2011

Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chief Scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC

NTB: What are the key areas of research then?

Dr. Abdalati: I don’t know I could answer that specifically. Certainly, as any natural hazard like the earthquake in Japan reminds us, understanding the earth environment, bringing to bear the tools that are unique to NASA is a major priority. At the same time, the journey of discovery and learning about our neighbors in the solar system or what’s happening at the edges of the universe also are important and remain priorities. I probably haven’t been here long enough to pick one thing or another and say “This is more important than that across disciplines.”

Now within disciplines, we can do that because we have the tools. We have the decadal survey. For example, we just had the Mars Planetary decadal survey, and they made very clear recommendations on supporting research and analysis discovery missions, new frontiers, and so, on the one sense, they’re saying “Let’s let the proposals identify the priorities.” But for the flagship missions, they have identified a Mars Explorer-Cacher to extract a sample from the surface of Mars and hold it until it can be retrieved as the top priority. So within disciplines, I would point people to the decadal surveys. Across disciplines I’m going to need more time to sort out what are higher priorities and what are lower.

NTB: What has been the best part of the job so far?

Dr. Abdalati: The best part of the job so far has been learning. It has been meeting the people who do incredible things, and to almost every hour of every day, being reminded of what an unbelievable agency this is and what incredible stuff we do. I feel great even when I’m frustrated by something. There’s always something that happens frequently in a day that just makes me stop and say, “This is unbelievable.” And to have the opportunity to be involved, to play a role in the NASA leadership is great. The best part of the job is the learning, and the constant reminders across many areas of just how amazing the talent is here at NASA, and how incredible the things we do are.

NTB: Do you have any examples of the kinds of scientific discoveries that have really captured your attention?

Dr. Abdalati: It all has. Planetary science, just with the kinds of missions that are coming up and the kinds of things they’re doing, is particularly interesting. When I showed up, there was the encounter with [the comet] Tempel 1. Just looking at these bodies in the solar system as they’re passing by -- I mean, it’s just the stuff movies are made of. The fact that it rains methane on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, or that there are methane lakes, it’s just incredible to think of these planets that have such interesting and unique environments.

I’ve gained a real appreciation for heliophysics, for the behavior of the Sun, the implications for communication here on Earth. I always knew about that. I always knew about solar storms, and the perturbations to the magnetic field and that can disrupt communication. When you look at the Sun at different wavelengths in some of these images and the flares, and you start to think about what’s going on in this star that fuels us, that provides energy for life on Earth, it’s incredible.

It’s hard for me to pick one thing because everyday there’s something new that blows me away.

NTB: What other teams will you be working closely with to determine this strategic agenda?

Dr. Abdalati: All of the directorates here at NASA. The most obvious is the science mission directorate, and that is very strong and is moving forward effectively and productively. But we can’t do the science of this agency without the technology, and so I do and intend to work very closely with Bobby Braun, the chief technologist. Certainly there is science in the exploration mission directorate, the operations mission directorate, and I have been working and intend to work with them. This is more in the area of life and microgravity sciences and human research, and education: carrying the great things that NASA does to a domain where it cannot just serve society through practical benefits but also in an inspirational way. So I have begun with and will continue to work with Leland Melvin, the [associate administrator] AA of the education office, to turn NASA science into a vehicle for inspiring young people to go into these kinds of fields.

NTB: What skills do you bring that you think make you particularly suitable for the position?

Dr. Abdalati: I think the skills that I bring, mostly, are the ability to communicate comfortably to all levels of people, whether it’s from the White House or whether it’s in my daughter’s pre-school. I think the science talent that resides at NASA and in the NASA community is tremendous. I’m humbled by it, so I don’t want to say I add large amounts to it, but what I can do is take those exciting messages and discoveries, and really turn them into something people can relate to, which is critical when you’re talking about advancing the science of an agency.

I have 12 years of experience with NASA as a civil servant. A couple more as a post- doc. I have experience in the academic community and that breadth of experience, and at NASA it was at headquarters, it at the center as a scientist, it was as a manager at the center. I’ve been a professor at a university. That breadth of experience, that appreciation and understanding of what NASA does, and the ability to communicate that, are the strengths I bring to this position.

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