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.

Sandra Connelly Named Deputy Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate

I am excited to announce that Sandra Connelly has been named deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) , effective March 1, 2020. She is currently serving as SMD’s acting deputy associate administrator and brings to the job over 30 years of leadership in program, project and organizational change management, and strategic planning and analysis.

Sandra will be responsible for assisting me in my role as Associate Administrator for Science with executive leadership, overall planning, direction and management of NASA science programs. Her duties involve coordination and integration of science programs within the directorate and ensuring activities adhere to national, agency and directorate policies, guidelines and processes. She will collaborate with other senior NASA officials in the development of overall NASA program objectives.

Sandra brings to this position a wealth of valuable NASA experience. Her deep technical knowledge and innovative thinking will strengthen our ability to develop new missions and manage the most amazing fleet of science missions anywhere on Earth. All of us in SMD are looking forward to her contributions in this new role.

Sandra joined SMD in 2014. She has served in various leadership roles in science and was most recently deputy associate administrator for programs, where she oversaw SMD’s flight portfolio of 100 missions. She led NASA’s reimbursable program with NOAA as the Joint Agency Satellite Division Director and she provided leadership to the SMD’s Heliophysics Division as deputy division director.

Prior to joining SMD, Sandra has served in numerous leadership positions, including serving as the director of engineering, program and project management within the Chief Engineer’s Office, where she led the establishment of NASA’s current policy for program and project management, systems engineering and software engineering.

Please welcome me in congratulating Sandra on stepping into this new role. I am looking forward to having her insight and experience broaden our vision and grow our portfolio.

The Science of Social Media Strategy

At NASA Science we use any and all ways to communicate our exploration from all perspectives. We talk about the colleagues who come up with space missions, the complexity of building spacecraft, the people who can hardly wait for the data to arrive, and the historic mission milestones and science results. As the way we learn and disseminate information evolves, so must we at NASA Science, to ensure we are best in class when it comes to sharing our message.

Over the past decade, social media has become an integral way that NASA shares its science and research with the public. Social media not only allows us to reach a variety of audiences, ages and demographics, but also it enables NASA to be more accessible to the public. Features offered by the various platforms, like Q&A’s and live video, enable NASA to take its followers behind-the-scenes and into areas that are normally not accessed by the public. The conversational nature of social media allows NASA to share its message and to respond to the public’s questions and engage with followers like never before.

With this rapidly evolving platform, informed strategy is key. During a recent review, we took a look at all of the social media accounts associated with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. We found that there are around 300 accounts across 8 platforms (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube). Although well-intended in all cases, our initial “more is better” strategy did not always work in all cases as we hoped. For example, a significant number of these accounts were inactive for time-periods over years, and others were highly duplicative and confusing at times, with respect to focus and content, resulting in the fact that many great posts were not seen by large audiences.

Because of this and to improve the reach and impact of our social media efforts, we are working on a strategic social media plan that will consolidate these existing profiles across the 8 platforms. This consolidation does not mean that information will no longer be shared. In fact, the goal is to share the same information under more thematic and broader account handles that have larger audiences. Based on our deeper understanding of social media gained during the past years, we believe that this more focused and aligned effort will result in higher followership for these accounts and broader engagement, especially around missions or research efforts that might not normally get public attention.

During the past year or so, our teams have experimented with thematic accounts and other ways to create more “bang for the buck” – broader reach and deeper engagement. Here is one example: The @NASASun account on Twitter is a thematic account that shares the various ways NASA studies the Sun and its influence in our solar system. It was also a huge driver of content and traffic during the 2017 total solar eclipse. Rather than setting up a separate account for our newest Sun mission – Parker Solar Probe – relevant information is shared on @NASASun. This allows people interested in NASA’s study of the Sun to not only learn about Parker Solar Probe, but other missions that they might not normally have known about.

