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Lindy Elkins-Tanton has head in the stars, feet on the ground

Psyche mission's principal investigator is 1 of 4 new Regents Professors for 2022


Outdoor portrait of ASU Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton.
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February 17, 2022

Editor's note: On June 24, 2022, NASA announced that the Psyche mission will not make its planned 2022 launch attempt due to the need for more time to ensure that the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment will function properly in flight. The new expected launch period is Oct. 12, 2023.

The Zoom call is less than a minute old, and already Lindy Elkins-Tanton is wondering what all the fuss is about.

“I feel a little embarrassed to be singled out,” she says.

Embarrassed? Let’s see.

Elkins-Tanton, the vice president of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, was chosen as one of four Regents Professors for 2022, the highest faculty honor one can achieve.

She’s the principal investigator for the Psyche mission, the 14th in NASA’s Discovery program, and only the second woman chosen to lead a competitive planetary science mission. Psyche is scheduled for liftoff in August, the unmanned spacecraft on a four-year journey bound for the Psyche asteroid 280 million miles away.

She’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, she has far too many awards and recognitions to mention, she has written six books and, oh, by the way, she once was a competitive show jumper, ran a sheep farm, led field expeditions to Siberia and trained border collies.

Embarrassed? A fuss?

Hardly.

“For me, she is an example of what a professor should be,” said Sally C. Morton, vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “She’s a real role model for all of us in higher education.”

To get to know Elkins-Tanton — to truly get to know her — one has to go back to Ithaca, New York, where she grew up.

Her parents gorged on discovery. They took Elkins-Tanton to museums and the opera so she could learn about art and music. She identified plants and memorized their Latin names, collected moths and picked up fossils when the family hiked the Finger Lakes trails.

“You were expected to be curious about stuff, and it was a source of great joy,” said Elkins-Tanton, who is also a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Elkins-Tanton did not aspire to be a scientist in those early years. She was a competitive horseback rider — “the soul of my life,” she said — who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But then she realized that horses didn’t take kindly to visits from a veterinarian and, well, that career choice was no longer an option.

It was music, ultimately, that shoved Elkins-Tanton toward science and space. She played the flute in high school and thought about going to a music conservatory. But there were limits, she knew, to her talent.

“I could have been a really nice flute teacher, teaching lessons in a town,” she said. “But I was never going to be a soloist or anything. I was never good enough. I was just as interested in space as I was everything else growing up. So I thought I’d go into science.”

Hardly typical

One other thing you should know about Elkins-Tanton: She’s not your typical scientist or academic type.

Henry Stone has worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for 34 years. He has worked alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists and engineers. Yes, he said, the cliché is true: The best scientists often don’t have the best people skills.

Elkins-Tanton, however, is the best of both worlds.

“She is a unique combination of an incredibly intelligent person in the scientific and academic-related communities, but she understands the importance of personal relationships,” said Stone, the project manager for the Psyche mission. “She’ll hear of somebody anywhere on the team, a death in the family, some other situation, and she’s always conscious to reach out and share in a very, very authentic way her concern for that person.”

Morton saw the same thing at an outdoor, COVID-safe Christmas lunch held by the School of Earth and Space Exploration in 2021. Elkins-Tanton knew the names of all the students at the lunch, what they were working on and when they were graduating.

“When you talk to her, you don’t feel overwhelmed by just the brain and what she’s capable of,” Morton said. “There’s this delightful softness in her demeanor.”

That personal touch extends to Elkins-Tanton’s work as Psyche’s principal investigator. Typically, Stone said, the scientists and engineers working on a NASA project hold separate meetings. Elkins-Tanton made it clear from the start that’s not the way she wanted to do things. She insisted on a collaborative effort and wanted to hear from anyone who had something to say.

“There’s a lot of times you get teams with a lot of smart people together and you get too many egos that are fighting with each other,” Stone said. “It’s not always a fun place to be. She spends a lot of conscious effort thinking and talking with me about what we can do on the project to ensure that the interactions are professional and always constructive.

“I will never forget coming out of those first few meetings where scientists were coming to me and literally like, 'I’ve never done this before. This is incredible. I’ve never understood or realized (from an engineering standpoint) how complicated and tricky it can be to design these systems.’

“That is an example of a small thing you can do to bring such a collaborative environment to the whole team that I’ve never seen done before on any mission.”

Stone said Elkins-Tanton also created a more diverse team; he recalled a meeting of engineers in which 50% of the attendees were women. He said he could count on one hand the number of times that has occurred in his three-decade career.

For Elkins-Tanton, being just the second woman to lead a competitive planetary science mission is an honor, as well something she’d rather not dwell on.

“I still really hate being introduced as a woman scientist because of the implication that I’m very good among a secondary class of goodness,” she said. “I don’t appreciate that.”

That said, Elkins-Tanton appreciates that her position as the principal investigator is an important message to other women in her field. On the morning of her interview with ASU News, she spoke by Zoom to two classrooms of eighth grade students and pointed out the select company she was in.

“For a lot of young women, they’ve never had anyone in their life point to them and say, ‘You can do it.’ It actually does make a huge difference," she said. "We do look for mentors who remind us of ourselves.”

Elkins-Tanton will spend the next several months in Pasadena before leaving for Cape Canaveral in Florida and the scheduled liftoff in August. Her days are filled with successes, problems and challenges — and meetings to talk about all three.

But when the rare quiet moment comes, Elkins-Tanton allows herself to think ahead; to think of that day in August when the countdown is started and the rockets are fired and the spacecraft launches into the sky, destined for an asteroid that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is the size of Massachusetts.

“I think it might just be the most exciting moment ever,” she says, her smile wide. “I mean, we (the Psyche team) fought for six years to win this mission, which is a long time to fight for a mission. But the great thing is that you’re not winning a prize, but the opportunity to do something really hard. So that launch, when it comes, is not a prize. It’s the opportunity to explore.”

Just like her days as a child.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

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