Transitioning to My Next Chapter

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.

NASA’s Postdoctoral Program

In many ways, our investments in graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the most important investments we make in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). These early career leaders are the talent pipeline of scientists that will lead the next generation, whether it is a new space telescope, a new modeling center developing predictive capabilities for the Earth that saves and improves lives, or new insights about the nature of our universe. We focus on these leaders by giving them time to grow, new opportunities, and also by providing then with a stipend commensurate with their achievements to date.

NASA’s SMD supports many graduate students and postdocs, most of whom work with academic partners who are engaged in our missions and research programs. We also have graduate students and postdocs who work at our NASA centers and gain important and unparalleled experiences. About 120–130  post-docs are funded each year for fellowships lasting up to two years through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP). With the recent award of a new, five-year contract to Oakridge Associated Research Universities (ORAU) for the management of the NPP, now seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the program.

Unique among postdoctoral programs, the NPP places its Fellows into NASA labs at NASA Centers. NPP Fellows work side-by-side with NASA’s world-class scientists and engineers on projects intimately related to NASA’s goals, objectives, and missions. The NPP has been open to non-US citizens for most of its existence. During the height of the recent COVID pandemic, long and unpredictable delays in the issuance of needed visas for non-US citizens resulted in NASA restricting applications to the program to US citizens and permanent residents. Happily, with the waning of the pandemic, visa wait times have become closer to the pre-pandemic norm and NASA is once again opening applications to the NPP to non-US citizens.

At the Fall 2021 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NASA announced that it was raising the NPP base stipend to $70,000. Additionally, stipends are adjusted upward to account for the local cost of living. These changes should ensure that NPP Fellows are paid a just salary for their efforts.

Under the new contract, ORAU has created a Participant Assistance Program that offers financial and legal advice to NPP Fellows and their families as well as providing support for their mental health. This new program was something that NASA hoped would be proposed in the re-competition of the NPP management organization. ORAU is also working with NASA Headquarters to define some optional professional development activities for the NPP Fellows, such as proposal writing workshops. All in all, the NASA Postdoctoral Program is growing stronger in multiple ways.

This growth, though, has brought with it new costs. Some of the cost increases are due to the higher stipends; some are due to the additional services being offered to Fellows. Much of the increase, though, has come from simple inflation over the last five years. Since the new contract has not been in place for a full year yet, the full size of the cost increase is not yet known. However, projections of the potential annual cost for the program as SMD managed it — 130 Fellows at NASA Centers and JPL — are quite large. So large that they could amount to a non-trivial fraction of the SMD Support Budget. In order to maintain a balance between SMD’s missions and research, the size of the SMD Support Budget must be controlled. To this end, SMD is taking the following steps:

  1. To reduce the likelihood of rapid changes or lasting reductions in the number of NPP Fellows, the number of SMD-funded NPP Fellows will be reduced by 10% for the next year or two. This reduction will not be spread uniformly among all the Centers and JPL but will, instead be borne by those institutions that have the largest number of NPP Fellows, as well as other rationales to be decided on. These reductions will be implemented gradually over the next few application cycles.
  2. Cost increases for the remaining approximately 120 Fellows will be paid for by the five SMD science divisions out of their research budgets.
  3. While the number of NPP Fellows is reduced, SMD will be gathering information on the actual costs of running the NASA Postdoctoral Program under the new contract. If the actual costs are significantly lower than current projections, then the number of SMD-supported Fellows may be restored.
  4. An independent review team under the leadership of Dr. Paul Hertz will examine the NASA Postdoctoral Program and determine the extent to which the current program meets NASA’s objectives.

NASA strongly supports all graduate students and post-docs in our science disciplines including the NASA Postdoctoral Program and expects this period of reduced numbers of Fellows to be short — only one or two years. SMD is confident that once the above-described analyses and reviews are complete, the NASA Postdoctoral Program will emerge stronger than before.

-Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Associate Administrator

-Paul Hertz, Senior Advisor to the Associate Administrator

-Michael New, Deputy Associate Administrator for Research

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! 

Power and Danger of Optimism

At the core of every successful space mission is a team that is defined by their technical abilities, their perseverance, and especially their optimism – to fuel an entire journey of exploration and discovery. 
 
Motivated by their curiosity, they start to work on a project with a can-do attitude that may seem entirely unrealistic to many. As they go through iterations of their design, they hit hurdles, often putting into question their very ability to do this mission. Yet they stick with it, often defying odds, and holding on to the vision of the lofty goals they hope to achieve.  

