KINGSTON, RI – September 23, 2022 – Those who know Paula Bontempi, dean of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, would understand why she’s excited about the Artemis moon shot, tentatively scheduled for September 27 .
Graduated from URI in 2001 with a Ph.D. of the GSO and a biological oceanographer for 25 years, she started as dean in August 2020 after a distinguished career at NASA. She most recently served as Acting Deputy Director of the space agency’s Earth Sciences Division, part of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Prior to this appointment, she spent over 16 years as a physical scientist and program manager for ocean biology. and biogeochemistry at NASA Headquarters.
She recently answered some questions about the mission and importance of ocean exploration for URI’s communications and marketing department.
Question: While serving at NASA, what projects and missions were you most excited about?
Wow, there were a lot! I loved the SeaWiFS (Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor) mission, the first mission dedicated to the color of the ocean. I was at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a URI-GSO intern when the mission launched in 1997. Perseverance/Mars 2020 was amazing. I remember the instruments chosen for the mission, including the autocopter. I love the Calipso mission, one of the first lidars (laser-based measurement systems) in space that was never built for ocean recoveries, but gave us our first look at the oceans in beyond the first optical depth. Dragonfly is ridiculously cool, heading to Titan to find clues to the origin of life and the universe. Of course, there’s the beloved PACE mission, which will detail plankton groups in the ocean from space and will revolutionize our knowledge of our living planet and allow us to better protect its resources. And who can’t mention the James Webb Space Telescopenancy?
Question: You were an earth scientist with an emphasis on ocean biology at NASA, but there must still have been great energy in your area at the start and during space missions? Can you describe how it was?
Absolutely. Whenever the agency planned a launch, or aeronautics planned a test flight, everyone gathered around a television or computer screen to watch. Even when SpaceX or other commercial companies had a TV test, we all watched. It’s absolutely amazing to be in an institution where everyone, no matter their division or management, is behind a launch or a mission. We shared successes and failures and learned together.
Question: What is the benefit of spending billions to have the United States return to the Moon and eventually go to Mars? In other words, will we learn something that can help us with our big environmental problems on Earth?
From an early age, we all have a natural curiosity to explore. Artemis is the gateway to other planets in our solar system and potentially beyond. The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities. The physical and scientific challenges of going to the Moon and beyond will bring new partnerships and facilitate new technologies and capabilities to enable human exploration. Returning to the surface of the Moon with new tools for collecting and analyzing samples can give us more insight into the history and origin of Earth and all the bodies and planets in our solar system. It may also include insight into the Earth’s climate and mineral discoveries for green infrastructure and energy. I am not an expert in planetary sciences, but Artemis could certainly lead to new strategic and commercial or economic opportunities based on the discoveries made with our international partners. Without a doubt, a mission like this will inspire the next generation of explorers.
Question: Most of the ocean remains to be explored. Shouldn’t the United States focus on the ocean and its importance in climate change and the various threats to its health and people, such as rising ocean temperatures; pollution, including microplastics and PFAS; and sea level rise?
The oceans occupy 99% of the Earth’s habitable space. Much of this space remains to be explored. Deep ocean waters and the sea floor are incredibly difficult to reach, let alone sample, but this challenge offers an opportunity to break new frontiers in technology development, including sensors, platforms, robots and instruments, communications and computing. Exploration leads to discovery, and discovery leads to research. The New York Times has published two fascinating articles on the ocean in the past few weeks: a cover story on deep-sea exploration and the nodules on the seafloor that are invaluable for their rare metals, the key to green energy infrastructure, for the large number of people. build their own submarines to explore the deep ocean.
Federal and local governments invest billions of dollars each year in disciplinary and interdisciplinary Earth system research to try to unravel the mysteries of our planet and its components, and understand its function – as the Earth changes. This information is critical to improving predictive models of Earth’s climate and weather, ensuring ocean ecosystems are protected, and sustainably managing Earth’s resources to ensure things like clean water for all. Climate change (e.g. SLR) and contaminants such as PFAS, plastics, etc. are common global challenges and countries need to work together to find innovative solutions to these challenges. We also need to improve our ability to tell our story to the public, as we all play a role in climate change as well as its solutions.
The education of Dean Bontempi
Ph.D., Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography, 2001
MS, Oceanography, Texas A&M University, 1995
BS in Biology, Boston College, 1992