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Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen

Former Head of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA; NASA Distinguished Service Medal Winner; Acclaimed Astrophysicist

Thomas H. Zurbuchen is a Swiss-American astrophysicist.


Dr. Zurbuchen was the longest continually running Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, serving from October 2016 until December 2022.

During this time, he launched 37 missions and started another 54, expanding and revamping the World’s leading space mission portfolio, which also includes the World’s most extensive and advanced set of Earth science missions.


Among the missions for which he was responsible were the James Webb Space Telescope, the Perseverance and Ingenuity Mars Landings, and DART, among many others, and he contributed immensely to the success of each. 

He served as team leader for the development of one of the scientific instruments aboard NASA's Messenger spacecraft to Mercury, the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, as well as five others focused on the Sun.


Prior to this, Dr. Z was Professor of Space Science and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, where he helped found the Center for Entrepreneurship.

His scientific research focuses on solar and heliospheric physics, experimental space research, and space systems. He is also well known for his personal work in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship.


Additionally, he chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that produced a report in 2016 on CubeSats, often credited for the expansion of small, standardized satellites in the U.S. and across the globe.


Popular Topics

Aiming High: The Story of the James Webb Space Telescope and How it is Changing our View of the Universe 

A few times in the history of humankind, we have learned to look at the universe in a new way.


Most recently, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on Christmas Day in 2021, and put into operation with the first images released in July 2022.


Since then, JWST has been surprising us with the immense beauty and deep insights about our universe.


In this popular presentation, Thomas shares stories about the amazing team behind the project, enabling new technology through multiple challenges, and the insights that we are getting from this new telescope.


He also draws parallels between this endeavor and other projects that seek to make history by bringing many individuals together to work as a team to achieve a common goal. 

Whispers from Other Worlds: NASA’s Search for Life in the Cosmos

Whether life exists beyond Earth is among the most exciting — and toughest — mysteries that science can solve.  


For millennia, humans have wondered whether we are alone in the cosmos, but those musings have lived almost exclusively in the realm of philosophy, not science.  


Sixty years ago, the first scientific search for extraterrestrial technologies was met with curiosity, and at times cynicism and ridicule. 


Only recently has the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) begun to gain traction and legitimacy among scientists.


In this customizable presentation, Dr. Z lays the framework for a dialog that examines the scientific concepts focused on this study, and outlines how NASA will tackle this and related questions in the future. 


  • 2004: U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

  • 2018: Heinrich-Greinacher-Prize of the University of Bern

  • 2020: NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal

  • 2021: U.S. Presidential Rank Award, Distinguished

  • 2021: Honorary doctorate degree (Dr. of Science) of Northern Michigan University

  • 2022: NASA Distinguished Service Medal

  • 2022: Wernher von Braun Distinguished Science Award

  • 2022: Honorary doctorate degree (Dr. h. c.) of the ETH Zurich

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