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.


Striving for Excellence in Everything We Do

After the excitement of the successful OSIRIS-REx Touch-and-Go that collected what is probably a very large sample of asteroid Bennu, I left Colorado where the mission was being controlled a week before its first snow fall of the season. Among all of the East Coast travelers, I was the only one who was truly sad about this. Yes, I love winter and snow, and especially the one outdoors activity I love more than anything else: downhill skiing.

My favorite version of downhill skiing is one that combines solitude, nature experiences, and a great workout. It is therefore not bound to tracks and slopes, but to deep snow, trees, chutes and moguls. Achieving mastery skiing in this expert terrain is something I have been working on for decades, and I have enjoyed seeing how my kids have moved from novices to experts over the years, and how they have achieved mastery in this challenging activity. Mastery in any sport or in challenging aspects of our work is truly exhilarating and a source of joy and satisfaction.

As a former professor and now leader of NASA’s science program, I have been thinking about achieving mastery — whether it is in rocket science or on the ski slopes — and I thought I would share some of the thoughts that are most important to me.

        • Achieving mastery is a continuing process, not a goal that is achieved in one day

I need to ski every year, and push against my limitations, otherwise I lose my edge. In my professional life, I have been asked many questions along the lines: “what do I need to do to achieve this huge performance goal?” revealing an underlying assumption that there is a single or best path to that goal. Achieving big goals is not about a given path, but the process of relentless searching and iterating, about learning from others and about continual improvement.

        • Apprenticeship and mentorships are critical for progress

I improve most when I ski with people who are better than me. I have friends like Dave Dougherty, Heidi Voelker, or my cousins Matthias and Trude, who ski at a level I likely will never achieve. Some of them are world cup champions and Olympians. But, every time I manage to even spend a day with them, I get better. Similarly, I learned building space instruments from experts. Some of them had Ph.Ds like me, but some of the most relevant lessons came from engineers, and technicians who taught me the discipline of doing space hardware.

        • Fake it till you make it

When you get into tough terrain, you just have to have the courage to ski. Heidi Voelker told me: just fake it till you make it. There is no book you can read about skiing moguls that makes you a substantially better mogul skier. Reding books is good, but you need to ski. Just fake it till you make it. That optimistic approach is one common togreat space mission teams as well. There are many instances, there is no rulebook that tells you what to do. You just have to try. OSIRIS-REx, for example, was confronted by a landscape unlike what had been expected, and the team, from millions of miles away, had to adapt and find new ways to reach their goals – doing exploration in real time!

        • Follow the first rule of tree-skiing – focus on the gaps and not the trees

Skiing in deep snow and within trees is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life, but it is also scary. If you hit an obstacle with speed, the best outcome is that you only miss the rest of the day of skiing. There is a simple rule: look at where you want to ski and do not get sidetracked by the rocks and trees in the way. That focus on the goal must be in all we do. If we start primarily focusing on obstacles we will surely fail.

        • It is all about rhythm

Skiing at the expert level has a lot of similarities to dancing – it is about rhythm, about repetition and about movement. If you are not loose, you cannot ski for a whole day. Similarly, achieving mastery for most people is about rhythm, about repetition and approaches that repeatedly help them find success. If each of the steps is unnatural and forced, it is hard to be the best version we can be, no matter what the task at hand. But we must also work to enforce what is blocked to achieve that rhythm.

        • It is important to take breaks

One of the most important lessons in expert skiing is to stop when you are tired. People who disrespect that rule tend to run a much higher risk of injuring themselves. Breaks are not about being weak, but about nourishment and refocusing. I believe that is also true for rocket science. Yes, there are times we just have to push through, but in the long run, teams who do not take breaks will themselves break, and leaders who do not know their own limitations will hurt their teams.

I do not know whether I can ski this season due to COVID, but I will do whatever I can to get in a few days. In the meantime, I find my skiing lessons in my space projects.

