WASHINGTON — NASA’s failure to replace its Heliophysics Division director, who was fired almost a year ago, despite interviewing multiple qualified candidates does not mean the division is going away, the agency’s top science official said April 7.

“That we didn’t select a heliophysics director out of the search doesn’t reflect at all any sense of our view of heliophysics,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s $5 billion Science Mission Directorate, told the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC) science committee at NASA headquarters here. “I’ve heard various people thinking this is a sign we’re going to do away with heliophysics, merge it into other divisions. None of that’s true.

“We’re still very positive on heliophysics,” Grunsfeld added.

David Chenette
David Chenette, the previous Heliophysics Division director. Credit: NASA

Grunsfeld sacked the previous Heliophysics Division director, David Chenette, in June, citing leadership and management failures on the part of the veteran scientist and former Lockheed Martin executive. Chenette, who had been on the job only six months, hotly disputed Grunsfeld’s decision in a six-page memo that leaked to the press.

Jeffrey Newmark has led the roughly $600 million division ever since on an interim basis. A search to replace Chenette, which began shortly after his dismissal, produced no viable candidates, a senior solar scientist told the NAC’s Heliophysics subcommittee April 7.

“Four highly qualified candidates were interviewed, but no one was selected,” Maura Hagan, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and chair of the Heliophysics subcommittee, said.

Newmark has yet to brief the subcommittee on the next step in replacing Chenette, Hagan said. The Heliophysics NAC subcommittee, meanwhile, urged NASA management to “take appropriate steps to establish permanent Heliophysics Division leadership in a timely fashion.”

Newmark, who became acting division director June 6, said his appointment was supposed to last one year.

NASA’s Heliophysics Division launched the $850 million Magnetospheric Multiscale mission March 12 and is now pressing ahead with development of the $1.5 billion Solar Probe Plus mission. The observatory’s massive heat shield and distant solar orbit will require that it be launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket specially equipped with a Star 48 kick stage supplied by Orbital ATK.


Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.