Can we live on Mars in 50-years time?

March 1, 2021
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In Conversation With Dr Christyl Johnson, Deputy Centre Director for Technology and Research Investments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre

In this series we talk to leaders about the biggest challenges facing our industry, and try to look ahead. Not a short interview, but getting into the meat of sustainability, data, inclusion, future skills.

We wanted to find out want some of the leading figures in technology and science think.

Our first guest is Dr Christyl Johnson, some tasked with some of the most difficult problems; like reaching Mars. We explore how an organisation sets itself up to meet the challenge, painting a vision and working the issues back. What innovations has that created, and what can enterprise business learn from NASA?

This is the first interview in our series, next week we’re talking to Alex Tai.


- Welcome to this series where we're having conversations with leaders from across the technology industry today. I'm very lucky to be joined by Doctor Christyl Johnson. Thanks for making some time to talk to us from the Godard Space Center.

- Hello, I'm very happy to be here with you. It's great to see you again.

-Absolutely, I was very lucky to meet you a couple of years ago in Paris at a conference specifically talking about women in technology. So look, it's a real honor to have you today. Before we get into anything else you're sat in the Space Flight Center at NASA. Do you just wanna explain very quickly what you do?

- Yes, so I am the Deputy Center Director for Technology and Research Investments here at Goddard Space Flight Center. I'm responsible for shaping the missions in the future and astrophysics, earth science, heliophysics and planetary science, and then putting together a portfolio of technology investments so that we can enable those crazy missions of the future. And so it's a whole lot of fun for me.

- So not only do I have studio envy right now, but yes your role is exciting. I'm sure most people would look at that and go. That sounds like fun.

- Yeah.

- You talked about the future there. What if NASA is global the globe the NASA global vision rather is having humans living and thriving on Mars. Let's start with that. What's the role of a tech leader in trying to fulfill a vision like that?

- Yeah, so I would say the role of a tech leader me in particular is really to do some visioneering and that's pretty much coming up with the vision. Where are we going? What is it that we're ultimately trying to do? Setting that goal, and then working backwards from there trying to figure out what are the barriers that we're gonna have to overcome in order for us to get there? What are the challenges that we're gonna face and how specifically are we gonna address those challenges so that we can realize those crazy, crazy goals. So the visioneering is what I call it is the most important and the most fun part of this whole challenge.

- But you mentioned their crazy, crazy goals.

- Yes.

- Most people watching will be working in enterprise organizations. You know, there'll be dealing with FinTech or there'll be dealing with insurance or legal issues and I'm not belittling any of that. You know, they're interesting jobs, they're exciting jobs. It's not quite the same kind of arena that you're working in, but I imagine that some of those crazy goals actually are relatable to enterprise business, right?

- Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, so when I say crazy crazy goals, it's things like being able to manufacture a whole new space suit material, fabric that you can actually wear to protect you from radiation. So there's radiation protection. Whenever you go in for women, go in for mammogram or you go in for an x-ray or any thing like that, you're exposed to radiation.

You know how they put that little metal over the little blanket over you. And when you get your teeth cleaned when they do the x-rays, the panoramic view of your head that material there is to protect the rest of your organs from the x-ray exposure. Imagine going up to the sun and having exposure of 10,000 x-rays all at once on your body we'd never be able to survive that. And so we have to come up with some type of fabric some type of material to protect the humans on the on the way to Mars.

And then once we're on the surface of Mars you're outside of Earth's atmosphere, you're outside of our our magnetic field, which actually protects us from the sun. And so there's, you're totally exposed to all that the sun has to offer in terms of the danger, the harm that we've got the radiation. So we got to figure out what to do with that.

We also have to figure out how to get us there you know, in a relatively quick way the vehicle that will be able to get us there. We've gotta figure out how do you develop food out of the environment there? And so agriculture here on earth is applied to the way that we're gonna have to develop our own food. Once we get to Mars and and have to produce food when we're there, so all of the little things that it takes like communications there on Mars how are we gonna deal with communications?

How are we gonna be able to navigate going from one place to the next, you know we'll have to have an internet system there on Mars. How do we develop an internet system there? How do we develop GPS? Because you know, GPS is here, you know at least in the United States, we have 31 satellites around the globe and you have to actually connect with four of those satellites at one time to be able to pinpoint your exact location here on earth.

That's how GPS works. So if we're gonna take GPS to another planet and be able to have GPS to move around there how would we have some kind of GPS system around it? Unless we go to something like neutron stars and we navigate with pulsars instead of satellites. So when I say crazy ideas, it's really thinking outside of the box how do you have the comforts of life that we've got here and now experience those same comforts way out at Mars.

