Q&A with Dr. Z: An ex-NASA science chief discusses his six years of leadership

Q&A with Dr. Z: An ex-NASA science chief discusses his six years of leadership
Six years was spent as NASA's Science Chief Thomas Zurbuchen, during which NASA rapidly diversified its approach and science destinations.

Six years was spent as NASA’s Science Chief Thomas Zurbuchen, during which NASA rapidly diversified its approach and science destinations.
(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Thomas Zurbuchen is now riding into sunset.

Dr. Z is the affectionately called Zurbuchen Step down On Dec. 31, he was appointed as the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He was in his sixth year of service, which is a much longer term than any of his predecessors.

The tenure of Dr. Z was full of high-profile scientific and exploration achievements. NASA, for instance, landed in 2021 the sample-collecting and life-hunting mission. Perseverance Launched the $10 Billion Mars Rover James Webb Space Telescope The JWST allows us to look back at the history of our universe from a greater distance than any other mission. The agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which was launched in September 2011, successfully crashed a probe into an extremely distant space rock. This demonstrated a possible deflection technique humanity might need someday to protect our skins.

When Dr. Z announced that he would be leaving NASA in September, he said that he was open to a new challenge and that NASA could benefit from fresh blood. Dr. Z also stated that he was not sure of where the next fork would lead him. He needed to reflect more and would have very little time until he left the job.

Space.com met Dr. Z to talk about his tenure as NASA’s Science Chief. He also shared his thoughts on his favourite missions and his advice to future scientists. Space.com was thrilled to witness the extraordinary growth in the space community during the last few years. This conversation was edited to be more detailed.

Photos: First pictures of the James Webb Space Telescope

Space.com: This is a huge question. But what are your impressions of the six years you have spent doing this job for Space.com? How do you feel about the job?

Thomas Zurbuchen: It could be described in two different ways. First, there is the personal and second, the community. The second is more important, although I am less certain about it. I believe history tends to prove the correct answer. My opinion is not as important as those of others.

It’s amazing to have a front-view of everything science. The first ever picture taken during a space mission is shown to me in the hall. It’s amazing to see the power and potential of science and space to inspire and excite. That’s my opinion.

On the community-side, I believe that the six years we’ve seen have been a period of tremendous growth in all aspects. You would find it difficult to see a six-year period in NASA history that has had more success. This is not due to me alone. This is due to the support we have received from Congress and the White Houses as well as the execution of industry-government teams.

Space.com: When many high-profile missions were created and launched, you were the captain of this ship. Are there any favorites of yours?

Zurbuchen: JWST is a reference because of what was seen in the last years. [of development] And The deployment It went as smoothly as I expected. After interviewing everyone, I have not met anyone. I was actually a bit pessimistic, but that’s perfectly okay.

It’s like having an 18-hole course of golf. [and sinking] hole after hole. This is what the team achieved at the finish. It’s not where we started. We had an unfortunate accident the first year we got there. Let’s not forget golf. [it was] It was like losing every driver. There were some serious challenges. The point is to look at the things they accomplished. That is something I’ll never forget. It makes me so proud. This is like watching a team of sportsmen. On Sunday you can see how well they are doing, and not just how hard they work. This team stunned the entire world.

A second mission that I love, and think about constantly is the GOES. [weather satellite] series. Goes 16 This was my first mission in my career and the first I saw live. When I see their weather forecasts, and particularly hurricane forecasts, I am certain that the mission we built and launched together was a joint venture with NOAA. [the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]It is actually changing lives. That’s for me just empowers.

Landing on is also a possibility. Mars. You won’t find more thrilling thrills than this — even if you sweat blood from back there, seeing that first image emerge is the best. Since I started on the job, we did it twice. One on. InSight The other is on Perseverance.

Related: Twelve amazing photographs from Perseverance’s first year on Mars

Space.com: My job has been in this field for over a decade and I have noticed a huge increase in public interest and support for space science and technology. What do you think is the reason? How much of this is NASA’s goal? While science and exploration are the primary focus, outreach and engagement are vital to your overall mission.

Zurbuchen: This growth has been amazing and we are very excited. It’s what inspires me, that is how I see it. Science is about understanding nature better. It is incredible, you say? Nature is amazing to me in the same way many people think when discussing their religion beliefs. They think about something bigger and more important than them. That’s how I see nature.

Listening to children or adults who act like children is a great way to inspire curiosity and understanding. This is one thing. The second is watching teams do the impossible. This is also very inspiring. Both have been achieved. [at NASA]It’s a great idea to bring together diverse teams where everyone sees themselves. Again, we are much more visible on social media. Different channels are used, different partners are utilized; however, I believe we have an incredible comms team and that our leaders understand the importance of this and will put in effort to make it happen.

That’s it for the one-piece. The other piece I believe is the Commercial space is emerging. More space discussions are interesting [now] Because there are many players and some are very colorful. It is fascinating and attracts attention. Many of this has opened up enormous scientific opportunities. While some of these have not yet been proven, others are. [there are] Opportunities that are related, for instance, to lower launch prices and a workforce in aerospace.

