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Inspiring new navigators for the planet

June 22, 2021

ASU supports Polynesian Voyaging Society's training sail in advance of 2022 Pacific circumnavigation, with goal of promoting ocean stewardship

For blue-water sailors, the French Frigate Shoals is often thought of as a place with significant wildlife and deep cultural meaning. The Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) hopes to train sailors in this spot in the Pacific Ocean.

And they won't stop there. The PVS will be venturing to four other islands and past the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world.

It’s all in preparation for next year’s Moananuiākea Voyage, a circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean in which Arizona State University will play an important partner role — all with the goal of educating and inspiring the public to act as stewards of the planet.

“These precious islands are a school that holds lessons for all of humanity and the Earth, and our canoes are the classrooms,” said Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “Because they are so rare and special, these islands will help us learn how to behave in the sacredness of nature.”

The training voyage will test navigators on five challenging deep-sea legs to the islands of Kauai, Nihoa, Mokumanamana, Lalo and Kaula.

The voyaging canoes Hōkūle'a and Hikanalia departed from Kaʻena Point in Oahu on June 18 and will travel more than 500 miles to the shoals. The three-week sail to Papahānaumokuākea will focus on the cultural and ecological significance of the area and help educators gain a better understanding of the global climate.

The trip is also a training expedition for six young navigators, who are learning from senior crew members nautical instruction, Indigenous leadership skills and sustainability research. The voyaging society's goal is to have 120 new crew trained by the end of the summer in preparation for next year’s big trip.

According to the PVS website, Papahānaumokuākea, also sometimes called the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, are considered a sacred place and a region of primordial darkness from which life springs and spirits return after death. Much of the islands’ history has been passed down in oral and written histories, genealogies, songs, dance and archeological resources. Through these sources, Native Hawaiians are able to recount the travels of seafaring ancestors between the northern and main Hawaiian Islands.

As a sea trial for the two canoes, the sail will be an opportunity to test the vessels as they prepare the canoes for the big voyage next year.

“We are fortunate to partner with PVS. The sail will highlight the unbelievable wisdom of deep-water navigation guided by the navigators of the canoes,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, the university’s vice president of social advancement, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education, and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian Affairs.

The official voyage does not launch until May 22, 2022, but the educational mission of the voyage will commence with the Northern Hawaiian Islands sail, as the crew will be sharing lessons about navigation, leadership, Earth’s systems, and the cultural and scientific significance of the traditional sea road known as Kealaikahiki, which connects Hawaii to Tahiti.

“Our role is to support, amplify and enhance PVS’ message,” Brayboy said. “That message is: We all share one home — planet Earth. We will work with PVS to create a 'Third Canoe,' a virtual platform that will convene people, ignite a passion to be in better relation with the planet, inspire new navigators and leaders, and ignite action.”

ASU is partnering with various organizations and units, including ASU Knowledge Enterprise, to support the creation of that online platform, which will allow educators and students across the globe to virtually participate and learn. The project joins a roster of other partnerships, initiatives and research in Hawaii regarding food systems, oceans and education that ASU has launched in the past year. 

“It’s an enormous privilege working with the Polynesian Voyaging Society to help realize their vision for a ‘Third Canoe,’” said Ji Mi Choi, vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise. “Their role in preserving and advancing Indigenous knowledge and the reach they achieve through their sails are culturally, historically and societally rooted fundamentally in justice and care for our shared Earth.”

The test will also be the pilot for new satellite technology and the new PVS voyage portal at

ASU’s Philamer Batangan has already shot many hours of video footage and photographs in various Hawaii locations.

“As a storyteller, I believe in the importance of the work we’re doing to ensure we have photos and videos of the work that’s being done out here,” said Batangan, a videographer with the ASU Foundation. “It’s not just for posterity but it’s also to honor and ensure history that perpetuates a culture as well. … I’ve been on sailing boats, fishing boats and ferries, but being on that canoe is a special experience.”

Generally, there are only 12 to 15 individuals on any leg of a sail. The Third Canoe will create virtual reality experiences that will allow millions to understand what it’s like to be part of a voyage. This will include virtual labs and educational experiences, linking learners from around the globe to think about the future of the planet.

“The Pacific Ocean voyage will serve as a point of coalescence for researchers and educators at ASU — and elsewhere — to imagine and create a future that helps make the planet more habitable and allows for new relations among peoples for shared purpose,” Brayboy said.

