Welcoming NASA Science’s New Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration

I am happy to announce that I have made a selection to permanently fill the Science Mission Directorate’s position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration (DAAX). Dr. Joel Kearns will join us on February 1 to begin working with us and our stakeholders in this critical role at NASA Headquarters. 

I would like to give my appreciation and thanks to Dr. Dave Burns, who has done an excellent job in keeping the Exploration Science Strategy and Integration Office (ESSIO) portfolio moving forward by developing and strengthening partnerships,  strategies and activities for robotic and human exploration at the moon and beyond.  Most notably, Dave has been instrumental in leading the efforts managing the Commercial Lunar and Payload Services initiative.  Dave and the ESSIO team have been absolutely critical in the burgeoning lunar economy that will deliver payloads to the lunar surface at a cadence of approximately two per year beginning in 2021. 

Joel has more than 32 years of experience in leadership roles at multiple NASA centers and in private industry.  He is currently the director of Facilities, Test and Manufacturing at NASA’s Glenn Research Center  in Cleveland. He leads efforts that encompass facility infrastructure, aerospace testing, flight research aircraft, on-site manufacturing and environmental management.  

He previously served as the deputy director of GRC’s Space Flight Systems Directorate, providing executive direction of projects assigned to Glenn in human exploration and operations, space science and space technology 

Joel also previously served as an executive at NASA Headquarters in human spaceflight, and at both the Ames Research Center in California and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where he worked on programs as varied as the space shuttle and SOFIA. He has also held positions in industry. 

Joel was awarded the U.S. Government’s Presidential Rank of Meritorious Senior Executive in 2009. He is also an inventor on four patents for single crystal growth technology! We look forward to his insight and expertise as we move ahead with the many facets of critical work to return to the lunar surface. 

A Dashboard and a Declaration

We all know what a tough year it’s been. At this year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), however, it’s been great to see so much hope delivered by science, to see how much discovery and enthusiasm for exploring our world and our universe continue no matter what. The AGU always provides thought provoking presentations and discussions. But this year in particular, it demonstrates the power of science to bring us together as a community to explore unique questions and look at our planet and the cosmos through fresh eyes.

Our world’s quarantine for much of the year has resulted in some dramatic observations from our Earth orbiting satellites, and those findings have been on display with posters and presentations and many dialogues at AGU.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is a partnership in response to the global pandemic by NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), who joined forces this summer to use the collective scientific power of their Earth-observing satellite data to document planet-wide changes in the environment and human society. And we made the wealth of our agencies’ collective information available at the touch of a finger, free and open to all.

In an unprecedented collaboration, the three space agencies created the joint COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard, which integrates multiple satellite data records with analytical tools to allow user-friendly tracking of changes in air and water quality, climate change, economic activity, and agriculture.

This tri-agency data resource gives the public and policymakers a unique tool to probe the short-term and long-term impacts of pandemic-related restrictions implemented around the world. The dashboard will continue to grow with new observations added over the coming months as the global economy gradually reopens.

And now at AGU, we three agencies have signed a declaration to continue this valuable global resource through June of next year. Below, I’ve pasted the text of our shared declaration, read at and AGU at the panel ‘Science in the time of COVID-19,’ but I want to leave you with the words of my friend, Dr. Michael Freilich, about why we do things such as the COVID-19 Earth observation dashboard.

Mike said, “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 it.”

With that strong message from an inspirational leader, here’s the declaration: 

Joint Declaration at the American Geophysical Union, December 2020, by NASA, ESA and JAXA

Today NASA, ESA, and JAXA commit to continue through June 2021 to advance their joint work in understanding the environmental changes in air quality, greenhouse gases, water quality, agriculture, and economic activity due to COVID-19, an effort that began in April 2020 with the establishment of a tri-agency Earth observation dashboard. This decision continues the unprecedented collaboration, and open sharing of data, modern indicator analysis, open source analytical tools and scientific knowledge and expertise involving our agency experts to integrate agency datasets to observe, analyze, and communicate COVID-19 related environmental changes to the public and to policymakers around the world. Over the next 6 months, the agencies will continue to jointly advance our understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on the Earth from the unique perspective of space while making the data openly available through the joint dashboard.

Over the next six months, additional data will be collected to further enhance the indicators and to allow the study of more regions and hot spot areas impacted by COVID-19. Socioeconomic and other field experts will be invited to collaborate and accelerate the analysis and understanding of the impacts enabled by the open dashboard datasets.