- So look there you're talking about innovation when we're talking about how NASA relates to enterprise business, really we're talking about innovation and NASA is an innovation engine. Now some of those ideas that you're talking about they're kind of spacesuits and how that might apply to medicine and the field of health tech rather. How do you go about that process? How do you create technology for one application that makes revolutionary changes in a completely different field? What are the actual steps you think that help an organization do that successfully?

- Well, so for us, we actually focus on our goals and our objectives. So we develop, you know, the material we develop technologies for our goals and objectives but then we have an organization within NASA that strictly focuses on strategic partnerships and on tech transfer.

And so though that organization is we actually file a new technology report, for all of the technologies that we come up with. And then there is a database that all of those get stored in. We have an organization that goes and pulls the information from there. We do broad announcement and broad activities for the community in the United States to say, we've got these technologies, we're very interested in partnering with you to be able to take those technologies develop them further for your specific application so that you can commercialize them.

We will help you develop them to a point where you can test it out to make sure it's feasible and viable for your market. And then you can take it from there. We'll license it to you. You supply some royalties to us after you get it to a place where it's actually marketable and you're able to sell it and you take it and run with it because the government here is not in the process of not in the, we're, not in the business of trying to make a profit off of these. We're really trying to spur the economy and make those improvements.

So we have people like, a company like Speedo. You probably are familiar with Speedo that the people who do the swimsuits they came to us and they said, you all develop, you have a lot of experience in drag and friction reduction in your wind tunnels. Can you help us to create a swimsuit that will help with friction and drag reduction for the swimmers for the athletes, they came to us and we helped them with the LZRRacer swimsuit. And it was very effective. And 13 of the people who have worn those have broken records in the Olympics.

And so that has been a very successful one example of that. There are a couple of other examples if you want me to share them with you?

- Absolutely, yeah.

- So one in particular we had one year where there was a high school player, a high school football player who was in practice and he had a heat stroke. It was very hot outside and he died. And so everybody was very concerned because you know, athletics, you know, the students in schools are supposed to be taken care of. And so that same week we had a professional football player who also had a heatstroke and he died. And so everyone was, you know, really up in an uproar and the media got involved and said what in the world are you guys doing?

Why, what's going on with you coaches? And so the professional coaches were like how are we supposed to know when someone is in trouble? Whenever you have a practice, everybody gets hot. They're sweaty, you're red and everything else. How do we know when someone's in trouble? So they actually came to us and said, NASA, can you help us? How can we figure this out? Well, NASA had developed an ingestible thermometer. It's a little pill that you swallow. It goes down into the core of your system.

And it actually monitors the temperature of your core of your body, if you see that your body temperature is being raised and we had to develop it for the astronauts so that we can monitor them when they're launching and when they're going to the international space station. So since we were already doing that for them we could transfer it to the professional football players and to everyone around the country, they're now using it for all of the professional football team so that they can monitor the health of their players.

We also use it for people who do deep sea diving. You go down really deep under water. Your body core temperature will start to lower because you may be down there and you get confused. And you're not able to think about coming up to the surface when we're monitoring you can see that something's happening and people can get you up.

We also use it for the firefighters because once you get into a fire and you get surrounded by those things and everything starts heating up we know that we've got to send in special units to come down and and help those people evacuate those firefighters out of the fire. And so, so many different applications are there. And the last example that I'll share, we have thousands of these examples, I mean, literally thousands of these examples there's one teacher, school teacher who was on her way, home from school. She picked up her kids from school and was driving home.

Well, this truck ran into her and totally crushed her vehicle and almost pushed it off the edge of a bridge. And so that vehicle was so pressed that they could not get her out. They couldn't open the doors to get her out of the vehicle. So NASA had to develop these. We had to find a way an impossible vision, impossible mission. How do we cut metal in space with only one person, you know, floating out there to cut metal.

You need a whole lot of strength to be able to do that unless you create some special cutters, well we transfer those cutters back to the United States and the health, you know, the safety workers are able to now take those cutters and use them to cut the roof off of a car and extract the person out of it. We call them the, "Jaws of Life." And so those, "Jaws of Life" are being everywhere. They were able to use those, "Jaws of Life" to extricate her and her two kids. She had her two kids in the car. And though the last picture you'll see behind me is the family.

If it had not been for the impossible mission that NASA had and trying to figure out how we're gonna do this on the international space station, that woman and her two daughters would not have been in that picture it would have just been the husband and the father. So we're saving lives everyday. We're improving the quality of life every day because we have an impossible vision and we transfer that technology to industry.

