NASA’s mission to the asteroid Psyche is set to launch this month, and Lindy Elkins-Tanton ’87, SM ’87, PhD ’02 can already imagine what will happen next: “There’s going to be a moment when the spacecraft is in communication with Earth, and they’ll be a huge amount of screaming and hugging.”
Then the team will go back to work, she says, because the launch is not just a finish line—marking 12 years since the mission began—it’s also a starting point. The spacecraft will not reach Psyche until 2029.
A space launch is so exciting, Elkins-Tanton says, because it shows what people can accomplish when they work together. “There are a bunch of reasons for science-driven space exploration,” she says. “To me, a big part of it is the inspiration to humans to see what we can do when we work collectively for a common goal.”
One of the things that’s true about space is that it always surprises us. Probably, everything I’ve told you is going to be proven untrue. That would be really exciting, to learn something we hadn’t imagined.
Over the years, more than 2,500 people have worked on the Psyche mission, and its budget is over $1.1 billion. Elkins-Tanton is in charge of it all. In 2017, when her mission proposal beat out 27 competitors for a spot in NASA’s Discovery Program, she was only the second woman chosen to compete and win such a mission. (Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and soon-to-be MIT’s presidential advisor for science and technology policy, was the first.)
A professor and vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, Elkins-Tanton has spent the bulk of her career researching the formation and evolution of planets. Visiting Psyche, she hopes, will provide insight into the type of iron-rich core that is also at the center of the Earth and will help illuminate the process by which the solar system’s planets formed.
An object nearly as large as Massachusetts, Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, and experts believe it’s mostly metal—though no one yet knows for sure. “We would like to find out what it really is,” Elkins-Tanton says.
Scientists have formed a theory based on observing Psyche from Earth. Fine measurements of Psyche’s orbit and how it is affected gravitationally by other space objects indicate Psyche is too dense to be made of rock or ice, like most asteroids. Still, Elkins-Tanton notes: “One of the things that’s true about space is that it always surprises us. Probably, everything I’ve told you is going to be proven untrue. That would be really exciting, to learn something we hadn’t imagined.”
A Triumph of Teamwork
A native of Ithaca, New York, where she grew up loving animals and exploring nature, Elkins-Tanton graduated from MIT with an undergraduate degree in geology and a master’s in geochemistry. She then spent nearly 10 years working as a business consultant before returning for her PhD in geology. She credits her corporate jobs with preparing her for the challenges of leading the Psyche mission.
“Through that experience, I had some transformative insights into human organization and what causes a team to work well,” Elkins-Tanton says. She applied those lessons as she moved from a research post at Brown to the faculty at MIT and then to the Carnegie Institution for Science, where in 2011 she became director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism—and began her work on the Psyche mission. She has been at Arizona State University since 2014.
The Psyche mission is, at its heart, a triumph of teamwork, Elkins-Tanton explains. “You have to have a team where every voice can be heard,” she says. “The person who generally knows something is wrong is the person who is writing the line of code or is soldering the wire.”
A Narrative of Hope
In addition to her space research, Elkins-Tanton is the cofounder (with a few others, including her son, Turner Bohlen ’14) of Beagle Learning, an online program that provides software and instructional support to educators interested in teaching problem-solving skills—from sixth grade to grad school. In 2022, Elkins-Tanton also published a memoir, A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, which reveals some of the struggles that have shaped her life—including childhood trauma, sexism in the workplace, and ovarian cancer.
These experiences, together with Elkins-Tanton’s many notable achievements, have shaped a woman who is both resilient and firmly focused on having a positive impact on humanity. “We have so many narratives here on Earth that are narratives of fear,” she says. “Space exploration can give you a narrative of hope.”
Top photo: Lindy Elkins-Tanton ’87, SM ’87 poses in front of the Psyche spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image courtesy of Lindy Elkins-Tanton.