According to my observations, the OSIRIS-REx team achieved full mastery of many of these lessons. I saw them practicing approaches for months, dealing with challenges in Bennu’s orbit and working to build a cohesive well-trained team. I saw them handle surprises and managing them while focusing on the goal, while staying loose and focused. And, I saw them take a break one late evening to ensure that the team was ready the next day, to handle any issues that could result from the sample container not being locked in – a good problem to have due to the incredible success for which they’d worked so hard.

I never get tired of observing a team that is achieving mastery, just like I can’t stop watching skiers from the ski lift managing tough terrains. It is beautiful and it motivates all of us to get even better at what we do.

Congratulations to the OSIRIS-REx team for their historic achievements during the past three weeks! And for anyone seeking mastery over life’s challenges – keep working at it!

Making Progress Through Ups and Downs

Here are two anecdotes about personal growth and about achieving goals.

About three years after my PhD, I received a note from NASA that I had lost another proposal and I was distraught about my self-assessed lack of success in my scientific career. To discuss whether there was any hope for me, I walked into Len Fisk’s office and I learned something that has turned into one of the best lessons I received in life.

Len Fisk is a member of the National Academies, a former NASA Associate Administrator of Science, and the guy who gave me my first job after my PhD. In his cool way, swinging his legs up on his desk, and slowing his language down for emphasis, he said: “When it comes to the important things in life, focus on the low frequencies!” He added, “It is never about just one proposal, and one talk, one disappointment or one joy; it is about making progress through ups and downs, learning new things over time even if it feels hard. That is how to build a career.”

What he meant is that there is merit in plugging along and methodically working at things and succeeding in solving the smaller problems (low frequencies), rather than waiting and focusing on those larger-than-life transformative things all of the time. There is room for both, and it’s important to remember the balance.

Everybody who has worked with me knows about my impatience and how it can be a strength but – even more so – when it can be a weakness: “Focus on the low frequencies.” Yes, change needs to occur, if we want to lead, but lasting change – in our lives and in the world – never depends on one single win or one loss. It depends on the low frequencies.

I had started the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, and we were making great progress towards building some of the most creative and impactful curricula anywhere, and some of the companies we helped foster were starting to turn into successes. Just like at the beginning of this experience, I asked my mentors about what I should be doing now. My biggest worry was that, although I had learned much about innovation, I was not a tried and true business entrepreneur. I discussed with this Fred Gibbons (go look up his resume, and you will understand why I was intimidated). This startup entrepreneur and mentor has been at the heart of the technology revolution in my lifetime and has personally affected Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, as well as many others.

After listening to me with patience, Fred said: “You are doing great – congrats! It would be a huge mistake if you left now. You would never learn what the actual problems are”, he continued to explain, “innovation takes time and people who leave too early never learn how big their ideas can be.”

I remember being disappointed leaving this meeting. Why did Fred not see the amazing work I did and why did he not understand my weaknesses that surely were going to affect the trajectory of this experiment in entrepreneurship and innovation? Nonetheless, I took his advice and stayed on for another few years.

I left the UM entrepreneurial programs after about 7 years. I can now look at the first 3.5 years and the second 3.5 years and judge both the impact of my work and my own learning. Perhaps as much as 80% of our impact and most of my learning came from the second half, just like Fred had predicted.

I have mentored many young leaders and professionals and I have learned the value of Fred’s wisdom: many are driven by impatience and worry about speed. They miss, just like me, a healthy assessment of their own progress and their own learning – innovation takes time, change takes time. Yes, the low frequencies also count when it comes do career decisions – don’t hasten, give yourself time to grow and learn. And when learning slows, move on without regret.

Len Fisk’s lesson about focusing on the low frequencies is about the wisdom of leading a proactive life, whether it is in science, in our personal lives, and also when it comes to societal issues that we deeply care about. Real and lasting change takes time – it takes a focus on the mountain climb and not the rocks in our path.

Just before I walked out of his office on that day, he said “Thomas, one more thing”. I stopped at the door and turned around with surprise – it felt I already got a good dose of mentorship, what else was there to say?  With the same calmness, he gave me the next lesson, looking directly into my eyes: “Thomas, when are you submitting your next proposal?”