 

This is the power of optimism bringing to life something that is much harder than it looks, and to have the resilience to continue despite the challenges. There is no question in my mind about the crucial role that optimism plays in what we do. 
 
However, if someone asks me about the biggest challenge I see in developing missions to not only be technically successful, but also to be within anticipated cost and schedule, the answer may surprise many: excessive and blinding optimism.  
 
Imagine yourself in a room listening to a team that is making a presentation about a new project – a project that truly makes your heart sing. They talk about the amazing possibilities and impacts, and they talk about their elegant technical solutions. Generally, and without any bad intent, teams will tend to over-stress the benefit and under-emphasize the challenges that go into this new design. If they don’t get through this buy-in phase, there is no mission!  
 
If you look at similar initial presentations from the point of view of wisdom gained during the 5-6 years of the development of this mission, this pitch – if not challenged by facts and deep independent analysis – becomes a jump off point that leads to deep regrets and agony for years to come. I have been in presentations where I wish I had caught that the assessments were simply unrealistic – assessments that can haunt an otherwise amazing engineering team for decades as they can’t match the reality to the original hope.   

 
Unmanaged excessive optimism can be harmful to the team in the long run and a reason for mistrust by the broader community.  It is therefore critical to address this issue and do so in ways that make success more likely. I have seen leaders address this quandary in multiple ways.  
 
The simplest but least successful way to tackle it is to take the optimists entirely out of the equation. Clearly, this solves the aforementioned challenges of the rude awakening of a project that was over promised and underfunded. But, it also pours the baby out with the bath water. Without optimism, and the desire to stretch, we remain in the comfort zone and ultimately lose the very thing we are supposed to do: attempt things that have never been done before.  
 
The second path is to identify and manage the impact of over-optimism using several specific tools. 
 
1. Create a trusted environment that encourages the team to voice their worries 
 
It is very easy to never get bad news, especially if you create an environment that publicly shames or even attacks the first person who brings up these points. Instead, reward those who are comfortable identifying and discussing their worries. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create an environment in which worries can be discussed without adverse consequences. A trusted environment does not happen automatically but requires vulnerability and humility from all sides.  
 
2. Deliberately create an independent and dispassionate view of the project 
 
Independent views are critical when we seek to achieve excellence. Having the input of a team that is free to analyze and speak their opinion is a welcome addition into the discussion. However, it is critical that the input truly is and demonstrably remains independent throughout the process. Otherwise, such independent assessments may make us feel better, but they surely do not add the desired value. It is also critical that these independent assessments focus on the core of the idea and not some bureaucratic aspect that is peripheral to the question whether or not a given mission is thoughtfully designed and planned. Otherwise, independent reviews become maligned entry points to bureaucratic creep. 
 
3. Continually build out the startup team by adding diversity of opinion, approach and backgrounds 
 
As a team starts maturing and moving towards detailed design and implementation, the optimistic leaders on the team continue to have a critical voice. But the team needs to improve both in depth and breadth. A team with a broadened viewpoint is less likely to fall in the trap of group think or sliding into an “us vs them” approach that tends to slow down the resolution of problems and may even grow small issues into huge challenges, while losing trust among stakeholders. 

 

Just as anything in life, moderation is key. As we continue to embark on these journeys of exploration, we must apply that same mantra. Optimism has great benefits and has been the igniting fuel to many success stories in space and beyond. But we should also stay vigilant to creating a culture where challenging viewpoints is welcome and the norm.  

 

I have made many mistakes over the five and a half years at NASA and over time have gained more experience about this important topic. I hope you too can take something from these lessons and apply them to your own worthy endeavors.  

10 Things to Look Forward to in Science This Year

It is hard to beat the collective achievements of NASA’s science teams, especially over the past year. We’ve landed on Mars, flown the first helicopter beyond our world, launched and deployed the most magnificent science mission ever conceived, observed our home planet, and so much more. Learners of all ages and those looking for hope during a bleak time saw almost unmatched excitement as teams across NASA worked to realize tremendous feats of exploration. These achievements are historic and you may rightly ask:

What is in store during the next year that can match the excitement and attention given during the last 12 months?

This is in the eye of the beholder, but let me tell you my top 10 reasons for excitement in science during the next year.