- The examples you're giving there are fascinating, I suppose the one follow-up I'd probably have is what do you think makes the environment beyond just the impossible vision? What do you think makes it possible to innovate in that way? And I asked that with kind of, in my mind one of my favorite films is, "Apollo 13" and I love the scene where they have to try and work out how get the filter to work. And they they're literally given, like I think it's a vacuum cleaner that they have to reassemble in a way. And there's just a few people sat in a room told go away and fix this problem. I imagine that obviously Hollywood slightly exaggerates the situation but what do you think it is in the DNA of your organization that makes you so good at innovating? The other organizations could learn from.

- I would say that our folks really are focused on an exciting, exciting vision. I mean, that really is, that is one of the reasons if there's a survey done every year the best place to work in the federal government NASA has been the number one place in the whole country in the government to work. It's always number one.

And that's because we have such an amazing vision. It's an exciting place to work. We focus on the employees first and foremost. So we allow the flexibility. We give them the tools that they need to be able to get the job done. We create an environment of innovation and that's helping people to think giving them the tools making it so that it's about a team environment, not a me environment.

And it's not about scratching and trying to get to the top and getting the next promotion. It's about what is the next amazing thing that we can do together. I know that you've seen on the news and everything when spaceX launches and you see all of the people in the control room getting so excited, everybody's, you know, amazed and having a great time when you have a group of people that have a common vision and they have a sense of success and achievement together, that is something that people just are not willing to walk away from.

It's something that draws them in and makes them never wanna leave. And they will give you 150% of themselves because it's just an amazing feeling.

- One thing I'd be really interested to ask, because this has been asked a lot across the industry is whether or not you think the pandemic has helped either helped or hindered rather the cause of greater diversity in leadership roles.

- Interesting, you know I would say that the pandemic has posed some significant challenges for everyone. You know, we all have to admit that. I mean, that's just something that's part of nature but to be honest with you, I think that whether or not it affects diversity and leadership roles, I don't think that it does. And I'd say that because it has to be in your DNA. If you are serious about having diversity in your leadership, in your organizations, and it's apart of your DNA, you find a way to make that happen.

You go to the right places and look for the right people and look for the broad base of folks to choose from. If on the other hand, you are someone, that's kind of being forced to have diversity in your organization and you don't necessarily really wanna do it anyway.

Then the pandemic becomes an excuse for you to have to not do it because you're like, okay, well I was gonna do it, but now it's too hard. I think I'm just gonna, you know I really tried, you know, we tried to do this but now look at this, it's an excuse. And so when you find that it's in your DNA there's absolutely nothing that will stop you from doing what you're trying to do.

- So putting those excuses to one side how do you think business models can adapt to achieve greater levels of inclusion?

- Yeah, so I think it's so important for them to make sure that first of all they create an environment that sustains diversity because it's one thing for you to go out and do a hiring blitz and try to make sure you bring in people that are diverse, different backgrounds you know, men versus women, you know, different races and different life experiences, even, you know, all of those diversities are great, but then once you get them in and the environment is one that is really, only supports a very uniform looking society then you're gonna lose them. So it doesn't make sense for you to do all of the work.

If you're not gonna create an environment where everyone is listened to, everyone feelsincluded. Everyone is a part of decision-making process. Even if you don't do exactly what they want you to do, they still need to feel like you are heard. So for us, it is, we have several listening sessions within NASA. That's one ofthe reasons that we are number one we make sure that we are providing for the invites.

So women are you know, they have breastfeeding stations and all kinds of things. There's flexibilities for both the men and the women. When it comes to taking care of their kids. We have a daycare center on our site because we understand the importance of the whole family and making sure that both the men and the women have some place there their kids are right here on center. They pick them up at the end of the day and they go home. We have leave, you know, vacation time, sick leave and annual leave that we provide.

And we've given the flexibility during the day, for me, I tell my employees, I don't want you to nickel and dime and have to, you know, sign on a card every time you come and go, I'm not gonna be watching over your shoulder to see whether you worked eight hours or whether you worked six hours for the day. What I wanna know is did you accomplish all of the things today that needed to get accomplished?

If you can do it within that four hour window, great. If you can do it within an eight hour window, great. But when you give people that kind of latitude and that kind of freedom, you're gonna find they're gonna work 150% and they're gonna be working till midnight because they're so committed to delivering to you what they said they were gonna deliver.

