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Read more about the new teams joining SSERVI.


Matthew Buffington (Host): Welcome to NASA in Silicon Valley, episode 31. Today’s guest is Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, the Director of the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, or SSERVI for short. We discuss her early work at NASA and how, in her current role, she is collaborating with more than 300 researchers across the nation studying the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the moons around Mars, and other near space environments. Shortly after our conversation, NASA recently announced four new research teams to join SSERVI. You can read all about them at In the meantime, here is our conversation with Yvonne Pendleton.


Host: Welcome, Yvonne. We always love starting this off with, tell us about yourself. How did you join NASA? How did you get to Silicon Valley?

Yvonne Pendleton: Well, I’m an Astronomer. And I’ve always loved the stars. From the time I was probably about 10 years old. I really, really wanted to be part of NASA. So I just had a very random walkway of getting here, but I got to do exactly what that 10-year-old wanted to do.

Host: Did you grow up in this area? Where did you end up going to school?

Yvonne Pendleton: I grew up in Key West, Florida. So way at the bottom of the Florida Keys. And that meant that whenever there was an Apollo launch, if it were in the daytime we could go outside and see the trail overhead on a clear day. So I definitely remember doing that, and holding my dad’s hand, looking up, and he said that day someday I’m going to work for NASA and study the starts.

Host: Oh, that’s awesome. So did that play into studying STEM and working that path out up until college? Did you always have that singular mindset?

Yvonne Pendleton: Absolutely. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for NASA. I knew that I wanted to work for NASA. So everything I did was to try to make myself look better for NASA. And along the way I feel in love with science. So I started out in chemistry, and I really thought that’s what I was going to major in. Then I went to Georgia Tech and I switched over to engineering. And I ended up graduating in aerospace engineering.

And that was exactly what NASA wanted that year. And I had my pick of NASA centers that I could have gone to, and I selected NASA Ames because they made me a deal I couldn’t refuse.

Host: Well, it seems like being in Florida, going to Kennedy would be right in your backyard.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. You would think that. In fact, I had never even heard of NASA Ames Research Center. I think most people haven’t. When you talk to people across the country, they’ve heard of Kennedy or they’ve heard of Johnson, but they don’t know that there 10 NASA centers, and a lot of them have never heard of Ames. So when they first made me this offer that I could come to NASA Ames and move to California, I really had no idea what I’d be stepping into.

And that was 38 years ago this year. So I came here not knowing if this was going to be the place that I’d really want to stay, but it’s ended up being my whole career and I’ve loved every minute.

Host: That’s an interesting thing. Because when you talk to people, typically, about NASA they think of Johnson trains the astronauts and has a connection the space station. The rockets launch off at Kennedy. And it’s like what does Ames do? And the only way that I can kind of think of it is like, well, we’re not launching rockets, but we’re launching the innovation. So a lot of the science or ideas start off in a research center, and eventually make their way through missions that end up in space.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. That’s a great way of looking at it. That’s exactly what NASA does and Ames, in particular. I think it really starts out the kind of ideas and things that we want to work on that later other people can take to other levels. But here at NASA Ames Research Center we are the place of innovation, and I think a lot of really cool ideas start here.

Host: So what did you start on? When you first came to the Bay Area, what did you start working in your first job?

Yvonne Pendleton: Well, the very first thing they put me on was not what I wanted to stay in, so I moved. But my very first job was in the wind tunnel. At that time it was the 40-by-80 foot wind tunnel, and now it’s even bigger. It’s an 80-by-120 foot test section. So they had me in a wind tunnel because at Georgia Tech my student job was running the supersonic wind tunnel that they had there.

However, that was not why I ended up in aerospace. And so I had to remind the people who hired me that I went into it for space, not aero. And, although, aeronautics is great –

Host: It’s a crucial part of NASA. It’s both sides.

Yvonne Pendleton: It’s a crucial part of NASA, great part of what Ames does, but that is not why I went into aerospace engineering. So I asked if I could be moved over into the Space Science Division and they said yes. And so that launched me into an entirely different realm, for which I was not that well trained. So they sent me to school to get my master’s degree, and then my PhD in astrophysics.

Host: It’s interesting to see the balance of science and engineering; of science coming up with these ideas and concepts, theories, testing theories, proving them right or wrong, writing papers and getting published. But then the engineering is like, okay, how do we make this into a thing and put it into space? And so having both sides of that is hugely beneficial.

