The Swiss-American astrophysicist has headed NASA’s Science Mission Directorate since 2016, leading nearly 100 missions for the agency. His planned departure was announced in a note he sent to NASA employees on Tuesday.
“This is a difficult decision for me,” Zurbuchen wrote, “but I think it is time for a fresh start — for the directorate and me.”
His planned departure comes at a time when NASA is heavily focused on returning astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars as part of the multi-billion dollar Artemis program, which will begin in 2019.
Zurbuchen headed the Science Directorate when it sent NASA’s Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars, where it collected rock samples to study whether the planet has experienced conditions favorable for life. The probe’s mission also included a helicopter flight to another planet for the first time.
NASA launched the Webb Telescope, the most powerful space observatory ever built, last December, and in July it began providing stunning images of the universe.
The Zurbuchen unit played an early role at Artemis through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program, an effort to deploy specially built lunar landers to study the lunar surface before humans land there in the coming years.
He was also instrumental in initiating the first known NASA effort to investigate unknown atmospheric phenomena known as Unidentified Flying Objects, as he assembled a team of citizen scientists to help the Pentagon’s program discover and discover mysterious objects in the sky.
“From the diversity of the team he assembled, to delivering the myriad of successful space science missions that have changed our view of the universe, to investing in new and better ways to achieve space science goals and the development of society as a whole, Thomas has been a strong force in the field of space exploration at Jones Lab,” said Bobby Brown, head of space exploration at Jones Lab. Hopkins Applied Physics: “For Positive Change Across NASA.”
“Travel enthusiast. Alcohol lover. Friendly entrepreneur. Coffeeaholic. Award-winning writer.”