Back to Top
Rate This Episode
How was the quality of the topic?
First rating:
How was the audio of this episode?
Second rating:
How was the quality of the guest?
Third rating:
Thank you for rating this podcast.

From a project’s smallest steps to humanity’s greatest leaps, NASA’s technical workforce embodies the spirit of Neil Armstrong’s immortal words from the surface of the Moon, boldly pushing the envelope of human achievement and scientific understanding. In our podcast, Small Steps, Giant Leaps, APPEL Knowledge Services talks with systems engineers, scientists, project managers and thought leaders about challenges, opportunities, and successes.

NASA Scientist Michelle Thaller discusses anticipated discoveries and exciting missions planned during this decade.

Thaller, a Science Communication Liaison at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is an astrophysicist who says she fell in love with the stars the first time she saw them. She uses her understanding of science and communication to share stories of NASA exploration and discovery.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • NASA missions in the 2020s
  • The global impact of NASA science
  • How every NASA worker’s efforts make a difference

 

Related Resources

New Frontiers Program: OSIRIS-Rex | Dragonfly

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)

James Webb Space Telescope

Parker Solar Probe

APPEL Courses:

Communicating Technical Issues (APPEL-CTI)

Improving Communication Effectiveness (APPEL-ICE)

Writing for Technical Professionals (APPEL-TW)

Essentials of Astronomy for NASA Engineers – (APPEL-ASTRO)

 

Michelle Thaller Credit: NASA

Michelle Thaller
Credit: NASA

Michelle Thaller is an astrophysicist with over two decades of science communication experience. Her research involves the life cycles of stars, and she has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center. Thaller has appeared in many television science programs, including How the Universe Works and Space’s Deepest Secrets. She has done two TEDx talks about astronomy and has hosted the podcast Orbital Path on public radio. Thaller has a bachelor’s in astrophysics from Harvard University and a doctorate from Georgia State University, where she worked on colliding winds in close massive binary systems.


Transcript

Michelle Thaller: This is about humanity. This is about us together, exploring, seeing wondrous things, and bringing back that inspiration, that knowledge to the entire world.

We are at the epicenter of modern scientific exploration when it comes to anything to do with the Earth or above.

I cannot think of a single major Earth science, planetary science or astrophysics result that we have not been somewhat involved in.

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.

Today on our NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast, we’re going to discuss the positive impact NASA has had on literally billions of lives and take a look ahead at what’s to come in this new decade.

I’m Deana Nunley.

Our guest is Michelle Thaller, a Science Communication Liaison at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She’s a frequent on-camera contributor to popular science programs and has written numerous articles for science magazines.

Michelle, thank you for joining us.

Thaller: It’s wonderful to be here. Thank you.

Host: What’s your role with NASA?

Thaller: Well, I began at NASA as a research scientist. I had just gotten my doctorate in astrophysics and I was working out at JPL actually, on the new infrared telescope at the time, the Spitzer Space Telescope. While I was there, I got very interested in how to do science communication well, everything from dealing with students to dealing with the policy of science communication and the technology of that.

So, what I am now is kind of a wonderful role. I actually sort of form a bridge between the Office of Communication at Goddard Space Flight Center and their Science Directorate, which, as far as we know, is the largest collection of scientists in the world. There are so many amazing things coming out. So, it’s my job to help bridge the communication aspect of that.

And, so, this is the thing about having a background in formal science, is that someone will send me a scientific paper, and I can read this and figure out what’s the best way to communicate this to the public. So, having that background just makes it all that more fun, to really dig into the details and figure out not how to communicate just effectively, but also very, very accurately.

People often complain that there’s always a price to be paid in terms of the accuracy if you want to talk to the public. If you’re very careful about it, I don’t think that really has to be true. I think you can be very sensitive and deliberate about how you explain something in the most correct way.

Host: And then other people can understand it even though they don’t have maybe the same science background that you have.

Thaller: Well, the whole point of communication is your audience, who you’re speaking to. As a scientist, if you’re speaking in language that they don’t understand, or if you’re using jargon, or even if you’re just assuming that they know what a comet is versus an asteroid, or what a galaxy is, you failed at communication. If your intent was to communicate your results, communicate the excitement of the inspiration of NASA science, then that has to begin with who you’re speaking to.

I often do scientific communication trainings for our technical people, and I do begin the class with, “What is your intention? If your intention is to communicate, then, unfortunately, most of you are not actually doing that.”

[Laughter]

Host: How does that come across? Do they accept that?

