Today, as part of its 151st Commencement exercises, Worcester Polytechnic Institute honored the 1,019 members of the undergraduate Class of 2019 in a ceremony held on the campus quadrangle. WPI President Laurie Leshin and Board of Trustees Chairman Jack Mollen presided over the celebration, at which the keynote address was given by Ellen Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
Over 850 master’s and doctoral degrees were presented in a separate ceremony on Thursday evening.
Stofan, who has more than 25 years of experience in space-related organizations and a rich background in planetary geology, also received an honorary doctor of science degree.
In her remarks, Stofan lauded the graduating seniors, whom she called “the next generation of STEM innovators,” before pointedly asking, “Where do you go from here?” She noted that students are graduating 50 years after the Apollo 11 Moon landing on July 20, 1969. The historic milestone was spurred, in part, Stofan noted, by the challenge President John F. Kennedy placed before Congress in an address in May 1961.
She then quoted from a speech Kennedy delivered at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, in which he said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Kennedy’s speech would come to be known as the “Apollo Moonshot.”
“And that phrase, ‘moonshot,’ has come to mean more than just spaceflight,” said Stofan. “It stands for what President Kennedy called ‘a goal that serves to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.’”
“So, what is your moonshot?” Stofan asked the graduates, telling them that a moonshot can be societal or personal, and that it can change the world or simply change one life.
“Perhaps your moonshot is to create a life-saving vaccine or cure. Or to help a rural community create sustainable systems. Or to stem climate change. Maybe it’s to go to graduate school or to one day be a professor and become a guiding light for your students. Or maybe your moonshot will one day take you to the Moon or Mars and you will be the next person to walk on the lunar or Martian surface,” she said.
Stofan described her own moonshot, which was to send a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon Titan to sail on its methane ocean. Stofan and her colleagues submitted a proposal to NASA for a Discovery class mission, and they became one of three finalists. For the next eight months, Stofan and her team worked tirelessly on the proposal, but they lost to the Mars InSight mission.