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Former NASA scientist to lead National Air and Space Museum

Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist at NASA, has been named the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist at NASA, has been named the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. (Callie Broaddus)

A former NASA chief scientist and a leader in the effort to send humans to Mars will make history as the first woman to lead the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Ellen Stofan will become the John and Adrienne Mars Director of NASM starting April 30, the museum announced Thursday. She succeeds Gen. J.R. “Jack” Dailey, who retired in January after 18 years at the helm of one of the world’s most popular museums.

After 25 years working in space-related organizations, Stofan said she is eager to shape the way the museum educates and engages the public about aviation and space.

“One of my biggest passions is outreach and communication about science and technology,” Stofan, 57, said. “What better place than the Air and Space Museum to engage everyone in the excitement of aviation and exploration.”

Being the first woman in the post is added honor because the science and tech fields are lacking in women and people of color, she said.

“It’s important to have women in leadership positions not just for their different perspectives and skill sets, but for the inspiration. I’m looking at the 8-year-old girl who may see herself (in me),” she said.

Air and Space Museum renovation expected to begin next summer

“So many jobs of the future are tied to technology. It’s not just important, it’s a necessity” to attract women to the field, she said.

Stofan caught the science bug at an early age. Her father was a NASA scientist and her mother taught elementary school science. She witnessed her first rocket launch at Cape Canaveral at the age of 4 and was a regular at the Air and Space Museum in the late 1970s, just after it opened. While an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary, she spent a summer at the museum as an intern, she said.

Stofan earned master’s and doctoral degrees in geological sciences from Brown University. She worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab and later was vice president at Proxemy Research. A consulting senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Stofan is co-chair of the Future of Space Technologies council of the World Economic Forum.

Married and the mother of three, Stofan lives in The Plains, Va. She served on the board of the College of William & Mary Foundation for 10 years as it planned a $1 billion fundraising campaign.

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Stofan takes the reins of the Smithsonian’s popular museum — which attracts about 8 million visitors a year — as it begins a seven-year, $1 billion renovation. The federal government is expected to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the project, leaving the museum to raise about $250 million in private donations to remake the galleries.

“It’s a huge opportunity to really look at the galleries in a new way,” Stofan said. “We can tell the story of the great things we’ve done . . . (and) to really engage kids and the public in what is happening now.”

From space tourism to NASA’s recently announced supersonic jet, the museum should be “at the cutting edge,” she said.