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 rover that landed on Mars on February 18.
Like many of us, Aileen was home watching as the NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, United States, skillfully landed the small-car-sized 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 growing up in southwest Michigan and feeling drawn to God’s “second book,” nature. She enjoyed putting puzzle pieces together outlining the planets. Aileen would play in the sands by the Lake Michigan shores, look at the granules’ shapes, and wonder how they were formed. She dreamed about flying to heaven and asking God to stop for a moment so she could 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 Adventist Elementary School 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 encouraged her to dream big and press on.
God Ordained Her Calling
After graduate school, Aileen moved to Wisconsin and, on the first day of the job, her boss told her about the possibility of a grant to run the 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 a high-level professor at a prestigious university, and they hold on to the job for decades. Aileen 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 a senior scientist for the non-profit corporation Planetary Science Institute, she mingles with colleagues, some atheist 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 Adventists 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.”
God of Creation
Now that the rover is on Mars and reports are beginning to come back from the red planet, which averages 140 million miles of distance 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 explained. “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.”