When Administrator Charlie Bolden interviewed me for my job in the fall of 2016, he started the meeting with a surprising question: “Thomas, why would you want this job? You are leaving a tenured position and you may be fired within a few months as the administration changes.” I reflected for a moment and answered, “because it is better to have an impact on this amazing program for a few months than to have no impact at all.”
This December, I will resign my position at NASA, about 3 months into the seventh year of the most impactful—and the most intense—job I have ever had: running the world’s leading program pursuing science in and from space, continually accelerating the speed of exploration and discovery, and inspiring millions to “dare mighty things.”
It has been a great ride. I resign as the longest continually serving associate administrator of science (*). This is not a goal Charlie and I had in mind when I started. Frankly, I just tried to do the best job I could — and help this science program I always loved and which has been intertwined with my career, from building part of an instrument as a graduate student, to proposing and winning multiple instruments and investigations, and finally, to my job as associate administrator.
I’ve had a tough time making this decision because I so love working with Team NASA Science and I doubt I will ever have a cooler job after this. There is no other job in the world that would let me work on more exciting missions, or that has more potential to affect scientific discoveries.
I am leaving for two reasons. I believe it is best for NASA, and especially the NASA Science community, and I believe it is best for me.
After 6+ years I feel I have had a chance to implement my best ideas. There are, without doubt, other great leaders with other amazing ideas that need to be tried, and the science community deserves the opportunity to give them that chance. Most importantly, the state of NASA’s Science program is strong and ready for that change now. It is a good time for a transition.
There is another reason for leadership change we do not like to talk about, generally. Each of us has weaknesses that also affect our organizations, and these weaknesses tend to weigh more heavily on organizations after a few years. That is why leadership changes are imperative for organizations who seek excellence.
On a personal level, I feel it is time for a change also. No, it is not because I am not having fun, or because I am less excited now, or because I’ve achieved any particular goal, or because bureaucratic forces are wearing me down. Simply, it is because I’m at my best when I learn new skills or gain new leadership experiences. I have achieved the key goals I set for myself when I took this job, and I will continue to struggle with the ones I am still struggling with, even if I stayed longer.
So, as I get ready for my final months at NASA, I want to tell our team members and partners how much I appreciate them.
First and foremost, I am thinking of our leadership team in NASA’s Science Mission directorate. I don’t think I have ever seen a stronger NASA science leadership team in my career as a scientist, but I know I am biased. We have an incredible set of talented individuals at headquarters doing hard work for the community each and every day. I wish more people could see the excellence and dedication I experienced for the past years.
But NASA’s science community extends well beyond that, to others at NASA HQ and Centers, to the growing number of industrial and academic partners, to our hard working colleagues in the White House or on Capitol Hill, and to our international partners, without whom we would not nearly be as good as we are. Thanks to all of you!
Exploring the secrets of the universe, searching for life elsewhere, protecting and improving life on Earth and in space are some of the most important and most impactful goals we can pursue as humans. And learning how to build excellent teams who can create historic missions today—and tomorrow—continues to be worthy of dedicating our lives to. I will spend a lot of effort recruiting candidates to apply for this most amazing (and challenging) job, and I hope many other friends of NASA will do the same.
Until I turn my badge in, I will continue to go “with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space,” just like Kennedy said during his famous speech 60 years ago, a motto I have used throughout my time at NASA. Then I will spend a lot more time with dear family and friends who have been my support system and a source of feedback throughout!
So—what will I do next? The answer is “take a break!”. I have been notoriously bad at finding a new job while I am fully dedicated to the present one. Thus, my key goals in early 2023 will be spending time with family and friends, skiing on the Utah slopes, and going to the gym. I will also spend time processing what this most amazing job has taught me as a leader and as a scientist, and I want to talk to others about it.
After some time of focus and reflect, I will find what is next for me. And if I am very lucky, I will get to work with people who care as much about their work as my colleagues today do, each and every day!
(*) Ed Weiler spent more time in the position, but he did so in two appointments.