Zach Pirtle Explores Ethics for Mars Landings

NASA’s Artemis project aims to establish a long-term human presence on the moon—and then put astronauts on Mars. So in addition to designing rockets and spacesuits, NASA is also exploring the ethical and societal implications of living in space. In the third episode of our Science Policy IRL series, Zach Pirtle, who got his undergraduate degrees in engineering and philosophy at Arizona State University, explains how he came to work in the agency’s Office of Technology Policy and Strategy, where he recently organized a seminar on space ethics. He also works as a program executive within the Science Mission Directorate working on commercial lunar payload services. Zach joins Issues editor-in-chief Lisa Margonelli to talk about how he almost accidentally found his way to a perfect career, and how agencies engage hands-on in science policy as they figure out how to implement legislation.

Is there something about science policy you’d like us to explore? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected], or by tagging us on social media with the hashtag #SciencePolicyIRL.

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Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, engineering and Medicine and Arizona State University. My name is Lisa Margonelli and I’m the editor-in-chief at Issues. This is the third episode in our Science Policy IRL series, where we explore what science policy is and how people build careers in it. 

We often think of science policy as happening at high levels. Congress decides how much money to appropriate for scientific research or the president sets a goal for getting to the moon or curing cancer. But a lot of hands-on science policy is made within federal agencies as they define and pursue their mission. In this episode, we talk with Zach Pirtle about doing science policy at NASA. Zach works in NASA’s office of Technology Policy and Strategy, and he’s also a program executive within the Science Mission Directorate working on commercial lunar payload services. Welcome, Zach.

Zach Pirtle: Thank you, Lisa. Very happy to be here.

Margonelli: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this conversation. So my first question is the same first question as always, how do you define science policy?

Pirtle: I’ve thought a lot about how to answer this, and by training, I’m an engineer, although I also have a degree in philosophy and I work at NASA headquarters. My trainings in engineering, I think science policy science and engineering policy, sort of my passion, it’s this way in which all the programmatic things surrounding the technical work that scientists and engineers do are shaped in order to provide some deeper benefit to society, to the public. And I think there’s different levels at which policy occurs. A lot of people focus on national policy, things that come out of Congress, out of the White House. But having spent my career at NASA headquarters for 13 and a half years now, there’s so many things that happen to implement all of that, that the implementation itself almost becomes policy. The nuances of how do you set up and manage a program, how do you decide what the long-term planning should be and what the rules should be that inspired that.

Right now NASA’s been doing a lot of work to plan how we’re going to go to explore not just to the moon, but also to go on towards Mars and beyond. And there’s been a lot of effort to figure out what the architecture for that should look like. And so from a systems engineering sense, that’s what are all the pieces you need to explore into deep space and what functions do they need to accomplish and how do you manage the art of balancing everything together to have a program that can explore towards the moon and beyond in a way that’s safe, that is reasonably timely and that can accomplish a myriad of scientific and other goals. And so there’s this constant balance that while Congress has passed many different laws about how we need to explore and go beyond, there’s a lot of things that are left to a federal agency to decide about how to go about and to implement that.

And so I think for me, this effort to benefit society policy work at NASA is oftentimes trying to think through how do we strategically identify what our long-term goals are? How do we get from where we are today towards those goals and how do we also manage this huge institution that we have? I think looking at a workforce, looking at people, looking at all that I think matters deeply. And there’s also an implicit thing that I really care deeply about as an engineer, that as we’re building systems today, we’re often locking in consequences that will shape what’s done, what we actually do on the moon. So it’s really exciting that we’re getting ready to have our first commercial moon or landings that are set to occur this January. And the types of science that we’re doing is really influenced by engineering decisions that were made a long time ago. And I think there’s more that engineers could do to help reflect on that because in some ways engineers are implicitly shaping policy by some of the technical decisions that they make.

Margonelli: Have opened up so many different things in this one of them being that science policy for you is not just about implementing or getting to say the moon. It is about building and setting up systems that enable things for the future, which is a really interesting perspective. So I want to ask you a little bit about how do you do science policy in your day-to-day life? What’s a day in the life of Zach Pirtle?

