Dr. Laurie Leshin: Meet the ASU alum who leads NASA's JPL

Papago Park in Tempe is packed with trails, cacti, and landmarks, but also dreams. It was there that an Arizona girl began her hunt for out-of-this-world answers.

"I will tell you, when I was a 10-year-old girl, I first saw pictures from the surface of Mars from the Viking missions in the ‘70s, and I think the reason I wanted to reach out and touch those rocks is … it felt like home. Mars definitely has a lot in common with Arizona and I think that’s why I love it," said Dr. Laurie Leshin, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director.

Welcome to the Mars yard: a small strip of dirt, rocks, hills, and challenges that mimic life on Mars. But instead of being on the red planet, it’s tucked behind a garage in Pasadena, California.

This is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s only federally-funded research and development center. Basically, anything NASA does that you think is cool – they build it here.

The person who runs it is Dr. Leshin – and she loves her job.

"Super creative, super nerds, so they’re my people," she said.

She learned what she loved in Arizona. She's a Corona del Sol High School graduate who attended Arizona State University, eventually becoming a professor and helping launch ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Dr. Laurie Leshin

Now she’s one of the top female scientists in the world, leading one of the top space teams in the world.

"We are about exploring the frontiers of space for the benefit of humanity. Really about discovery. Exploring new worlds out in our own solar system. Looking for life elsewhere. About improving life here on Earth by understanding our own planet better," she said.

ASU is playing a large role in finding out more about our planet, thanks to the Psyche mission. ASU is leading the mission that launches in October to a metal-rich asteroid, studying the collisions necessary to create plants.

"It’s going to launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket, which is one of the biggest rockets we launch these days, so it’s very exciting."

When it launches, a team will be at JPL, mission control, reading data, but the researchers in this room gather a lot more than just that.

"All of our deep spacecraft are talking to this room almost every day. Every day we talk with the voyager spacecraft which was launched over 47 years ago and still phone home almost every day and this will be the room where our psyche team will be in just a couple months' time when we get the first signals down from the spacecraft just after launch. It's a really important place. It's the beating heart of JPL."

It’s a historic landmark where countless missions have been celebrated, cheered, and applauded, but it's not the only important place on the campus.

Are we alone? It’s our most profound question. Scientists inside a clean room are building the tools to help answer the question. The Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter’s moon and study the building blocks necessary for life.

"One of our biggest ambitions at JPL is to find life elsewhere. We're trying to explore all kinds of places in our solar system and beyond that might have life. And Europa is a really interesting example of that. It’s a moon of Jupiter that has an icy shell, but beneath that we think it has an ocean. So it’s an ocean world like Earth, but it's a moon of Jupiter. Who would have thought? So Europa Clipper is all about exploring the moon and really trying to understand that ocean and if it might be a habitable planet," explained Leshin.

It feels like it’s a pivotal moment to be the director of JPL. We’re talking about finding life.

"That’s right. If you’re a scientist, the biggest question you can ask is, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ So that is what we’re trying to answer. We're on the precipice of it."

But is extraterrestrial life already here? A congressional hearing has sparked many questions about alien life on Earth after a whistleblower claimed the U.S. already possesses several alien spacecraft.

The hunt for those organisms has been a part of her story from the beginning. In 2012, she celebrated the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. She showed us Curiosity’s twin inside the Mars garage at JPL. They keep a duplicate here for testing.
Leshin: "It’s where we test new software updates, new commands. If there’s a problem on Mars, we try to come here and recreate it. So these rovers help us be smart on Mars because we can’t go up there and fix the rovers."

Her team placed essentially a small oven on the rover that later proved water is in the soil of Mars.

"We found a lot of water in it. If you could heat up a cubic foot of dirt and heat it up, you’d have a couple bottles of water out of it. So it’s a great resource as we think about potential human exploration in the future."

Every inch of the rover is copied, even the tire tread that contained a hidden message. It’s Morse code of the letters JPL.

Did you know about the Morse code on the wheels before the launch?

Leshin says while laughing, "I make no comment on that."

Whether NASA knew or not is an ongoing joke at the lab, but regardless, every rotation on Mars – JPL is written in its wake.

"There’s a lot of pride in the work we do here and the fact we think about little ways to leave our mark on Mars. I love that,' she said.

Which is exactly the kind of mark Leshin hopes to leave on the space industry – a true trailblazer. Under her first year, for the first time ever, more than 30% of the employees at JPL are women.

"It's important for people to see people who look like them in leadership roles. When I was a little girl, my mom would go to meetings of women's organizations, fighting for women's rights and women's equality. I was so little, I didn't get it then, but I know now. She was doing that so I could do this. This wouldn't have been possible 40 or 50 years ago for a woman to be in this role and now it is. And I think that's meaningful to a lot of people, not only women."

NASA JPL Director on Congressional UFO hearings

Have you seen spacecraft made from outside this world?

Leshin: "Absolutely not. No."

Has anyone ever talked about that with you?

Leshin: "No."

Anything you make of those hearings on Capitol Hill?

Leshin: "I mean obviously there's lots of interest. Our interest is in following the scientific evidence in looking for life elsewhere, and I think we have the chance in our lifetimes to answer that question. Whether it’s intelligent life. That would be very interesting, obviously. But if you just look at life on Earth. It stayed very, very simple for a very long time. Single-cell organisms. The algae in our pool we all know about in Arizona. Things like that. That's much more likely the life we'll find … especially locally."

Perseverance: Search for life on Mars 

Leshin: "This is Perseverance – her twin here on Earth. ‘Persy’ landed on Mars in 2021 and her mission is about going around and taking rock cores and sampling rock cores on what used to be a lake on Mars. She's doing drill cores, each one about the size of your pinky. She's storing them kind of in her belly and eventually, our next big mission to Mars will be to pick up those samples and bring them back to Earth where they will be analyzed in labs right here at places like ASU and U of A. They will absolutely be involved in that analysis, so it's the way we will really answer the question about whether life got started on Mars."

How many years out is that? 

Leshin: "A few years out. We hope to have the samples back in about a decade. So not that long. It's a mission we've been dreaming about for many decades and this is the first step, it's already on Mars today." 

Dr. Leshin on Psyche launch and the use of SpaceX and commercial space companies

Leshin: "I will be in Florida for the launch. I will actually be watching the Falcon Heavy rocket and its center core and two side cores. And the two side cores will actually come back and land at the Cape, so it's going to be quite a show. It's NASA's first Falcon Heavy launch so that should be quite exciting."

Collaborating with schools, including ASU and the private sector, how has that changed what Dr. Leshin does?

Leshin: "It definitely makes launches so much more accessible. The fact we have so many great commercial space companies like SpaceX and so many others coming up with launch vehicles. The access to space has been such a barrier for people like us that care most about what's on top of the rocket, and we need to access space for a relatively low cost and that has been one of the big outcomes of the commercial space industry. So we're thrilled to get to leverage like the Falcon Heavy rocket. It's thrilling."