Thaller: Well, it’s a little bit shocking. I mean for scientists, the thing that fascinates us is our data, the observations that we make, specifically, a lot of times, even the error in the data and what we don’t know about what’s right, these tiny little incremental steps that are driving the discoveries forward. But when you’re talking to a public audience, they really have no idea what you’re talking about. They really don’t have much of an idea of how science is even accomplished this way.

Typically, we’ll talk about code changing, code switching. So really changing your entire way that you communicate, not just your vocabulary, but the strategy, the goals of the communication change, depending on your audience, too.

Host: Let’s talk about your role as a scientist. So, do you get to search for the possibility of life in the outer reaches of the solar system?

Thaller: Absolutely, I mean as far as dealing with some of the communication aspects of this. This is something that has been just incredible. I arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory not long after the Cassini spacecraft launched. Of course, that spacecraft explored Saturn and the moons of Saturn, where we found some of the most likely environments for life in our solar system.

And then I also used to watch the current rover on Mars, the Curiosity rover. I used to watch that being built on my lunch hour. They would have windows looking into the clean laboratory, where it was being built, and I’d see this rover taking shape and thinking, “That will be rolling around on another planet soon.” So, working with those communication teams has been some of the most exciting moments of my entire life.

Host: That sounds like so much fun. Could you give us a preview of science and space exploration in the 2020s? What’s on — or perhaps over — the horizon?

Thaller: There are some particularly exciting things. We just talked about the Cassini mission, which ended its mission a couple of years ago. One of the things that Cassini found, which was just kind of mind blowing, is that there’s a very large moon of Saturn called Titan. In fact, Titan is very nearly the size of the planet Mars. I mean this is a big world, and it has an atmosphere that is actually thicker than the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, the air pressure is a little bit more than the air pressure at Earth here at sea level.

We found an environment there that included lakes, liquid lakes and rivers and rain made not out of water, but out of methane, which is an organic molecule, very interesting, made of carbon, a carbon-based molecule. There’s a lot of evidence from the measurements of Cassini that underneath this amazing landscape made of methane, there’s quite a lot of warm liquid water as well. So, this was a place we thought might have a chance of being a habitable environment.

So, we’ve just gotten approval to begin to build the Dragonfly mission. This is something that is going to be launched, hopefully in the mid-2020s. This is actually going to send a large octocopter.

So, when you think of an octocopter – people use them for drones and photography – you might be thinking of something kind of small, maybe the size of a microwave oven, but Dragonfly is closer to the size of a small car, actually. As a communication scientist, the outreach capabilities of saying that we are octocoptering through the atmosphere of this moon of Saturn, looking for life-friendly environments, that’s going to be huge. That’s going to be so much fun.

Then, of course, we’re also getting ready to launch our next Mars rover, currently titled Perseverance. It used to be called Mars 2020, but has been renamed Perseverance from a wonderful essay that a young man named Alex sent in. So that will be also doing experiments that will help pave the way for human exploration of Mars as well. And I could go on. There’s so much exciting stuff coming up.

Host: I would love for you to go on. Let’s talk about some more. What are some other things that really get you excited when you think about this decade that we’ve just started?

Thaller: Well, specifically, you mentioned the search for life. There are a lot of things that don’t involve that, like looking at very distant black holes or things like that. But sort of constraining myself to the search for life, one thing that’s changed so much over the course of my career as a scientist is the existence and the measurements of exoplanets, planets around other stars.

I actually did some of my undergraduate research work with one of the people that found some of the first planets around other stars, Dr. David Latham at Harvard. So, we went from not knowing about any – we assumed they were there, but we didn’t have any evidence of them when I was in college. Now, we’ve just gone over 4,000 confirmed exoplanets, and we are following up on another approximately 4,000 measurements right now.

In the next year alone – we have a newly launched satellite called TESS, the Terrestrial Exoplanet Survey Satellite. TESS should find on the order of 1,000 planets in the next year. Just think about that. It used to be none, and now it’s all of a sudden a huge sample of planets around other stars.

The big story though is could these planets support life or not, and there’s so much we don’t understand. This is where you see all of NASA coming together. This is one of the most amazing things of working at NASA, which leads science in so many aspects of Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics.

So right now, our Earth science climate experts are actually using very amazing computer models to simulate what the atmospheres would be like, what the conditions would be like on some of these planets. We’ve never observed these planets. It’s very rare to observe them directly. We mainly see them transit in front of their stars, meaning they cross the star and form a tiny, little solar eclipse. They block out a little bit of light and you can actually detect the planet that way.

