• Left to right: David Niño, senior lecturer in the MIT Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, moderated a discussion on March 15 with Ellen Ochoa (center), former astronaut and current director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, and MIT Professor Dava Newman, former NASA deputy administrator, about their experiences as leaders with the U.S. space agency.

    Left to right: David Niño, senior lecturer in the MIT Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, moderated a discussion on March 15 with Ellen Ochoa (center), former astronaut and current director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, and MIT Professor Dava Newman, former NASA deputy administrator, about their experiences as leaders with the U.S. space agency.

    Photo: William Litant

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  • NASA Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa (blue jacket) visited with MIT Professor Dava Newman (standing, fourth from left), students, and guests during a visit to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Man Vehicle Lab, with which Newman is associated. The mannequin in the center is wearing a BioSuit future spacesuit concept that Newman developed.

    NASA Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa (blue jacket) visited with MIT Professor Dava Newman (standing, fourth from left), students, and guests during a visit to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Man Vehicle Lab, with which Newman is associated. The mannequin in the center is wearing a BioSuit future spacesuit concept that Newman developed.

    Photo: William Litant

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  • Left to right: MIT Space Systems Lab Director Alvar Saenz-Otero, NASA Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa, MIT Professor David Miller, and incoming graduate student Cody Paige discuss SPHERES, self-propelled microsatellites developed by MIT students. SPHERES have been used on the International Space Station for NASA research since 2006.

    Left to right: MIT Space Systems Lab Director Alvar Saenz-Otero, NASA Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa, MIT Professor David Miller, and incoming graduate student Cody Paige discuss SPHERES, self-propelled microsatellites developed by MIT students. SPHERES have been used on the International Space Station for NASA research since 2006.

    Photo: William Litant

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  • Ellen Ochoa (far left) and Dava Newman (left) speak with students and guests after their March 15 symposium,

    Ellen Ochoa (far left) and Dava Newman (left) speak with students and guests after their March 15 symposium, "Leading Human Space Exploration," sponsored by the MIT Gordon Engineering Leadership Program and Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

    Photo: William Litant

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Lessons in NASA leadership

Left to right: David Niño, senior lecturer in the MIT Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, moderated a discussion with Ellen Ochoa (center), former astronaut and current director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, and MIT Professor Dava Newman, former NASA deputy administrator, about their experiences as leaders with the U.S. space agency.

Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa and AeroAstro Professor Dava Newman share experiences as leaders of the U.S. space program.


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William Litant
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“It was a Friday afternoon, cell phone rings, and the caller ID says ‘unknown,’” recalled Dava Newman, MIT Apollo Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. When she took the call, the voice on the other end said, “This is the White House.” A staffer was calling to notify Newman that she was being nominated for the position of NASA deputy administrator — the number 2 position at the national space agency. Initially, Newman thought it was a joke, perhaps perpetrated by one of her students. After doing a quick online search for “White House Office of Presidential Personnel,” however, she realized it was, indeed, a legitimate call to service on behalf of the president of the United States.

Agreeing to take on the position was an easy one for an engineer and professor who had already honed her leadership skills in several roles at MIT and on national boards — and for someone who even had experience teaching leadership development.

Newman and Ellen Ochoa, a retired astronaut and the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, recounted this and other anecdotes about their journeys in NASA leadership at a recent MIT symposium, “Leading Human Space Exploration,” co-sponsored by the MIT Gordon Engineering Leadership Program (GELP) and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro). The discussion was moderated by David Niño, GELP senior lecturer, and centered on what prepared these engineers for leading roles in human space exploration, as well as where NASA is heading as an institution.

Newman and Ochoa explained how they began college with very different career destinations in mind. Ochoa, an avid flute-player, wanted to major in music or business, while Newman had visions of becoming a lawyer, representing top basketball players. Music and sports were their respective passions, but thanks to a few pivotal relationships in their lives, they began research projects and careers that, over time, defined their destinies in advancing human space exploration.

“You make a lot of connections when you are interested in a variety of different things,” said Ochoa, a physics major at San Diego State University who went on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University before joining NASA as an astronaut candidate. In 1993, Ochoa became the first Latin American woman in space when she flew on the space shuttle Discovery in the first of four spaceflights. In 2007, after logging close to 1,000 hours in space, Ochoa retired as an astronaut, and moved into a leadership position as deputy director of JSC. She eventually became director of the center, NASA’s “Mission Control” facility that trains astronauts, manages in-flight operations for human space missions, and develops the next generation of piloted spacecraft.

Newman, who earned an aerospace bachelor’s at Notre Dame followed by two master’s — one in AeroAstro and one in technology and policy — and a PhD in AeroAstro from MIT, did heed the White House call and was confirmed as NASA deputy administrator in 2015. She remained in that position through the end of the Obama administration, returning to her research and teaching roles at MIT in January 2017.

During the discussion, Niño highlighted some of the opportunities available to MIT engineering students that help them identify and hone their own leadership skills. Ochoa expressed admiration for a program with such an express focus on leadership training for engineers. “I don’t recall ever even hearing the word leadership as part my graduate school experience,” Ochoa said. “Leadership provides an ability to influence the things that you care most about.” Meanwhile, Newman emphasized the importance developing and practicing skills such as negotiating, listening, inventing, and collaborating.

The future of NASA, as these leaders see it, will rely in large part on these very skills as NASA builds the international partnerships that will become central to advancing deep space human exploration. “NASA’s future is very bright,” explained Newman. “Its responsibilities will increase among those agencies that are central to U.S. leadership in science and technology.”


Topics: Special events and guest speakers, NASA, GEL Program, Aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Technology and society, School of Engineering, Space, astronomy and planetary science

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