Feature Story

Zibi Turtle: Titan of Exploration

Zibi Turtle

She’ll lead the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. She’ll also lead the next generation of women in planetary science.

The elevator doors dinged open as Zibi Turtle took a breath, and then a step. It was, quite possibly, the final moment of quiet she’d have for some time.

When her feet hit the tile floor in the lobby of Building 200 at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in suburban Maryland just before 5 p.m. on June 27, cheers and applause erupted. Balloons decorated the windowed entryway of the building — “WE WON,” they proclaimed in iridescent gold — as champagne bottles popped. Elation pulsed through the room.

It was an entrance befitting a rock star.

Dr. Elizabeth P. Turtle, her long gray hair gathered into a haphazard ponytail by a black scrunchie, broke into a grateful, stunned smile.

Her energy seemed boundlessly contagious, even if her face read “blissfully overwhelmed.” Less than an hour before, NASA publicly announced it was funding the APL-led Dragonfly mission to Titan, culminating a multiyear proposal process for a team of hundreds of people. Officially, Dragonfly was now staked in the annals of space exploration history.

The science and engineering behind this daring mission to Titan are fascinating. Dragonfly, a rotorcraft lander, will study environments on this distant moon of Saturn — its largest — such as dunes and impact craters, where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life may have mixed. With a comprehensive package of scientific instruments, Dragonfly will study how far this “prebiotic” chemistry may have progressed — sampling materials thought to contain the organic building blocks of life — while also investigating the moon’s geology and its unique atmosphere. Flying (instead of driving, like the Mars rovers) will allow Dragonfly to cover over 100 miles and explore at least 20 different landing sites during its more than 2½-year mission.

It’s a game-changing method of planetary exploration with potential to revolutionize how we understand the chemistry that led to the development of life on Earth.

Zibi Turtle, left, discusses some of the exciting details of the APL-led Dragonfly mission as part of NASA’s live broadcast of its selection of the next New Frontiers mission.
Zibi Turtle, left, discusses some of the exciting details of the APL-led Dragonfly mission as part of NASA’s live broadcast of its selection of the next New Frontiers mission.

Photo credit: Johns Hopkins APL

But amid the genuine excitement about what humanity could learn from this mission, there was another, perhaps even more powerful, undercurrent of emotion accompanying NASA’s announcement: joy.

Joy, particularly, for Zibi.

“I’m just so proud to be represented by her,” said Shannon MacKenzie, a postdoctoral researcher at APL and member of the Dragonfly team.

Watching across the country at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Bellevue, Washington, MacKenzie noted the room exploded into cheers twice during NASA’s live broadcast of the announcement: first at the revelation of Dragonfly’s selection. Second, when Zibi Turtle — principal investigator (or PI) of the Dragonfly mission and the third female NASA planetary mission PI in history — appeared on screen.

During the celebration at APL, which included the Laboratory’s director, Ralph Semmel, Zibi took the stage for just a brief moment, speaking for under 50 seconds. Her message was delightfully Zibi: “This is not me,” she said as applause echoed, thanking “everyone,” multiple times. Her voice was thick with emotion.

“This is everyone. Thank you all. Go Dragonfly!”

This is Dragonfly, the Johns Hopkins APL mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the next NASA New Frontiers mission. Dragonfly can help us better understand how life developed on Earth by exploring this strange ocean world.

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The plastic game pieces smack the cardboard, tiny rocket ships navigating their way through the distant reaches of the solar system. Young Zibi Turtle and her sister, Sally, use their small hands to guide them.

“Players must race to their secret destinations as they risk the hazards of space travel,” reads the explanation of Space Hop, the board game that’s captivating the Turtle girls. With a father who majored in astronomy and worked as a physicist for the Air Force, and a grandmother who was chock-full of mythological knowledge about stellar constellations, the girls are used to casting their eyes skyward.

It’s the 70s, though, so as they clank their rocket ships on the board of their favorite game, answering questions and completing their missions, they’re also learning what the game got wrong.

“Go to the planet that has 12 moons,” one Space Hop mission card reads.

“Well,” recalled Zibi some 40-odd years later, “Voyager’s images came back and we learned Jupiter had way more than 12 moons!”

That exploration alone makes the game real — tangible. It is the same qualities, whether she realizes it then or not, that lead Zibi into planetary science as a young adult.