Pirtle: So for my work for the Office of Technology Policy and Strategy, the policy shop is really focused on providing good evidence backed advice to the NASA administrator and to try to provide strategic assessments and studies to help the administrator achieve the goals for the country that we’re looking for from the space program. And so sometimes there are special requests that pop up about looking at what are the major policy questions leading up to a upcoming Artemis landing. An Artemis for us is our series of human missions that will land on the moon and that will help to pave the way towards increasingly more complex missions towards Mars eventually. And so there’s different things that pop up, so specific studies that I’m called to help serve on. For example, I organized a workshop in April about what are the ethical and societal implications of the overall moon to Mars effort and how should we think about them?

So for a day-to-day perspective, it’s almost like organizing a wedding, trying to get a lot of great experts, different perspectives. We really sought to get in people from social science and humanities backgrounds that could help to understand the broader societal impact of space flight in a way that trained engineers often aren’t encouraged or asked to look into. There were different NASA engineers and scientists in the room along with these outside scholars. It was a bit of trying to get people to talk the same language, whereas people are coming from very different backgrounds, but ended up being very exciting and affirming and that we had a wonderful conversation and that a lot of people are trying to think through how could we do better and how could we try to think about these longer term implications. Now, there’s a lot to unpack in that if I were to more literally say what’s done in a day, there could be three or four engineering status tag up that I need to dial into in a day.

Margonelli: What is an engineering status tag up?

Pirtle: So we’ve got different deliveries that we’re sending science and technology payloads to the moon, and I have to help oversee two of those deliveries, including the third intuitive machines delivery, which is a company that’s part of our commercial linear payload services work that’s going to deliver a rover to Reiner Gamma, which has this fascinating magnetic swirls on the surface of the moon. And we understand exactly what past magnetic activity caused and created those swirls. So we’re hoping to do really good science on that, but we’ve been tracking and working to look at are the instruments on track? Are we going to be okay with having lunar lander ready? We’re actively managing budgets and trying to make sure that we’re able to balance and look at all the funding that we have to get our activities to work together towards doing more science on the moon. So there’s a lot going on there. NASA headquarters is this fun barrier between the NASA centers that are leading the work on the technical side, and we’re trying to provide a strategic and unified vision on how to help our stakeholders in Congress and the White House and internationally as we’re trying to move forward. So there’s a lot that goes on there from an engineering and policy perspective.

Margonelli: So you have these phone calls where you check in on a rover that’s going to drive around these magnetic swirls and measure them. Yeah,

Pirtle: Make sure the rover’s on track to succeed too. Yeah, want to make sure they’re going to succeed.

Margonelli: Wow. Well that sounds pretty exciting. I mean, what’s your favorite part of your job?

Pirtle: I have to say the work I’m doing for the OTPS, the policy shop and helping engineers think this bigger picture, I’m very lucky I’m able to do this, stay connected towards engineering work. We’re going back to the moon for the first time in 50 years, but to also try to think bigger and to try to do these studies that are pushing the boundary on how are the engineering decisions we’re making today really going to shape humanity’s future in space and are there ways we should be doing it better? I feel that’s something that NASA can help lead, and I’m so excited that OTPS and NASA have been pursuing this work.

Margonelli: Okay, so you’ve got a degree in engineering and you’ve got a degree in philosophy and you end up at NASA doing sort of a mixture of engineering things that are going to the moon and the philosophy of space travel to Mars at a certain level. And so how did you get this job? What was your path? First of all, you start off as an engineer. Why did you become an engineer