And so it really is about focusing on the people instead of focusing on your company. And when you support your people your people will support you.

- When we think about people let's turn our attention to young people for a moment. How do you think we can best engage the youth of today to be leaders of the future? And what skills do you think we're looking for in those individuals?

- Interesting, so I think engaging the kids now is really important, giving them some kind of hands on experience and exposure so that they get a chance to see a day in the life that makes a lot of, it helps a lot of people, helped to get an internship one year. And after that I was totally hooked. But as I think about the future leaders and I think about what are some very critical skills I would say something very different from what most people say.

And I think the two, I think the perfect people that I would love to lead us and the perfect people that I love to work with are those people who have learning agility, a beautiful blend or a beautiful balance between learning agility and emotional agility. And so for learning agility, those people who know what to do when you don't know what to do, that is a real difficult place to be.

When companies face difficult times most people have a challenge and they immediately get emotional. The moment you let your emotions get involved in your thought process you lose the ability to think rationally. So you need those kinds of people that can remain calm and really be able to assess the situation very quickly and then be able to take the organization in a direction that is a rational and reasonable direction. Otherwise, you're gonna spend a lot of time trying to do a course correction down the road and making up for the lost time that you made because of an emotional decision that was made.

And for the emotional agility really being able to lessen the tension in the room and increase the experience for everybody in the meeting. Let's just say, knowing it's really good facilitators do that, you know, they can see how a meeting is going, know that there's somebody who really likes to speak up and can be perceived as a bully in the meeting but someone who is really capable of, in a very professional way, damping the bully and inspiring those who normally wouldn't have a whole lot to say in front of everybody else but who have great ideas and pulling that out of them. So making it a great experience for all of them. And those are the kinds of people who are not married to the process, but they're focused on the outcome.

So that beautiful blend of learning and emotional agility is really I think the most important thing for leaders in the future.

- Look, when we were prepping for this interview, you sent over some notes and I'm gonna be perfectly transparent here and prove my ignorance. But you sent over some notes that said that we should guard against fear of the future. And I have to admit when you sent that over I didn't really understand what you meant. So what do you, first of all mean by fear of the future? And I suppose, how do we guard against it?

- Yeah, so many people in this life allow themselves. And when I talked about the fear overcoming you and your inability to think rationally, most people don't realize that most of the fear that you experience is not real. It's an acronym, it stands for false evidence appearing real that kind of fear that most people experience is intended to paralyze them.

It's intended to cripple them and keep them from going after their dreams and going after their goals. And so you have to really, whenever you have a circumstance, any life circumstance, making a decision about whether you're gonna take this job or whether you're gonna move or whether you're gonna get married or any of those life challenges, but businesses especially, making decisions about which way you're gonna go and which markets you're gonna go into who you're gonna partner with. All of those kinds of decisions, really take an inward look.

And so for me, it's a matter of writing down those things that cause your mind, will automatically tell you where the challenges are. It'll automatically say these are the things I'm afraid are gonna happen. We're not gonna have the investors. We're not gonna have the right partners. I don't have the right skillsets in these particular areas. Your mind will tell you where the challenges are.

So you write those challenges down every single one of them. And then you go to each of those challenges and you say, okay, if this happens then this is what I'm gonna do. If this happens, then this is what I'm gonna do. And if you actually can analyze all of your pitfalls that you think you could possibly fall in, you'll find that they don't look anywhere near as horrific as they did when you kept them in your mind. So it's important for you to get it out of your mind and down onto paper because that false evidence appearing real will keep you from achieving your goals.

And it will keep your company at a very basic phase instead of taking you to the next level.

- But I'm gonna hijack this slightly for entirely selfish reasons. My daughter is when I wrote these notes, actually she was 14, it was her birthday yesterday. So she might be 15 now, I should know that as a godfather but my God daughter Sophia, loves science, okay. And when I said, I was chatting to you. She said that she'd love to know if you knew what you wanted to be at her age and then what causes you to well, how, you know how you looked at your education to get to where you are today.

- So, I did not, I thought I knew what I wanted to do when I was 14 and 15. I was in high school at that time. And I thought I wanted to be into computer science. I had an opportunity to go to Lincoln University in their Lincoln Aerospace Engineering Recruitment Program.

And it really just kind of exposed me and introduced me to NASA, cause I had to do a Summer internship with NASA. And when I was little, I think in third grade I told my parents, I wanna be an astronaut one day. And so they said, you can be whatever you put in your mind you can, if you can conceive it with your mind, you can achieve it and so I thought maybe I'll go towards being an astronaut, but I'm gonna tell you, once I got into NASA and found out all the things you need to do to be an astronaut like for instance, you can't be claustrophobic if you're an astronaut, you're in that small little you know, container.