It is a way that I think of it: I am living through the lives and experiences of those who were there 10 years ago. These people are out there leading the way. They’ve reinvented their companies, including some that they founded and some that they have joined. That’s another aspect of the energy. It’s important to not separate what we do from this — we want to discuss it in the context of all members of our community. These new players are exciting for us as well as the others.

Space.com: How would you advise your successors? What can they do to keep NASA science moving forward?

Zurbuchen: When I was first offered the job, my speech stated that there were three main priorities. First, we must build the most talented team. The best team does not always have the most experience. While there is experience, there is also fresh thought and new ideas. There is diversity around that. That team must trust you. You can easily delegate lots of tasks if you are able to do so.

Second, be aware that most of the missions on which you are going to be working already have been completed. You have to trust them and do your best work. All stakeholders need trust; make sure you do your best in taking decisions and moving the project forward. Execute; put your focus on the programmatic and not technical performance. Both are important.

Third, you need to develop strategic insight. Take a look at the patterns and see what’s changing. Then, take advantage of any opportunities. There are new spacecraft-as-a-service type of models; I think that’s really interesting. New ideas are being developed that focus on faster development. In some cases, I believe we’ve been too slow.

Whatever your ideas may be, you need to focus first on the number 1 and 2 points. To get the last advice, you’ll want to take the time to listen to the entire community. When you’re doing all these things, remember to think about community with a capital C. It doesn’t just include people on your floor or at NASA headquarters. The community includes the people from the companies, academics, funding communities, government stakeholders and White House stakeholders. Make sure they are fully informed and brought onboard.

Close up of socks blue with planets

NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen wears socks with a solar system theme during an update of 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Space.com: I noticed one thing about you tenure, that is has tried to normalize search for alien life To make it more mainstream in science. Astrobiology was a fringe subject, but you seem to have made it a priority for NASA. This has been evident with Mars sample returns and the most recent efforts to. look into UAP [unidentified aerial phenomena]. Is that something you’ve overtly attempted to do?

Zurbuchen: It would make me proud if you believed that. I believe this is one of the most important areas we can work on. People care about it, so I do really care what they think.

As an objective, I believe that finding life in another country is crucial. By the way, while I was in the country, I was also part of an authorization law that was given this task. It was a great honor to be given this task and I have taken it very seriously.

Related: Reference: The Search for Alien Life

Space.com: Is there anything you didn’t ask about but you feel it is important? Are there any aspects of your tenure that have been especially important, or revelatory over the past six years?

Let me first say that I’m proud of this leadership team. It looks a lot different now than before if you pay attention. It is easy to see the power and beauty of coming together and diversity, which I encourage people to do.

Also, I want to express my excitement about space growth in all domains. I hope that we will see more. It’s possible to do more. Our mission is to take observations from our planet and turn them into useful information for improving people’s lives. Based on our information, farmers get more out of their work in the fields. We have helped cross-agency partners and friends to predict the weather better over time because we are familiar with cloud physics. So on.

This is a huge area of opportunity. With the fast-changing world around us, it is imperative that our research portfolio be more like this. Manhattan Project More than any type of R&A [research and analysis] shop. That comes from the coming together of government and commercial partners. If I had to sum it all, my last point was that there are many possibilities for people who come together, even if they are not the same as each other.

Space.com: You say that it should be similar to the Manhattan Project. Is this because of the dangers we face — Climate changeDeforestation and other such things are either existential or possible existential.

Zurbuchen: I think the main difference between Earth science now and 30 years ago would be that 30 years ago we could have predicted from our models that there were decades of change and that it was possible to make that happen. We are seeing a rapid change in the last ten years. Because the change takes place so quickly and has such an impact on people that it is difficult to respond faster than in the past, the timeframe of the changes can be quite rapid. This is what I really mean.

This is like playing hockey: you have to move where the puck goes, but you also need to stay flexible as you see how the field changes. This is how Earth science evolves to me. What a great opportunity to bring value not only in weather, but all of the other aspects of life.

Mike Wall is the writer of “There are many options (opens in a new tabThe Search for Alien Life (Grand Central Publishing 2018; illustration by Karl Tate), is a book that explores the topic. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (Opens in a new tab. Follow usFollow @TwitterSpacedotcom (opens in a new tabAnd onFacebook (Opens in a new tab.

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Space.com Senior Space Writer Michael Wall (opens in a new tabHe joined the team in 2010 While he focuses on exoplanets and spaceflight, he has also been known to be interested in space art. On November 13, 2018, he published “Out There,” a book on the search for extraterrestrial life. Michael was a wildlife biologist and herpetologist before he became a science writer. Michael holds a PhD in evolutionary biology, from Australia’s University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Science degree from Arizona. He also has a certificate in graduate science writing from University of California Santa Cruz. Follow Michael on Twitter to find his most recent project.

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