In addition, NASA, ESA, and JAXA will welcome other space agencies and organizations sharing similar values to join this initiative and contribute with their data and expertise to further expand this international Earth observation dashboard.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator Science Mission Directorate at NASA

Josef Aschbacher, Director, Earth Observation Programmes at ESA

Koji Terada, Vice President and Director General, Space Technology Directorate I at JAXA

Family Traditions

As we have gone to virtual meetings, we get to look into the lives of our collaborators and friends in ways we never see under normal circumstances. And as we start December and holiday season, we also remember our traditions that are defining, in part, where we are from and who we are. Let me share a glimpse into one of my traditions and specifically what I did all Sunday.
Besides Holy Evening and Christmas on December 24th and 25th respectively, and St. Nicklaus Day on December 6th, there was ONE holiday tradition that meant everything to me as a kid – the day we made Christmas Cookies.
Many of you know that my father was a preacher and leader of a religious evangelical community, but few know that he was a professional baker before that time. He had gone through an apprenticeship and learned how to make bread, assemble cakes, bake cookies and much more.
So that day in early December each year was a family highlight: we would all come together as a family and contribute as best we could as my father was stepping  back to his first career as a baker. When we were little kids, all we could do is cut stars or hearts out of the cookie dough or eat some left-overs and later we got to do more. But my father set the speed and accuracy in a logistically challenging activity of baking 5-10 types and batches of cookies with one oven in sufficient quantities to last for the entire holiday season.
I have lived in the United States for almost 25 years and I have never baked any of the Swiss cookies until this year. I honestly cannot explain why not – too busy, too lazy? I always loved them and they fill me with the inner warmth of memories of a great family holiday tradition.
So, when our daughter Maria returned from her exchange year to Switzerland, she brought with her the same love for these cookies. And now, there was no escape.
On Sunday morning around 9 am, and after the necessary coffee, we made a plan to bake 7 different batches of cookies. We got help during a phone call to my older sister in Switzerland – the keeper of our family traditions – who gave us some “how-to”s and tricks and we were off to the races!
I totally loved the 5-6 hrs of family-time and the satisfaction of making something with nearly instantaneous and beautiful results! (In the pictures you’ll see  Zimtsterne, Mailänderli, Vanille and Choco Sablés, and Spitzbuebe.)
And I loved remembering the childhood memories and even some tricks my father showed me. I specifically remembered his soft hand guiding mine as a kid and me observing him in the kitchen and how he handled steps in the process.
And I profoundly missed my father and my mother who have left this world within the last few years. In moments like this, it feels like we chatted only last week and we said good bye with a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek just a month ago! And the sorrow is right back in my life and a big awareness of the hole that will never be filled again. We will always love them and miss them.
With that, I wish all of you, our NASA colleagues and collaborators nothing but the best for this months and for the year to come. I hope you have already ordered our amazing 2021 calendar – another SMD tradition – and if not, you can do so, here: in English and in Spanish.

An Exciting Day for Science and Exploration

Today marks an exciting and historic event as precious samples from asteroid Ryugu have been brought to Earth by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 mission. This is an extremely challenging endeavor and we commend and congratulate Japan on being not only the first nation that has been able to carry out a successful asteroid retrieval mission, but to now have done so for the second time!

We are excited about our collaboration between JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission and NASA’s asteroid sample return mission – OSIRIS-REx, which extracted a sample from near-Earth asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20. Our mutually beneficial partnership with Japan allows us to share samples from NASA’s mission at Bennu and receive a portion of JAXA’s sample from Ryugu. Together, we will gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, and the source of water and organic molecules that could have seeded life on Earth.

Asteroid Ryugu
Asteroid Ryugu Image Credit & Copyright: ISAS, JAXA

Our model of sharing samples is a testament to the unprecedented partnership For the U.S. and Japan have built over half a century in aeronautics research and human and robotic space exploration. Together, our two spacecraft have traveled millions of miles to touch the ancient solar system. With Hayabusa2’s return today, and OSIRIS-REx’s return in less than three years, we will be able to share the science and insights we gain from these invaluable samples with all of humanity.

The fact that humans can launch a spacecraft from Earth, have it rendezvous so accurately with a small target and delicately touch the surface to collect a sample is just incredible and shows the tenacity of the human spirit. Missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx give us hope. They inspire us to persevere through the many challenges faced with such challenging endeavors, and they teach us the power of working together – not as one nation or as one agency, but together as humans who share a home on this pale blue dot.

Asteroid Bennu
Asteroid Bennu Credit: NASA

And what’s most exciting is that this is just the beginning. The return of Hayabusa-2 is the start of a decade of trailblazing missions to explore the Moon together, as part of Artemis, and to return samples from distant bodies, including JAXA’s upcoming Martian Moons eXploration mission and NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission. Our collaboration with Japan will provide invaluable science and critical knowledge for expanding humanity’s presence deeper into the solar system.

Congratulations again to JAXA and its partners, the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Government of Australia including the Australian Space Agency), and to the Japanese people. This is a great day for science and exploration.