“You can get there,” she says now of the planets, slamming her hand on a table to emphasize the word “get.” “Quasars and neutron stars and black holes are fascinating. But you can actually get to the planets.”

To understand how Zibi found herself spending a June afternoon in 2019 describing a rotorcraft lander mission to Titan live on NASA TV as the PI of a decade-long planetary exploration mission, go back to the beginning. To Wellesley, Massachusetts, and a childhood in which education about what was beyond the clouds was seamlessly intertwined with all the rest.

“I don’t remember learning the names of the planets,” Zibi says with a slight chuckle. The Turtle girls learned their 1-2-3s right along with their Mercury-Venus-Earth-Mars. Looking through a telescope built by her dad, John, the seeds for Zibi’s passion for planetary science seem to have been planted early.

Perhaps that’s a little too perfect. Too seamless to believe that the woman who’s built her professional life in planetary exploration with a reputation so pristine and beloved — in large part due to her humble, patient, inquisitive nature — was on that path as just a child.

“I don’t think I understood what I do now when I was a kid,” she said. “I just had an interest, or curiosity, more than anything.”

Curiosity. Drive. Focus. Passion. Thoughtfulness. Positivity. Diligence. These are just some the words that arise again and again when those close to her are asked about Zibi.

On the day the Dragonfly selection was announced, members of the team milled about sharing backslaps and hugs, reminiscing about their journey to this point. Remember, they joked, how they were the 12th of 12 teams to submit their proposal? “Why not use all the time allotted?” Zibi asked, matter-of-factly, to which the group responded with laughter.

"She’s quite happy to take a great idea from somebody who is two weeks out of school, or somebody who has 40 years in the business,” as Hibbard put it. “She doesn’t care. She’ll just say, ‘That’s a great idea, we should consider that.’"

There are umpteen stories about her modest nature. The initial quest for who would serve as PI for the Dragonfly mission that seemed to lead directly to Zibi while she earnestly considered all of the options; the posture she’ll often take, curling herself into a crossed-legged position, twirling her hair around as she talks or thinks; even the tale about her name — Zibi — sprouting from her inability as a toddler to fully pronounce “Elizabeth,” and never seeing the point of reverting.

“That’s indicative of her personality,” said Ken Hibbard, the Dragonfly mission systems engineer at APL. He’ll be in charge of bringing all the complex systems, from flight to scientific instruments to communications, together on this revolutionary mission.

“She gets along with everybody because she doesn’t see herself as better than anybody else,” Hibbard said. “She’ll say, ‘My name is just ‘Zibi’ because it’s what I called myself when I was three.’ That’s unassuming, and core to who she is as a person.”

It’s also core to her nature of putting in the work to get the job done.

Like the time, recalls her husband, Ralph Lorenz, a fellow planetary scientist at APL and also a Titan expert on the Dragonfly team, when they were in graduate school together at the University of Arizona. Zibi separated her shoulder diving for the disc in an ultimate Frisbee game. “But,” Lorenz notes, “she got the disc.”

“Zibi,” he said, “she does what it takes.”

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Zibi in her most comfortable thinking position.
Zibi in her most comfortable thinking position.

Photo credit: Johns Hopkins APL

Sitting cross-legged in a conference room chair on the second floor of Building 200 at APL, Zibi Turtle turns a newly acquired fact o

ver in her mind. It’s a few weeks before NASA’s selection of the next New Frontiers mission will be announced, but the prospect of Dragonfly is like a pinball bouncing around the room. It’s there, capturing attention and energy hopeful of directing the decision the right way.

Should Dragonfly be selected, Zibi is told, she will be just the third female NASA planetary mission PI in history. She quickly reels off the names of the first two — Maria Zuber, who led the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, and Lindy Elkins-Tanton, stewarding the planned Psyche mission to a metallic asteroid — and her voice drops into a whisper. “Has there really been no one else?”

She pauses to collect her thoughts before she continues. “I’m encouraged by the fact that discussions about this topic are being held as openly as they are now,” she says, noting there’ve been far more women PIs on proposed missions, a good sign unto itself.

“Still, there are so many times where I am like: It’s 2019. Why is this still a thing?”

From 2002 to 2017, women made up, on average, just 15% of planetary mission science teams — despite the fact that at least a quarter of planetary scientists in that span were women. Those numbers likely wouldn’t surprise Zibi, who looks around at the diversity of all kinds in the field and hears the general consensus of “it’s getting better.”

