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10 Questions for Our New Head of Science

10 Questions for Our New Head of Science

Guess what?! We have a new lead for our science missions, and we’re excited to introduce him to you. Recently, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has named Thomas Zurbuchen as the new head of our organization for science missions. Let’s get to know him…

Zurbuchen was most recently a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was also the university’s founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering.


Zurbuchen’s experience includes research in solar and heliospheric physics, experimental space research, space systems and innovation and entrepreneurship.

We asked him a few questions to see what he has in store for science at NASA…let’s take a look:

1. What is your vision for science at NASA?

Right now, I am focusing on my team and I am learning how I can help them achieve the goals we have; to design and build the missions we are currently working on. Once the presidential transition is complete, we will engage in strategic activity with that team. It has been my experience that the best ideas always come from great and diverse teams working together. I intend to do that here as well.

2. What solar system destination are you most eager for NASA to explore?

Tough question to answer. Basically, I want to go where there are answers to the most important questions. One question on my mind is the origin of extraterrestrial life. Some parts of the answer to this question can be answered at Mars, some at Europa or other moons in the outer solar system like Enceladus. Other parts of the answer is around other stars, where we have found thousands of planets…some of which are amazingly similar to Earth!


3. With raw images posted to several websites from our missions, what’s one thing you hope members of the public can help NASA do with that powerful data?

I hope that people all over the world play with the data and find new ways to explore. It’s almost like hanging out in the most amazing libraries talking about nature. Many of the books in this library have never been opened and curious minds can find true treasures in there. I know that there are over a billion data-products NASA is making available about the Earth – it’s a treasure chest!

4. In your opinion, what big science breakthrough from the past informs missions of today?

In science, everything we do builds on successes and also failures of the past. Sometimes we forget our failures or near-failures, which tend to teach us a lot about what to do and what not to do. One of my favorite stories is about the Explorer 1 mission: first they observed almost nothing, until they realized that there was so much radiation that the detectors were chocking. The Van Allen Probes is a mission that are conducting the best exploration today of these radiation belts, discovered by Explorer 1. Our exploration history is full of stories like that.


5. Behind every pretty space image is a team of scientists who analyze all the data to make the discovery happen. What do you wish the public knew about the people and work that goes into each of those pretty pictures?

I wish people knew that every picture they see, every data-set they use, is a product of a team. One of the most exhilarating facts of working in space is to be able to work in teams composed of some of the nicest and most interesting people I have ever met. There are some super-famous people I run with every time we are in the same town, others who like to play music and listen to it, and some who have been in space or climbed mountains.

6. If you were a member of the public, what mission events in the next year would you be most excited about?

The public’s lives will be directly affected by our missions in our Earth Science portfolio. Some of them are done together with NOAA, our sister agency responsible for forecasts. For example, GOES will feature a lightning detector that will enable better predictions of storms. We are also launching CYGNSS in December. This NASA mission, composed of 8 spacecraft will provide unique and high-resolution data designed to provide a deeper understanding and better prediction for hurricanes globally.


7. NASA science rewrites textbooks all the time. What do you hope the kids of tomorrow will know as facts that are merely hypothesis today?

I hope they will know about life elsewhere. They will learn how life evolves, and where there is life today.

8. NASA has explored planets within our solar system. With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2020, what do you hope we learn about distant worlds?

James Webb is going to allow us to go back in time and look at the first stars and first galaxies. This is something we have never seen – we can only guess what will happen. James Webb is going to allow us to look at many, many more planets around other stars and will allow us to start doing the kind of research that links to the question about how habitable life is there.


9. What sort of elements make for an exciting new science discovery? What do you hope is the next big discovery?

Almost always, an exciting discovery is a surprise. Sometimes, discoveries happen because we are looking for something totally different. The biggest discoveries are the ones that change everything we thought before. All of a sudden, nature wags the finger at us and says “you are wrong!” That is how you know you are up to something new.

I hope the next big discovery tells us about the origin of the 95% of the universe we don’t know enough about. We call these 95% “Dark Energy” and “Dark Matter”, but – to be honest – we really don’t know. So, we are today living in a time where we know with 100% certainty that we don’t know what makes up 95% of our universe.

10. In your opinion, why should people care about the science at NASA?

They should care because we improve and protect lives on Earth. They should also care because we make the world we live in bigger. This is because we find things out we never knew, which creates new opportunities for humankind. Some of these opportunities are near-term – they are patents, innovations, companies or great educations. But, some of them are long-term – they change how we think about life itself.

Stay updated on science at NASA and Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen by following him on Twitter: @Dr_ThomasZ

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