But what’s happening now, especially with the next generation of telescopes, the James Webb Space Telescope that we hope to launch sometime next year, James Webb will have the power to actually pick out the chemical signals of what’s in the atmosphere. So, we will look at a planet around another star, hundreds, maybe thousands of light years away, and we’ll be able to say, “That planet has oxygen and water vapor.” There may even be a possibility of looking for things like chlorophyll, like plant life actually altering the light, absorbing light.

Can you imagine? 10 years from now, we may know of many planets where we wonder. We see water vapor. We see carbon dioxide. We see oxygen. We see methane. Maybe there will even be one that has more clear signals of life than that. And although we won’t be able to see that life close up, you’ll be able to point in the sky and say, “That star has a planet that we heavily suspect has life on it.”

Host: When you look toward future discovery, what are you most eagerly anticipating or imagining?

Thaller: Well, these were some of the discoveries involving the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA missions. The farther afield stuff has really fascinated me lately. One of the things that has been part of my work as an astrophysicist is the way stars live and die. Then what happens when a star dies?

We have known for a long time, actually, that the heavier elements in the universe really have to be formed by a star dying. The molecules that make up your body, you have atoms of carbon and oxygen. You have things like phosphorus and calcium. The reason your blood is red is because of a little bit of iron that’s actually in the molecules of your blood. All of those elements are only formed by the universe. There’s just one way the universe makes these. They’re only formed by dying stars.

So, incredibly, we’ve sort of known up to iron very well. We’ve observed stars dying and putting off a lot of these elements. But some of the heavier things like, for example, gold and silver and platinum, and heavier things even like uranium, we had never observed much in the way of the production of these elements.

What happened about two years ago is that NASA, working in conjunction with a project called LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – that’s run by the National Science Foundation. LIGO is a series of observatories built here on the surface of the Earth, and they are able to detect tiny, little shifts in really, literally, the fabric of space and time called gravitational waves, waves of gravity itself coming through the planet.

The sensitivity is unbelievable to me. Think about what we’re going to be able to accomplish. These waves, the wavelength was 10,000 times smaller than a single proton of an atom. These instruments could detect these waves coming all across the Earth, as this wave moved through the Earth.

Then in collaboration with NASA, LIGO said, “Somewhere over here, in this part of the sky, something really big has happened.” The Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, several of our observatories turned to this area of the sky and saw this distant, huge explosion. In this case, it was two dead stars, what we call neutron stars, colliding together. In that one collision, we saw the production of, for example, 10,000 times the mass of the Earth produced in gold. Just think about that.

Host: You’re talking about these telescopes and you’ve mentioned James Webb Space Telescope. How significant do you think James Webb Space Telescope is going to be?

Thaller: Here again, you talk about seeing things very distant. The thing that’s so exciting to astronomers about that is that means you’re seeing things in the past, because as fast as light travels, it does have a finite speed. It travels at 186,000 miles per second. With these things, if you can look very, very far away, then that light took a long time to get to you.

The thing that excites me about the James Webb Space Telescope, I mean it’s going to look at so many things. We mentioned exoplanets, but it’s powerful enough to see so far away that you are looking at the universe as it was, say, a couple hundred million years after the Big Bang. This is a time that’s extremely mysterious to us. It’s very, very difficult to make observations back to that time. We know that something spectacular happened because, as we mentioned, most of the larger atoms, the things that make us up, all of the makeup of the molecules and the building blocks of life, most of that was produced in the first couple hundred million years of the universe.

So, I often talk about the party at the beginning of the universe. There must have been this gargantuan epic of star formation, and spectacular star destruction as these stars blew up. That’s something that I just cannot wait to see the clues that the James Webb Space Telescope gives us.

Host: So how do you explain what it means to look back in time?

Thaller: In some ways, it’s just so easy, because we were saying it takes light time to travel. So, the sun is, on average, about 93 million miles away from us, and traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light takes about eight minutes. So, when you look at the sun in the sky, when you feel the heat of the sun on your face, when you close your eyes and look up at the sun, that light left the sun about eight minutes ago. So, there’s no way for us to see the sun as it is right at this instant. We have to see it eight minutes ago, because the light took that long to travel.