And then you're living out there in a small another small container. I found out all of the testing that has to be done being zipped into a ball to make sure you're not claustrophobic for 24hours. I said, no, thank you. And also as an engineer, I know that you have to have so many things to go perfectly right, in order for you to go up there and come back alive. And so with all of that in mind, I'm like, no, I'm perfectly fine on the ground.

But I would say to her, anything that she puts in her mind she should just go for it. Don't let anybody tell her what's possible for her. And what's not possible for her, what she can do and what she can't do. She should just search inside and see what thing that I think about excites me and just brings me life and joy.

And then do that, find a way to do that for a living. And then no single day that you're working will be work for you. It will be fun and she can do anything she wants, anything.

- So stop worrying about taking the right course and just do whatever feels natural.

- Do what you love, do what you love.

- Look, the last thing that I wanted to ask you about we've touched on the pandemic very lightly. And obviously people are probably sick of talking about it but nonetheless, I'd be interested to know how NASA are contributing against the fight towards COVID-19. You know, you talked a lot about some of the examples of how the organization has helped a huge range of different industries and problems earlier on in the interview.

- Yeah, so we have one of our organizations the Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed its own breath ventilator. You knew that there was a shortage of ventilators allover the world at one point in time. And so our engineers put together a ventilator that had many fewer parts than the ventilators you have in the hospital.

They could be, some of the components could be 3d manufactured. So there was not a competition with the supply chain of the other ventilators. And so we could get those done and got them up and going in 37 days through F you know, FDA approval and all of that. And so that was a major accomplishment, from some of the folks on our jet propulsion lab team but I'm leading a team right now. That's also working on developing a breathalyzer. So we've developed sensors that we use for, you know, looking at stars, thousands and thousands of miles away.

We can take those sensors detectors are very sensitive. You can actually blow into a device and have that device let you know whether or not you've gotCOVID-19 in less than 15 seconds, as opposed to the other tests that we've got going on right now and if they work the way that we're anticipating they will it will be far fewer false positives and false negatives. So imagine being able to open up the cruise lines again and being able to go into stadiums and just have people to do a quick blow as they go in, you know whether or not they're infected and you can keep going.

You can also determine how far along in the progression you are with the antibodies. And so it's something that we're very excited about and hopefully within the next month or so we will have the clinical trials with humans and all of that and making some very good progress.

- According to the Harvey Nash Group CIO survey about 84% of managers are concerned with the mental health of their teams within your team, you're dealing with, I wouldn't say crisis but highly pressurized situations. A lot of the time, what you're dealing with, as you said, you know, the risks of going into space are very real. So what do you think makes a team resilient in those highly pressured situations that people can adopt into their own businesses at this time?

- I think it takes a focused focus on the people. And so it's really about making sure that you are connecting with the employees. For me, when I have my staff meetings we do focus on the employee. One example of that is this year, you know everybody has given leave in the federal government in the beginning of the year. So they have a certain amount of vacation time that they can take many people are so, you know committed to the work and making sure they're focused on getting the job done.

They get towards the end of the year and they haven't planned their vacations yet. They haven't planned to use their leave. In the very beginning, I go into each of their accounts and say, okay, you've got this amount of leave. It's really important during this pandemic for you to focus on you. Focus on having some kind of downtime.

So it would be great if you would go ahead and start planning now for being able to take some breaks at periods of time when you think it will help you to recuperate. And so focusing, letting them know that I'm thinking about them and making sure that they're taking care of themselves but we're also doing things like sometimes we have to take training because there have been, there's been an increase in suicides through all of this.

And so really focused on if you have employees that live by themselves you have to be continuing to check in on people. There was one person that, you know, ended up, no one could reach the person. And lo and behold, you know you call it the supervisor calls and no one can reach the person.

And by the time the police got there the person had expired. So that really makes you kind of get to an elevated state of, you have got to be touching bases, with all of your employees and letting know that you care that somebody is watching and someone is paying attention for their benefit, but it really is about just focusing on the employees and making sure they understand you're part of the NASA family.

- Christyl it's been wonderful to hear your thoughts today. I really appreciate your insights and some of your observations. So thank you very much for your time.

- It's my pleasure and it's always great seeing you.

- If you've enjoyed today's conversation you're probably already there but head over to, plenty more of these conversations with leaders to be found there. So do explore, but thank you for watching today.

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