The recognition that we should “focus on the low frequencies” in our lives should never be understood to slow down action and lessen drive towards our goals. We want to be patient and impatient at the same time – patient for the impact to evolve, impatient in trying to make it so. And, like Fred told me: we want to be sure that we grow and learn in the process. Because ultimately, we want to be ready to support our teams once we reach that goal and we find an even better one at the horizon!

Finally, many may think that this post is about patience, and focus in our lives. That is true. It is about something else just as important: mentorship is a precious good that can truly change our lives. It changed mine.

Find great mentors and listen carefully! But just as importantly, be a great mentor to others – that too is to focus on low frequencies, because our mentees will surely surpass us if we do it right!

Inspiring Through Science

Inspiration is defined as “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”. I love that definition, especially because “inspiration” is a crucial part and high-level priority of NASA’s Science Program. Inspiration is not just about information – it is about something much tougher: “to have somebody feel something,” and – even tougher: “to have somebody do something.”

I have been thinking a lot about inspiration during the time of COVID. There are three questions that have been on my mind – why? who? how?

Why inspiration from science? If there is anything we have learned from the last few months, it is that science is about two key values that matter today – collaboration and hope.

We inhabit a single planet, and we are deeply interconnected to each other. We look at the same amazing night sky and we breathe the same air. In the same way, science is cross-cutting, international and connecting. Even though funded by countries and – in most cases – national entities like NASA, science is an activity where human energy is truly aligned. I am proud that NASA understands that at its core, and NASA Science has over 400 agreements with international entities to prove it.

I remember attending my first science conference. Even though I did not understand much about the technical topics presented, it was clear that we were one team of people working on the same thing. Some of them were part of the former Soviet Union and others from Europe and the US, but they knew and respected each other. Science is a language that connects us and allows us to make progress together using the same rules and playing field. It is sad to see when national actions take the power of science away for short time gains. We know of other challenges as well. But what makes science inspiring and enduring is that it builds bridges and increases the space we live and think in for all of us.

Science is also about hope. If you do not believe that, listen to any well-researched broadcast about COVID anywhere on Earth. When and how we can go back to work in person, depends on the struggle of an international science community pushing towards better understanding, a vaccination, and a cure. There is also hope and inspiration in exploring Mars, our universe, our Sun, and our planet – each project demonstrates the power of teams to go beyond their own limitations and to transcend obstacles. What worries me most about those who do not understand science take away from that hopeful experience. Instead, in times of crisis, we need hope more than ever, we need inspiration to light the way.

Who should inspire? It turns out that really matters, and even more so than I thought before I joined NASA. I know I lead NASA’s science program and it is important that I am part of its inspirational activities. And when I speak, I am more inspiring to a kid growing up in the mountains, who sees himself in me, than when others speak. I have observed young girls react positively to female leaders because they see themselves in them. I have seen friends doing outreach in other languages, and I have observed how people react to them. I have observed young kids of color react very differently to my friends talking who look just like them. If we want to reach the broadest audience possible, we need ourselves to have breadth in various dimensions. We have taken deliberate actions to address that. For example, I was proud of the Mars 2020 Perseverance broadcast because we celebrated our team and not just the top three people. We need to do better consistently when it comes to “who,” and we are committed to increasing our reach by focusing on that.

And how should we inspire? The most important element of inspiration is what I mentioned at the very top: it is about making others feel and do things. The “how of inspiration” is therefore all about them and far less about us. For science stories to move people, they need to be understandable and not naïve – nobody wants to feel like people don’t actually try to explain and instead give shallow answers. Great communication and great inspiration starts with caring for the other, getting to know them, and by empathy for them. It is about learning and doing better continually. Yes, science is about beauty and the sense of awe you feel when looking at the sky, or the sea. It is about the devastating power of a thunderstorm, a hurricane or a solar flare, and exploding stars. It is about the vastness of space, full of our curiosity about the rules and order that permeates apparent chaos. It is about the order of atoms, about chemicals that are made up by this and possibly turn into something incredible – life itself.

