As a member of the Sherloc instrument team, R. Aileen Yingst responsible for helping to analyze photographs of the planet’s geology, looking for any clues in rocks or sand grains that might tell scientists whether Mars could have supported life. | Photo credit: Tiffany Dumas/The Tiffany Studio
The spark was God.
That’s how NASA scientist R. Aileen Yingst describes her involvement with numerous space missions, including the latest one involving the Perseverance Mars Rover landing in mid-February this year.
Like most of us, Aileen was home watching as the NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California skillfully landed the small car-size rover after its seven-month journey in space. As a member of the Sherloc instrument team, she’s responsible for helping to analyze photographs of the planet’s geology, looking for any clues in rocks or sand grains that might tell scientists whether Mars could have supported life.
When she heard the words, “Touchdown complete,” it was an emotional culmination of years of hard work. “I cried,” she said. “You have been working on an instrument for five to eight years, depending on which one we’re talking about, and all of that time, it is in your imagination.”
Aileen recalls as a little girl growing up in Southwest Michigan and feeling drawn to God’s “second book,” nature. She enjoyed putting puzzle pieces together outlining the planets. She would play in the sands by the Lake Michigan shores and look at the shapes of the granules and wondered how they were formed. She dreamt about flying to heaven and asking God to stop for a moment to enjoy the starry skies.
Over the years, she would learn her own valuable lessons in perseverance. What she remembers most from her years at Village Elementary and Andrews Academy were teachers, such as Mrs. Hunt and Mr. Baker, who pushed her to excel. “Mr. Baker gave me the gift of having to really work at something,” she said. His writing classes were foundational for the grant-writing skills pivotal to her science career.
These lessons propelled her toward prestigious universities, Dartmouth and Brown, and then a career in space missions. She said that although she struggled through her university calculus and physics class, she persisted because of teachers who continued to encourage her to dream big and press on.
After graduate school, Aileen moved to Wisconsin and, on the very first day of the job, her boss told her about the possibility of a grant to run NASA Space Grant program in Wisconsin. He proposed that she write a grant to move the program to where they were working, Space Explorers in Green Bay. It was a long shot. Only one position exists in each state, and the directorship is usually held by high level professors at prestigious universities, and they hold on to the job for decades. She ended up getting funded and was named the director, which she believes could only have happened as a result of God opening those doors.
In her current position as senior scientist for the non-profit corporation, Planetary Science Institute, the Brunswick Church (Maine) member mingles with colleagues, some atheists and some Christian.
“My joy is when if someone comes to me and says, ‘Aileen, I know you're a person of faith, you know I don't believe but I need to talk to somebody.’ ‘Aileen, I know you're a person of faith, so can we pray together?’” These interactions have pushed Aileen to be more analytical in how she observes the sharing of her faith.
“Those are all things that I think we as Adventist sometimes don't realize. We have a tendency to look at scientists as ‘them’ which is absolutely 180 degrees wrong. They are me; they are us. Scientists are people for whom Christ died.”
Now that the rover is on Mars and we’re beginning to get reports of sounds on the red planet, 139 million miles from Earth, what can this exploration teach non-believers about our great God of the universe?
“There is something about my business that constantly reminds me that it doesn't start with me. It starts with God,” she explains. “God is creative. We are creative because God is a creative God.
“The examples that we see are the shadows, and we have a tendency to look at those shadows and assume that they're the reality, and they are not. We are the shadows and God is the reality, and it turns my attention outward constantly. It reminds me of what it means to worship an awesome God.”
Debbie Michel, Lake Union associate director of Communication
We hosted a special broadcast featuring a dialogue with Aileen Yingst and Adventist Theological Seminary Professor Martin Hanna on the intersection of Science and theology. To view that program, visit: https://bit.ly/3834hwx