Interview with Prof. Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Interview with Prof. Lindy Elkins-Tanton


Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the Principal Investigator of the NASA Psyche mission, Arizona State University Vice President and Co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU, and co-founder of Beagle Learning, a tech company training and measuring collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking. 

Her research and efforts are focused on a positive human space exploration future, the effective leadership of teams, and education for the future of society. She has led four field expeditions in Siberia. She served on the Planetary Decadal Survey Mars panel, and the Mars 2020 Rover Science Definition Team, and now serves on the Europa Clipper Standing Review Board. 

In 2010 she was awarded the Explorers Club Lowell Thomas prize. Asteroid (8252) Elkins-Tanton is named for her. In 2013 she was named the Astor Fellow at Oxford University. She is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and of the American Mineralogical Society, and in 2018 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 

In January 2020, she was awarded The Arthur L. Day Prize and Lectureship, by the National Academy of Sciences, for her lasting contributions to the study of the physics of Earth, and for illuminating the early evolution of rocky planets and planetesimals. 

In 2021, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Elkins-Tanton received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from MIT. Together we are working toward a positive space exploration future, and toward creating a generation of problem-solvers.


1. Thank you so much for making time to answer our questions. We are sure that your experience and vision in science will be very inspiring to many young students and researchers. To begin at the beginning, can you tell us when the first time that you decided to be a scientist?


All my life I have been interested in, well, everything…playing the flute, art, botany, entomology, riding horses, working with dogs. Going into college I decided to work in science but I still did not know which science. So unlike many scientists, I was not set unwavering on my path at an early age.


2. How did you enter the field of planetary science - and you must be very happy with making the choice?


As an undergraduate I studied geology and wanted to be a field geologist, but I had serious knee problems and could not do the requisite hiking and climbing. After a master’s in geochemistry I left academia for eight years and worked in business, and then taught math at a college for two years before deciding to come back for my PhD. In my PhD I started applying knowledge of terrestrial igneous rocks and volcanic processes to lunar problems, and from there, studied magma oceans, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and finally planetesimals. So I kind of slid into planetary science. Still, I had no aspiration to propose a flight mission; that came from an email from some scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who wanted us to propose something to test a hypothesis in a paper we’d written. So rather by chance I started working on a mission.


3. Have you participated in the activities of ISSI in Bern or in ISSI-BJ? For ISSI-BJ, what do you particularly like to see to happen in the context of international cooperation.


Yes, I have participated in some ISSI Bern activities, including a conference and writing for a publication. I would love to see scientists forging strong personal bonds of work and collegiality, to help ease the tensions on the political front, and remind us that we are all humans together, endeavoring to understand our universe.


4. You are running this amazing space mission to asteroid Psyche which will be launched in August next year. What are the main scientific questions to be answered by this ambitious project?


The Psyche mission is named for its target, the asteroid (16) Psyche. (16) Psyche is one of the largest asteroids and its spectra, density, and radar characteristics indicate its surface is fine-grained metal, and its bulk composition is 30 – 60% metal. The mission has five science objectives:


Objective A: Determine whether the asteroid (16) Psyche is a core, or if it is unmelted material.

Objective B: Determine the relative ages of Psyche’s surface regions.

Objective C: Determine the global abundances, in portions of Psyche's surface that appear to be a metal phase, of light elements S, K, and Si.

Objective D: Determine whether Psyche was formed under more oxidizing or more reducing conditions than Earth's core.

Objective E: Characterize Psyche’s topography.


Of these, the first is the most important. We think, based on all available data at the moment, that the asteroid is largely made of metal. So the question becomes, how was this metal concentrated in the asteroid? Perhaps it is part of the core of a differentiated planetesimal.


5. We are most impressed by the many things happening at the Arizona State University of which you are Vice President. Among them, the Interplanetary Initiative with you as the Managing Director stands out. Can you tell us a little bit about it?


We envision an interplanetary future built upon cooperative and inclusive new structures, systems and perspectives. In Interplanetary, we are working on new organizational structures and processes that bring together all disciplines to work toward such a future.


We have developed a new way to put together interdisciplinary research teams focused on big questions rather than focused on hero leaders, and we find they have a high effectiveness and a high quality of work experience for the participants. We are working on connecting private sector, government, and university personnel in these projects. So far, our 25 pilot teams built this way have brought in a 7.5 times return on our seed money in external grants and contracts.


We also offer a cutting-edge new undergraduate degree, Technological Leadership, that offers a bachelor of science in three years. Here were are training process: How to be part of a team, how to identify and takes steps toward solving unsolved problems, how to give and receive feedback, and how to be a curious and effective human. These transferable skills are not usually taught in colleges.


The Interplanetary Initiative Lab is a flight hardware build, test, and fly facility designed for projects in partnership with outside organizations. We have a team of dedicated students to help staff new projects.

In all, we have a staff of about 15 people, 50 undergraduate majors, and hundreds of pilot team members and outside partners.



6. Would Interplanetary Initiative welcome international partnership since it is such an attractive idea? If so, what should one do to join?


We welcome all kinds of partnerships. We have several organized around specific projects, some of them pilot projects and some initiated by the partner organization. In general we like to co-create new projects with partners, since we are dedicated to creating inclusive, interdisciplinary teams. Contact through our website or via email is welcome!


7. It is very difficult to understand how you can do so many things at the same time. I am sure that you will be thinking about what to do after the Psyche mission. But please think about visiting ISSI-BJ in person and you are always welcome.


Thank you so very much for your patience and understanding! I’m so honored to have spoken in your series, and I would really love to visit in person one day. It would just have to be after Psyche launch! Many many thanks from me to you and your whole team.

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