Pirtle: In high school? I was a speech and debate fan. I just loved trying to have principled arguments to try to think through debate to the pros and cons of something. And I also love science fiction deeply. I kind of stumbled into engineering. My was an engineer and my brother ended up also becoming an engineer. And I think I was trying to search for something that was more than just the technical work. And I was lucky as an undergrad at Arizona State, I took a philosophy of science class about my second or third year and helped really crystallize for me like, holy cow, the reason why you do all these endless homework assignments is that you’re actually learning a paradigm about how to do engineering and that the pain is actually for a deeper and higher purpose. And eventually I was able to get a job as an engineering intern, and I got to see the context there. And then I was so lucky that I ended up working with people like Dan Sarewitz at Arizona State’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes. And a lot of what I was saying earlier really follows from Sarah Wit’s vision about whether science policy matters and how you can do more good for society. And that for me, that was crystallizing. I ended up getting hired after my master’s degree through something called the Presidential Management Fellowship.

Margonelli: Just to back up for a second. Okay, so you got a master’s degree in philosophy or you got the master’s degree in engineering? 

Pirtle: Got the master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, but I had a philosopher as my co-chair for my committee. At a certain point in time, I really thought I was going to go become a philosopher of science, but who focused on engineering in a very rigorous and technical way. And after that degree I was actually hired by NASA and ended up getting into an engineering role, and I did later pursue and finish my PhD in systems engineering again with the philosopher of science on my committee. So I’ve tried to keep staying in both of those worlds and philosophy of science is really, it’s something special about getting towards the conceptual foundations and also the values that underlie a lot of what scientists and engineers do. So a lot of my work was on modeling. And how do you think about values and sort of the epistemic limits of modeling?

Margonelli: It’s not like an easy jump. Just to go from this interesting mix of things that you were studying to the government. How did you get involved in government work?

Pirtle: I was very fortunate I was going to apply for PhD programs right after my master’s degree and someone when I was actually interning at the National Academies through their resign program, which is a wonderful policy fellowship, I encouraged people to look at it. And I was working for the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society and someone told me Apply for the Presidential Management Fellowship PMF. And that’s an informal way to describe it, is that it’s a way to get hired by anyone with a recent graduate degree that’s a US citizen that can sort of skip the USA jobs hiring process. And it makes it much easier to get hired. It’s just as open. And I think there’s a lot of pros to the PMF program versus other more well-known science policy programs like the AAAS Science Policy Fellows program, PMF, you’re a civil servant from day one, and there’s generally a clear intent that they hire you on long-term if it hadn’t have been for the PMF and getting hired on at NASA in 2010.

I didn’t know anyone as a civil servant growing up. I didn’t know how things worked inside government. I’d worked with some great people like Dan Sarewitz who knew a lot about how worked, but they never were inside the executive branch, which is where most of the science policy jobs I think are. And so for me it was transformative to get into the federal government. I began to realize that there’s so many decisions being made inside of a government agency that outside academics have a hard time knowing about or even knowing the context of how to make their own research relevant. And it became very clear and important to me that there could be a role of helping to improve policymaking and policy reflection from inside government. It’s also good for a government agency too. I think it’s been helpful for NASA to think about more deeply and to have a little bit more structured time on how can we best accomplish our goals.

Margonelli: So you got the presidential management fellowship and you immediately got snatched up by NASA? Yeah. Was it clear that you were going to NASA when you applied for the fellowship?

Pirtle: So this is getting a little personal. I actually was so naive as a 24-year-old looking to get hired. I told a lot of agencies that I wanted to serve for two years as a fellow and then go off into a PhD elsewhere. And after having nine interviews at the job fair, the only agency that actually called me back was NASA because they were willing to take a chance on me. It turned out I ended up being able to finish my PhD on the side while working here at NASA. And it was wonderful. And actually the George Washington Systems Engineering PhD program, and my advisors always Shane Farber were the perfect fit for me. But yeah, I didn’t understand that PMF really was a way that agencies are looking to hire for a career purpose. I thought it was just like another fancy fellowship that one could explore. And so I’m very glad that NASA took that chance on me. But once you’re hired and once you’re inside the government, you don’t need to look back. You’re in. And I do spend a lot of time talking to science policy graduate students or STEM grad students about just the importance and the ways in which they could contribute inside government. I do strongly encourage people who are interested in science policy to check out the PMF.

