Farewell, Dr. Z! NASA science chief to step down after 6 years on the job

nasa associate administrator thomas zurbuchen in front of the words explore moon mars
NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen served for six years, as the agency rapidly diversified its science destinations and approach. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA's science chief is moving on.

Thomas Zurbuchen, affectionately known as Dr. Z, will step down later in 2022 as head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, a post he has held for more than six years, he announced via a blog post on Tuesday (Sept. 13).

Successful missions under Zurbuchen's watch flew all over the solar system. The first Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, made its debut flight in April 202, demonstrating an "extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment," as Zurbuchen once termed the excursion. Ingenuity landed with another high-profile NASA mission, the life-hunting Perseverance Mars rover, in February 2021.

The long-overdue James Webb Space Telescope soared to space nearly flawlessly in late 2021. The huge observatory, which is now working in a gravitationally stable spot nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, is "the most magnificent space telescope ever devised by humans," Zurbuchen wrote in a piece for Space.com early this year.

In photos: James Webb Space Telescope's first pictures

Zurbuchen's tenure also saw NASA pivot to private robotic moon missions under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. CLPS, in turn, is intended to aid another big-ticket program that developed during his time at NASA: Artemis, which aims to put astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. 

Other major science programs Zurbuchen oversaw, just to name a few of the 100 or so, included accepting commercial astronaut experiments aboard the International Space Station, readying humanity's first asteroid kinetic impactor test (DART) and OSIRIS-REx, NASA's first asteroid sample-return mission.

"I've had a tough time making this decision, because I so love working with Team NASA Science, and I doubt I will ever have a cooler job after this," Zurbuchen wrote in his blog post. "There is no other job in the world that would let me work on more exciting missions, or that has more potential to affect scientific discoveries."

Zurbuchen served under three permanent NASA administrators and during three presidential administrations, both Democrat and Republican. He said he was ready for a change, and that good leadership requires constant renewal. "The state of NASA's science program is strong and ready for that change now. It is a good time for a transition," he wrote.

Related: Artemis 1: Why NASA's science chief is so excited about historic moon mission

Senior NASA and space-community leaders paid tribute to Zurbuchen's contributions, which will extend into the next decade via long-term efforts such as the ambitious Mars sample return project to bring Perseverance's cache to Earth from the Red Planet, and two missions focused on icy moons (Europa Clipper at Jupiter, and Dragonfly at Titan, a moon of Saturn). Zurbuchen even championed more research on UFOs.

"Thomas has made an indelible mark at NASA ... and I am thankful for his dedication to our agency," administrator Bill Nelson said in a separate statement.

Zurbuchen was "a force for positive change" at NASA due to his approach in "investing in new and better ways of accomplishing space science goals and growing the overall community," added Bobby Braun, the head of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab's space exploration sector, in a report from Reuters. (The lab is a long-time partner in planetary NASA missions, such as the ongoing New Horizons probe that flew past Pluto in 2015 and the small Kuiper Belt object MU69 in 2019.)

In photos: New Horizons mission leader Alan Stern reveals 10 of his favorite epic views

close up of blue socks with planets on them

NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen sports solar system-themed socks during a 2021 agency update broadcast live. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Zurbuchen, who took the post in 2016, wrote that he has served the longest continuous term ever for a NASA science chief. He has no immediate plans after NASA beyond "taking a break" and pursuing personal activities such as skiing, Zurbuchen added.

He oversaw 36 mission selections, the agency stated, and has authored or co-authored more than 200 articles concerning the sun. (That's highly relevant given yet another of the missions launched during Zurbuchen's tenure: the Parker Solar Probe, built to withstand unprecedented close-up swings into the solar atmosphere.)

Zurbuchen has a doctorate in physics from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and his many NASA awards include the 2022 distinguished service medal. NASA is now seeking a new associate administrator through a nationwide search, agency officials said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace