For the first time in NASA’s history, women are in charge of three out of four science divisions at the agency. Earth Science, Heliophysics and Planetary Science divisions now all have women at the helm.
Each hails from a different country and brings unique expertise to NASA’s exploration efforts. One of them is Sandra Cauffman, along with Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science division, and Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics division.
“We have an extraordinary group of women responsible for the success of dozens of NASA space missions and research programs, revealing new insights about our planet, Sun and solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “They are inspiring the next generation of women to become leaders in space exploration as we move forward to put the first woman on the Moon.”
Cauffman, acting director of the Earth Science division, leads the agency’s efforts to understand the intricacies of our home planet—the only one where we know life can survive. Her journey to NASA has been one full of determination and persistence.
As a child in Costa Rica, Cauffman loved reading science fiction books, such as Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and Isaac Asimov’s novels. Her mother, whom Cauffman considers her hero and inspiration, constantly struggled to make ends meet for her children but maintained an upbeat attitude.
“Even when we didn’t have anything, even when we got kicked out of places, even when we ended up living in an office because we had no place to go, she was always positive,” Cauffman said. Her mother told her: “You can do anything that you want, you just have to put your mind to it.”
Because the family had no television, they went to a neighbor’s house to watch the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. “I just remember telling Mom I wanted to go to the Moon,” Cauffman said.
Fascinated by physics in high school, Cauffman wanted to continue her studies in college. She worked in a hardware store to help pay for her undergraduate education in physics and electrical engineering at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. As a native Spanish speaker, she struggled daily with English—first learning words like “hammer,” “nail” and “bolt” through her job at the shop. She barely passed her test of English as a second language. But she kept going, eventually earning a master’s in electrical engineering.
She joined NASA in February 1991 as the Ground Systems Manager for the Satellite Servicing Project at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She worked on Hubble’s first servicing mission, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, the Explorer Platform/Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer and others. After 25 years at Goddard, she moved to NASA Headquarters in 2016 and became deputy director for the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate. This year, upon the retirement of Michael Freilich, she was named Acting Director of the Earth Science Division.
In her early NASA career, she was often the only woman or one of very few in the room and developed the courage to speak up for herself. These days, with many more women contributing to NASA, Cauffman looks for opportunities to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
Though she had a brief foray into Mars missions, Earth is Cauffman’s favorite planet. And she enjoys knowing that Earth science has real benefits to society.
“What we do in observing Earth as a system gives us the additional benefit of helping humans here on Earth survive hurricanes, tornadoes, pollution, fires, and help public health,” she said. “Understanding the oceans, the algae blooms—all of those things help humans right here on Earth.”
Her message to young people who aspire to a career like hers reflects her mother’s message to her: “Don’t give up at the first ‘no.’ With determination and perseverance, we can become what we dream we can become.”