Then, of course, as we have all of our probes out in space, the Curiosity rover on Mars. Mars is a planet going around the sun itself. So, the distance varies. Sometimes Mars is on the other side of the sun from us. Sometimes it’s closer to us. But that could be anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes. If something were to happen to the rover, the first we would know about. This is very nerve-wracking during landings, for example. The radio or microwave signals come out from the rover, and then they take anywhere from 15 minutes to 20 minutes to get to us, and when you’re exploring the outer solar system, those signals may take hours.

So, you just keep that going. The nearest star to us is four light years away. It takes four years to travel. That unit, one light year, is about six trillion miles. That’s why we don’t use miles. We’d be writing zeros down all day.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see things as they were. It will be able to look so far away that we’ll be looking at the universe when it was only a couple hundred million years old. The light has taken that long to get to us.

Host: As a NASA scientist, what do you consider to be the most remarkable achievements or discoveries where NASA has made a difference?

Thaller: It’s honestly difficult to think of a hugely significant discovery that we have not at least played some part. I mean this is the thing. I think people have to really consider working for NASA, whether it was something very much based at home, like the discovery of the ozone hole, depletion of ozone. That was discovered back in the late 1980s. That’s something that universities were involved in, but NASA and our satellite observation campaign had a huge part in.

Whether it’s looking for – you know, the very first pictures we took close up of Jupiter or Saturn, sending the Voyagers out there. Or, today, we have a spacecraft orbiting very close to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe. All of these things, and all of the major programs that NASA does are partnerships, of course. The Hubble Space Telescope, we partnered with universities, with the European Space Agency, Canada, Japan, obviously Russia with all of our human exploration.

But I cannot think of a single major Earth science, planetary science or astrophysics result that we have not been somewhat involved in. Even the first picture ever of a giant black hole, where you could actually see the dark in the middle, where light was actually being sucked into the black hole. That’s why it was dark. Incredible. That was done by a consortium of universities and observatories all around the world. But yes, our scientists had a part in that as well. So, we are at the epicenter of modern scientific exploration when it comes to anything to do with the Earth or above.

Host: You gave us an example or two there. Are there others that come to mind that you’re like, “Wow. This is a place where NASA really made a difference, and this is one of my favorite stories to recount to other people”?

Thaller: Well, I work with all aspects of NASA science. A lot of times I’ll be in a seminar and I will just sort of be surrounded by scientists. Everybody is very calm, very sedate, and someone is presenting data up there, and all of a sudden, I’ll just – I’m doing it now. My jaw drops. I’m like, “What? What did this person just say?”

Our Earth science teams have gotten better. Our oceanography teams have gotten so good at predicting the cycle of the El Niño current, when the oceans will be warm or cooler off the coast of the Americas. This has a tremendous effect on rain patterns in South America, and they now are able to predict things very well, as much as seven years out. So, they work with farmers, for example, in Brazil, to plant different crops that will be either more drought-resistant or more flood-resistant, depending on the rain predicted.

They’ll say this as a bullet point in a PowerPoint chart, “We believe this may have saved tens of thousands of people.” I’m just like, “Okay. That’s a bullet point?”

We mentioned the detection of the ozone hole and, of course, had nothing been done about that, we believe we would have largely depleted our ozone by the year 2060, and that would have been horrible. I mean we wouldn’t have been able to grow many crops. Livestock couldn’t be outside. People couldn’t be outside. The oceans probably would have had an effect. So, the tremendous asset NASA has been to understanding our local environment, I think a lot of people don’t understand.

Then, when you think about things that have come up, only in the last, say, 10 years have we discovered that the entire universe – let’s go from local scales to the largest scales we know of – the entire universe is not only expanding, but it’s actually accelerating. It’s actually getting faster all the time, and this was a complete surprise. There were three different groups of people that shared the Nobel Prize, and two of those, at least, largely used NASA data, Hubble Space Telescope data.

So, our entire view of the universe as a whole thing changed 10 years ago. We cannot explain why the universe is accelerating faster and faster. It implies that there’s more energy being dumped into it all the time. The Big Bang never stopped. The term that we have for this is called dark energy, and I’ve just now told you as much as we know about dark energy. The term simply means we don’t know where this energy is coming from.

So whether it’s finding lifelike environments – I mean I show people pictures that came out of the Cassini mission, pictures of the rings of Saturn or some of the smaller moons, or the lakes on Titan full of liquid methane, and I have to really ask people to stop for a moment. “Forget you’re at a scientific lecture. I’m just going to pause for a moment. I want you to look at this image and remember that this is not an artist’s conception. This is not a painting. This is not a computer graphic. This is what our spaceship saw when it was swinging around the giant planet Saturn and coming close to the rings or closest to Titan.”

