How did you get that job: deputy administrator of NASA

Welcome to our series — How did you get that job? — where we run interviews with interesting people about their work and how they came to be doing it.

Charles Bolden is, in many ways, the face of NASA. As the administrator of the agency, he appears at most of its major events, and has recently led a very public fight to keep NASA's funding at its president-approved levels.

But a new face of the agency has been making appearances in the last few months: Dr. Dava Newman, NASA's new deputy administrator. She was first appointed to the position by Barack Obama in November of last year, and then again in January of 2015 (more on that later), and was officially confirmed in April of this year.

Newman rose to prominence in the space industry with the BioSuit, which was a complete rethinking of how spacesuits work and look. She spent 12 years working on this so-called "second skin" suit, and it could someday allow astronauts much better freedom of movement — which is one of the biggest limiting factors when it comes to human space exploration.

Before her appointment to the post of deputy administrator, Newman was a professor at MIT, where she earned three degrees, and she's been studying aerospace engineering since her undergraduate days at Notre Dame. But everything really began when, as a teenager in Helena, Montana, Newman decided to start her own business.

Sean O'Kane: Your first job was polishing shoes in front of a department store when you were 15?

Dava Newman: You’ve definitely done some back work. [Laughs.] Back then I was an aspiring basketball player, and also a little entrepreneur, and frankly thinking about how I could make money to afford myself. I started working at 12, but the shoe shine story was my first business where I got to work for myself. So I made it up, of course. I mean, growing up in Helena, Montana, we didn’t have any shoeshine people back then, boys or girls, not that I knew of anyhow.

I was going into high school and I really wanted to make the varsity team, so I got up at 5AM or 5:30, something very early, and went down to the Y and played basketball. Even over the summer, getting ready the summer before high school. I needed a job, and they were few and far to come by. I had one, but I needed another one to make money and save up for school.

So anyhow, that’s how I created my shoeshine business. And since I was the sole proprietor [Laughs.], I could basically work when people were going to work in the morning. There’s a walking mall, and since Helena is the capital, it has a lot of federal buildings and retail places, and I could get a lot of business from all the businessmen going to work, and then I stayed through lunch — I could get a whole bunch more business at lunch — and then in the afternoon I could be done, and I’d go back and practice my sports in the afternoon.

The hours were great. The money started off slowly, but I probably knew every pair of cowboy boots and wing tips in Helena, Montana. And I shamelessly told everyone that they needed their shoes shined and polished. And from the Realto Bar and Restaurant there was this old throne, it looked like to me, but basically a place that looked like a very nice seat where I could put people up in a nice comfy leather chair, a little shoeshine stand if you will. The owner was a family friend and very nice, and he said I could use that as my shoeshine business. Anyhow, I hung up my signs, and I learned how to shine shoes, and I polished, I could even do a spit shine! And cowboy boots cost more than the wing tips.

So at that point you’re already interested in science and mathematics?

I was. Actually I just loved school? I’m, I guess, one of those nerdy kids that — I liked to learn. For me it was math, science, more of the STEM fields, but equally social science or english or creative writing, things like that. I liked learning. I liked learning more than liking school, really.

Where did you take all that once you were out of Helena, and what did you start studying in college?

I went to the University of Notre Dame, and that was a perfect place for me for undergraduate, because I loved philosophy, English, and you have to take a lot of those requirements because it’s a liberal arts university. But I was an aerospace engineering major. So for me it was really good balance.

A lot of people grew up interested in space and wanting to be astronauts, but there’s a big leap between that and saying, "I know I want to become an aerospace engineer," so where did that come about?

So I went to Notre Dame as a pre-law major. That’s what my 17-year-old self applied as, so I didn’t know that I wanted to be an engineer. And frankly I didn’t know what engineering was. And we can go full circle — I published a book in 2002 as a professor at MIT — called Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design that’s basically a freshman / sophomore book, because I kind of wish I had had that information when I was a freshman. I changed my major from pre-law to aerospace engineering probably not until the end of my freshman year, so sophomore year I had to catch up and take those engineering courses I had missed.

From there you furthered your studies at MIT, right?

Right, then I applied to grad schools, and I looked at Stanford, and UT Austin, and MIT, and I was probably the most leery of MIT, I had the impression that a lot of nerds went there, and I didn’t think I fit in, I was a liberal arts kid. But I took the risk, I took the big jump. MIT was great, it was the most unknown to me, and it worked out really well. I stayed there for a while [Laughs.]; I have three degrees from there, but I enjoyed them all, and ended up [with] aerospace engineering — they call it aeronautics and astronautics — technology and policy, and then my PhD I even specialized a little bit more in aerospace biomedical engineering, because by that time I was really fascinated in studying astronaut performance. At that time, actually, specifically for performance on partial gravity environments, the Moon and Mars.

So that’s where you gathered your background for all the work that you did with the BioSuit?

Yeah, it came together in graduate school. I basically was working on four suits, most recently before I left MIT and joined NASA, and previous to that I had flown three spaceflight experiments — none of them on suits, but all regarding astronaut performance — so I’ve flown these kinds of smart sensors on two shuttle spaceflight missions. And then with the Russians, when we had our NASA MIR program from 1996–1998, I had my experiment up on the Russian station, and got to test the NASA astronauts and the Russian cosmonauts. That was pretty fantastic, because it was our first long-duration flight for experiments, for PIs [principal investigators] like myself.

