WASHINGTON — Simon “Pete” Worden, the retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who transformed NASA Ames Research Center into an incubator for innovative public and private space projects, is stepping down as the director of the Silicon Valley facility “to pursue some long-held dreams in the private sector,” he announced Feb. 25 via email.
In response to a SpaceNews query, Worden said he does not have a job lined up, but that he has his eye on academia. “I’ve just started discussions but I will likely focus on the educational area,” Worden said.
Long before fellow Strategic Defense Initiative Office alumnus Mike Griffin tapped Worden in 2006 to run Ames, Worden had already earned a reputation as space maverick through is involvement with the Pentagon-funded Clementine lunar orbiter — which Worden once described as “basically a sneaky space weapon test” — and the Delta Clipper reusable launch vehicle program.
Worden took over the Strategic Defense Initiative’s technology portfolio when Griffin — who would eventually become NASA administrator — left the the Pentagon post in 1989 to run NASA’s stillborn Space Exploration Initiative.
“I took his old job as the head of technology in the missile defense program. I was only there two years, but it was a neat job,” Worden said in a 2007 interview for the NASA oral history project “I was the world’s second richest
colonel after [Muammar al-] Qaddafi. I had $2 billion a year to spend.”
Still, Worden told SpaceNews that the nine years he spent at Ames were the most enjoyable of his 40 years of public service.
“In the last nine years we have launched dozens of small, low-cost satellites – and helped ignite a major new industry in this area. Ames people have revitalized space biology and begun to apply the new field of synthetic biology,” Worden said via email Feb. 26. “Ames has provided entry technology for the emerging commercial space launch sector. We have helped launch small satellites working with a number of nations. And we’ve hosted and inspired thousands of students.”
Worden, in his email to Ames employees, said he will hold an all-hands meeting Feb. 27 “to answer your questions and to share with you as much information as I’m able to provide.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a Feb. 26 memo of his own that Worden informed him that day of his decision to retire. “He is an innovative leader, and a tireless advocate for change who has well-positioned Ames and its people for the future exploration opportunities facing this agency,” Bolden wrote.