Kathy Loftin calls environmentalism her great passion, stemming from a deep and abiding love for the planet she calls home.
Why, then, has she spent her life devising ways for people to leave Earth behind?
The Marietta native and recently-appointed chief technologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center says the two problems can’t be pulled apart. It’s through our pursuits in space, she says, that we can learn to live more sustainably on Earth.
“When we look at some of the problems that Earth has, we have limited resources, but the problems traveling in space are magnified … by doing space research, we’re looking at saving our planet,” Loftin said.
That, in short, sums up how the chemist and environmental researcher came to head up research at the United States’ signature launching pad to the cosmos.
Growing up in Marietta, as a student at Kincaid Elementary School, Loftin found herself drawn to the rivers, lakes, and forests of Cobb County. Her love of the outdoors pulled her into science, and she went on to get her master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry.
Her career began in the private sector, but 16 years ago she came to the Kennedy Space Center to work on environmental cleanup projects. Years of rocket launches had left behind buildup of trichloroethylene, an industrial degreaser, seeping into the soil and groundwater of the Florida coast. Loftin was tasked with working on a solution.
The result was the invention of emulsified zero-valent iron (a sort of metallic mayonnaise composed of soap, iron particles, and oil) which breaks down the degreaser when injected into the soil. Loftin would be listed as a co-inventor of the substance, which NASA says is its single most-licensed patent.
The projects Loftin’s been involved in lately are more outward-and-upward-looking. She rattled off a dizzying list of technologies which could sustain extended periods of space travel, or maybe one day, settlements on the Moon or Mars. The analogy she favors with lay people is that of Lewis and Clark traveling across the West; as they lived off the land, so we will have to live off space.
There’s research to extract oxygen from lunar soil, either for life support or for fuel. The same soil could be used for construction projects like launch pads and buildings. Radiation might be converted into sustainable energy. Carbon dioxide could be scrubbed into breathable air. A major initiative is looking to develop space-based plant-growing technologies — far preferable, for an astronaut, to freeze-dried meals.
“All that helps us on Earth, right?” Loftin said. “Because we have similar challenges.”
Those challenges provide one answer to the ever-present question of, Why do we go to space? But if you ask Loftin, that’s not the whole picture.
“I can tell you the logical things,” she says, her steady, meticulous cadence quickening with excitement. “Space exploration is so much more than that … I think we were all born explorers … (and) I think a lot of what motivates us, we can’t justify financially. It’s the human spirit, the desire to explore.”
Loftin and NASA’s research grows ever more urgent as environmental destruction and climate change continue apace here on Earth. It’s tempting to panic and despair, she says, but she sees cause for optimism all the time in future generations.
“What gives me a lot of comfort is when I go to schools and judge science fairs, and look at the quality of the education that’s out there, and the next generation of scientists,” said Loftin, who spends a lot of time at those events cheering kids on.
“I try to tell them to never limit yourself, always keep looking at the stars, and say that you can be absolutely anything,” she adds.
Though her day job keeps her feet in Florida and her head in the clouds, Loftin told the MDJ she keeps a place in her heart for the woodlands and waterways of Cobb County. She said she made a trip to Georgia last year to relax lakeside with friends, and offered an idea to send a shiver down the spine of the local chamber of commerce.
“If I could just bring the Space Center to Marietta,” Loftin said, “I would love that.”