How Jane Poynter Rocks Women’s Science Leadership and STEM Education For Girls
I was fortunate to catch Jane Poynter one very early August morning, before she launched into her busy daily schedule. We spoke about the importance of STEM education, the challenges of getting to Mars, the lessons she learned from Biosphere 2 and how traveling to space will permanently change our view of the Earth and the universe.
Michael Venables: As one of only seven percent of women in the space technology field, how can you provide the leadership necessary to inspire other women to study STEM subjects and enter this scientific field?
Jane Poynter: I very much believe in leadership by doing. The very fact that I am one of the few women in this field I think, demonstrates to young women and girls that this is something that is possible for them. World View is very involved in education. You may have recently seen an announcement that (in late 2014) we’ll be flying three research and education payloads, so the payloads that we are flying can really demonstrate the capability of our systems.
One of those is an educational experiment and not precisely for women but, certainly, I believe that education is a large part of what World View is about.
And then lastly, I am personally involved in a non-profit called Blue Marble Institute that is directly involved in STEM education. It’s kind of fun. A lot of it is about getting their hands on the right learning tools, so kids can take the concepts that they learned in books and put them to use. It’s incredibly effective. One of the projects that was done recently in the classroom was an avionics UAV competition. And the winning team was the girls. We teamed up with a company called Universal Avionics for the competition and they did the judging. Universal Avionics took the girls on their corporate airplane. That’s what they received for winning the competition. There’s this fantastic picture of them sitting on the plane with these ginormous grins on their faces.
These are the kinds of experiences that I think can be life-changing. And so I’m really dedicated to helping kids to see different opportunities for themselves in the future, girls and boys alike.
Venables: What plans does World View have in place to make experiments in space more affordable to educational institutions?
Poynter: World View is already working with colleges in providing opportunities for flights. We hope to be able to provide flights at very affordable rates for schools. And maybe even put scholarships in place. These are not in place yet, but we certainly have plans to do a lot of things with schools at all levels, through competitions, through flying experiments [and] maybe even flying a teacher [up with] a group of students. Can you imagine that a child goes up with his or her experiment and is able to do an experiment on the edge of space themselves? What an amazing experience that would be!
Venables: What are the biggest technical challenges that we face in creating “biosphere” environments that could enable us to live on harsh environments such as the Moon or Mars?
Poynter: There are a number of challenges. Certainly life support. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make life-support systems more reliable. But probably one of the largest challenges to getting on the surface of Mars is that—is getting on the surface of Mars itself. That’s probably the biggest near-term challenge to setting up a base on Mars. I know that it seems odd, because we've landed vehicles on Mars before. But they've all been relatively small. And the challenge with Mars is that you have an atmosphere and a gravity that are working against each other. In the sense that, when you come into the atmosphere of Earth, the atmosphere is slowing the vehicle down and when you get to Mars, the challenge is that the atmosphere is so thin that it doesn't really slow the vehicle down as much but it tends to keep the vehicle up. So you have this really hard-pressed issue of beginning to land a large mass on Mars. I’m sure it’s solvable, but it’s a big challenge.
Venables: What is the biggest lesson you learned from Biosphere 2?
Poynter: I think one of the major things we learned in Biosphere 2 was the human factor. [laughs]. Yeah, we succeeded. We got through our two years . . . but it was difficult. There have been a number of studies with groups in isolation. The human dynamic is very difficult … for observation. For very short duration, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
But when you’re sending people on long missions—psychology, personality, character, group dynamics —all of that really comes to play. For us, it didn't cause us to fail, [but] we had a lot of dynamics problems. You might have seen the Mars-500 [mission] where there were six [people] in a large simulation for 520 days, I think it was. They made it through the 520 days, but they weren't very happy. Most of them did not come out in a happy condition. And this is why I think we need [to do] a lot of work. It’s a struggle, because it could compromise safety, it could compromise the mission and it certainly could compromise creativity, which is another challenge.
