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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


53rd Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium
Greenbelt, MD

March 12, 2015

[Slide #1: Title slide: Advancing Science from Space and the Ground]

Good morning. It's wonderful to be back among NASA family and friends. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you today as part of this symposium to honor the visionary leader Robert Goddard.

In a few months, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the report of another visionary leader, Vannevar Bush, commissioned by President Franklin Roosevelt, titled Science: the Endless Frontier.

This report envisioned how government could promote science and engineering research and education for greater social good and formed the base for what became the National Science Foundation. This anniversary is a good reminder of the excitement 70 years ago about the benefits science and engineering could bring, and it gives us an opportunity to recapture the excitement as we consider the endless frontier ahead of us.

Both NASA and NSF are focused on scientific discovery and progress, and our agencies have a history of collaborative work that has propelled us in new directions.

There are a number of important examples that illustrate how NSF and NASA funded research complement one another and join to advance the progress of science--sometimes synergistically, sometimes through leverage, and sometimes through unanticipated discoveries that motivate new missions, new studies, new collaborations. NSF and NASA could be said to be a "complex adaptive system" rather than merely additive partners.

Ground-based and space-based observations are mutually reinforcing and conjoin to advance knowledge. A wonderful example is the NSF ground truthing of the salinity measures taken in the NASA Aquarius mission.

[Slide #2: Ground Truthing Aquarius Salinity Measures]

Since water is the host of much life, learning what controls its distribution and composition in the largest reservoir on Earth, the ocean, is a fundamental question relevant to many branches of science.

NASA's Aquarius mission measured global sea surface salinity by satellite.

NASA's interest in ground truthing the satellite observations led to NASA-NSF collaboration during the SPURS experiment (Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study) in 2012-2013.

NSF funded a project from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that looked at how mixing with denser waters affects surface salinity measured by the satellite. This project used new technology for measuring turbulence levels from autonomous gliders. NSF also funded one of the three ship cruises to the study area.

The photograph shows a WHOI glider being lowered into the water with the microrider turbulence instrument mounted piggy-back on it.

A second experiment, SPURS2 is being planned for 2016-2017. Part of the study includes an NSF-funded project to focus on the shallow puddles of low salinity that occur on the surface after rain events.

Now I want to turn to two examples of our unique partnership that are both related to the question: Is there life beyond Earth?

This question was once in the realm of science fiction, but today there is scientific progress in addressing it through observations.

[Slide #3: Life in Lake Vostok]

My first example ... One way to address this question is through planetary exploration, including research focused on our own planet Earth.

As we explore the conditions that may support life forms on other planets, we turn to examine our planet and the extreme conditions in which life forms exist. Scientists funded by NSF have discovered life forms in very different extreme environments of Earth. One discovery is that bacteria may thrive in Lake Vostok, which is a suspected lake thousands of meters below the Antarctica ice sheet. Lake Vostok may be an analog to Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter.

[Slide #4: Life in Yellowstone Geysers]

At the other extreme, scientists have also found new life forms in hydrothermal vents at great depths in the ocean, and microbes living inside rocks in the extremely hot and highly acidic environment of Yellowstone's geysers.

Finding "extremophiles" on Earth, that is, creatures that can live in very inhospitable environments, gives fuel to in situ planetary exploration. Why shouldn't we send satellites to take close-up photos of potential sites for life, and perhaps land on these sites and collect data? This is the idea behind a number of Mars missions and planned NASA missions such as the proposed Europa mission.

Although the intellectual heritage for the Europa mission derives from previous NASA planetary missions like Pioneer 10, the Voyager spacecraft, and Galileo, NSF's funding of extremophile research and infrared spectroscopy from the ground complements the research garnered from spacecraft searching the solar system for clues to its formation as well as clues about life on our planet and its possibility elsewhere.

[Slide #5: Planet Hunting]

My second example ... The attempt to detect life beyond Earth has moved some scientists to look further than our solar system to identify possible Earths orbiting distant suns. Since the mid-1980's, NSF has made over 100 awards in the field of extrasolar planet detection.

That effort has spawned a new breed of explorer: the planet hunter. Nearly three decades ago, planet hunter Geoff Marcy received an NSF grant specifically designed to support the research of faculty who are in predominantly undergraduate institutions. His goal: to search for planets around other stars using the untested method of precise Doppler measurements. Marcy and his colleagues were the first to find evidence for a rocky planet around a dwarf M star, called Gliese 876. The slide shows an artist's rendering of the planet.

Planet hunting continued, and we learned that extrasolar planets were common. This knowledge provided a compelling reason to fly Kepler.

Such discoveries are relatively new in our lifetime, but since the launch of NASA's Kepler satellite in 2009, the number of planets detected around other stars has increased exponentially to thousands of candidates. A few are thought to be rocky planets that orbit within habitable zones of their suns. Astronomers now believe that our Galaxy contains as many planets as it does stars, namely, hundreds of billions of exoplanets.

Both NSF and NASA will follow up on these initial discoveries with "big glass" on planet Earth—existing and future large telescopes with adaptive optics and other technologies to image planets orbiting near their suns—and newer spacecraft, like TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), with a current launch goal of 2017.

[Slide #6: On the Cusp]

NSF and NASA have recently reached an agreement for a collaborative exoplanet research program called NN-EXPLORE.

For this program NASA will fund the construction of the Extreme Precision Doppler Spectrograph, which will be installed in the WIYN telescope in Arizona, shown in the slide, and the 40 percent share of that telescope funded by NSF will be dedicated to exoplanet research programs. The program's goal is to find exoplanets with the mass of our planet Earth. NN-EXPLORE will make mass measurements of candidates that will be discovered by TESS and identify key targets for follow-up exoplanet spectroscopy with the James Webb Space Telescope.

[Slide #7: Robert H. Goddard as Inspiration to Advance Science]

In drawing to a close, I want to mention how the experience the past year as NSF Director has helped me appreciate from a new perspective how collaboration in research advances the progress of science.

Before coming in as Director, I was familiar with NSF from serving on the National Science Board for six years, and I was a Principal Investigator for an ADVANCE grant when I was at Purdue.

Directing NSF has given me firsthand experience of the impressive discovery research across a broad scale that NSF is supporting.

Goddard wrote, "It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow." Inspiring words.

It is exciting to see the breadth and to experience why and how discovery research is so exciting and holds so much promise.

Speaking with biologists one day and engineers the next—or likely on the same day—has solidified my appreciation of research in all the disciplines and especially how cross-disciplinary influences and inter-agency collaboration are advancing science.

One of my aims as NSF Director is to communicate the outstanding achievements more broadly so that people understand the value of these achievements and can better appreciate how they relate to their interests.

So, as we remember and celebrate Robert Goddard, physicist, engineer, inventor, educator—we like to think he shares our NSF DNA!—we should remember, too, that the reception of innovation is seldom smooth. It is reported that Goddard's interest in space exploration was sparked by reading science fiction.

During his career, he endured withering criticism for his visionary work. We could look back at the projects I've mentioned in my talk and find skepticism about them in their early stages. But the ideas have proven themselves to be more than viable.

Goddard responded to the criticism against him by stating that "Every vision is a joke until [someone] accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace."

We can take inspiration from Goddard's genius, but especially from his perseverance. It is crucial for scientists to keep seeking, to keep exploring. And NSF looks forward to continued exploration with NASA.