Margonelli: It seems like it was really fortuitous that you got picked up by NASA, but maybe you can explain just the fact that they were willing to take a chance on you suggests that some agencies are different than other agencies. I mean, each agency kind of has its own mission and do they also have their own personality?

Pirtle: Yeah, I think that’s very true. As a PMF, I was lucky to be in a cohort with people at different agencies. I’m also lucky that NASA regularly for 11 years running has been the best voted best agency to work at based on employee satisfaction. I do think the way in which people make decisions at NASA, the long-term strategic perspective, we do have a complex interplay of how we interact with industry, but it is very different from other agencies that are a lot more regulatory and focused. I do think from an engineering perspective, there’s a deep richness of jobs, whereas some other agencies, it’s harder to be able to do engineering work in line. So NASA as an engineering mission-focused agency is special in that sense. I’ve been involved in hiring for other people. Sometimes it’s a complex mix of what an agency is looking for and also just trying to find someone that you can shape and find.

That’s why for me, even though I probably wasn’t the perfect candidate for NASA back when I was 24 in 2010, I could see there’s a lot of people that come out of a master’s degree or a PhD that can still be shaped by an agency. So even if you think you’re not a perfect match, there’s ways in which an agency can look at you and find a lot of value. And it does depend a lot on culture. The agency you’re going to, it depends a lot on the individual supervisor that you have, but once you’re inside the federal government, there’s a lot of different worlds you can explore.

Margonelli: So you have a really solid foot in academia and you’ve thought about the way academia looks at science policy and the way that it looks at what goes on inside agencies. And then you’ve also got this other foot inside NASA. And what have you learned about the difference between the way we think policy gets made and the way you see it getting made on the ground or in space?

Pirtle: That’s a great example. I think, yeah, and when I was hired in 2010, it was right as the space shuttle was ending and the Constellation program was being ended as well and moving towards the space launch system, which flew successfully as part of the Artemis one mission last year. And I was very lucky to be able to spend several years working to set up the management and systems engineering function that led our NASA human space flight efforts for several years. It was so exciting to be there in setting up the new human space flight programs, the space launch system, and Orion, there’s some constraints historically that government agencies have to operate under. There could be politics that play a part in shaping, influencing what’s done, and also there’s a lot of deep uncertainty about how much is something going to cost, when is something going to be able to fly?

And just the art of how you manage that and manage a lot of people, it can be very difficult. There’s lots of people who can come up with a great PowerPoint idea, but trying to have something that is realistic and executable as an engineering term that you can actually perform and go do the mission. I think a lot of academics on the outside, they don’t understand the things that people inside are focused on to make decisions. And I think that we did touch on this a little bit in the ethics workshop where we actually had some of the things that we talk about in our report there are about just the challenges of thinking long-term about the ultimate benefits of space flight and how do you think about it? And even coming to the vocabulary that engineers can use to think and reflect on that.

So I think that there’s deep complexities. What I wish people really knew about that interface is that it requires careful cultivation, academics and government personnel. There needs to be time to develop trust. There needs to be time to talk and communicate and develop that framework about how to do things. But one amazing thing about being a civil servant is that you are doing things for the greater good. It’s clear as an agency what your ultimate goals are. And it’s a lot of fun when I’m able to sit back and a lot of my very busy colleagues and if we’re able to sit back and reflect for a little bit about, Hey, if we did this slightly differently, we could have this much better impact for society. And then people are like, wow, that’s a great idea. Let’s try to explore that.

Margonelli: That’s cool because that’s not, I mean, you could be sitting at a large corporation and when you sat back, that’s not what you were discussing. That’s not what you would be discussing if you were at a large corporation sometimes is what is best for society. So after you got into NASA, were there further ways that you got into policy? How did you end up in policy or did they just plop you into policy?