I think that we’re so used to spectacular special effects and so many things can be generated, of course. It just bears – tell people to stop for a second. Right now, we have one of the most chemically sensitive laboratories ever built, the size of a small car, rolling around on another planet, and our scientists are meeting in teams all over the world to try to figure out what the plans are for today and what we’re going to discover.

Or we’re getting ready to explore new asteroids. We’re getting ready to take a sample of an asteroid, which will be as if somebody put a bit of the solar system from four billion years ago in a deep freezer and nothing changed it for four billion years. Our scientists are going to have in their hands a piece of the unchanged solar system from four billion years ago. That’s going to be happening in the summer, when the OSIRIS-REx mission samples the asteroid Bennu, and then brings it back to the laboratories here at NASA.

So, stop for a minute. Think about the millions and perhaps billions of people whose lives we have affected in a wonderful way that we’ve saved. Think of the new environments in the solar system we’re exploring. And think about the fact that the understanding of where the gold in your wedding ring came from – we didn’t even know that ‘til two years ago – to the very farthest scales imaginable. The universe as a whole, that’s the organization you’re part of.

I am so exceedingly proud to work for NASA. Of course, my day, like everyone else’s, is about planning and budgets and meetings, and all of the necessary red tape to keep this incredible organization going, but I swear I learn something incredible nearly almost every day.

Host: And is that a message that you like to convey when you speak with program and project managers and technical workers across NASA?

Thaller: Absolutely. One of the things where I think – speaking on behalf of the scientists of NASA – I think that we are in some ways letting people down. Organizations this large always have institutional barriers. I do have a really good friend who is one of our senior procurement managers, and I’ve talked to him about this. There are these amazingly talented financial people working in our procurement department, and they’re all enabling these missions to go forward, to be built, to return their data, for the data to be analyzed by scientists.

Yet, oftentimes we’re not putting ourselves with scientists in their offices, at their meetings, at their management retreats, and saying, “Do you understand what you did? Do you understand that all of that funding that you had to track, and you had to vet, and you had to prepare all these reports for OMB, whatever – we found a moon on Saturn with warm liquid oceans, and the water was flying out through cracks. We flew through it, and we tasted that water and found evidence for organic molecules, perhaps for salt. We actually tasted the oceans with our instruments. You made that happen. Do you understand that right now, what you’re working on, getting all the approvals for, is going to be a mission that one day sails through the atmosphere of Venus or one day goes out to the farthest asteroid? Do you understand these things that you are doing?”

I mean whether you are a security guard at NASA, whether you’re working in Finance, Legal. There are so many aspects for organizations that I think as scientists we have to get better at getting ourselves in the door to where they are, and really make them feel included and inspired. It seems a little unfair that we sort of cream the discoveries off the top and say, “Hey, this is wonderful.” That should be part of working at NASA for every single person, no matter what their position is.

Host: Anything else that you try and remind NASA workers that they’re part of, that they’re contributing to humanity?

Thaller: There are so many parts of this agency that I’m proud of. I always come back to the people. It seems like a cliché. You ask people what’s the best part of working for NASA, and whether it’s all of our public podcasts or our management, it’s like, “Oh, yes, the people are the best things.”

But I really have to tell you something kind of personal. I have a family situation right now. I have a husband in the final stages of cancer. I just thank the stars every day that I work at NASA. When we say that our people are the best people in the world, people have brought me meals, people that are, seriously, Nobel Prize winning scientists, calling up and saying, “Can I go grocery shopping for you?”

People have given me a chance to have some peace and quiet at home. People have given me some space. People have made sure I’m still included in the meetings and I’m still inspired. I’ll be giving some talk – I was giving a talk about heliophysics, the physics of the sun the other day, and I realized I wasn’t thinking about any of the sadness in my life. I was smiling and I was so excited about what’s going on.

We create joy and we have created a family. And this is not somebody in PR just saying that. This is somebody right now, in a moment of their life, telling you and thanking all of you. You are a family and you have been a huge support in my life, and you will continue to be an inspiration for as long as I live.

Host: Michelle, thank you so much for sharing that with us. Our thoughts are with you as you and your family are walking through this difficult time.