When the official voyage sets sail next year, the 41,000-mile, 42-month circumnavigation of the Pacific will cover 46 countries and archipelagoes, nearly 100 Indigenous territories and 345 ports. In addition to accumulating research on the importance of the ocean, nature and Indigenous knowledge, the goal of the voyage is to develop 10 million new crew members, navigators and leaders for the planet. 

Top photo: Members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society prep the canoe Hōkūle’a for a test sail in the Pacific Ocean. It’s all in preparation for next year’s Moananuiākea Voyage, a circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean in which Arizona State University will play a crucial role. Photo courtesy of Philamer Batangan/ASU Foundation

Reporter , ASU News


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A passion-driven mission

June 22, 2021

Zeal for engineering and philosophy meld in ASU alum's work to help guide nation's space exploration endeavors

Zachary Pirtle recalls struggling with his choice of a major during his first year of studies in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He was following in his father’s career footsteps by enrolling in the mechanical engineering program, but by his second year he was contemplating a change.

ASU alum Zachary Pirtie is rising in the ranks at NASA

Zachary Pirtle. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA

Two things prevented him from taking a different direction. He got an internship working in the aerospace division at Honeywell, and he began taking courses in the philosophy of science.

The internship showed him “how engineering works in the real world,” Pirtle said. The philosophy classes helped him view engineering from the broader perspective of its value in gaining new knowledge and insights and applying them in ways that best serve society.

“From that point, I was committed,” Pirtle said. “I wanted to be a philosopher of engineering. I wanted to get plugged into that kind of community and help create that field.”

That drive led him to become a respected student among his professors and later a leader in space exploration and policy at NASA.

Journey of a rising star

Pirtle’s aspirations necessitated a fifth year of undergraduate studies as a student in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College, to earn bachelor’s degrees in both mechanical engineering and philosophy in 2007, followed by a master’s degree in civil engineering and environmental engineering two years later.

A decade later, in 2019, Pirtle completed work for a doctoral degree in systems engineering at George Washington University, or GW,  in Washington, D.C.

He had moved to the city in 2010 to join NASA and soon began working his way into more senior positions. The agency also funded his doctoral research. He is now an adjunct professor at GW, where he has taught a graduate-level systems engineering course.

Recently, Pirtle was awarded the NASA Early Career Achievement Medal for “outstanding leadership in helping formulate NASA’s deep-space exploration programs, with innovative application of the program management discipline.”

Pirtle’s other achievements have included co-chairing the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology in 2018 at the University of Maryland, College Park, featuring researchers who focus on studying the nature of engineering design, knowledge and ethics. The academic papers from the conference led to the recent publication of the anthology “Engineering and Philosophy: Reimagining Technology and Social Progress,” which Pirtle co-edited.

Zachary Pirtle celebrates graduatation at CSPO

In 2007, Zachary Pirtle (right) celebrated earning undergraduate degrees at Arizona State University in both mechanical engineering and philosophy by Professor Clark Miller, today the associate director of the School for the Future of Innovation and Society. They are pictured in the campus office of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, where Pirtle served as an intern. Photographer: Lori Hidinger/ASU

He is currently a program executive and engineer for the Exploration Science Strategy and Integration Office, or ESSIO, in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

He is among those in charge of Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, deliveries to the surface of the moon, with their first landing mission planned for later this year. He is also one of the key NASA leaders for the planned CLPS delivery of the VIPER rover to explore the moon’s south pole in 2023.

Pirtle’s career at NASA has become a kind of family affair. His wife, Katelyn Kuhl, works in international relations for the agency. She recently negotiated agreements between NASA and the space agencies of Canada, Japan and Europe to jointly develop a space station to orbit the moon.

The couple recently welcomed their first child, daughter Gal Kuhl, into the world. Pirtle said her bedroom is already full of lunar and space exploration paraphernalia, along with children’s books about the philosopher Plato.

Philosophy and engineering collide

Zach Pirtle at CSPO Halloween Party at ASU in 2006

For his undergraduate philosophy thesis as a student in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College, Zachary Pirtle focused on the philosopher Philip Kitcher’s book “Science, Truth and Democracy.” Photo by Lori Hidinger/ASU

Pirtle notes that during research for his undergraduate honors thesis, he was influenced by the book “Science, Truth and Democracy” by philosopher Philip Kitcher. He carried those varied but interconnected interests in science, engineering, philosophy and policy into his graduate work.

