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Heliophysicist Nicky Fox Appointed to Lead NASA Science

MAR 23, 2023
As Nicky Fox takes over leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate from Thomas Zurbuchen, she inherits an ambitious project portfolio that is beginning to strain against resource limitations.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Nicky Fox

Nicky Fox speaking at a NASA event ahead of the 2018 launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a flagship mission for which she was the project scientist. NASA named her the head of its Science Mission Directorate on Feb. 27. (Image credit – Frank Michaux / NASA)

Nicky Fox took over as NASA’s associate administrator for its Science Mission Directorate late last month, stepping up from her role as director of the Heliophysics Division. It is the first time in more than six years that leadership of the agency’s science programs has changed hands.

In addition to heliophysics, the science directorate houses divisions for astrophysics, planetary science, and Earth science, and it recently incorporated a smaller division that supports biological and physical science experiments aboard platforms such as the International Space Station. Much of the directorate’s $7.8 billion budget goes to a large fleet of robotic space missions that are physically inaccessible once launched, making their management a particularly high-stakes affair.

In her new role, Fox succeeds another heliophysicist, Thomas Zurbuchen, who left NASA at the end of 2022. Zurbuchen oversaw a string of prominent mission successes as well as a roughly 40% increase in the directorate’s budget, driven largely by a doubling in funding for planetary science. Nonetheless, Fox will face immediate challenges as SMD’s ambitions strain against resource limitations.

Fox brings deep experience in mission development

“It’s the role of a lifetime. I could not be more excited,” Fox remarked on her new position in a recent interview with BBC News.

Born and raised in the U.K., Fox received her bachelor’s degree in physics from Imperial College in London. She pursued a master’s degree in telematics and satellite communications from the University of Surrey before returning to Imperial, where she earned a doctorate in space and atmospheric physics.

Fox then moved to the U.S., working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the aerospace contractor Raytheon, developing spacecraft to study interactions between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere. In 1998, she joined the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, another major space mission development center, and remained there for 20 years.

At the lab, Fox worked first on NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission to study the radiation belts surrounding the Earth, staying with the project from its early science definition phase through its 2012 launch. She then became the project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe, a flagship NASA mission that launched in 2018 and is currently making the closest-ever passes to the Sun by a spacecraft, traversing the corona and studying the origins of the solar wind.

Fox returned to NASA as Heliophysics Division director following the Parker probe’s launch. Since then, she has overseen the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), which recently unexpectedly lost contact with Earth after completing its prime science objectives, and the development of the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), which is targeted for launch in 2025. At the time of her promotion to lead the science directorate, she was the longest serving of its sitting division heads.

Zurbuchen leaves significant changes in his wake

When Thomas Zurbuchen announced his departure last year, he said the strength of the directorate’s position made it an opportune moment to leave. He also noted his had been the longest continuous tenure of anyone to serve in the role. Only Ed Weiler, who led the directorate on two different occasions, held the job for more time.

In addition, Zurbuchen said he felt he had already contributed his “best ideas.” Changes implemented under his leadership include the diversification of mission architectures, such as by expanding the use of cubesats and employing commercially operated spacecraft to rejuvenate NASA’s lunar science program. He also backed the use of stronger management controls and independent review boards to check cost growth and schedule slips, which have previously plagued the development of missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

On Zurbuchen’s watch, the Webb telescope overcame a final round of engineering problems , leading to its successful launch and commissioning. Another major directorate success was the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars two years ago, accompanied by an experimental helicopter that is still flying, far exceeding expectations. A planetary defense program established in 2016 completed its first mission last year, achieving the unprecedented feat of measurably deflecting an asteroid.

Speaking in February to the National Space Council’s external advisory group, Zurbuchen highlighted his focus on using missions to incrementally stretch capabilities. “Kind of the rule I had at NASA is that every mission needs to have at least one new technology,” he said, adding that pushing innovation necessitates having a higher risk tolerance.

Underscoring the point, former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who hired Zurbuchen, recounted at the meeting that he had dismissed the idea of a Mars helicopter and that Zurbuchen then championed it to the next agency administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who approved it. Now, NASA is developing a mission that will carry up to two helicopters capable of retrieving surface samples the Perseverance rover is currently caching.

Thomas Zurbuchen speaking in 2018 at an event announcing the selection of companies eligible to provider lander services for NASA’s lunar science program

Thomas Zurbuchen speaking in 2018 at an event announcing the selection of companies eligible to provider lander services for NASA’s lunar science program. (Image credit – Bill Ingalls / NASA)

Difficult budget environment awaits

Notwithstanding recent successes, signs of strain have begun to appear across NASA’s science portfolio.

Most notably, work on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission has ramped up quickly, pushing toward a 2028 launch date. NASA is seeking nearly $1 billion for the mission next fiscal year and warns that internal estimates indicate its overall cost is growing. MSR’s annual funding level is extraordinary for a science mission and the agency anticipates it will have to address those rising costs, such as by eliminating one of the mission’s helicopters or making cuts to other activities in the directorate.

In its budget request, NASA has already proposed pausing its next major heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC), to free up funds for MSR and other missions. The agency has also frozen work on the VERITAS Venus orbiter for at least three years after a review concluded that the Psyche asteroid mission missed its launch window last year in part due to personnel at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab being stretched too thin. JPL is developing VERITAS, Psyche, and MSR, among other missions.

One key impact of resource squeezes is that NASA is more slowly implementing recommendations from recent National Academies decadal surveys, which guide the directorate’s selection of new missions.

For instance, the Astrophysics Division is currently taking only tentative steps toward establishing its Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program, called GOMAP, which would precede the eventual formulation of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, a new flagship space telescope. In addition, the Planetary Science Division does not anticipate dedicating more than $100 million to a flagship mission to Uranus until fiscal year 2028. Both efforts were rated as high priorities by their respective surveys.

Today, at a public town hall meeting on the directorate’s budget, Fox addressed these tensions in response to a question about the proposed pause for GDC, which was prioritized in the last heliophysics decadal survey.

“The Science Mission Directorate supports all of the missions in all of the divisions. Unfortunately, sometimes we have budget constraints and it means that we cannot do everything that we want to do and some hard decisions have to be made. And you can believe this was the hardest decision that I had to make,” she said.

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