Pirtle: It’s a great question. I focused on my work in the missions at NASA, which we call Mission Directorates, which are responsible for executing our mission and running and managing our programs. And I focused on being very good at helping things pass and evolve through the NASA headquarters ecosystem. I kept my interest going academically. I was doing my PhD on the side. There was one effort four years after I started where there was a citizen forum that another part of NASA had worked to organize to think through what should NASA’s goals be with the asteroid mission. And that was my first chance to actually dip into policy formally inside NASA. Being a civil servant, you’re inside the building. And I just offered and volunteered with my boss’s approval like, Hey, I could help out. And I ended up helping to co-lead a lot of the effort to execute the citizen form with Jason Kessler.

And I know you’ve helped publish a little bit of that journey with at the Issues website, but for me, that was the first chance to actually implement a lot of the ideas I’d written about academically. Thinking about when I worked with Dan Sarewitz, I’m really proud of the publications that we did, thinking through how engineers could use some of this public opinion and public values to think through how we might approach something like redirecting an asteroid so that humans can engage with it. How should we think about some of the challenges with going towards Mars? And I’ve kept up a work in the policy sphere. I try to always have one toe dipped in there despite my engineering work. And I’ve been able to do other things such as a historical article on where does innovation come from and the DODs old Project Hindsight report, there’s a few different things that I’ve been able to keep an interest in and to work on that help me stay sharp and stay creative, and they give me an excuse to go and talk to really smart academics on the outside that I hope to learn from and to help bridge their ideas inside of NASA so that their work can helpfully make people be more reflective as well.

Margonelli: So you had Dan Sarewitz as a mentor in academia, and you probably had other mentors as well, but did you find mentors within NASA?

Pirtle: I think two of my first bosses, Dan Dun Barker and Bill Hill, those are some of the best years of my career working for them. They had a passion about how do we do the mission and also a desire to how can we think about doing the mission better? And NASA was sort of relearning how to do big rocket development for the first time in generations, and the sky was sort of the limit on how do we think about this? And they really empowered me to engage on these policy projects. I’m very thankful that my current office and the Science Mission directorate is supportive of my working on this big picture work on the ethics of Moon de Mars and to work on that. I think there’s a number of engineers that get excited for a chance to think about the questions that sometimes you’re just too busy to be able to think about, and there needs to be some small part of NASA that’s thinking about those in a more structured way.

Margonelli: Well, this is all really cool. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about what are the big questions that motivate you to do this work? You’ve talked a little bit about the ethics of space travel. You’ve talked about engineering ethics. What are the big questions that keep you up at night or get you out of bed in the morning?

Pirtle: Yeah, the report that we publish based on our workshop, Artemis Ethics and Society is available and we focus on a few things that I think are vitally important, one of which I already alluded to, which is just about the challenge culturally of how do you work with scientists and engineers to think about and talk about these topics? How do you have a language for thinking about these things? There’s sometimes are engineers who are like, my job is purely technical. How am I even supposed to think about the broader societal impact? And there are ways if you start to break it down and dig into it, but it takes time and effort to attend to that. And we’re lucky in the workshop report, which is reflecting the discussion by participants, not necessarily NASA’s views per se, but we’re able to talk about different ideas and concepts for thinking about that.

I think some of the deep questions there that participants raised at the workshop that do come to my mind on a regular basis is how can we best understand what our ultimate impact on society is and are there ways in which we can steer what we’re doing now today towards more beneficial goals, and also to avoid negative unintended consequences? I think we’re going to be learning a lot in the next few years, especially with hopefully things stay on track for our January landing with commercial landers. But I think just the idea is that we’re doing so many things right now for the first time and it might set precedence for decades to come. And are we doing all that we can to try to do the right thing to nudge it? We do talk in the report about are there policy and management mechanisms by which we could think about these issues a little bit more and how could we, are there avenues by which we could talk to other countries and think about how collectively humanity thinks we should be exploring these process issues on how to best be reflective about ethical and societal issues.