“That’s said so often, but it’s coming from a past that is so skewed,” she said. “If you look at the numbers by age, it’s not necessarily better.”

Zibi was an associate researcher on the Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem and radar instrument teams, co-investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an associate of the Galileo Solid State Imaging team, and is currently the principal investigator of the Europa Imaging System on the under-construction Europa Clipper mission. She’s got plenty of accomplishments to her name.

Zibi always comes across as knowing without being arrogant.

Still, she remembers noticing when she was the only woman in the room. Then, of course, she noticed when another woman was in the room. She also remembers having plenty more female peers when she was in grad school than she seems to now.

Some of that may come from the demands of the work, which Zibi — daughter of Letitia Turtle, who returned to graduate school when her children were in junior high and left an indelible imprint and appreciation of what commitment and difficult balancing acts look like — has never shied from. “There have been occasions where she hasn’t shown up for dinner,” Lorenz said, “but I get it. I understand the demands the project makes on Zibi and I understand her dedication to it.”

But what is the solution? Perhaps it’s partly just in Zibi’s representation at a seminal moment in her own career. Perhaps it’s more active than that. The Dragonfly team was built with a deliberate eye toward inclusivity — focusing not only on gender diversity but on a team that spanned age and experience spectrums.

“She’s quite happy to take a great idea from somebody who is two weeks out of school, or somebody who has 40 years in the business,” as Hibbard put it. “She doesn’t care. She’ll just say, ‘That’s a great idea, we should consider that.’”

At her urging, the proposed Dragonfly budget also included money specifically to facilitate mentoring. Co-investigators can bring on students and postdoctoral researchers as the mission progresses, and it includes a science-enhancement opportunity (internships) before and after launch.

“This is not just to give kids something to do for a while,” explained APL’s Peter Bedini, the Dragonfly project manager and veteran of several major NASA missions. “It’s to promote the next generation of engineers and scientists.”

MacKenzie broke into tears and, she admits, a happy dance when her academic advisor sent word that Zibi wanted her on the core Dragonfly team particularly for that continuity of experience. And MacKenzie herself is a perfect example of Zibi’s commitment to fostering the future of women in the field. Their relationship grew from Titan workshops to a postdoc research position and standing Friday meetings between the two to discuss Titan science.

“Zibi always comes across as knowing without being arrogant,” MacKenzie said. “I immediately felt comfortable approaching her, and being a shy person that means a lot.” But it was a specific moment, one later in their relationship, that stands out most. A conversation about impostor syndrome, to be exact.

“I kind of confessed some of the feelings I was feeling and she was like ‘Yeah, I know what you mean,’” MacKenzie said. “And I was like, ‘YOU know what I mean?’ That was an amazing eye-opener for being a woman in science and not having to suffer silently.”

When someone like that — an underrepresented person in the field — becomes a leader the way Zibi has, it inspires others. It inherently helps create a domino effect. Still, those dominoes need attention, and the occasional additional flick to urge on their descent.

Zibi is just the third female NASA planetary mission principal investigator in history, and she views Dragonfly as an opportunity to hold the doors open for underrepresented minorities in planetary exploration.
Zibi is just the third female NASA planetary mission principal investigator in history, and she views Dragonfly as an opportunity to hold the doors open for underrepresented minorities in planetary exploration.

Photo credit: Johns Hopkins APL

“In one of our first meetings, Zibi mentioned they were hoping I would serve as a deputy PI and I was really taken aback because I hadn’t thought of myself in that role,” said Melissa Trainer, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “She definitely gave me that confidence.

“It makes me want to turn around and do the same for other people as much as I can. It’s very important to show that not only is there not one way to be a PI — which can often be represented in a very masculine way — but there’s not one way to be a female PI.” (Trainer took the job, unsurprisingly.)

What Zibi knows right now is that “all we can do is try to do our best moving forward.” So, she plans to.

“We have a number of ideas to broaden participation, engage the science community as well as the public, and bring in people who don’t typically get to work on missions,” she said. “That’s among the reasons it’s really exciting to get this [mission selection].

“Because now we can start to hold some of the doors open.”

