Meet your AIAA candidate for president-elect
By Ben Iannotta|January 2023
Interview with Daniel E. Hastings
Each AIAA president-elect helps guide the institute, first as a member of the Board of Trustees and then as president beginning a year later. During this round of elections, Dan Hastings of MIT is running unopposed and in May is due to become the first Black president of AIAA. I spoke to Hastings about the importance of diversity, his personal experience with racism and his vision for AIAA. As for how AIAA can achieve growth, this teacher says he has come ready to learn before making recommendations.
CURRENTLY: Since 2021, associate dean of engineering for diversity, equity and inclusion; since 2019, head of MIT’s AeroAstro Department; since 1993, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
NOTABLE: A plasma physicist-turned-college professor; has taught successful students, including former AIAA president Mark Lewis and current AIAA Board of Trustees member Annalisa Weigel; Born in Charnock, England, and grew up in Jamaica and England; Became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and joined the MIT faculty in 1985 as an assistant professor; In the 1980s and early 1990s, helped design the power system for what would become the International Space Station; Worked on the ion engine portion of the Hughes 702 satellite bus that became a Boeing product; Air Force chief scientist, 1997-1999; Investigated fusion technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In 2017, elected to the National Academy of Engineering “for contributions in spacecraft and space system-environment interactions, space system architecture, and leadership in aerospace research and education.”
AIAA RECORD: Became an AIAA Fellow in 1998 and an Honorary Fellow in 2021; Received AIAA’s Losey Atmospheric Sciences Award in 2003 for studies on the interaction of space plasma with high-voltage solar arrays; Served on the Space Sciences and Astronomy; Space Systems; and Plasmadynamics and Lasers technical committees.
AGE: 67 on Jan. 14
RESIDENCE: Bedford, Massachusetts
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science in mathematics, Oxford University, 1976. Master of Science in aeronautics and astronautics, 1978, MIT. Ph.D. from MIT in 1980.
FAVORITE SAYING: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle
Ben Iannotta: Tell me about growing up in England and Jamaica and how you got into this line of work.
Dan Hastings: I actually grew up between England and Jamaica. When I was 10, my parents moved to Jamaica from England. My father was a dentist, so he went to set up a practice. So, I actually grew up in England and then Jamaica and then back to England. The way to understand me as a kid is that I was fascinated by space. I could see it in two different ways. One was Star Trek: The Original Series. I watched every new episode. And Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Those were very motivating for me. I wanted to do something in space. At one point, I wanted to be an astronaut, and I knew I had to go and do something in the STEM area, so I ended up studying mathematics. When I finished undergraduate school, I applied to graduate school to do aeronautics and astronautics, with particular emphasis on astronautics. The trouble was it was 1976. As the former department head said to me, “You’re six years too late.” There wasn’t much going on in the space business. Shuttle was being developed, but it hadn’t flown. Space station was just a dream. I ended up working in the energy business, which is how I got into plasma physics associated with both magnetohydrodynamic power generation and also fusion. When I finished at graduate school with a Ph.D. in plasma physics, I went to work for a company called Physical Sciences which was then in Woburn, Massachusetts. I worked there for a while doing contract research. It was basically applied physics. And then I went to Oak Ridge National Lab, where I worked on the fusion energy program. In 1985, I decided I wanted to really focus on space, and I also wanted to teach and interact with students. MIT offered me a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, so back I came to MIT. And of course, what had happened was that the shuttle was flying, the space station had been announced and there was this Strategic Defense Initiative. That’s when I joined AIAA, in 1985.
How was AIAA helpful to you?
It was the conferences and the technical committees. What’s now called SciTech, and what’s now called ASCEND, going to those conferences is where you heard interesting work in the space business. You met interesting people, particularly at NASA and the Department of Defense, the Air Force. There was no Space Force then. The conferences were mechanisms to hear interesting ideas, as well as to present your own ideas.
Did you do research as well as teach?
Yes, I got NASA funding initially. Some of the NASA funding came from the Strategic Defense Initiative. They funneled it through NASA. But it was all initially NASA funding, and a few years later, I got some Air Force funding. All associated with looking at issues in space: I looked at plasma interactions with satellite surfaces. I looked at electric propulsion issues for satellites. I was doing lots of research.
In your statement of goals, you talked about engaging with youth as a top priority. How does one do that now? I don’t remember how old you were in 1985, but you were probably a young professional.