Another example has been a deliberate alignment of social media around crosscutting stories. An amazing Earth Science news-story about Greenland, that upon first glance appeared to only focus on one science discipline was deconstructed and shared by a diverse group of social media accounts across disciplines. This story highlighted a second possible impact crater under the Greenland Ice. Instead of treating this as solely an Earth Science story, we engaged groups from other disciplines.

The result was astounding and added new context and viewpoints to the story. The Curiosity Rover account related the possible Greenland impact crater to the robot’s home on Mars – Gale Crater – which was likely created by an asteroid impact. As science is so often connected, the engagement we employed with this story highlighted those crosscutting angles to tell a more comprehensive narrative. This effort also resulted in 20 – 30% increased engagement compared to other similar social media posts. In addition, I noticed how much better the cross-disciplinary nature of science was shining through all this.

Over the next few months, you will see these efforts taking shape across our social media channels. Be aware that we do this for one reason and one reason only: We deeply care about sharing our messages with more people and this more strategic approach will allow NASA Science and its broad impact on society to be seen and appreciated by more.

Thank you for your support!

NASA’s Future Leaders

The agency has a wonderful leadership development program that provides leadership training for some of our most promising junior professionals. It’s called the NASA FIRST Program. The 2019 group of FIRST participants has just graduated from the program and I am so proud of what they accomplished. I wanted to share my excitement for what they’ve accomplished by posting my congratulatory letter to the participants here on my blog.

NASA FIRST graduation, Thursday, June 27, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Dear FIRST Graduates,

First and foremost, I want to congratulate you for your successful completion of NASA’s FIRST program, and particularly for all the learning that occurred as a result. Meeting you was inspiring, and made me think about the very values that motivate me.

The first value is leadership. Leadership is not just about being good at something or getting great grades and evaluations. True leadership is the recognition that, through deliberate action, we inspire others to join in. Leaders remember the moment when they first realized that others were following them, not because they were told to follow, but because they were motivated by the goal or vision, and the example the leader sets.

The second value is service. The kinds of leaders who have so often made the world better in a lasting way are the ones who understand that concept. When they see others following, they recognize that tremendous potential and empower those followers to unleash it for the betterment of all. Joining NASA civil service, I have come to admire these servant leaders, and I observe them every day. These are leaders who bring their best to work, serving their office, our agency, and our nation. I think many of you are on track to be the same type of leaders, and I am proud of you for that!

Most importantly, I hope to see you again doing something that can only be achieved by an excellent team in which you have a critical role as a leader. Like many things in life, to be a master leader takes a lot of practice. I know I still learn a lot every day from people around me. So, be patient with yourself, as you are moving forward on this path of learning, of leadership, and of service. Through it, you leave an impact that is bigger than anything you might even think about today!


Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Ph.D.

Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate

NASA FIRST graduation, Thursday, June 27, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

To learn more about the FIRST Program, visit:

Celebrating Earth

Earth is our precious oasis in the cosmos. Out of all the planets in the solar system, our own is the only one we know with certainty to have life. Motivated by the potentially habitable worlds we find our solar system and beyond, we look at our planet in new ways. At NASA, we monitor, study and observe our planet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – attempting to learn even more about this complex rock on which we live, and to protect and improve life on Earth through it.

Each year, to celebrate our home on Earth Day, NASA Science Art Director Jenny Mottar designs a beautiful poster. Last year’s Earth Day artwork and messaging was inspired by a Carl Sagan quote, stating that the “…Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean.”

Earth Day 2018 poster

This year’s artwork expands upon this theme and dives into the depths of the universe in search of our cosmic origin.

Earth Day 2019 poster

A bioluminescent jellyfish is at the forefront of the composition, composed of DNA strands, vines and trees, meant to represent life on our planet from a new perspective, motivated by our questions about life beyond Earth. A second jellyfish floats in the distance, depicting the possibility of life on planets that orbit other stars. In the cosmic depths we discover ourselves, and “the water seems inviting.”

I hope you enjoy this beautiful creation and it allows you to appreciate the incredible planet we call home.

To download a free copy of the poster, visit:

Happy Earth Day!