First published in the Sept. 8 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
After its founding 86 years ago, the stars have finally aligned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to welcome its first female leader, Director Laurie Leshin.
As only the tenth director of JPL, and the first woman to hold the position, the appointment also has been called something of a homecoming for Leshin, who received her master’s and doctoral degrees in geochemistry from Caltech, the operator of JPL on behalf of NASA and where she also now serves as vice president.
“It’s a huge privilege to be at the helm of such an incredible, storied organization like this that is driving so much innovation and discovery for people everywhere, so that in itself is amazing,” said Leshin, sitting down to discuss her new role. “To be the first woman is special because I know representation matters. And the outpouring of support I’ve gotten — from everyone at JPL, but especially the women — has been really inspiring.”
An internationally recognized scientist whose career has spanned academia and senior positions at NASA and included two White House appointments, Leshin has been lauded for her barrier-breaking leadership in the space industry and in academia as well as for her accomplishments as a distinguished geochemist and space scientist.
She most recently served as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the country’s oldest private STEM universities — also as the first woman at the helm.
There is even an asteroid named after Leshin, who quickly takes that in stride: “It’s not going to hit Earth,” she said, laughing. “That’s the most important thing. But really, it was quite an honor… it could be the coolest thing about me. I don’t think that list of cool things about me is very long actually, but that is a cool one.”
Leshin arrived in May at JPL’s 168-acre campus to much excitement. Her female cohorts, along with some men, spearheaded the creation of a 144-square quilt that hangs nearly wall-to-wall. Each square has been quilted, woven or knitted, many with hidden messages, like one in Braille that reads “The stars are calling and we must go,” and a portrait of her mother, to whom Leshin has credited her inspiration. The larger “JPL” is emblazoned in red across the entire background in an Escher-esque-like code.
“They did it in a very JPL-way; there were engineering documents that accompanied the making of it and how it would all fit together,” Leshin said, chuckling at her creative colleagues.
Another wall adornment, one of the first to go up in her office, is a copy of President John F. Kennedy’s famous Rice University speech, which was given to Leshin by Caroline Kennedy. In the speech, JFK whips up an ecstatic crowd as he detailed the race for space, the mission to the moon, and the chance for the United States to be at the forefront.
Leshin excitedly read the text, playfully imitating JFK’s New England accent: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
This is Leshin’s calling card, bringing the history, the current and the future together for the great beyond, bearing the responsibility of the generational investment in space exploration at the lab, missions underway as well as missions soon to come.
“Space exploration is the ultimate long-term endeavor. It’s generational,” she said. “Look at the images from the [James Webb] telescope … it’s been 25 years that people have been waiting for that day. And when you think about the Voyager being out at the edge of our solar system, it launched 45 years ago.”
One of the biggest missions to come will be the launch of the Mars sample return in 2028, retrieving rock cores from the Perseverance Rover, which is currently collecting samples from ancient craters and river deltas. It will be the first time any robot has gone to Mars and returned successfully (
“No one’s ever done that, never even tried,” she said.
Leshin has a particular soft spot for Mars, a planet that has fascinated her since she was a child when she saw Time magazine’s photos of the planet from the Vikings Landers in the mid-1970s.
“The pictures stopped me in my tracks. I just wanted to reach out and touch those rocks,” she recalled. “I grew up in Phoenix so there was something about the desert landscape of Mars that just spoke to me.”
But her path to becoming a geochemist and space scientist wasn’t clear cut: she majored in chemistry at Arizona State University before spotting an advertisement for an internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. With the encouragement of the only female astronomy professor at ASU, she got the job and “it changed my life. It was like being struck by lightning in the best possible way.”
Remembering the professor who dropped everything at a moment’s notice has fueled Leshin’s passion for education, STEM and collaborations with students, she said. She dedicates time with interns at JPL, and frequently welcomes them with motivational speeches.
“As educators, and the same is true in the space business as leaders, you have the potential to really change the trajectory of somebody’s life by just saying ‘yes’ when they knock on the door,” she added.
Her passion to nurture the next generation of space scientists rolls over to the new age of diversity, equity and inclusion, making sure that students from all walks of life might have the opportunities she was given. Currently, about 30% of JPL’s workforce is made up of women, with the technical workforce in the low-20% range.
“We still need to work on that … We need to make sure we are aligning our actions with our values. That is really important to me,” she said.
As part of that effort, Leshin appointed the Laboratory’s first chief inclusion officer, making the position a member of JPL Executive Council, along with other top leadership positions.
“Inclusion is a core value for us, and I can’t think of a policy or governance topic that does not touch on issues of equity and inclusion,” she recently told employees. “This step is part of our broader effort to honor the diverse voices that define this exceptional community of explorers and innovators.”
Leshin, referencing the gratitude she feels to all the women and men who have come before her at NASA and JPL, added, “We will continue the quest to bring all great minds to bare as we explore the frontiers of space.”