  1. First science images from Webb

After over 50 years of space-based astrophysics first imagined by Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, we will be able to look at the universe in an entirely new way with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Cooling down in the shade of the large and complex sunshield, a new generation of space instruments will peer into our celestial history in an entirely new way. I can’t wait to see what we discover!

  1. Celebrating 50 years of Landsat and the start of Landsat Next

It is time to celebrate the progress made during the last 50 years of Landsat. Together with the US Geological Survey (USGS) we have followed our changing planet from space, the only vantage point that sees no borders and sees humanity as one.

Landsat has observed natural disasters and also massive progress. In 2021, USGS has moved the entire Landsat archive into the cloud and has seen more use in 6 months than in the nearly 50 years prior. Landsat Next is a totally different approach to Earth observations, one reflecting technological progress and especially the advancement of an industrial sector not previously seen. Landsat Next will use a multi-spacecraft approach and commercially gathered data to add value to the communities in need of this important data.

  1. The official “go” for the Earth System Observatory and Open Science

Bringing together multiple spacecraft in an entirely new fashion, the Earth System Observatory partnership between NASA and commercial and international entities will revolutionize Earth Science.

In addition to the enhanced instruments, this system of systems is built around a common, cloud-based infrastructure and a focus on Earth action desperately needed. Yes, we want to learn more about our changing planet, but we need to move with urgency towards those who need it most by using an open science paradigm that further eliminates hurdles from our data so that we can have an impact on mitigating Earth’s changing climate.

This year will also see the launch of two significant weather satellites that will continue NASA’s collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Like our partnership with USGS, our collaboration with NOAA has lasted more than 5 decades. GOES-T will launch in March 2022 and JPSS-2 is scheduled to launch this September. Not only are these missions essential to NOAA’s role in protecting life and property here on Earth, they also provide a trove of data that are used by the research community.

  1. Going forward to the Moon with commercial providers

Within the next twelve months, we seek to land on the Moon with commercial providers using an approach that is in every way as transformative as the complex sunshield and optics system deployed for Webb.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative allows us to leverage the capabilities of industry vendors to quickly deliver scientific instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon. As part of this initiative, two young companies – Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic – will be among the first to not only enable entirely new science, but also a brand new way to achieve it. This novel approach is a totally creative way to advance lunar exploration. With more and more science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface, we can help prepare for sustainable astronaut missions through the Artemis Program.

  1. The growing drumbeat of small spacecraft doing big science

Small spacecraft and satellites help NASA advance scientific and human exploration, reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space.

Credits: Janus illustration – Lockheed Martin

Six years ago, NASA Science had 20 SmallSat and CubeSat missions under development and 2 in operation. As of today, we have 54 under development and 16 in operation. This includes many unique and intriguing missions like Janus, which will send a pair of small satellites on the longest deep space journey to date for this class of spacecraft to better understand the evolution of  “rubble pile” asteroids. The six CubeSats of the TROPICS mission will study storms and other meteorological events in new detail. These spacecraft will launch on a venture class launch vehicle, an entirely new generation of small launchers that create lower launch costs while also increasing access to space. Also this year, the 8 satellite CYGNSS mission will have its sixth anniversary of studying tropical cyclones. To date, the mission has yielded at least 105 publications in refereed journals and is referenced by over 2,100 scientific publications cataloged online.

Additionally, two NASA Science CubeSats will hitch a ride to space onboard the Space Launch System rocket during the Artemis I launch – CuSP, which will study the dynamic particles and magnetic fields that stream from the Sun and LunaH-Map, which will orbit the Moon and determine the amount of water ice in the permanently shadowed lunar polar craters.

  1. Next generation Heliophysics missions in time to observe and protect from the awakening Sun

A new generation of heliophysics missions has already begun with the launch of the Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer 3 or MinXSS-3 on February 13, which will study X-rays coming from solar flares.

This mission is one of 10 CubeSat and instrument missions going into orbit in 2022 that will be aimed at helping scientists understand and, ultimately forecast the vast space weather system around our planet. This new approach to missions related to the Sun integrate data to have a comprehensive look at the impact of space weather on our planet. Currently, the heliophysics division has an astonishing 14 missions under development and 20 missions in operation, all of which are focused on better understanding the impacts of the Sun and solar wind in our solar system and protect our technology from its effects. This fleet of spacecraft is helping us gear up for what is expected to be a more severe solar maximum than the previous one. The combination of a more active solar maximum, the advancement of space technologies, and greater access to space, increases our need to better understand and predict space weather events. A much-enhanced number of government and private sector players are relying on several space assets that is 4-10 times larger than the number during the last solar maximum.

