Photo of Thomas Zurbuchen

Annual Spencer Lecture Features Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen

The Annual Spencer Lecture will feature Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, who served as the head of science at NASA from 2016 to 2022, on March 28, 2024.

On Thursday, March 28, the U-M Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering will present the 2024 Nelson W. Spencer Lecturer Award to Dr. Thomas H. Zurbuchen, who worked as the longest continually serving head of science at NASA from 2016 to 2022. The Spencer Lecture will be offered as part of the U-M Climate and Space Seminar Series at 3:30pm Eastern on Thursday, March 28.

Dr. Nelson W. Spencer became the director of the U-M Space Physics Research Laboratory in 1948 and remained its guiding force until 1960. During his tenure, SPRL established itself as a prominent leader in the exploration of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Dr. Spencer believed in the importance of including science goals in all space flight missions, and was a pioneer in America’s space science program. Each year, a special guest speaker is invited to the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department to present a lecture in Dr. Spencer’s honor.

Dr. Thomas H. Zurbuchen is a professor and leader of the Space Programs at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland. Known in the space community as “Dr. Z,” he is the longest continually serving head of science at NASA, a post he held from 2016 to 2022. As NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, he was responsible for all aspects of NASA leadership in space science. During his tenure, NASA launched 37 science missions and started 54, including the James Webb Space Telescope, two Mars landings, the Ingenuity helicopter, the Parker Solar Probe, and the DART mission. Zurbuchen also conceived and led the Earth System Observatory, an advanced multi-platform observatory that creates a 3D holistic view of the Earth, from bedrock to atmosphere.

He has a M.S. and Ph.D. of physics/astrophysics from the University of Bern. As a professor, he worked at the University of Michigan as a researcher, teacher and innovator for two decades. He was the founder of the award-winning Center for Entrepreneurship there which achieved top rating within the US for their educational and experiential programs. He is a member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, recipient of the NASA Outstanding Service Medal, associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and recipient of the Presidential Rank Award, Distinguished Level. He is a winner of the excellence in international cooperation award of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), and has received multiple honorary doctorates.

During the Spencer Lecture, Dr. Zurbuchen will speak on the topic of “How NASA is Exploring the Secrets of the Universe, and Improving Life on Earth: The Increasing Role of Commercial Partnerships.” The lecture will take place at 3:30pm Eastern Time, on Thursday, March 28, 2024, in the Climate and Space Research Building Auditorium (Rm 2246.) Viewing will also be available via Zoom.

Since NASA was established in 1958 by President Eisenhower, the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space has been the priority of NASA. Discovery and exploration occur both with robotic and human exploration and it has changed how we think about the universe, our planet, and life beyond Earth. This presentation will focus on a few recent missions, to demonstrate the power of space as a frontier of discovery, and to show how these missions rely on teams that make the impossible possible. It will particularly focus on the evolutionary journey that involves NASA-base agency focused work, and increasingly commercial partnerships that are a critical part of NASA’s Science program.

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