And now we have commercial access to study things on the Space Station. You need a supplier, someone like Nanoracks, but they can get your experiments up there.

It’s really exciting with the research that’s going on on the space station. Both for academic — university folks and NASA folks — and now all of industry and commercial folks, it’s really exciting.

Dr. Newman being sworn in by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, alongside her husband, Guillermo Trotti.

I want to fast-forward now. You were teaching at MIT, and the nomination for Deputy Administrator of NASA comes up last year. First off, how do you find out about that. Is that a phone call someone makes? Do they send you an email? A text?

[Laughs.] It was a phone call. The first inquiry that came from the White House was a phone call, I guess getting to know me a little bit and asking if I was interested.

What was your answer for that?

I said yes! I believe I’m interested. Then, you know, honestly at first I thought it was a prank phone call. I teach students, and have a lot of great colleagues who are professors, and I could just imagine one of them doing this.

"At first I thought it was a prank phone call."

There was almost a prank feeling anyway, because Congress went into recess and you basically had to be nominated all over again. It was a bit of a process, right?

Exactly. So there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work, of course, going on interviews and talking to other people, and then the president nominated me for the first time in November 2014. That was the 113th Congress. But that ended, so I was nominated but I wasn’t approved, I didn’t have my Senate confirmation. So I was renominated in January, and that’s when the White House called again. Actually I was traveling over the holidays, so they called and were like "Do you want to be renominated?" And I said yes. [Laughs.]

Then since January 8th I went through the process, and I spent time in Washington meeting with science community members, and then April 28th got the Senate confirmation. So that was wonderful.

Does that make for an awkward Christmas dinner conversation with the family, where everybody’s like, "Oh, Dava was nominated for this thing, but what’s going on with that?"

It’s just a good opportunity to teach a little bit of American policy. [Laughs.] And that actually is a great question, because I was with friends and family down in Argentina, in Chile, so it even makes for a more interesting international, kind of presidential conversation, because you kind of go "Here’s how we do it in the US." And, you know, people were asking me, "Yeah I know about the Senate, but what’s the Senate doing, and why is it taking them so long?"

So you’re in, earlier this year, as deputy administrator, and I feel like every other day I’m reading the phrase "Dava Newman visits…" because you’re all over the place. You’re at Marshall Space Flight Center, you’re at Goddard Space Flight Center, you’re at the Space Launch System facilities. What does a week look like for the deputy administrator of NASA?

I just completed my center tour, and they were incredibly awesome. There’s no other way to describe every single NASA center. First it starts with the people. Just wonderful. So excellent, so welcoming. I talk to them, I get to meet early-career folks. So I go on a whirlwind tour of the centers, and they show me — we breeze through different labs and tours, and of course I’d love to spend a week at all of them to really get to know what they do. But even a day at each center has been fantastic. The center tours and visits — first in May and June was just coming up to speed. And then I’ve been traveling almost every week in July and August, I just completed last week, these center tours.

As the deputy administrator, you’re there for leadership, you do some policy, you do some planning. Can you give me an idea of what the position entails?

You have it there. Definitely leadership, joining administrator [Charles] Bolden and his team. Looking at policy strategy, budgets of course, and everything that’s going on at the centers. But of course the centers are where they have the hardware, and the software, and the toys, I call them, all the fun hands-on stuff.

But really the vision and the strategy, I would say, are critically important. And then a little bit more particular, I’m really focused on exploration and our journey to Mars. Which couldn’t be any better for me, because that’s what I’m passionate about. Within exploration and the journey to Mars I’m looking also at all of our technology and innovation across agencies, as well as education and outreach. These are my passions, I have expertise in these areas, so it’s just a perfect match for me to have a portfolio of exploration, technology and innovation, and education.

Another great thing about this job, is that every day I get to celebrate not just one or two, but more things than I can count that are great things that NASA is doing. I come in every day and I get to celebrate all this great news and summaries that Allison [Kelly, NASA's deputy press secretary] sends me, and she sends them with really cool photos most of the time. The words are there but the photos are even better. And that covers the spectrum from, you know, we celebrated New Horizons and Pluto, and I have my new favorite Earth / Moon shot, from the DSCOVR [satellite]. It’s my new screensaver.

You talk a lot about the long tail of exploration all the way out to Mars, but you’ve come into this job at a really interesting time where there’s this split. One half of the government is saying we need to work ourselves into a place where we're independently producing rocket engines so we’re not relying on Russia to provide them for us, and you have the other part of the government that’s hesitant to keep up funding for the Commercial Crew program, which is your best effort to get people into space and our best effort in a decade or two to come up with a new way to do that. What’s it like to come in and face a challenge like that? Because that seems like the most frustrating thing that the agency is facing right now.

Definitely. So Commercial Crew is our highest priority right now. We are excited about — we need to see American companies launching American astronauts to space station. That’s high priority. It’s also very exciting.

But in the same breath, the Russians are incredibly a wonderful partner on the International Space Station. In terms of diplomacy between the US and Russia, I think NASA is a stellar example of the US and Russia working together, working together very well. And again when it comes to leadership in space, we’re the two countries, of course, that show that leadership. So that partnership between NASA and Russia is actually excellent. I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. We’re concentrated on Commercial Crew here for the US, and again it’s the highest priority. But we’re close friends and collaborators with the Russians and will continue to work with them in space, hopefully throughout the decade.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.