  1. Observing our star up close and in unprecedented detail

These next 12 months will demonstrate the power of three revolutionary and ground-breaking assets whose time has come to shine.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Hawaii-based Daniel K Inoue Solar Telescope, the largest and most powerful solar telescope in the world, has just become operational and will make unprecedented observations of our star. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will complete its fourteenth perihelion – the location in the elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. The European Space Agency (ESA) led Solar Orbiter Mission will use its recently commissioned advanced sensors to take images of the Sun at distances closer than any other spacecraft. These monumental measurements have been decades in the making and promise to revamp how we think about our star and its interactions with space surrounding it.

  1. The year of the asteroid, take 2

With the launch of NASA’s Psyche Mission in August 2022 and its experimental secondary payload Janus, we will have launched 4 asteroid missions over the past year.

One of them, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will intentionally crash into an asteroid on September 26, 2022 as a way to test a technique that could be used to deflect harmful asteroids away from Earth in the future, should one ever be discovered. Later this year, we will also mark 1 year until OSIRIS-REx drops off its precious cargo from asteroid Bennu in September 2023. It is a new and unprecedented time of learning about the history of our solar system. I am looking forward to all that we discover.

  1. A year for teams

Every year in science we focus on the incredible teams making the impossible, possible. But in 2022, we are moving the ball towards implementing the most forward-leaning policy changes and habits focused on growing our science community in both size and diversity in all dimensions. We will launch the NASA Science Bridge Program, a signature initiative designed to advance our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) goals by creating research partnerships between Primarily Undergraduate and Minority Serving Institutions, high research activity institutions and NASA Centers. We are expanding what we want to see in proposals by asking for thoughtful and intentional diversity and inclusion plans that will then be evaluated. Our successful inclusion plan pilot program started last year with three programs. In ROSES-2022 ten program elements will require inclusion plans. These plans will be evaluated but will not factor into the proposal grades or selection decisions. For more information see Section IV(e)ii of the ROSES-22 Summary of Solicitation and the Astrophysics Division Inclusion Plan Pilot Program Report. We want to make sure inclusion is indeed not just a word for any of our teams but a value by which we live. We cannot be the best community if we keep out some of the best or systematically silence them.

  1. A year for science inspiration

Together with all of our mission teams, our cross-agency, international and commercial partners we want to double down on everything we do to share our science to inspire hope for a weary world.  In social media, we already aligned our accounts, reduced them by 2/3 and doubled our followership! Now, our attention is to modernize our web-presence for NASA’s Science-funded website to engage the public. Our goal is to build the most effective, next generation science website for audiences to experience science discoveries in and from space. I am optimistic that pandemic restrictions will improve, so for upcoming launches, we will work with our STEM programs and commercial partners to bring more US-based youth to our launches. And we will continue to focus on our internships around the agency.

I am so excited for all that 2022 holds and I hope you will join us on this journey of exploration. To learn more and to stay updated on all things NASA Science, visit: https://science.nasa.gov/

The Power of Yes and No

There is much power in Yes! Finding a way to Yes! is finding a pathway to life-changing experiences, to entrepreneurial successes, valuable friendships, and even to love. Yes! is powerful.

This post, however is about the enormous power of No!, as a positive and life-changing force. In fact, the older I get, the more I recognize and appreciate the importance of No! to help guide my life, and focus on excellence. Even though there are many examples, I want to focus this discussion on the power of No! in time-management, and in driving culture change.

When I started my job at NASA I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of time pressure from tag-ups, meet-and-greets, councils, and other meetings that filled my schedule. With my family still in Michigan, I decided to come to work super early and I left very late – and all I did is meet, often for 12+ hours per day. Some of these meetings were useful and necessary, and others seemed repetitive even after 2-3 weeks, with little value and purpose, but I attended all of them.

I did so until I noticed that I started falling behind on my work, that I caught myself making important decisions without enough consideration, and frankly that I did not think deeply enough. I started to feel miserable. I felt like I was “trampled by ants”, as my friend Tony England once called it (this is the man who figured out how to turn CO2 into O2 during the Apollo 13 crisis – you saw the movie). I was completely focused on small and often unimportant activities and I was living entirely reactively – and I hated it. To do my job well, I needed to manage my time proactively and learn how to use the power of No!

