MIT planetary scientist Maria T. Zuber, who was selected last year by NASA as one of the two first women to head major space missions, has been named this year by the magazine U.S. News and World Report as one of "America's Best Leaders."
Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and head of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is the Principal Investigator for a new mission to map the interior of the moon in unprecedented detail. The project, called GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory), is a $425 million twin-satellite mission that will be launched in 2011. It will provide information about the moon's geological history and details of its gravitational field that will be essential for the safe landing of the upcoming generation of human lunar missions.
While this is the first entire mission that Zuber will be heading, she has already been the principal investigator for key instruments or experiments for several other planetary missions, including the Mars Observer, Clementine, Mars Global Surveyor, Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mercury MESSENGER missions. As a result, Zuber has made frequent appearances at NASA press conferences announcing new findings from Mars and Mercury. She won NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2004.
This December, Zuber will take part in a small symposium of leaders from government, academia, and business to be held at Princeton, led by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to discuss the importance of enhancing research in the areas of physical sciences and energy.
Zuber says she is particularly delighted that as part of the GRAIL project she was able to enlist the help of former astronaut Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, to run a public outreach program connected to the mission. "We'll unleash her creativity to target middle-school girls" and help pique their interest in science, she says.
Middle school is a crucial time for such outreach, Zuber says, "because that's when people have to decide whether to take the hard math that leads to calculus in high school." To help get young people interested in planetary science, she says, the GRAIL spacecraft will include still and video cameras that can be remote-controlled in real-time by undergraduate students, and even schoolchildren will be able to recommend sites to be photographed.
Alan Stern, the former NASA Associate Administrator for Science who was responsible for selecting the GRAIL mission, says Zuber is "just an outstanding scientist, an outstanding expert in space flight, a tremendous leader. I was really proud to be able to pick her mission, and I hope that more and more women are able to go into the space sciences."
The 24 leaders on the U.S. News list "who embody and define leadership today" according to the magazine, were chosen by a nonpartisan independent committee, convened by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The magazine says the list "provides an objective look at the 'best of the best' in leadership and what it means for the complex times in which we live."
The selection of 24 top people in politics, business, art and science is being released in the magazine on Nov. 24, when the group will also be honored at a press conference in New York. The list features an eclectic mix ranging from popular culture icons to leaders in science, business, politics and academia. Besides Zuber, it includes movie director Steven Spielberg, jazz musician Herbie Hancock, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, bicycling champion Lance Armstrong, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, alternative energy pioneer Amory Lovins, and biologist (and former MIT professor) David Baltimore.
The complete list of honorees, along with profiles and essays, can be read online at www.usnews.com/leaders.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 3, 2008 (download PDF).