Tributes Pour In for NASA’s Mike Freilich

Tributes Pour In for NASA’s Mike Freilich

Mike Freilich, who led NASA’s earth science program for more than a decade, has lost his battle with cancer. Highly respected and admired not only in the United States but internationally, Europe named one of its satellites in his honor earlier this year. His legacy is not only the earth science satellite programs he nurtured at NASA, but his passionate advocacy for interagency and international cooperation to obtain and analyze the scientific data needed to understand and protect our changing planet.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is one of many praising Freilich and his commitment to science today.

The embedded video includes excerpts from an interview where Freilich expresses the magnitude of what is needed to understand Earth holistically, as a system of interconnected physical, chemical and biological processes and their interactions with human societies.

Earth system science is bigger than any particular agency. It’s bigger than any single nation. It’s bigger than any single continent. And I surely hope, because humanity requires it, that we make some significant progress in understanding.

An oceanographer, Freilich spent most of his career at JPL and Oregon State University, but joined NASA as head of the Earth Science Division in 2006. He retired in February 2019 and was diagnosed with cancer later that year.

In January 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine organized a day-long symposium honoring his career. He closed the meeting by lauding what his colleagues have done already and imploring them to continue.

You have led a real community-wide recognition that the scientific and the societal challenges posed by the changing climate and the role of we humans in our earth system are of utmost importance and that we have to advance our work urgently by working together….

Einstein said … the life of the individual only has value insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. … As you collaboratively combine science and technology to make unprecedented observations. As you collaboratively extract from the observations greater understanding and knowledge of the complexity and the majesty of our grand planet. As you collaboratively combine the measurements and the understanding to provide real societal benefit. And as you explicitly strengthen the global earth science community. While doing all of this, you are indeed pursuing lives of value. You’re doing good. And you’re doing it well.  Keep it up.”

Later that month, NASA held at a ceremony where representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUTMETSAT) announced they would name their sixth Sentinel satellite after him. It is only the second time a satellite has been named after a living person.

Sentinel 6 Michael Freilich, previously Sentinel 6A, is scheduled for launch in November 2020 and will be equipped with a satellite altimeter to observe changes in sea surface levels along with surface wind speeds, sea state and geostrophic ocean currents.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Ellen Stofan, Director of the National Air and Space Museum (and former NASA Chief Scientist); Josef Aschbacher, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes; and EUMETSAT, were among others paying tribute today.

Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator from 2009-2017, eight of the 12 years Freilich was at NASA Headquarters, praised him for “speaking truth to power.”

The chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee offered her condolences as well.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted that his legacy will live on through those he helped train and inspire.

“I’d like to offer my sincerest condolences to Dr. Michael Freilich’s family, friends, and colleagues for their loss. His dedication to studying the dynamics of our planet and his work to build NASA’s Earth Science Division into the robust program it is today will continue to help improve our understanding how the Earth is changing for decades to come. Dr. Freilich’s legacy as a trailblazer and leader in the development and use of innovative space-based earth observing systems will forever live on through the many he helped train and inspire throughout his career.”

This article has been updated.

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