One day, I talked about this quandary to my administrative assistant who bravely filled in my schedule with lots of people urging her they needed to meet with me. In a discussion one morning, she told me apologetically that she can only accommodate between 15-20% of all meeting requests. I walked away from this like someone had hit me in the face. Here I was working 12+ hours mostly in meetings, and I was not even fulfilling a quarter of all requests!

After a brief moment of desperation I realized the liberating aspect of that number: no matter how many hours I spent in meeting, even with no sleep at all, there was no chance to fulfill the external demand put on me by these requests. I finally felt empowered to use the power of No! to change how I spent my day and how I constrained when I schedule meetings. I have been sticking to such hard limits since then.

For example, each day, no meeting can be scheduled before 8 am and after 5 pm without approval from me, and exceptions are rare. Furthermore, I want 2 hours of unallocated time to work actions between 8 am and 5 pm blocked on my schedule. Again, these times cannot be over-written without my approval. These constraints give me time to prepare and think through priorities and this time allows me to work proactively.

I recognize that everyone is different. I suspect that some can do more meetings and function just fine. But, this is “my marathon speed” – the way I can get work done, the way I can think, make good and thoughtful decisions and be happy – in the long run.

There is much liberating power in No! when it comes to schedule management. Use it – don’t get trampled by ants!

We rightly talk about culture change as being enabled by a new shared vision, strong values, and a team that is encouraged and empowered to make that vision a new reality. However, I believe that it takes both the power of Yes! and the power of No! to create such a major culture change. Let me explain.

I have observed many leaders who build new organizations or improve already existing organizations using the power of Yes!. Great leaders use the power or Yes!, and explain the importance of a worthy future that does not yet exist. They get the best from the team to define this new vision. Great leaders and their teams spend a lot of time and focus to talk about this new future and the underlying driving values as they gain momentum. Without that, the change in momentum is often weak and it fizzles out at every obstacle that is encountered. The power of Yes! is magical.

But, here is something really important I only learned in the past couple of years: The power of Yes! – setting a new vision and driving momentum toward it is only one critical ingredient of lasting culture change. The other one is the power of No!

As we start building this new culture, we will find behaviors and actions in our organizations that are no longer desirable or no longer acceptable. So what do we do when they pop to the surface and keep pulling us back? – with the power of No!

I believe that only if we have the courage to address and even cut bad and mis-aligned elements out of our organization do we build lasting change. Even though patience is often a virtue, we cannot be too patient addressing outdated thought-patterns, negative thinking, and sometimes toxic behaviors and power dynamics that hold us back from progress. We need to address them with the power of No!

Having guided multiple organizations through culture change and having observed many more, I am convinced that utilizing the power of No! is as important as utilizing the power of Yes! to achieve lasting success. If we are not willing to use the power of No!, we confuse our own teams about how serious we are about the intended change, and how committed we are to building the new future!

Only when we are ready to cut the mooring line that ties the ship to the shore will the ship sail towards a new destination. Putting up the sails and ringing the bell is not enough.

As we move into this near year, may we all understand better the powers of Yes! and No! in our lives, and may we get ever-more wisdom about how and when to use these powers.

Beyond the Numbers

Celebrating the Global Space Apps Community and Reflections

NASA’s 10th annual Space Apps Challenge was held in Oct. 2021 and it was the most successful such event to date. Not only was it the largest all-virtual Space Apps event, it also broke its own records for the number of local virtual events, participants, and project submissions.

Since its inception in 2012, Space Apps has engaged over 178,000 people from across 162 countries and territories. But Space Apps is so much more than just the numbers.

In a recent blog post, I reflected on my time here at NASA, including the lessons I’ve learned. Two of those lessons were related to understanding how to enable true diversity and inclusion and recognizing and combating “group-think,” where individual voices are not heard. The Space Apps Challenge is an opportunity for us to participate in creating an environment that welcomes diversity, promotes inclusion, and proactively fosters disparate thought. This challenge helps remove walls by enabling participants across the world to form teams and work together to find solutions to some of Earth’s most pressing problems.

Our goal is for the next generation of explorers to not only learn about NASA’s data, but to share in the process of using that knowledge – to create and apply that data to solutions to real-world concerns. The continuous uptick in global participation in this challenge exemplifies our commitment to creating opportunities that are accessible and equitable to all.

