NASA hires NOAA official as new Earth science director

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WASHINGTON — NASA has selected an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite division to lead its Earth science programs, a search that took more than a year to complete.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, announced May 5 that the agency had hired Karen St. Germain as the new director of NASA’s Earth science division. St. Germain will formally start work at NASA June 8.

St. Germain is currently the deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which operates NOAA’s fleet of weather satellites. In that role she oversees development of NOAA’s existing and planned satellites, and also led a study on a next-generation architecture of weather satellites that explored using larger number of smaller satellites, some in nontraditional orbits.

“Her enthusiasm, and the experience she has gained throughout her distinguished career, will bring great value and perspective to our critical work to learn more about our home planet,” Zurbuchen said of St. Germain in a statement.

“I’ve learned a lot along the way, including what it takes to really deliver a capability, as well as what it means to balance the portfolio of programs to meet a broader set of objectives,” St. Germain said in brief video message May 6.

Maintaining balance between large and small missions is a key issue for the Earth science program. At an advisory committee meeting in March, Sandra Cauffman, acting director of the Earth science division, said NASA had pushed the back the start of a line of medium-class missions, known as Earth System Explorer, recommended by the Earth science decadal survey in 2018, because of limited budgets.

“We really were hoping that we could release the first solicitation this year,” Cauffman said of that program at the meeting. “But given the appropriations we got in ’20 and the look out that we have for ’21, it doesn’t look promising that we can do it next year or even ’22.”

“This is a crucial time in Earth science,” St. Germain said. “The decadal survey outlined a very ambitious vision for the Earth science enterprise, and I’m optimistic we can achieve that mission.”

Filling the Earth science division director position took far longer than expected. Michael Freilich, the longtime director of the division, retired in early 2019, and the agency started recruiting a successor. “Unfortunately, the search did not result in a candidate who we felt had the full set of qualifications to lead this important portfolio,” Zurbuchen announced in March 2019.

Cauffman, deputy director of the division, remained acting director. NASA reopened the selection process earlier this year, eventually hiring St. Germain.

Zurbuchen, in his statement, thanked Cauffman for her extended tenure as acting director. “She took on a challenging role and successfully kept our Earth Science work on track — cultivating our international partnerships, stewarding new and existing missions, and raising the profile of this important work.”