Yvonne Pendleton: It really is great to see both sides of it. And I think never was it more apparent to me than when I was flying on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. So the Kuiper, which is the predecessor to the plane we have today that’s SOFIA, the Stratosphere Observatory For Infrared Astronomy. The Kuiper was a C-141 aircraft and it had a one meter telescope in it.

And this telescope was open to the outside world. You were inside a pressurized cabin, of course, but the telescope itself had no window on it. The door was open to the outside. And I flew on that a number of times and it never failed to just amaze me and impress me. Because, as an aerospace engineer, we were taught you just shouldn’t take airplanes and cut holes in them, and then fly them.

Host: As a general principle.

Yvonne Pendleton: As a general principle. That is exactly what the incredibe engineers did that figured out how to make that work. And that wonderful observatory, which had a 20 year lifespan, found so many important discoveries and helped us learn so much about the universe. But I really appreciated being a scientist and an engineer on those nights that I was sitting there observing on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.

Host: There was a funny comment that I saw and it was talking about a mad scientist and the stereotype of the lab coat and frizzy hair. And it’s like, “Oh, so you’re a mad scientist. So do you have a mad control group? Do you have a mad hypothesis?” And it started running down the things and was like, “No, but I made this laser.” And it was like, “Oh, no. Mad scientists are really just mad engineers.”

Yvonne Pendleton: That’s good. I like that.

Host: So going into astrophysics and looking at the stars, what kind of stuff were you working on initially?

Yvonne Pendleton: What I’m really compelled by is the idea of how did we come to be here, to be having this conversation right now? And how likely is it that there might be others like us someplace on the other side of the galaxy, or someplace in the universe? So I study the organic material in interstellar space. These are the very basic building blocks, the hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, those sorts of things that have hitched a ride to a planet like the Earth in its early days of formation.

Maybe they came by way of a comet or an asteroid. Some of them were already in the Earth when the solar system formed. And so I’m really curious about the stuff that’s way out there, the stuff that’s here, and the processing that has happened in the meantime to turn it into human beings and all the other wonderful life forms that we have on the Earth.

Host: That’s cool. Is there anything that comes to mind, or any example of something that was published, or some big announcement that had come up leading up into –?

Yvonne Pendleton: Well, I definitely –

Host: There’s probably several, I’m sure.

Yvonne Pendleton: Yes, there are many. What we like to call them is ah-ha moments.

Host: Oh, nice.

Yvonne Pendleton: And I definitely had one that changed my life. The ah-ha moment that I most often think about, it came in the form of a meteorite. So a meteorite is a rock that has fallen all the way to the surface of the Earth from space. Many years ago I happened to walk down the hall at lunchtime and there was a seminar going on about meteorites. This was an area that I didn’t know a lot about because I study interstellar dust. My stuff is way far out there somewhere in the galaxy.

So this seminar about meteorites was showing the infrared spectra. That means the composition of what this thing was made of. And when I was watching it I realized that right down the hall I had a matching spectrum from interstellar dust that looked for all the world like what I was seeing in front of me, right then from this meteorite, this little piece of space debris that had landed on the Earth.

So after the seminar I asked the guy if I could match up his data with mine, and it was a one-to-one match for several of these features. So what that tells you, or at least it opens up the question of whether or not that original material that the solar system formed out of was made of the same kind of interstellar dust that I was seeing in many, many different locations all across our galaxy. Meaning that any star forming system would have access to those same building blocks of material that ended up forming life on Earth.

Host: It makes it a little bit more tangible. Like looking at it through a telescope or through other instrumentation, and then having it here, tangible.

Yvonne Pendleton: In your hand. Right. A little piece of space you can hold in your hand. That’s what is so valuable about meteorites. And a lot of studies that have gone on about them are showing us what those early moments in the solar system were like.

Host: And I know early on, as tends to be the case when you’re really good at doing your job, eventually, they put you in charge of the other folks doing that job. One of the cool things that NASA does, not only like doing the science themselves, but also bringing in the scientific community; sharing data, bringing everybody together because we can learn more together, as opposed to working in our own little silos.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right.

Host: Talk a little bit about your path and how that ran into what we’re calling the virtual institutes.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. So after a couple of decades, more than 25 years of being able to do my own research, I was asked to become the head of the Space Science Division here at Ames. So the very place where I started as a lowly graduate student so many years before, I now became the Division Chief of that group, which I was very fond of and I felt like I owed them so much because they had helped me grow into this position.

And it wasn’t long after that that I was asked to go to NASA headquarters. And then after that, coming back here to Ames I was asked to become the Director of the Lunar Science Institute.

The Lunar Science Institute, it was the predecessor to the institute I’m running now. They’re both virtual institutes. This means that you enable the science of hundreds of people all across the United States, that come together for a purpose of advancing our knowledge about a certain area. And in the case of the Lunar Science Institute, obviously, it was the Moon.

Host: Excellent.

Yvonne Pendleton: A few years later NASA decided to expand that purview so that now we study not only the Moon, but also near-Earth asteroids and the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. These are destination targets that we may or may not go to with humans any time in the near future. But because they are on the flexible path that NASA has, we wanted to look at the science questions and answer the questions you need to know before you go.

Host: We always think of the solar system and beyond, but even the solar system, you’re looking a lot closer. This is like realistically we can send probes, send satellites and, potentially, send humans to in the future.

Yvonne Pendleton: That’s right. So I went from studying things that are really, really tiny and very far away, to things that are very nearby.

Host: Still far.

Yvonne Pendleton: They’re still far as it takes to take humans there, and a lot of questions that we have to answer about them. But, really, they were not my area of expertise. However, I’ve really come to love them. And I’ve come to see that the Moon, in some respects, is just a very, very big interstellar dust grain. So I have found a way to tie together the basic research that I did before and the work that I’m doing now running this institute.

The exciting part about running an institute like SSERVI — I should say the name of it — the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, is that we can blend together communities that otherwise might not talk to each other, that probably wouldn’t even go to the same meetings. So they wouldn’t talk to each other because they didn’t know each other.

We’re bringing them together and we’re showing them that they have mutual interests. And they are discovering for themselves that they have areas where they should or would like to collaborate. So we’re all about collaboration and advancing science maybe in directions that they didn’t even know that they were going to go when they first came into the institute.

Host: So kind of where the rubber hits the road. How do you bring these groups together? I’m thinking of they may be working on things, and I don’t know if there’s competition. How do you end up pulling these people together?

Yvonne Pendleton: NASA puts out calls for proposals, to which teams will form and a principal investigator, who is the lead for the team, will decide how they want to address the call that NASA has put out. After months of working hard to build a team and decide how they can best apply whatever capabilities they have in their facilities, they will submit this proposal to NASA.

Then we go through a very extensive review process. Peer review is really the lifeblood of how NASA decides how to do its science. So we’ll bring people together that are experts in the field, but are not part of the proposal that they are evaluating. And they’ll have a look at it, and then they’ll give us their take. Is this something important to do? Have the people put together on the team have the right expertise? That sort of thing.

And then it’s up to us to figure out where you get the best bang for your buck. When NASA’s got a limited amount of money that they can put towards this, how can you select the best team to do what it is NASA wants to do or the direction you want to go?

And each group that we hire, they run for five years. They have five years of funding, and that gives them a good, long period of time to develop graduate students or their experiments, whatever it is they’re working on. They don’t have to reapply for funding every year. They have a five year baseline to do it.

Host: What are some of the topics that these nine teams are working on?

Yvonne Pendleton: There are so many examples. We have people that are studying the dynamics of how the solar system formed. And they look at the bombardment and history, what kinds of things hit the Moon in the early days of formation. Because those same objects that hit the Moon came from a swarm of objects that were also hitting the Earth. So you learn a lot about the Earth by studying the Moon as a witness plate. So that’s one of the teams.

We have teams that are developing remote controlled operations for when we do go to another body. How would you operate if you had telerobotics on the surface of the Moon, or on the moons of Mars, or on an asteroid? What kind of effect do we have when the solar wind blows and hits the Moon or other airless bodies? That affects the chemistry and various things are happening on the surface. So the teams are really studying many, many things from spectroscopy and the study of composition of materials, to how it got there. But it’s all about the origin and the evolution of the solar system and how we came to be where we are today.

Host: And these teams are like literally located throughout the country. They’re not here at Ames. It’s a virtual institute. It is virtual.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. The teams are not located all in one place themselves.

Host: So even a team within a team itself is spread out amongst other universities or groups.

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. The team could be made of four or five different entities. And, typically, they have 30 to 50 people in one team. So it’s really truly a virtual institute.

Host: And do these teams also end up working with other NASA centers or even JPL, our friends just down in Southern California?

Yvonne Pendleton: Right. The teams are open to NASA centers, as well as universities and private industry groups. So it really just depends on who writes the best proposal.