I was 29. One of the things that’s substantially different today than when I was starting out was that the aerospace business was dominated by the big primes, the Boeings of the world, dominated by the government. It’s hugely different today. What has happened is this enormous burst of entrepreneurial energy. You still see the big primes — and of course many of them merged — but you see the growth of all of these companies, many of which are small, but some of which are very well resourced, like SpaceX and Blue Origin. And you see the growth of lots and lots and lots of small companies. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that across government, there’s a much broader understanding of what aerospace brings. Even beyond the government, you see a much broader understanding. It’s just hugely different in that sense. You see people doing interesting things with UAVs, some positive and some negative. It’s a much broader environment than when I started.
What does that drive AIAA to do?
First of all, recognize that. But secondly, AIAA has to be able to articulate its value proposition to the engineers in a 40-person company that is starting up to build a rocket, not at a 10,000-person major prime or whatever the numbers are. Boeing has many more than that — over 100,000 people. The other thing, of course, is that even across the government, the range is much larger now. So AIAA has to recognize its much broader framework and then ask the question for each of the different demographic segments: What’s the message that resonates? What’s the value that AIAA brings? I think you see that very clearly in ASCEND, which is doing a good job of being much broader than the thing it replaced. It’s attracting startups. It’s attracting people with MBAs as opposed to technical degrees. It’s attracting a much broader spread in the government, as well as the big primes and the traditional people. So, that’s the sort of thing that needs to happen right now. Another thing that has changed very dramatically since I started is a much broader recognition of the value of STEM degrees. It’s kind of exciting, especially with all this entrepreneurial energy. AIAA has to articulate its value proposition to K-12, undergraduates, graduate students, people who go work at startups, people who work for the primes, people who work for the different parts of the government that are now interested in aerospace.
You should know how to do that, being a teacher.
I have some understanding about how to do that.
I want to talk a little bit about diversity. I’m curious what you know about your family history, how your ancestors came to England.
My father was actually born in Angola. His parents were missionaries in Angola, so he was born there. His parents were from Jamaica, so as a young man, after he finished his dental studies, my father returned to Jamaica and met my mother. At some point, they decided to return to England, which is why I was born in England. You know, in my family, my father was a dentist, my uncle was a surgeon, my aunt was a general practitioner, my grandfather was a missionary, but he was trained in anthropology. He actually had a Ph.D. in anthropology. For me, when I was growing up, there was simply no question that I would go to college, or certainly undergraduate school. Within the context of my family, I think I was expected to go more the doctor, minister route, but I decided I didn’t want to go that route. I was interested in space. I had to go the route of doing a STEM degree.
Have you researched your heritage? Do you know when your relatives left Africa or how?
Oh, my son has, and he’s constructed a fairly substantial genealogy, which I’ve looked at on occasions.
So flashing forward, in the United States, former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has talked openly about how hard it was for him to get an appointment to the Naval Academy from South Carolina in the ’60s. What was it like for you entering this field as a Black man in England and Jamaica?
Certainly, as a kid growing up in England, I heard all the usual stuff — about being called various names. And people are just surprised that I did as well as I did. There’s no point in repeating some of the names, but you could probably guess what some of them were, right?
The worst ones I could think of?
Yeah, exactly. So you know, I had all that in England growing up. But I ended up doing well at school, and I was actually able to get into Oxford. And actually, when I went to Oxford as an undergraduate, I was one of the very few what today you call an African American, but in England they called it something different. That was actually, as you can guess, very isolating and lonely. Then I decided when I finished my undergraduate degree that I wanted to get into the space business, and at that time in England there was not much going on in the space business. There’s a lot more now, but there wasn’t very much then. That’s why I decided to leave England and come to America to — seek my fortune [laughs] — at MIT as a graduate student. I would say MIT is the kind of place where you make do on the quality of your intellect. So actually, MIT as a graduate student was a great place to be. I ended up making some very good friends over the years, some of them I’m still in touch with, actually, and I had a very good, supportive experience. I can’t say I believe I experienced any kind of discrimination as a graduate student. And it wasn’t as isolating as it was as an undergraduate, because there were many more Black people around, both in the town of Cambridge and also at MIT.
You will be AIAA’s first Black president. What’s the meaning of that for you?
Well, for all the people like myself who do that kind of thing, I understand and appreciate that people will look to me as a role model, and I’m glad about that. I will do my best. My colleague, Sheila Widnall, who was also an AIAA president, is in my department at MIT.
I saw she nominated you.
She did. She was also the first woman president of AIAA and, of course, she was the first [woman] secretary of the Air Force, and so on. So she had to do a lot with being the first. In that sense, I understand that being the first has meaning, and I will do my best to attract young people to consider joining the AIAA and contributing to its mission.
When you talk, about diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are you talking about there? Ethnicity? Gender?
Well, that of course is one of my jobs. I’m the associate dean for D-E-I. What it means is we want everybody who is capable of contributing to — in this case engineering — be able to achieve whatever level they want to achieve based upon their talents, not based upon anything else. We want people to feel that they belong in engineering. You have to make sure you remove all the barriers that have hindered people from moving forward to the level they want to. So what are some of the barriers? Certainly, if you look at aerospace engineering and you talk to enough women, you’ll discover that over the years, women were often excluded from being in aerospace engineering. You just have to go look at the movie “Hidden Figures.” You see it very, very clearly there, some one of them being told, “You can’t be an engineer because you’re a woman.” That’s the kind of thing we have to get rid of.
Is it just an ethical issue, or is it beyond that?
I first of all think it’s an ethical issue. We want people to contribute as much as they can wherever their talents take them. That’s also true of African Americans and Latinos, women and people with diverse sexual orientations. All those barriers need to go away. All those biases need to go away. That’s an ethical issue. It’s getting rid of those barriers, which only exist because of people’s prejudices. Now, it is also the case, and I see this very clearly since I’m in a university, that the demographics of the population in the United States is shifting. You see much larger ethnic diversity in the 18-year-old population than you see in the 70-year-old population. You see many more women now going to college — actually, women are now the majority of people who go to college as compared to when I started. So in addition to being an ethical issue, it’s also a question of: We want to get the best talents to work on the problems of aerospace, both the issues of national defense, national security, but also the issues of how we treat this planet and sustainability and all of those things. There’s lots of studies which have shown that having diverse groups address all of those problems will, many times, lead to better solutions than not. So it’s an ethical issue to start with. I think of it that way. But at the end of the day, it’s people who come up with solutions. Let’s make sure we’re pulling in the best people to come up with those solutions.
In your role as associate dean of engineering for DEI, what are some of the things you’ve done?
I’m very proud of the fact that we created a postdoc program in the School of Engineering to attract outstanding postdocs who were underrepresented. We have attracted a good group of those people, and they’re working away and doing their postdocs at MIT. Some of them will go out to do startups and that’s great. We’re seeding those populations with the talent that’s out there.
Do any of your experiences as the associate dean apply to your coming role at AIAA?
Yes. So, the reason we created a program was because the dean and I took a look at both gender and ethnic diversity of the postdocs in the School of Engineering, and it was terrible. The reason it’s terrible is because the decisions on whom to bring in — there was nothing strategic about them. They’re all decisions made individually at the tactical level. So, just being strategic about it, we’ve managed to make changes. The AIAA is a big organization, but you can’t do everything. Whatever you do, you’ve got to do with quality, but what I would like to do is take a big-picture view and focus on a few things. When I went to be chief scientist of the Air Force, one of the previous chief scientists said to me, “Focus on no more than three things. In an organization that big, if you try to do too many things, you’ll get nothing done. If you get two of them done, you’ve done well.” That’s what I did.
So you’re going to be highly focused at AIAA.
Yeah, I got to figure out what the three things are, though, right? When I went to be chief scientist of the Air Force, I was able to figure it out because I was talking to the chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force. So we figured out the three things, and I actually got two of them done.
Is there anything that you’re surprised I haven’t asked, or that you want to circle back on?
I will have to find out, or sort out, what did the previous presidents do right and what did they not do right. Learning that will be instrumental.
There may not be one opinion on all those.
I understand. I’ve talked to several of the previous presidents, because I know some of them pretty well, actually. I know Sheila [Widnall] well. I know Mark Lewis well.
What do you think would mark a successful presidential tenure?
For any organization, you have to understand the tenor of the times. As you yourself pointed out, my entrance into AIAA was kind of the traditional way, so I would say I can help the organization understand the current tenor of the times and be reflective.
AIAA, like many institutes, faces declining membership and financial challenges coming out of covid-19. Can you help make a dent in that?
That’s why I keep emphasizing the articulation of the value proposition. You want to get people wherever they are to say, “Yes, joining this professional organization is something that will help my career, and I can contribute.”
MEMBERS VOTE: Feb. 1-17 on https://www.aiaa.org/vote
THE ROLE: In May, Hastings begins a one-year term and becomes a member of the Board of Trustees, followed by two years as president starting in May 2024.