Thomas Zurbuchen Assumes Leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

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Publication date: 
5 October 2016

Thomas Zurbuchen, a specialist in solar and heliospheric physics and a proponent of entrepreneurship, has been named the new head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

On Oct. 3, Thomas Zurbuchen became NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) after NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced his selection last week. SMD commands a budget of about $5.3 billion and encompasses NASA’s Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, and Astrophysics Divisions. It is also responsible for such high-profile projects as the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope and the future Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

In a NASA press release, Zurbuchen is quoted as saying:

It’s absolutely thrilling to be embarking on this journey. Today, NASA is leading efforts to answer a host of important questions for humanity: Where do we come from? How did life originate? How are Earth's environments changing? There has never been a more pivotal time to solve these mysteries, and I'm looking forward to the charge.

Zurbuchen lecturing at the University of Michigan.

Zurbuchen joins NASA from the University of Michigan, where he was a professor in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. As detailed in a university profile, he is originally from Heiligenschwendi, a small, rural municipality in the Swiss Alps, and was the first member of his family to pursue a higher education. He attended the University of Bern in Switzerland, where he received a master’s degree in physics, mathematics, and astronomy in 1992, and a Ph.D. in physics in 1996.

Having consulted with an aerospace company during his studies, Zurbuchen elected to concentrate on astrophysics, and ultimately established his research specialty in solar and heliospheric physics. He joined the University of Michigan in 1996 as a research fellow. He became a research scientist there in 1998, and an associate professor in 2003 before being promoted to full professor in 2008.

At Michigan, Zurbuchen also developed a strong interest in entrepreneurship. He was one of the key drivers behind the establishment in 2007 of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the university’s engineering college, and served as the center’s first director. He also led Innovate Blue, a campus-wide entrepreneurial initiative. These efforts aim to transition university projects into the broader world, and to introduce students to entrepreneurial environments and practices.

Zurbuchen joins NASA at a moment when the agency is pursuing stronger collaboration with commercial space ventures and other non-governmental partners. Notably, Zurbuchen recently served as chair of a National Academies study committee, Achieving Science Goals with CubeSats, which released its report earlier this year. CubeSats are small-scale satellites weighing about one kilogram each, launched as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions. Those launched through NASA’s CubeSat program host small-scale research missions developed primarily by university-based teams. (SpaceNews reported in detail on Zurbuchen’s committee and the rising interest in CubeSats last year.)

According to NASA, although Zurbuchen has never worked for the agency, he has participated in two NASA missions: the MESSENGER spacecraft that studied the planet Mercury for ten years and the Advanced Composition Explorer that is currently gathering data on solar eruptions from the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point. Additionally, he participated in the joint NASA-European Space Agency Ulysses mission, which gathered data on the heliosphere from a polar orbit around the sun. 

Following his Ph.D., Zurbuchen received a Young Researcher Award from the Swiss National Science Foundation, and in 2004 he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the National Science and Technology Council.

Zurbuchen has also been active on social media, maintaining a blog at his personal website since 2008, and tweeting since 2011.

The previous head of SMD was astrophysicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who served in the position from January 2012 until his retirement in April of this year. Geoffrey Yoder, who is retiring from NASA in December, has been serving as acting head since April.

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