Real Talk with Jennifer Heldmann

A planetary scientist offers up insights and advice.
By TFK Kid Reporter Mira McInnes
As seen on
Time for Kids
NASA engineer Jennifer Heldmann
NASA engineer Jennifer Heldmann speaks at a Space Camp Hall of Fame ceremony in 2017.

Jennifer Heldmann is a planetary scientist. Her team at NASA is looking for water on the moon and Mars. The research will help determine if astronauts can live in these places. Heldmann spoke with TFK Kid Reporter Mira McInnes.

1. Why are scientists excited about discovering water on the moon?

When I was in school, we learned that there was no water on the moon, that the place was dry, and that there was no ice. Then we started sending missions there. And the data told us that “Hey, maybe there is water on the moon!” That’s really exciting for a scientist. We love to discover something new.

2. How will your research be important for future lunar missions?

If we learn how to use the moon’s water, we can have a base there. Astronauts won’t need to take water with them from Earth. They can use the moon’s water to brush their teeth or take a bath. And if you break apart the hydrogen and oxygen in water, you can make rocket fuel.

3. What do you hope to find out about Mars?

There are places on Mars where liquid water has been flowing recently. It’s only a little bit, but it means that somewhere, somehow, there’s liquid water on Mars. So we wonder: Is there anything living in the water? Are there microbes? Could there be life on a planet besides Earth?

4. You also do research in Iceland and Antarctica. What can those places teach us about other planets?

We learn how ice and water work in cold environments—when water freezes, when it flows, how to drill into ice. Then we apply that knowledge to other planets. We can know how water behaves on the moon and Mars because we understand how it behaves on Earth.

5. How did you become interested in space science?

When I was 10 years old, I saw the movie SpaceCamp. It’s about a group of kids at a space camp who get launched into space. I loved the movie. Then, when I was in high school, I went to train at Space Camp, in Alabama. It was the most awesome experience ever.

6. What advice can you offer kids who might like to become space scientists?

Read as many books as you can. Visit a science museum or planetarium. Email scientists and ask, “What got you interested?” Kids are the future of space exploration. They are going to be the scientists, engineers, astronauts, and artists who’ll make these missions happen, especially when we start sending people farther out into the solar system.

7. What’s one question about space that science has yet to answer?

The biggest question is, “Are we alone?” We don’t yet know if there’s life on other planets in our solar system, or in other solar systems. It would be exciting to understand our place in the universe.

8. Do you have plans to travel to space?

Not any time soon. My work is on the ground, making sure astronauts have a safe and productive flight.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was originally published in TIME for Kids on November 7, 2019.