Yes, science is also about people, about their stories and about struggle. Before our solar mission was named after Dr. Eugene Parker, it was a great engineering project, once it was attached to the story of our friend Dr. Parker, it inspired. I remember how worried my good friend and public relations lead was when I wanted to talk about our struggles developing a mission during a press conference. I don’t know about you, but I am not inspired to feel and do by people who are perfect – I may admire heroes, but I am reminded every day that I am not a hero – they do not inspire me. I want to work with people who – like me – struggle. Because that gives me hope that I can do something as well. My life can matter also. So, why do we think people listening to our stories are different than us in that way?

My biggest worry about the “how of inspiration” of science is that many of us are happy to inspire people who are already “in the choir” – the <1% of people who read our stories and love them already. Trust me, it feels great to give a speech with rousing applause from thousands of people who know you and at the end queue up to get an autograph. But, I always wonder who is NOT in the room. Who are the people we are missing? And, how can we find additional ways to talk to them and open up doors so they too can get that amazing sense of hope and excitement that not only gives good information, but inspires them – they are stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative!

Finally, I want to thank all who in their lives work on this important challenge – your work of inspiring others really matters!

Welcoming NASA Science’s New Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs

I am happy to announce that I have made a selection to permanently fill the critical position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs (DAAP).  Dr. Wanda Peters will join us on August 31 to begin working with us in this important role for SMD.  I  want to extend my sincere appreciation for Mayra Montrose, who has done a wonderful job filling this critical role in , serving as the acting DAAP.  I particularly want to recognize all of Mayra’s efforts working with the NASA centers to understand and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our projects.  She was also a critical part of the team that helped ensure the successful launch of Perseverance last week.

Wanda has more than 35 years of extensive technical and programmatic experience, which includes approximately 25 years serving in leadership roles. She has worked at the directorate, division, and branch levels, gaining valuable experience in the areas of program, project and business management, institutional operations, mechanical systems engineering, space technology development, and safety and mission assurance.

Currently, she serves as deputy director for planning and business management at Goddard, where she is responsible for strategic planning, policy development, program, project and personnel management, and programmatic oversight of the Flight Projects Directorate (FPD) portfolio. That portfolio consists of over 80 missions in various phases of the life cycle with a combined annual budget of $3.5 billion.

Wanda received both a Ph.D. in systems engineering and Master’s degree in engineering management from George Washington University, a Bachelor of Science in engineering from the Catholic University of America, and a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

Wanda’s extensive technical and programmatic expertise demonstrated by her accomplishments over the past 35+ years clearly demonstrates her ability to succeed in this critical position overseeing and assessing SMD’s multi-billion dollar portfolio of over 100 missions.

Please join me in welcoming Wanda to Headquarters!

Tribute to NASA Earth Trailblazer Dr. Michael Freilich

Today, NASA and the entire science community mourns the loss of Dr. Michael Freilich, former Earth Science Division Director and trailblazer. Mike was a force of nature in Earth Science for decades, and his loss will be deeply felt.

It was NASA’s great privilege earlier this year to join our European colleagues in naming an ocean observing satellite launching this fall in his honor, and in that spirit, I want to celebrate Mike’s life and accomplishments, and his legacy.

I had the pleasure of serving with Mike during the early days of my tenure as head of NASA science, and I quickly grew to respect his keen mind and his passion for telling the story of our planet and what we could learn from it as well as about it.

Earth Science shows perhaps more than any other discipline how important partnership is to the future of this planet. Mike exemplified the commitment to excellence, generosity of spirit and unmatched ability to inspire trust that made so many people across the world want to work with NASA to advance big goals on behalf of our planet and all its people. The fact that ESA and the European partners gave him the unprecedented honor of naming a mission after him demonstrates that respect and admiration. When Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich launches this fall to study Mike’s beloved oceans, he will truly take to the heavens.