Here are a few tangible ways Space Apps has impacted communities globally:

Open Innovation

Space Apps is a virtual launch pad for ideas to take shape in specific locations around the world. Local Leads – the volunteers who host Space Apps events in their local communities – sometimes use Space Apps as a platform to launch accelerators, enrich educational curriculum, and create businesses.

Space Apps serves as the inflection point for innovators worldwide to create, innovate, and develop ideas using open data and resources from NASA and our space agency partners. Open innovation concepts have allowed some participants to translate ideas generated during a challenge into physical products and companies. A Local Lead in Guatemala has been working with the Space Apps community to cultivate interest in space-related opportunities. The vision is to support projects beyond the Space Apps challenge weekend to develop the initial project ideas into meaningful solutions.

This open innovation only happens because our data is openly accessible. As we move from Open Data to an Open Science paradigm, the toolset for open innovation will dramatically increase and we will empower more teams to have positive impacts on their own communities, no matter where they are worldwide.

Skill Building

The Space Apps challenge is also like an on-the-job training environment, as it provides opportunities for participants to hone and learn new skills. The challenge environment not only encourages learning, but helps participants adopt a growth mindset. Whether it be through exploring scientific subject matter, defining team roles, learning a new skill, or addressing obstacles that may arise during the challenge, the Space Apps experience promotes a culture of collaboration, innovation, and teamwork – key skill sets in today’s modern workforce and classrooms. We’ve received reports that some people have even integrated Space Apps into their science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) curriculums.

Diversity & Inclusion

The Space Apps motto, there’s always space for one more, underpins this endeavor’s intentional effort to be inclusive. We know that at the heart of true innovation, there tends to be a diverse team whose members are fully included into the decision and implementation process. This is why the virtual bootcamp included a YouTube video playlist dedicated to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and featured videos such as “Building a Diverse Team is the ‘Secret Sauce’ to Success.” The playlist was devoted solely to highlighting the link between innovation and diversity and provided advice to participants on how to create and work in teams with different skills sets and backgrounds. In 2021 alone, nearly 30,000 people from around the world participated in the challenge and as the program grows it continues to attract participants that range in experience from students to seasoned professionals, from aspiring engineers to seasoned, award-winning technologists, and from citizen scientists to globally-recognized subject matter experts.

As part of our effort to ensure that the Space Apps community reflects the diversity that exists globally – including race and ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic status, and natural talents, skillsets, and interests – the challenges presented by Space Apps cover a wide variety of interests and levels of experience.A great example of this purposeful intentionality took place in Bangladesh. To ensure that women were not excluded, the Local Lead in Bangladesh required that all local teams include at least one woman. As a result, 90% of all teams in Bangladesh had at least one woman participating.

The challenges themselves were crafted in a way to attract teams that represent a variety of skill sets, ranging from media, art, storytelling, computer science, engineering, and a host of other fields. This intentionality encourages diverse individuals to come together around a shared passion for creative problem solving.

The Future of Space Apps

What started as an exploratory effort in 2012 is now a thriving global community built over the course of 10 years. The sustained growth of Space Apps during this time illustrates that this challenge has and will continue to contribute to the advancement of science and will empower the next generation of space professionals. I am committed to working to continuously broaden and improve this annual event to provide a richer, more accessible, and impactful experience for years to come. Looking ahead, I hope that Space Apps serves as a model for how we as a world approach problem solving.

And finally, I want to thank one more time all leaders within NASA and our partner agencies, the local Leads, and – in particular – all Space Apps participants worldwide. I absolutely love this program and I cannot wait for future implementations of this amazing innovation and engagement tool.

Connect with the #SpaceApps community!

Instagram: @nasa_spaceapps Twitter: @SpaceApps Facebook: @spaceappschallenge

Reflecting on Five Years at NASA

I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary at NASA. Over these past 5 years, we have seen great success with NASA’s Science missions. From landing on Mars to learning more about our home planet than ever before, teams across the agency are making the impossible possible. Without the incredible individuals that make up the excellent teams at NASA and its partners, none of this would be possible. So, thank you to all the people and teams that have worked with us over these 5 years to make new discoveries and push the boundaries of exploration.

With this 5-year milestone, I have been reflecting on a few of my biggest mistakes. I also hope this motivates others because it models a key truth of leadership that took me a long time to learn: “excellence is not the absence of mistakes, but a focus on constant improvement and learning”.

