NASA Names Nicky Fox as New Head of Science Mission Directorate

NASA Names Nicky Fox as New Head of Science Mission Directorate

NASA announced today that Nicky Fox is the new head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Like her predecessor, Thomas Zurbuchen, she is a heliophysicist who studies the Sun and its influence on the solar system. Zurbuchen brought her into NASA to head SMD’s heliophysics division in 2018. She is only the second woman to lead SMD.

Nicola (Nicky) Fox joined NASA from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) where she was the chief scientist and project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe. Her accomplishments include serving as deputy scientist for the Van Allen Probes and operations scientist for the International Solar Terrestrial Physics program.

She begins her new job as Associate Administrator for SMD today.

Dr. Nicola Fox. Photo credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Only one other woman, Mary Cleave, an environmental research engineer and former astronaut, has headed SMD in the agency’s almost 65-year history. She was SMD’s AA from August 2005-March 2007.

Heliophysics, also called solar and space physics, is the study of the Sun and its interaction with Earth and the rest of solar system all the way out to the heliopause — the boundary between the solar wind and interstellar wind — including research into space weather.

As SMD Division Director for Heliophysics, Fox oversaw a roughly $800 million annual budget. Now she’s in charge of all of SMD, whose budget is at an historic high of almost $8 billion with programs in astrophysics, biological and physical sciences in space, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science. SMD also includes the Joint Agency Satellite Division that manages development and acquisition of satellites for NOAA on a reimburseable basis.

Fox is perhaps best known for her scientific leadership of the Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft to “kiss the Sun” as it repeatedly swings by close enough to enter the Sun’s corona.

The probe is named after Eugene Parker, the “father of heliophysics,” a rare instance of naming a spacecraft after someone who was living at the time and able to attend the 2018 launch. He passed away last year.

Eugene Parker (seated) and Nicky Fox watch the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, August 12, 2018. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

Born in Hitchin, Herefordshire, England, Fox received a B.S. in physics from The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London, an M.S. in Telematics and Satellite Communications from the University of Surrey, and returned to Imperial College London for her Ph.D. in Space and Atmospheric Physics. She worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center before joining APL in 1998.

Zurbuchen, who left the agency at the end of last year, and Bobby Braun, Space Exploration Sector Head at APL, joined NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in praising the decision.

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