Editorial | A Space Maverick Quietly Departs NASA

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Ames Director Pete Worden Took Center to New Heights

NASA center directors tend to come and go with little fanfare outside their regional spheres of influence.

The March 31 departure of Simon “Pete” Worden as director of NASA’s Ames Research Center nonetheless seemed unusually quiet, especially considering his accomplishments during nearly 10 years on the job.

Word of Mr. Worden’s impending departure surfaced in late February; he had been largely out of sight ever since. NASA made no mention of his retirement after the fact, and as of April 24 the agency’s website still listed him as center director.

His tenure, on the other hand, was anything but quiet, as befitting someone with a natural gift for attracting attention. This trait preceded his arrival at Ames.

Outspoken, with a palpable disdain for management bureaucracy, Mr. Worden was an enthusiastic advocate of small satellites and other innovations like single-stage-to-orbit rocket technology during a 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force. More hawkish than most dared to be on the touchy subject of space warfare, Mr. Worden in 1993 led Clementine, a low-cost robotic mission to the moon that he later characterized as a “sneaky space weapon test.”

Somewhat counterintuitively given his warrior reputation, Mr. Worden also was recognized as a bona fide intellectual, holder of a doctorate in astronomy and author or co-author of more than 150 scientific and technical papers — including one in which he branded NASA a “self-licking ice cream cone.” After retiring from the military as a brigadier general, he became a research professor in astronomy and optical and planetary sciences at the University of Arizona.

NASA Ames Research Center
NASA Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA

When Mr. Worden was tapped in 2006 by then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to lead Ames, the center was known primarily for its often-esoteric research in advanced aeronautics, supercomputing and extraterrestrial life. Ames was almost an afterthought next to NASA’s mission development and operations centers: Johnson, Marshall, Goddard and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mr. Worden changed all that. He quickly set about transforming Ames, re-establishing it as a mission development and engineering center with unique expertise in small satellites. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, designed, developed and operated by Ames under his watch, is a prime example.

Mr. Worden also recognized — perhaps more than anyone else — the possibilities afforded by Ames’ location in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, a hotbed of high-tech innovation and commercialization. He sought and found ways to both tap and cultivate the region’s rich talent pool, dramatically expanding, for instance, the NASA Research Park, often cited as one of the more successful U.S. examples of a public-private partnership for technology and economic development.

In the course of all of this, Mr. Worden established himself among the visionaries behind the new wave of commercial space activity that leverages Silicon Valley’s technology, investment capital and entrepreneurship. Members of one Ames team that developed small satellites using commercial-off-the-shelf technology under Mr. Worden’s tutelage went on to found the Planet Labs small-satellite imaging venture, a poster child of the so-called newspace movement.

His time at Ames was not without controversy. In 2010, Mr. Worden butted heads with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden over the latter’s skepticism about a biofuels research project at Ames. Mr. Bolden consulted with an oil company in which he owned stock to assess the project’s viability, a move that raised conflict of interest concerns and prompted a missive from Mr. Worden that said, “This is frankly the worst of NASA,” among other things.

In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Worden found himself publicly accused by some U.S. lawmakers of looking the other way as Chinese nationals gained access to sensitive technologies at Ames in violation of U.S. export control laws. The allegations, based in part on what these lawmakers said was information provided by anonymous sources, were never substantiated.

Mr. Worden brushed off these controversies and soldiered on, ultimately leaving Ames in a stronger position within NASA — and within the space community at large — than it was in when he arrived. This is what good leaders do, and why Mr. Worden will be missed more than NASA might realize at the moment.