Venables: What is the ETA for a human settlement on Mars?
Poynter: I've been waiting a couple of decades now. Let’s get there already! But you may have heard of Inspiration Mars. It’s a project that’s hoping to do a Mars flyby in 2021. NASA wants to be on Mars by 2030. Mars One wants to be on Mars sometime in the 2020s. So, oh please say that we’ll be on Mars by 2030, or before!
Venables: What project is most important to you in terms of space exploration and how do you want to move it forward?
Poynter: I am very focused on World View at the moment. Because we’ve been talking about the accessibility of space for a long time, and I think that with World View we have the opportunity of making the frontier of space truly accessible. No, it’s not going to take us the moon or Mars but it is going to allow people to go to space, to go to the spaceflight era to really have an experience in space. People would not envision themselves in a transfer rocket in some way. Spaceflight has been thought of by most people as only possible through rocketry. And that certainly seems to be the case if you’re trying to go into low-Earth orbit or beyond. But, to be able to go up and get some of that experience and see Earth in space, that until now, only the astronauts have had. We’re wanting to demonstrate that there are other possibilities. And that space flight doesn't have to be about high seas and space suits. That it can be really comfortable and luxurious and something that many of us can aspire to.
Venables: What in the way of government-private partnerships can drive U.S. space exploration forward to get to Mars and beyond?
Poynter: It is a very exciting time to be involved in space right now—a very dynamic time. And this can be very uncomfortable for people. But it’s an extremely exciting time, looking at how many different projects there are. We will need some very ambitious partnerships to take us beyond the planet Earth, and I think we will see some very ambitious partnerships arriving. Of course, Space X is the poster child for commercial space flight, but it has been in partnership with NASA, and Space X has not done it on its own. And so, that’s the kind of partnership that’s crucial. I think you are going to see non-profit partnerships with NASA and maybe with corporations. Inspiration Mars is a non-profit. And it’s a foundation. And, I think you are going to see more of that kind of thing. It’s incredibly dynamic, and I’m sure there are partnerships that will arise that we never even imagined possible.
Venables: Would you have any personal message to share with us on how we begin thinking of space exploration?
Poynter: I think that what is so very exciting about space is that it pulls us in two different directions. It pulls us out, beyond the cradle of this planet on which we are evolved into a completely new realm of possibilities. And it also, I believe, calls us closer to planet Earth, because you get to see it and experience it from a perspective that we simply can not when we are down on the planet itself. I think it’s such an inspiring endeavor for humanity. And, I think that audacious projects in space, (bringing it back to STEM education now), I think one of the most exciting things about really, truly audacious projects in space, like Inspiration Mars, is they can inspire a generation. Like Apollo did. Apollo inspired one, maybe two generations of innovators.
Our imaginations have been branded with the images of the first men on the moon. They led the pack. They did it first, only because there were no opportunities for advancement for women, even after completing the requisite science education. Women in the space exploration field have “come a long way baby” and have turned the work of study and field training into a track record of stellar achievement. Let us note the many women who spearhead STEM education, brought science to NASA as Chief Scientist, commanded the Space Shuttle, commanded the International Space Station, and who show leadership in the field of space exploration. And there are signs that the political winds are wafting towards a woman U.S. presidential candidate. Would a woman president better support women’s STEM education and women’s leadership of the U.S. space program? We shall see in 2016. In the meantime, Jane Poynter is a great example of one such woman who has humanity’s long-held fixation of getting to Mars in her hands. We hope this will, by default, rekindle more NASA-private and non-profit partnerships for space exploration.
But Poynter’s most important achievement ever may just be the flicker in the eyes of Joscelin Peralta and Mikayla Pasqualone. Sitting in the Universal Avionics Cessna after their contest win, these girls share the fire of self belief and a very personal victory. And I imagine they must have a sense that education (and their hard work) has won the day for the girls this time.
This is the fuel that will impel science’s future exploration of space for boys and girls. And probably put the first woman’s boots on Mars.