Those who worked with Mike respected him. His knowledge and his forthrightness. His willingness to make the hard decisions. These were all characteristics that made him the leader he was. He always wanted to do the right thing – for NASA and for Earth Science – and I learned a lot from his example. His strength was in his directness. You always knew where Mike stood! And that counts for a lot, not only in the workplace, but also in science as a whole.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Because of that quality, and the breadth of knowledge backing it up, people across the world trusted Mike. He had high standards, and held no one to a harder standard than himself. Many missions launched under Mike’s watch, and things happened that wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t been there to push them through, to see that NASA remained true to its spirit of international partnership as we study our home planet – the only one we have!

We’ve lost a trailblazer, but we will feel his presence as his namesake orbits above us, continually reminding us to be vigilant sentinels, to keep learning, and to keep doing the right thing for each other and our planet. Godspeed, Mike Freilich. You are missed already.

Perseverance: The Mission and the Team

As we went through the countdown, just minutes before the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover, we got a message that seemed fitting: “there is an Earthquake in Pasadena.” MiMi Aung, the project director of Ingenuity, the pioneering Mars helicopter was just on air from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when her world started shaking. “She seemed a little more nervous than normal.” somebody remarked and wondered why. Minutes later, the same person wondered: “how did she keep it together during all this?”

This is the question many have asked many times, and the Perseverance team answered it over and over, not by words, but by actions. Here are some Perseverance moments during the past few years.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We really struggled building a coherent team and executing on schedule. When Administrator Bridenstine came into his job, I had a briefing of all the missions and issues. I flagged Mars2020 to be yellow trending orange. In NASA-speak, this means we had too many issues, too many challenges and we could not resolve them as quickly as we wanted.

With several new leaders on the team (including me!), we struggled building a coherent and trusting team that could achieve. Eventually, I asked for a monthly status meeting, spending almost a half a day per month personally over and above the regular updates and comms, and we started listening to each other. We all figured out how we could help accelerate solutions to problems. I was always up to date and could answer questions from Capitol Hill and Executive Offices with data that was never older than days or weeks.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help keep us on schedule, we ran termination/continuation reviews of two instruments that we could fly without. The teams locked onto them and both instruments are now en route to Mars – fully tested and completed. I still do not totally know how they did it. But they did, with renewed focus, and led by experts like Howard Eisen. Somebody needs to do a study on him and his magic.

Just when we thought it could not get much worse with instruments, one of our international partners had a test failure and over-tested their flight electronics, setting them back tor months. That instrument, too, is on the way to Mars now. The team broke every record rebuilding and testing.

During a static test, the shell protecting the rover during entry descent and landing cracked and we needed to rebuild it! We had no reserves on top of a very aggressive plan. But, the team showed up within the initially agreed upon schedule with a new shell. which is now on the way to Mars.

Building an excellent and hugely dedicated team, and with the huge dedication of the team, we started to turn green on schedule, although we used more money than we intended to. But because of the tremendous transparency throughout, our stakeholders agreed with us that after mission success, schedule was a higher priority than cost for this mission at the given time. This is what made us successful because it created enough reserve for us.

Photo credit: NASA/Christian Mangano

I remember us shipping the rover to Florida and a day before I called the manager with a simple question: “did we do everything we could have, without shortcuts, to make this rover successful”. He said “absolutely – we did it as well as we know how”.

And then came March and we shut down as a country and as a world. Within 24 hours of this, we made a plan, as a team – it took everybody. Using NASA airplanes, we allowed integration and test engineers to remain in a bubble  as they traveled to their important work and keep the teams safe. Some engineers moved to Florida for months and never returned to their families till now – with the rover on the way to Mars. Perseverance.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The launch vehicle contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) led by Tory Bruno also kept their team in a bubble and kept on moving toward launch. And when in June a resurgence of COVID in Florida started driving up the number of positives, the company again shut everything down to help prioritize. We lost a few days of the launch window due to COVID and within a week or two the problem was addressed. Perseverance.