Host: Oh, yeah. So it could be a mix of a center got one, a lab, a private group.

Yvonne Pendleton: Absolutely. Or even if the lead is at a center, that team might have a lot of people from different universities. So it’s just really a mix. The thing that I love about the virtual institute concept is that it allows you to select the best people, the best facilities, and the best capabilities wherever they reside.

So no longer do you have to rely just on the fact that if you need expertise in this area, you have to go down the hall and pick from whoever you have there. You pick whom you actually need to get that job done. And so NASA wins, science wins, exploration wins. I think it’s just a win all the way around.

Host: Is there a lot of communication, even between these nine teams? Do they get together, or do people talk? Even though they may be working on fundamentally different questions, there’s still just a camaraderie and things that people can learn from each other.

Yvonne Pendleton: Yeah. That’s a great question. I’ve actually come to think that that is the best part of the virtual institute environment. Scientists are used to being competitive to win these grants. But I’ve been able to watch how you can take competitive teams and bring them into the institute fold and tell them that the importance now is on collaboration, so they need to listen to what the other teams are doing and find ways to collaborate.

They get a lot of brownie points for doing that. Because, as a scientist myself, I recognize that a lot of the discoveries, important, new strides that we make happen at those intersections. At those places where you didn’t even see it coming, you didn’t know what you didn’t know. And so by working across team lines like that, they’re discovering that all the time.

Host: So it’s almost like harnessing that competition, but because it’s a NASA proposal and helping to organize it, you’re taking that competition and just harnessing that energy so they can, by being collaborative, come up with things that nobody would do on their own.

Yvonne Pendleton: That’s absolutely right.

Host: Fantastic. So what are you looking at five years down the road? What do you see for the future of the virtual institutes? Do you see more teams, larger? Or different concepts for the certain questions that you really want to tackle?

Yvonne Pendleton: That’s a great question. I have looked at whether or not the virtual institute model is a good one for other people. And I do think it could apply. I don’t think it applies in every situation. But I think for many types of research areas it could be a great thing to do. For SSERVI itself, we are very anxious to see what the NASA guidance is going to be in the future.

We are very flexible, so if there’s a return to the Moon, or if we’re definitely going on to Mars, whatever it is, we are poised and ready to help address the questions they need to know before they go.

Host: And being able to pick and choose the teams, it’s like very nimble to be able to adjust and move around and hit those questions.

Yvonne Pendleton: Absolutely. It’s very easy to change the direction that the institute has. We can increase the purview. Right now we stop at the moons of Mars. But the idea in giving us the name solar system exploration was that eventually we would probably expand.

Host: Got a lot of nice looking moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

Yvonne Pendleton: I don’t know how far out they’re going to take us. This is a combination, I should say, between the science mission directorate and the human exploration and operations mission directorate; so the science and the human side of what NASA does. So we really are looking at targets right now where humans could go. And so for the time being, Mars is the next destination that we might be including within SSERVI.

But we haven’t received that guidance yet, so we don’t know. We’re just ready to do it, whatever it is NASA needs. And we’re ready to go back to the Moon if that’s where we want to go.

Host: Excellent. So for folks who want to learn more about SSERVI, I believe it’s

Yvonne Pendleton: It is; The only tricky thing is SSERVI is two S’s.

Host: I was about to say that.

Yvonne Pendleton: So Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, But we have tried to capture all of the crazy names that someone might type in, and they should redirect there. So we thought about that. But we would love for people to come to our website. It’s a dynamic website. We try to change it almost every day. We have new stories online. For young people, especially, we try to have things that they would be interested in.

I know that when I was in high school and trying to find out everything I could find out about NASA, I sure would have appreciated a website like this.

Host: And it, basically, keeps everybody up-to-date on what these teams are working on and what’s the latest, greatest stuff they’re coming up with.

Yvonne Pendleton: Yeah, absolutely. And these teams do publish a lot, both in the scientific literature, and then also public articles. So there’s a lot out there. We put web stories up on our website almost every day. So if you just want to get some little tidbits on what’s happening within SSERVI, that’s the place to go.

Host: Excellent. And for folks who are listening who have any questions for Yvonne, we are on Twitter at NASA Ames. We’re using the hashtag #NASASiliconValley, and we’ll loop Yvonne on over to answer all of the questions you could possibly have.

Yvonne Pendleton: I’d be happy to try.

Host: Excellent. Well, thanks for coming over.

Yvonne Pendleton: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.


Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff
Source: NASA ARC

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