women have actually been involved in aviation and the space business from the beginning," she says. "Telling stories of people of color, telling stories of women — to me, that's what helps the next generation think, 'oh, well maybe I could do that.' "
She especially hopes some of those kids will be part of NASA's mission to Mars. She says humankind not only is just decades away from sending people to its neighboring planet, it's also "on the verge of discovering life beyond Earth."
"If we can inspire just one of those kids," she says, "we will have succeeded."
Alyssa Edes and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio story.
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