NASA selects solar physicist Nicola Fox as its new science chief

Nicola Fox, NASA's new science chief.
Nicola Fox, NASA's new science chief. (Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

NASA has selected Nicola Fox as the new associate administrator for its Science Mission Directorate, who oversees more than 100 important missions and projects. 

Fox previously headed up NASA's Heliophysics Division. In her previous role, one of the missions Fox oversaw was the Parker Solar Probe, the NASA spacecraft that orbits the sun closer than any previous craft. 

"As the director of our Heliophysics Division, Nicky was instrumental in expanding the impacts and awareness of NASA's solar exploration missions, and I look forward to working with her as she brings her talents, expertise and passion to her new role," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Fox is just the second woman to be NASA science chief on a non-interim basis, after former astronaut Mary Cleave, who held the post from 2004 to 2007.

Related: Parker Solar Probe: First spacecraft to 'touch' the sun

Fox is now in charge of the Science Mission Directorate's $7 billion portfolio of projects. That portfolio includes more than 100 missions, which cover a wide range of scientific fields, from the investigation of how hurricanes form on Earth to the search for alien life to how best to support future astronauts living on the moon.

Fox will also be responsible for ensuring that NASA fosters an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere for a diverse team of scientists and engineers from across the U.S. and at various stages of their careers.

Fox began her own career with NASA in 2018, joining the Heliophysics Division. This led to her overseeing studies of the sun and the effect of solar wind here on Earth. Some of the missions the NASA division handles in addition to Parker include the Solar Dynamics Observatory, Solar Orbiter and the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (these last two in collaboration with the European Space Agency).

The Heliophysics Division is also in charge of the forthcoming SunRISE mission, a constellation of tiny satellites or cubesats that will act together as a radio telescope to study how solar energetic particles are accelerated and released into interplanetary space.

Before heading up the Heliophysics Division, Fox was chief scientist for heliophysics at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where she worked as project scientist for Parker.

In addition to authoring a multitude of science papers, Fox has also been the recipient of a slew of awards, including the American Astronautical Society's Carl Sagan Memorial Award for her demonstrated leadership in the field of heliophysics in 2021 and NASA's Outstanding Leadership Medal, awarded in 2020.

Fox takes over from NASA's interim science chief, Sandra Conelly, who assumed the role after Thomas Zurbuchen retired at the end of December 2022. Fox's appointment was announced by NASA on Feb. 27, 2023

"We're all grateful for the interim leadership of Sandra Connelly, who has done an incredible job keeping the mission moving forward over the last couple of months," Nelson said.

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.