Now, Pirtle said he is fortunate to be in a position to advocate for the values he developed through his academic endeavors.

“There are debates at NASA about what missions we should pursue and what our policies should be,” Pirtle said, “and given how science and engineering and technology shape society, it’s a good thing that we take time to think about what we are choosing to do and how it will impact people.”

Professors praise Pirtle’s past, present and potential

Pirtle’s involvement in efforts to scrutinize the direction of the nation’s space program and the ramifications of its exploits doesn’t surprise Daniel Sarewitz, an ASU professor of science and society who co-founded and co-directs the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, or CSPO.

“As a student at ASU, Zach was the kind of enthusiastic, endlessly inquisitive, intellectually adventurous student who keeps professors on their toes and helps makes classes more fun and engaging for everyone,” Sarewitz said. “Through the questions he asked and his gift for critical thought and interdisciplinary synthesis, Zach was really an intellectual partner from the beginning.”

He points out that when CSPO was in its early days, consisting of only a small number of faculty members, students and staff, Pirtle was a significant contributor to the culture and agenda of the group and its vision for improving the societal outcomes of science and technology advancements.

“I see him bringing this same spirit and vision to his work at NASA, where he is really having an impact,” said Sarewitz, who is based in Washington. D.C. “He’s helping to build a broader community of policy practitioners and academic scholars working on problems at the intersection of philosophy and technology. Having Zach as a colleague here in D.C over the years has been fantastic. I continue to learn from and be inspired by him.”

Zachary Pirtle joined his 2010 NASA Presidential Management Fellowship cohort

In 2011, Zachary Pirtle (left) joined his 2010 NASA Presidential Management Fellowship cohort, Jesse Deihl, Matt Curtin and Kevin Gilligan, at the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, marking the end of that space shuttle program. As part of his job, Pirtle helped with the management and integration functions for the shuttle’s successor, the Space Launch System, which began in 2011. Photo courtesy of Zachary Pirtle

Richard Creath, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, remembers Pirtle as “curious, engaged and skeptical, the ideal student” in the introductory philosophy of science course Creath taught. He recalls Pirtle moving on quickly to advanced courses designed primarily for graduate students.

“He thrived there, too. I was working out my conceptional engineering view of philosophy at the time, and Zach’s probing questions definitely improved my own work by forcing me to articulate it more clearly,” Creath said. “We have been encouraging and challenging each other ever since.”

Pirtle’s academic and professional versatility provides a model for how today’s students could strive to elevate engineering’s stature as a robust source of innovation and creativity, said Fulton Schools Professor Brad Allenby, who was one of Pirtle’s mentors and co-chair of his master’s thesis committee.

The increasing complexity of today’s world calls for engineers who are better able to comprehend and assess the economic, environmental, social, cultural and political aspects of the technologies and systems they produce and how those things will be used, Allenby said.

By taking his engineering education “beyond the technical into the philosophical,” Allenby considers Pirtle to have been be at the forefront of an emerging trend for engineering students to branch out beyond the traditional disciplines related to their primary field.

Pirtle “has blazed a very different path,” both as a student and in his career, said Jameson Wetmore, an associate professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, one of the faculty members who most influenced Pirtle. Wetmore now takes ASU doctoral students to Washington, D.C., to learn from Pirtle about how science policy is made.

Wetmore recalls being impressed that even as an undergraduate Pirtle worked to find ways to broaden the education of engineering undergraduates. Later, when Pirtle became “one of the few people with a technical background selected as a Presidential Management Fellow,” Wetmore said, “he worked with the organizers to recruit a much larger number of scientists and engineers into the program. Those efforts will impact others for years to come.”

Top photo: Zachary Pirtle is pictured in 2015 in front of an Orion spacecraft after it was launched into a high-energy Earth reentry as part of NASA's 2014 Exploration Flight Test-1 mission. Pirtle observed the capsule being dismantled and evaluated. Such experiences have informed his academic writing about how engineers learn from real-world test missions, helping them to better design and improve systems engineering approaches to space missions. Photo courtesy of Zachary Pirtle

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering