Thomas Zurbuchen Appointed As New Head of Science at NASA

Thomas Zurbuchen Appointed As New Head of Science at NASA

NASA announced today that the new Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  A physicist who specializes in solar and space physics (heliophysics), he also is the founding director of the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering.  The appointment is effective on October 3, 2016.

Zurbuchen replaces John Grunsfeld, who retired from NASA in April.   Geoffrey Yoder has been serving as acting AA in the interim.  Yoder indicated today that he will retire from NASA at the end of the year.

Thomas Zurbuchen.  Photo credit:  University of Michigan website.

SMD oversees NASA’s programs in astrophysics, planetary science, earth science, and heliophysics, which are funded at about $5 billion per year in total.  Zurbuchen has never worked for NASA, but was involved in two NASA programs — the MESSENGER spacecraft that studied Mercury (the closest planet to the Sun) and the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) that is at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point and provides data on solar eruptions that feed into forecasts of space weather.  He also participated in the European Space Agency’s Ulysses project that sent a spacecraft to orbit the Sun.  (Ulysses originated as a joint NASA-ESA project where both agencies were to send spacecraft to orbit the Sun, but development of NASA’s spacecraft was terminated by President Ronald Reagan.  NASA continued to participate in ESA’s mission thereafter in a different role.)

Zurbuchen earned his Ph.D. and master’s degree in physics from the University of Bern in Switzerland.  He received the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Young Researcher Award in 1996-1997, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council Presidential Early Career for Scientists and Engineers Award in 2004, and a NASA Group Achievement Award for the Ulysses program in 2006.

He has served on several committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and chaired the recent study committee that produced the report “Advancing Science with Cubesats: Thinking Inside the Box.”


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