Remembering an Important Lesson

As part of my studies in Astronomy at the University of Bern circa 1990, I had to learn how to measure very accurately positions and angles of stars in the sky. During a practicum class, we could apply the content within the classroom, and one of these experiments was to measure accurately, during the night, the angle between a telescope on the roof on the astronomy institute and a point near a local hotel called Kursaal.

I was reminded of that today when I stood on the roof of that hotel and looked in the direction of the university. I marked the points of university and hotel with red arrows.

There are two reasons this was meaningful to me today.

First and foremost, I just completed one of the most important goals of my career thus far, working as the NASA leader of the international team to make the biggest space-based astronomical telescope (JWST) ready for science. Obviously, I would have never guessed that my education would open doors for this kind of mega-goal. How do you make amazingly big leaps in your life and become part of history making changes? How do you prepare to help release pictures of the universe in ways we have never seen it?

The answer, for me, is that big leaps have a lot to do with deliberate and even cumbersome small steps. These may be specific lessons learned on a roof at night, or at night staring at a monitor on a dark desk, alone as others gave up earlier. But, that is not all: the rest is support from others and good luck – in real life we never control all variables, like a well-posed problem in school. That is why, most importantly, we never succeed with big successes by ourselves!

Secondly, I have been thinking a lot about managing life and time. I am in that hotel on vacation for a few days. Instead of having the planned 10 days off, I will only have 6, including weekends, as my free time has been eroding away due to other urgencies like Mars Sample Return, Psyche, budget discussions for 2024, and others. Why have I not learned how to take time off during the past 30 years? I may be worse at that than that young student on the roof in 1990.

The truth is that I have always been very dedicated to my work – from the time as a student to today. But, there are times I realize I still have to learn that dedication is not the same as always saying “yes”.

There are times I feel I have a lot of agency and I feel I am at or near my potential as a leader. Some of my best and most impactful decisions tend to come during these times. However, since early this year, I have been way more reactive as a leader than I want to be. I needed to travel to address a number of urgent issues and I keep falling behind.

Of course, I know deep within me that reactive leaders are not excellent leaders, so I need to “get on the horse and ride”, rather than “being pulled behind the horse, powerless”. But equally importantly, great leaders are also balanced leaders and manage to spend time for themselves, their family and friends.

So, looking across the river and remembering my formative university lessons, I am committing to myself to prioritize learning yet again. Learning about me, other people – especially those I love, about broadening my horizon, and about other things.

Yes, it is instructive to look at your younger self looking at you from across the river.

Reflections on Webb’s First Full-Color Images

What a week, one of my favorites during my nearly six years at NASA! It was such an amazing week because it was the culmination of decades of determination and overcoming challenges that led to one of the biggest and unquestioned successes.

Years of hard work and the efforts of thousands of people across the globe led us to the release of the first full-color images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on July 12. The reaction from people around the globe was incredible. To give you an idea, between July 11 – 14, there were over 1.4 million social media mentions of the Webb Telescope, and the topic was the top Google search in the United States! The story of Webb’s images reached so many; it was on the front page of 83 domestic newspapers and 45 international. There were nearly 10,000 traditional media stories written about the images, and over 1,500 TV stations covered the news.

Reflecting on this achievement, I am left feeling grateful and humble to have had a role in this moment in history. There are few times in history when we humans look at nature in an entirely new way, and Webb has already begun to make us do this with these new images. How amazing is it that we are alive right now and we are poised to gain new insight into the very foundation of our existence!

The deep gratitude I have is to the many individuals who enabled this mission and brought it to fruition. From the technicians to the scientists, everyone involved has given their best, worked extra hours, prevailed through hardship and have inched us closer to rewriting our cosmic history.

I could not be more proud of the Webb Team and everyone involved who has gotten us to where we are today. Thank you.

Now, the curtain is lifting on a new era of our cosmic story. Webb’s first full-color images are a reminder that we are but a small dot among billions of galaxies in the universe. Until now, we have never had the eyes to see the infancy of the universe, Webb is providing us with that vision in unprecedented detail. We are seeing details, stars and galaxies that humans have never seen before. What we are seeing is truly revolutionary.

To me, each of the images is a victory on its own. For example, the deep field with only 6 hours of integration immediately found galaxies older than 3 billion years – surely the “oldest galaxy” record is about to fall. What is more exciting to me that we also have compositional spectra of these galaxies. Modelers of star-formation and star-generations will have constraints previously inaccessible. But, I always try to look at pictures in two ways – as a scientist, but also just like observing nature or art like a child.

With that, looking at the Southern Ring Nebula and the Carina nebula is just stunning. Yes, it is about the story of star formation and the end of stars, but it is just incredibly beautiful and stunning even without the scientific explanation. Nature is beautiful, much more beautiful than we ever thought.

Finally, I loved the exoplanet spectrum – a Jupiter scale planet closer to its star than Mercury – and immediately water signatures show up with remarkably tight error bars. I can only imagine the charts we are going to look up in the whole spectrum and how we are going to learn about atmospheric composition of worlds that may or may not have the promise to harbor life.

As humans, we are intimately connected to these images. As I write this post, I look down at the gold and platinum rings on my hands and remember that these elements were likely created from merged neutron stars. Leftovers of stellar evolution – on my hand. Stellar processes and explosions of various kinds created the very elements we are made of as humans. We are made of star dust. With Webb, we’re going to peer through cosmic dust and see stars forming and dying in stellar explosions that eject material that seed new stars to be born. A violent cycle, but one that is essential.

We had seen before with Hubble that these star forming regions are stunning and provide us with enormous amounts of learning. Now, with Webb, we are looking at these stellar nurseries in new detail that will reshape how we understand the evolution of galaxies.

We are just beginning to write this next chapter in our cosmic history books and I could not be more excited to see what story Webb helps us tell. The fact that we can look into the universe and use what we learn to change the way we think about ourselves is one of the most profound things science can do.

It gives me hope to witness the power of humans as they achieve greater things in the face of adversity and create the impossible together. Thank you for joining us in this journey to unfold the universe.

Welcoming NASA Science’s New Astrophysics Division Director Dr. Mark Clampin

I am pleased to announce that I have made a selection to permanently fill the critical position of Astrophysics Division Director. Dr. Mark Clampin will join the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) on August 15. I want to extend my sincere appreciation to Paul Hertz, who has served as the Astrophysics Division Director for over 10 years. Paul’s efforts to SMD and the scientific community have brought us significant strides that will live on long after his tenure. Paul will continue in the SMD Front Office as a Senior Advisor.  


Mark has more than 25 years of extensive scientific, technical, management and programmatic experience, which includes over seven years in leadership roles. He has worked at the directorate, division, and branch levels, gaining valuable experience in the areas of operations, scientific research, and development.  


Currently, Mark serves as the Director of the Science and Exploration Directorate within the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). He leads one of the Agency’s largest science organizations spanning SMD’s science disciplines. Mark is also a seasoned leader who sets scientific priorities for the GSFC Science and Exploration Directorate, which informs the deployment of key resources such as research and strategic investments, labor, technical equipment, and facilities.   



Prior assignments include Director of the Astrophysics Division, and Deputy Director within the GSFC Science and Exploration Directorate. In recognition of his outstanding leadership and career achievements, Mark was recently recognized with a Presidential Rank Award.   


Prior to joining NASA, Mark began his career with the European Space Agency, Johns Hopkins University, and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). His experience as a both as a leader and developer of astrophysics instruments and spacecraft uniquely qualify him for this critical leadership position with SMD. 


Please join me in welcoming Mark to Headquarters!