And when the wet dress rehearsal revealed a technical flaw on the third stage motor, the NASA and ULA team came up with a fix. We had one meeting on a particular day at 3 pm with a conclusion that said “it is either this fix, or we are not launching this year.” The diagnosis was correct. We launched.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

We had to change the entire launch two weeks ago into a virtual experience. The team used this as an excuse to do a better job, telling the story of this mission like none before. Perseverance.

Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Besides the Earth quake, the launch was picture perfect and about an hour after launch, Perseverance was released towards Mars. The picture below shows a candid shot of ULA CEO Tory Bruno, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and I about 30 seconds after that moment.

We immediately got carrier signal, and knew all was good, but the signal was too strong for our sensitive ground based antennas and it took us a couple of hours to match them and another few hours until Perseverance was in a nominal mode and we knew it was happy and healthy in its new home in space. We purposely went on camera for our press conference without waiting for that resolution because we want to share with everybody using the same values that got us to launch: trust, perseverance, technical excellence, and ONE team with everybody pulling in the same direction – towards mission success.

We will have more challenges, I am sure, it is a space mission after all. But, the same values and characteristics that got us here will give us the best chance to be successful throughout the mission: trust, perseverance, technical excellence, and ONE team supporting each other.

NASA’s New Mars Sample Return Program Director

I am happy to announce that we have filled the critical senior manager role in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) of Mars Sample Return (MSR) program director. Jeff Gramling will be joining us June 22 to begin that important work.

The Mars Sample Return campaign, which begins its first leg with the launch of Mars 2020 Perseverance this summer, is a complex international partnership between NASA and ESA, with multiple launches to Mars planned in 2026 and high visibility around the world. It’s going to do something that has never been done before, which is to bring samples from the Martian surface back to Earth for further study. We will be able to do so much more with these samples in state-of-the-art laboratories on Earth, and we’re very excited about it. Jeff brings a lot of experience to the position.

Jeff comes to us from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where he is a program manager and has worked on the Galactic/Extragalactic Ultra long duration balloon Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) and also served as a member of the Standing Review Board for the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission. Throughout his career, in his project and program management positions on NASA projects in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and SMD, he has worked on directed, decadal, and Announcement of Opportunity (AO) missions.

Some of you may remember him from his long tenure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where he served as  Earth Systematic Missions Program Manager and Associate Director of Flight Projects for Earth Science Projects. In that role, he was responsible for directed Earth science development flight projects at Goddard, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Langley, including Landsat-9, PACE, TSIS-1, IceSat-2, GRACE-Follow On, Sentinel-6, SWOT, NISAR, SAGE-III, and CLARREO Pathfinder. He was also responsible for enhancements to the Earth Science Data Information System (ESDIS) and led efforts to establish acquisition strategies and develop project plans for missions in formulation. On his watch, Jason-3, SAGE-III, and TSIS-1 launched successfully.

He began at Goddard in 1985 supporting the Hubble Space Telescope project through launch. In 1992, he began his long association with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) project. After supporting the launches of TDRS-F and G on the space shuttle in the 1990s as a subsystem manager, he became spacecraft bus manager and then space segment manager on the second-generation development program for TDRS H, I, and J, launched between 2000 and 2002. In 2006, he became acting TDRS project manager and began leading that team on the formulation of the third generation TDRS satellites (TDRS-K, L M). He was named project manager in June, 2007, and led the project team through the design, build, and successful launches of TDRS K in 2013 and TDRS L in 2014. Following completion of the TDRS-M spacecraft in 2015, he served as acting deputy program manager for Earth Systematic Missions until his appointment to the Senior Executive Service.

The Mars Sample Return program director will report directly to me, but the MSR program will be tightly coupled with our existing Mars Exploration Program. The Planetary Science Division (PSD) will ensure coordination as PSD remains focused on the rest of our large Martian fleet.

We will transition NASA HQ campaign leadership from Jim Watzin to Jeff. I would like to thank Jim for his excellent leadership during the early formulation phase to enable the NASA and ESA team to develop the Mars Sample Return approach we are now implementing.

Please join me in welcoming Jeff to Headquarters. We’ll give you a chance to meet him as soon as we can.