NASA science head to step down

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PARIS — The NASA associate administrator responsible for the agency’s science programs will resign by the end of the year after more than six years on the job.

NASA announced Sept. 13 that Thomas Zurbuchen would step down as associate administrator for science at the end of the year. He had served in that role since October 2016.

“Thomas has made an indelible mark at NASA — indeed, he has held this job continuously longer than any other person — and I am thankful for his dedication to our agency,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. Ed Weiler served longer cumulatively as head of NASA’s science programs in two stints from 1998 to 2004 and 2008 to 2011.

Zurbuchen, in a blog post announcing his resignation, said that while he continued to enjoy working at NASA, it was time for leave for his own benefit as well as for the agency. “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,” he wrote.

For NASA, he wrote that after six years “I feel I have had a chance to implement my best ideas” and that it was time to allow others to step up and try their ideas, while also addressing unspecified weaknesses in his leadership. “That is why leadership changes are imperative for organizations who seek excellence.”

He added personally that he wanted to find a new challenge. “I have achieved the key goals I set for myself when I took this job,” he wrote, “and I will continue to struggle with the ones I am still struggling with, even if I stayed longer.”

Zurbuchen won praise from scientists and others in the space community for his leadership of a portfolio of missions that ranges from cubesats to the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope. He shepherded development of established programs while starting new initiatives, like the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for flying science investigations on commercial lunar landers. In June, he announced a project to study what NASA data could support studies of unidentified aerial phenomena as an example of “high risk, high reward” work the agency should do as part of a balanced set of research efforts.

“Thomas Zurbuchen was the most entrepreneurial associate administrator in the history of the agency,” Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, and a former NASA official, told SpaceNews. “Thomas always saw the big picture, supporting not only public-private partnerships, but regulatory reform, and establishing a close relationship with human spaceflight which greatly benefited both exploration and science.”

Zurbuchen said he had no immediate plans after leaving NASA at the end of the year, and will instead take time off while thinking about the next phase of his career. “So — what will I do next? The answer is ‘take a break!’” he wrote.