Thaller: Well, it’s absolutely true. I think we really have to remember just what we do is actually noble. I mean that word doesn’t seem to have much resonance in today’s world. I am very proud that we serve the government under any administration. I am very proud that politics plays a very small role in what we do. This is about humanity. This is about us together, exploring, seeing wondrous things, and bringing back that inspiration, that knowledge to the entire world. If that’s not a noble thing to do, I don’t know what is.

Host: Where did your passion for science and astronomy originate?

Thaller: I always tell my audiences I’m not the right person to ask about that, because for me, you find people like this in life, and I think a lot of scientists would understand what I’m talking about. I don’t even know where my interest came from. My mother, who is not a scientist, said that as soon as I could walk, she would find me trying to go outside and look at the stars. She, to this day, in a wonderfully affectionate way, does not understand what I see in the lights in the sky. She does not know why that could possibly be interesting. I’ve tried to explain it to her, probably hundreds of times, but no.

There are a lot of people that if you ask yourself, “What are you genuinely curious about?” there’s a tremendous spread in humanity and that’s a wonderful thing. Some people are very interested in history or art, or some people are very passionate about being incredible parents or teachers or medical professionals. For some reason, in humanity you have people that come from different genders or ethnic backgrounds or economic backgrounds. It really doesn’t seem to matter. They hit the ground and they want to know, “What are those lights in the sky? Are there other planets? What is the sun? How does the sun work?”

I can’t imagine what it’s like – that’s me. I’ve been asking those questions since I understood what a question was. I personally found science education very difficult. I got very bad grades, in college especially, in physics and mathematics. The way it was taught, where a professor would sort of go up to a chalkboard, at that time, and drive things and the chalkboard would be full of equations. I’d be taking notes about all of this, and, somehow, I was supposed to open my notebook at the end of the day, back in my dorm room, and understand this. This was supposed to leap into my head. That didn’t work.

But I loved the subject material so much. Honestly, I just kind of suffered through it. I really hope that physics and math is taught differently. I know in some cases it’s not. They still teach it that way.

For me, it has to be a story. It has to be a narrative. I have to be able to piece something together myself and see how it how it works together. But then, when I realized that, yeah, okay, it took me three times to get through differential equations. It took me a couple times to get through quantum mechanics, but I did eventually get a doctorate in physics.

So, I keep telling people that if you love the subject material and the education seems kind of difficult and confusing, that may not mean that this is not the subject for you. It may mean that you just learn in a different way, and that you’ll bring a very fresh perspective to the field when you finally learn this.

I think quantum mechanics, for example, or advanced physics is much more easily learned when you think of it as learning a foreign language. When you do it little by little, practice just the little bit you know until you get good at that, then slowly move on to something a little bit more advanced. Immerse yourself in it for a long time. It takes years and maybe decades to become fluent, but it’s nothing more difficult, really, than learning another language and it can be taught that way.

So, in my case, I’m one of those people the universe kind of tapped on the shoulder as a baby and said, “Hey, look up here.” Culturally, I did not fit very well into science and science education, the formality of it, but I am so glad I stuck with it. This subject has sustained me all my life and it continues to give me so much joy and inspiration.

Host: Well, talking with you and hearing your story is absolutely joyful and inspirational for all of us. Thank you so much for being on the show today.

Thaller: It’s wonderful to be here. And for all of the project managers and other people out there that want to know more about the science, I know it’s hard to break down the wall sometimes, but go talk to your local science directorate. Heck, come talk to me if you’re somewhere in the D.C. area or if you want me to do a remote talk. I would just love the joy that I feel to be part of everybody’s life here at NASA.

Host: Any closing thoughts before we go today?

Thaller: Well, I guess some of the things that are going on right now, of course, as we’re all sort of isolated from each other, we’re all dealing with this pandemic. One of the things that it’s affecting a lot is our internship program for this coming summer. That of course will go on. It may be a bit strange this year.

But every year I see the science interns coming to NASA. All I can say is that they are better than I am in every single way I can think of. They are better scientists. They are better at the sort of reality of science, writing grants, networking, figuring out how you need to get yourself known in a larger group. They’re more cagey about how they do things. They understand how the politics works. They have much more joy and they’re far more diverse than the cohort of scientists that I remember graduating with.

So, I see it firsthand that our future is wondrous. When these missions come online that we’ve talked about, all these new exoplanets, the James Webb Space Telescope, our new planetary probes, these young people are going to take this and they are going to show us things we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

Host: You’ll find Michelle’s bio, links to topics discussed during our conversation, and a show transcript on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.

We invite you to take a moment and subscribe to the podcast and tell your friends and colleagues about it.

As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.