And so I am passionate about that. There’s a lot of work there and NASA, the web feature that announced our report being sent out had some comments about how NASA is going to continue to do work in this area. And when we’re able to talk about it, we will. A lot of it’s in formulation, but I do think just these deep questions are important for engineers and also just anyone who’s interested in space travel to help reflect on a bit more. I do think that if someone’s listening to this who’s interested in space, but they don’t have a technical background, I think their perspective can still be vitally valuable and trying to reflect on what the overall objectives should be for going towards Moon to Mars and what are some considerations about how we should implement it. I do think everyone can have an important viewpoint that can help shape this.

It’s the ultimate question. This comes back to something that a foster science would say is a basic insight, but many of these questions about what we should do in space, there’s no technical right answer. A lot of it is based on what are our values and our ultimate goals and how should we help to steer that in more beneficial ways? And so I think it’s something that engineers have a responsibility to consider because engineers are shaping things in ways that will set these precedents for decades. But it’s also this idea of science policy and this broader sense about how do we ultimately benefit society. It’s something that everyone should be able to reflect on.

Margonelli: What are the things that you worry about as maybe negative outcomes of space travel or engineering decisions?

Pirtle: So some of the concerns that people raised at the workshop were tied to how do we actually make sure that we’re able to share the benefits of what we do in space? And NASA does a lot with ensuring transparency and sharing of data as we do science going abroad, but as people look more towards resource utilization and other activities on the moon, it’s a bit more uncertain about how to understand how benefits are going to be shared. I do think that there are cultural sensitivities that are tied towards the moon and what payloads are done there. Famously, if you go back towards Apollo B, Aldrin took communion prior to the Apollo 11 landing, and there were lots of different viewpoints of what happened on earth, but I do think that topics tied to that could continue to pop up based upon what payloads are privately sent to the moon.

I think that trying to make sure we think about opportunity costs and that we’re able to do enough science as we’re going out for human exploration. That’s something that I also care a lot about in my science mission director job, is trying to make sure that we’re able to translate the science requirements that we get from the National Academies and the Decal survey and to make those salient to the systems engineering planners who are doing our Moon Mars architecture. And I do think it’s really tough to think about all these issues. Oftentimes, NASA we’re given challenges where we have a lot of content, a lot of work to do, and there’s not necessarily enough money to do all of it. And so how do we do? We manage that carefully, and I think sometimes you have to make a decision that is the right thing for that time, but it’s one that you hope you can improve on later on.

Margonelli: It’s an interesting portrait that you’ve given us of this job where it’s really beyond the sky is the limit in terms of what you’re supposed to do. Your space is the limit. Mars is the limit. Somewhere beyond Mars is the limit. You don’t really know where the limit is. And at the same time, there are lots and lots of limits. There are ethical limits, there are practical limits, there are time-based limits. It’s a lot to balance.

Pirtle: I think that’s actually going back to your first question on what science policy is. I think science and engineering policy is a matter of dealing with all these programmatic factors, these things that influence how you manage, how you plan, and how you implement, and you do all this work. So I think it all hangs together. It’s not just thinking about what’s the ultimate dollars for science or exactly what science you’re going to get. It’s more holistic, more things are involved.

Margonelli: You have two little kids. Do you hope that they get to travel to Mars?

Pirtle: That’s a great question. Personally, I don’t want to risk the chance of them not coming back, but if it really meant something to them, I think I’d be excited about it. I do hope they live in a world where, this is my philosopher hat on for a second. I do hope they live in a world where given just how much science and engineering affect our lives, that we’re reflective about this and we’re trying to do the best we can to make the world a better place, that engineers are trying to do the best that they can to do that. I do believe that something exciting in space occurring is part of that future world that I hope my kids grow up in, but being astronauts themselves might make me a little bit too scared as a dad.

Margonelli: Thank you, Zach. It’s been great to talk to you about this, and I’m really happy to know that someone who’s thinking about all these things is also thinking about how to get us all into space.

Pirtle: Thank you, Lisa.

Margonelli: If you’d like to learn more about Zach’s work, check out the resources in our show notes. You can subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our podcast producers, Sydney O’Shaughnessy and Kimberly Quach, and our audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief at Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for listening.