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The photo flashes onto the projector screen behind Zibi. At first, the image seems out of place. There are only hours now before the end of the Dragonfly team’s final preparations in Phase A of the mission planning. Yet here, on the screen at APL’s Kossiakoff Center, is this image of the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey, with two four-rower crew boats racing along its waters.

As with just about everything Zibi, it has an authenticity and a purpose.

“In the boat,” Zibi begins, addressing a crowd that encompasses the Dragonfly team as well as staff members from across the Laboratory, “sometimes when you’re getting to the end of the race and you’re exhausted — because it’s the end of the race — and you’re ready to be done, and you’ve been rowing all out, and everyone else has been rowing all out, the coxswain will ask for more. There are times, when that happens, that you’ll feel the boat pick up. Everyone clicks together.

“Everyone is flat-out — but you feel the boat move. It’s such an incredible feeling. It just lifts everything. And you know now that everyone else is doing the same thing. Everything moves, and the boat takes off. I’d never truly felt that at work.

“This team, with everything we’ve been through and this rush at the end, I felt that lift.”

In the audience, eyes are glassy with tears; arms are prickled with goosebumps.

“I just wanted to thank you all for that,” she says.

Zibi, second from right, with some of her rowing crew. The sport, and her experiences with it, has provided inspiration for her team-oriented work ethic.
Zibi, second from right, with some of her rowing crew. The sport, and her experiences with it, has provided inspiration for her team-oriented work ethic.

Photo courtesy of Zibi Turtle

Many mornings, Zibi is up before the Sun, starting her day with the Baltimore Rowing Club. It’s a habit she began as an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and restarted when moving back east from Arizona in 2006. Her early rising is the source of amusement and awe for many colleagues, especially the night owls.

“We hand-off somewhere around four in the morning,” Hibbard quipped.

To some, it may be a small part of the “legend of Zibi” — competitive rower, brilliant scientist, lover of frosting, traveler to places like Vanuatu and Liwa, patient friend, supportive colleague. But on closer inspection, her commitment to rowing, and her passion for it, offers a view into her personality and her leadership style.

The speech she gave that day is not one that’s faded quickly from the mind of a single person in that room. If anything, it has grown into its own legend.

“I found it so inspiring that she was able to be vulnerable and share that moment with us,” MacKenzie said. “She’s up there talking about never having felt so inspired at work until Dragonfly and I’m sitting there thinking ‘ME TOO, ZIBI! And it’s largely due to you.’”

The boat represents so much more than a boat with five people in it. When I think about Dragonfly, and the sheer number of people who worked to get us to this point, it’s incredible.

“I felt pride most of all,” Hibbard said. “It’s weird to say that, but I was proud of her. I was proud to work with her, proud of the team and being a part of it, and proud of what we accomplished. I got that tingling feeling, hairs on your arms standing up. Those are the good moments.”

“It was just so like her,” Trainer added. “She’s always expressing gratitude and appreciation for all the work everyone does and it was a really powerful moment to be doing that. I also just love it because it shows so much who she is. This is work that she does, and it’s so personal to her, but it gives us all permission for it to be personal to us.”

“It was intimate and compelling,” Bedini said. “It was her. It wasn’t fake. It really summed up how she’s been running this thing for the last three-plus years.”

So why did she choose that analogy? That moment? That photo?

Those questions are met with another thoughtful pause.

The comparison of planetary missions to team sports is one that often springs to mind for Zibi. The components of both are strikingly similar, starting with the base idea that every person must do their job for the team to succeed. If each person focuses on that, the boat picks up.

And that leads her back to the analogy. To the boat.

“You look at the boat, right?” Zibi begins by way of explanation. “You see five people. In this case, you see a coxswain and four rowers. But the boat — it represents so much more. There are all the people who’ve fixed the boat, all the people who’ve measured to be sure the oars are the right length and the riggers are set at the right distances. All of the coaching. All of the teammates who encouraged one another during practices and are sitting on the side of the river taking pictures, cheering the team on.

“The boat represents so much more than a boat with five people in it. When I think about Dragonfly, and the sheer number of people who worked to get us to this point, it’s incredible.”

It is also a credit to her, the person who leads the team of experts on Titan, rotorcraft, spacecraft design, management, operations, and many other specialties.

The person for whom that joy rippled so loudly through the industry on the June afternoon that NASA said that Dragonfly was a “Go.”

Though, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t say as much.

It wouldn’t be very Zibi of her to do a thing like that.

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