The former Nasa engineer from Putaruru who's helping to save the planet

by Clare de Lore / 08 July, 2018
Delwyn Moller in the Nasa shuttle simulator in 2000. Photo/Moller family collection

Delwyn Moller in the Nasa shuttle simulator in 2000. Photo/Moller family collection

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Kiwi scientist Delwyn Moller has returned home to work on issues like climate change and food security at the newly established Centre for Space Science Technology.

Some of the answers to the biggest questions facing humankind are being tackled in the small Central Otago town of Alexandra. Former Nasa engineer Delwyn Moller has returned home after 26 years in the US to become director of research at the recently established Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST), one of the Government’s new regional research institutes. She has been given a clean sheet of paper to establish a centre of excellence to contribute to New Zealand and the world by providing critical data for scientists dealing with issues such as climate change and food security. Over time, the centre will become self-funding through its commercial activities.

After graduating from the University of Auckland, Moller left New Zealand in 1992 to do her OE. She planned to stop in the US just long enough to get a PhD, but ended up staying, eventually working at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She earned international recognition as an engineer, designing technology that enabled Earth observation through spatial mapping. (Although she never met him, Moller was well aware of the reputation of fellow Kiwi Sir William Pickering, who headed JPL for 22 years until he retired in the mid-1970s.)

She is one of Putaruru’s two famous Mollers. Olympic marathon bronze medallist Lorraine Moller is her older sister. Delwyn’s husband, Brian Pollard, designed the radar technology used to land the Mars Curiosity Rover. They have 11-year-old twins, Lena and Baxter.

Moller (3) with her family in 1971. Photo/Moller family

Moller (3) with her family in 1971. Photo/Moller family

You started out in small-town New Zealand and now you’re back in a small town. What was family life like in Putaruru?

There were six of us, four close together, then my brother, and then me eight years later. I was more or less an only child. We talk about the Moller characteristics: we can be pretty stubborn, determined and driven in our own ways. As kids, we would go off for the day. Now, my children have a lot more freedom than they had in LA, and they are loving it. Eleven is a good age to start to become more self-sufficient and learn to navigate your way in the world.

Your résumé includes helicopter pilot, purple belt in jiu-jitsu, tornado chaser and working as an emergency medical technician (EMT). What drove you to take on or learn these skills?

I felt so helpless watching what happened during the 9/11 attacks, so I got my EMT qualification after that. I didn’t know what I would do with that qualification, as there is no career path, it’s poorly paid and I already had a career. Then I found out about the reserve programme in Pasadena, which is unique and enables you to volunteer and work on 911 calls to the Fire Department. You see a different slice of society and it served my desire to help and give back in a way that suited my temperament.

Moller in Alexandra. Photo/Moller family

Moller in Alexandra. Photo/Moller family

What did you help the paramedics with?

One woman called 911 because her kid wouldn’t take his Tylenol and she wanted us to make him. At the other end of the scale, we dealt with drive-by shootings and car accidents. I did about 80 hours a month. After I had kids, I continued it for a while, but as they got older, I wanted to spend more time with them.

You used to fly helicopters for fun. Why did you give it up?

I have given it up, but moving to Wanaka, it is so, so tempting [to start again]. But it’s expensive and it’s dangerous if you don’t keep up your hours. It’s hard to justify in terms of the family budget.

Graduating University of Auckland, 1990.

Are you especially brave or fearless?

There are plenty of things I am scared of. Fear is a reasonable thing, but when I was about 20, I decided I wouldn’t let it stop me doing something I really wanted to do. There are things that scare me that I intentionally won’t do. For example, do I really need or want to swim with sharks? No, I don’t need that experience. And I am terrified of getting up on stage. That is about my self-worth, but I needed to get past that, so it’s not an issue now. Jiu-jitsu used to scare the heck out of me, so I started doing it. My children were doing it, so I thought, if I expect them to be able to deal with it, then I can, too.

What’s driven your success?

Perseverance counts for a lot. I felt daunted doing my undergrad degree. After exams, the guys would be talking about their answers and I would walk away thinking I had failed and questioning what I was doing there. Then the results came out and I would usually do fine. It was the same with my PhD. Each step of the way has been daunting. When I ended up at Nasa’s JPL, where people are brilliant, I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” It has taken a long time, but now I’m confident. I know what I know, I know my skill set and what I’m good at.

With husband Brian Pollard and their twins, Lena and Baxter, in New Zealand. Photo/Moller family

With husband Brian Pollard and their twins, Lena and Baxter, in New Zealand. Photo/Moller family

What lured you back to New Zealand?

The establishment of Rocket Lab here has created a lot of buzz and excitement in the space sector, and that prompted me to look at possibilities in New Zealand. CSST is a unique opportunity. My charter, as director of research, is to use Earth observation data, and it can be from any source – satellite-based, airborne, in situ monitoring – to do something relevant to New Zealand or its interests. That is pretty broad. On the personal front, we are an outdoors family and, unlike LA, the outdoors is part of everyday life in Wanaka.

What ideas do you have, given your background in remote sensing of the Earth’s surface, especially in relation to the environment?

I am not a climate-change scientist, but the work I have been involved in has given some sobering results. Sometimes I try not to think too much in real-world terms because if you think, for example, about the plight of the polar bears, it is upsetting. We need more information so we can better plan, predict and understand what is going on. That is our chance for a more sustainable future and living in the changing climate. Food security is an issue. As the climate changes and warms, it’s not necessarily in a linear fashion. One area may become colder and another warmer. If we can better forecast and plan, we can work out how to use water resources and decide which crops would be best in these regions. This information will help us make more intelligent decisions for the sustainability of humanity.

At a Nasa event on Capitol Hill, 2015. Photo/Moller family

At a Nasa event on Capitol Hill, 2015. Photo/Moller family

Climate change is a political hot potato. Are you optimistic that the right decisions will be made?

I would like to influence intelligent decision-making rather than politicising science. I try to stay away from the politics. There is nothing political in the measurements that my system makes. It is pure physics and sound science behind it.

One of those measurements was of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland in 2009. It was a revelation, I gather.

That was an “aha” moment. Not being a glaciologist or a scientist, you talk about things moving at a glacial pace. Well, we flew to this glacier, then returned a week later to measure it again and it had moved 800m. That was mind-boggling. A lot of people have studied that glacier because it is one of the fastest moving in the world, but I never imagined that order of magnitude.

At Lake Louise, Canada, 1990. Photo/Moller family

At Lake Louise, Canada, 1990. Photo/Moller family

What do you do to relax?

Relaxing means working out or spending time with the kids, watching a movie and taking the time to be present with them. Children teach us a lot, especially when they’re little. With jiu-jitsu, too. Nothing will snap you into the moment more than someone sitting on you, trying to smother and choke you. You don’t daydream about anything else then, you just think about how you’re going to get out of it.

Are you here to stay?

I am here to see how things pan out, but this is where we are right now. That is how I live my life. I never expected to stay in the US for 26 years. I am really committed to trying to make a difference here. I hope we can do something really cool. My children see my work and what I am involved in. It is valuable to give them that framework, to see that you can make a difference in the world and look after our planet and our society.

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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