Kathleen Loftin ’89 ’00MS ’09PhD is in her happy place on a Saturday morning: pulling weeds in her garden. The work is peaceful, filthy, and as down to earth as you can possibly be.
“Papayas grow without much effort,” Loftin says, sounding more like a wonder-struck gardener than the center chief technologist at Kennedy Space Center. Actually, she’s both. Loftin spends Monday through Friday leading a team of researchers who are figuring out how to sustain healthy human life from the moon to Mars, and yet here she is, mesmerized with papayas.
“They could be the answer to world hunger,” says Loftin, who studied chemistry at UCF.
She’s joking. Or is she? You’d be wise to never doubt Loftin and her easy-going nature. Others have made that mistake, which she uses as fuel in her personal mission to take us to unimaginable places.
Here she shares her inspirations for pursuing a career in STEM and her contributions to field of space exploration.
On being a modern scientist:
People are always surprised to hear what I do. The women in my book club and in our bunco group will hear me talk about NASA and say, “Really? You’re a researcher in space exploration? You?” I guess they’re used to a stereotype of a scientist — it isn’t someone who kayaks and works the garden on weekends.
On what keeps her inspired:
A UCF professor said something I think about daily. The late Chris Clausen, my chemistry professor, would say, “What did you do to push the boundaries of science today?” That question still inspires me. It brings me out of the weeds to realize the magnitude of what we’re doing at Kennedy Space Center. Our work is much, much bigger than myself.
On supporting life on Mars:
Did you see The Martian? It’s based on the novel by Andy Weir, but the idea comes from NASA’s research on In-Situ Resource Utilization [ISRU]. Do you know the part in the movie where Matt Damon grows potatoes on Mars? We’ve been working on something like that for years as a way to sustain human space explorers on long duration missions. And now with the upcoming Artemis I flight we’re bringing it a step closer to reality. It’s the first in a series of launches that will take us closer to our goal: to allow humans to live on the moon and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars — and to bring them back safely.
On her role with NASA:
My role is very technical. I oversee the research and technological efforts of the mission. It’s why I love gardening — to keep my brain in balance. Both of my passions are helpful in my work with Artemis. Think about it. When Lewis and Clark trekked across America, they had to figure out ways to use the land. They couldn’t carry everything necessary for survival. It’s a similar concept with ISRU. When we go to the moon or Mars, there is a limit on what we can take. So we’re learning how to break down the moon’s soil into breathable oxygen and how to use the metals there to build launch pads, parts, and infrastructure. From there we can learn how to sustain life on Mars in the future for months or years. How exciting is that?
On finding her passion for science:
This all started with rocks. They fascinated me as a young girl when our family would camp in north Georgia. I’d find quartz and amethyst, or jade when we traveled out west. In 8th grade I brought the rock collection to my science teacher, and she showed a genuine interest. Her encouragement helped me create an identity for myself in science.
On rising to the challenge:
Teachers sometimes underestimated me. My chemistry teacher in 10th grade said, “Boys are better in science, so I don’t expect girls to do as well.” I can’t imagine a teacher saying that today. Back then, I took it as a challenge. I thought, “Game on! Let’s go!” I still feel that way.
On her time at UCF:
I’ve always felt that I got a lot of bang for my buck at UCF. As an undergraduate in chemistry, I could get my hands into meaningful research. It didn’t matter that I was a girl or that I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree yet. There were no limitations.
And then there were the shuttle launches. We’d stand on a roof at UCF to watch them, and the entire building would shake under our feet. I loved that so much. I still love every launch. It’s hard to explain what it does to my soul whenever a rocket goes up.
On pivoting her career:
I didn’t plan this career. I’m an inventor. In the early 2000s I was part of a team that developed a product [zero-valent iron, or EZVI] to clean chlorinated chemicals out of the environment. We happened to bring our work over to NASA, and the place amazed me. The scientists and their work … I wanted to be around it.
On another great woman in STEM:
The woman who changed my life is still at UCF. Cherie Yestrebsky ’90. We were undergraduates together. We both took breaks from our career pursuits to raise our families. We worked on the EZVI product together and she’s now the chair of UCF’s chemistry department. We’re both in the Space Technology Hall of Fame. It means a lot to have another woman, who’s also a mother, motivating you to push further and further.
On the magic of science:
Science can be so cool. When my kids were little, I’d go to their classes with a full-on lab coat and do chemical “magic shows.” We’d make shuttles out of hot dogs, cheese sticks, ketchup, and mustard. After 30 minutes, all these first graders felt like scientists. They could identify all parts of a shuttle — and then eat it.
On being limitless:
My message for girls and women: Never doubt yourself. If anyone doubts you, use it as motivation. I still do that. We’re all capable of anything. There is no glass ceiling. Just look how far we’ve come and look what we’re about to do next.