One thing that comes to the top of my mind is my failure early on to broaden my message regarding diversity and inclusion at NASA. This resulted in inadvertently putting up walls that kept some valuable communities out in ways I never intended. Let me explain.

When I joined NASA over 5 years ago, I was asked many times about the goals that I wanted to achieve here. I gave many answers, but none of them included the words “diversity” or “inclusion”.

But that changed based on three distinct experiences. First, we had an alarming lack of diversity in teams leading our mission proposals. With a couple of exceptions in planetary science, we did not have a single mission proposal in the rest of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) led by a female scientist, and that had been going on for several years. Additionally, mission teams were a lot less diverse than our community, perpetuating a lack of diversity even further.

Second, I witnessed instances in our own SMD leadership team that made me believe that we were caught in a situation that often leads to utter mediocracy – something known as “group-think”. I observed that important discussions did not happen and that diverse viewpoints were not heard. Even if there was some diversity in the room in terms of gender, race, etc. – these voices were not included in many of the discussions generally.

Third, roundtable discussions were implemented with early career scientists in all disciplinary communities and I was shocked by the prevalence of problems surrounding sexual harassment and just horrible experiences of biases many of our female colleagues were experiencing. There were stories I heard that literally took my sleep. It is tough to hear these stories as a father of a daughter interested in science.

We had some major problems that were holding us back from being a welcoming community, but equally importantly problems that prohibited us from getting to a standard of excellence that was otherwise possible.

It was important and urgent to embark on a journey of change. But the first challenge on this journey was one that led to one of my biggest mistakes: We needed to convince members of our team and the entire science community that we had this big problem. And I needed to do that the way scientists do – by using data!

Even though I was convinced from the beginning that we needed to focus on diversity in all dimensions, I focused my “proof of problem” and overall narrative on only one aspect of diversity – a focus on our female colleagues. Frankly, we did not have any data in NASA Science programs and competitions focused on this broader issue and the only thing we could do on the short time-scale required by the urgency of this challenge was to infer gender from names.

It was straight-forward to demonstrate the devastating impact of our implicit and explicit biases if 50% of the US was not represented in many teams, or if not one female principal investigator (PI) could be found in a research community consisting of 25-35%+ female colleagues.

I started talking about this and we started to make changes. But, I missed the importance of good language as we moved forward and fell into the trap of over-focusing on gender diversity problems in all my talks and writings. There is an important truth for all leaders: Our words matter. My failure to broaden both narratives and actions resulted in a sense in our community of color that we did not care about them in NASA’s Science Program. Similarly, our LGBTQ+ colleagues also did not see themselves in our narratives and neither did other communities. I had tidally missed the boat despite good intentions.

It took lots of engagement, mentorship and help from some of our team members as well as from trusted community members to actively and consistently helped address and mitigate my mistake. Thank you to each person who pushed to get us on the track we are on today in improving the way we welcome and include individuals from all communities into NASA Science.

We are still on this journey today. We have changed policies about how we handle harassment – we did so as an agency. We have added training, new policies and are having discussions and have made changes across our programs – from science proposals to standing review boards – to flatten the playing fields and make better decisions. We have experimented with new ways of selecting worthwhile proposals, including dual-anonymous peer reviews that have identified and removed or eliminated a number of biases. We keep experimenting and learning.

For example, No Due-Date (NDD) programs in Planetary Science launched with the release of ROSES 2021 resulted from researcher input into challenges faced during the COVID pandemic. NDD seeks to allow individual PIs the opportunity to better achieve work-life balance and to give smaller institutions with a less-robust proposal support system greater flexibility in submitting proposals. Noting the huge importance of our funding programs for the entire science community, we are also experimenting also with Inclusion Plans to put focus on these important issues. Furthermore, we are making an effort to increase partnerships across institutions to provide additional opportunities for engagement and increasing diversity of thought. Listening sessions at Minority-Serving Institutions and targeted activities in partnership with affinity groups help broaden our footprint across the research and academic landscape.

Although we have made some significant progress in parts of our ecosystem, we cannot be happy with where we are. We will continue to lend our voice and focus actions towards building a better science and technology community around NASA. For that, we need amazing vision, incredible perseverance, and follow-through, but – most importantly – the best and most capable teams we can build in all of that. And I already observe today, and I believe we will see even more clearly as we go forward, that some of the best teams are composed of wonderful individuals who never had a place in them in the past.