Published: 
Aug 28, 2018

NASA Earth Science Director Announces Retirement

Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters since 2006, announced he will retire from the agency in February 2019. Freilich leads NASA’s mission to increase understanding of our home planet and help safeguard and improve lives for humanity’s future.

Freilich-1.jpg
A frequent speaker at major Earth science meetings worldwide,
Freilich describes how Earth-observing satellites have
revolutionized our understanding of our home planet. Credit/NASA

“Words are not enough to express my deep appreciation for Mike Freilich’s dedication, creativity, and operational vision that has so positively impacted not only Earth science but also the broader NASA research community,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Mike leaves an extraordinary legacy that will be remembered here at NASA and by future generations that will inhabit our planet.”

Freilich helped drive the evolution of NASA Earth science from a program that launched an Earth-observing space mission every few years to one that launches several missions each year while preserving balance between orbital flight missions, research, applications, and technology development activities.

Photo of GRACE-FO launch
(GRACE-FO) mission launched on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in May 2018,
from Space Launch Complex 4E
 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit/NASA

He led NASA’s response to the National Academy of Sciences’ first-ever Earth Science and Applications from Space decadal survey, expanding the agency’s innovative Earth-observing programs.

Along with his colleagues in the Earth Science Division, Freilich established the sustained Venture-Class program of low-cost space and airborne science missions that is now a central feature of the Earth Science Division portfolio. He also pioneered the broad use of the International Space Station as a platform for Earth-observing instruments, and he inaugurated a NASA activity to use data products from private sector, small-satellite constellations to supplement traditional government data sources.

Satellite image of California wildfires
Wildfires seen in northern California in the Mendocino National Forest and near the
San Francisco Bay Area as the International Space Station orbited 252 miles above
the Pacific Ocean. Credit/NASA

Under Freilich’s leadership, NASA also established cutting-edge programs to use small satellites and payloads hosted on commercial satellites to advance Earth science research and to demonstrate new technologies.

During Freilich’s tenure at NASA Headquarters, he oversaw 16 successful major mission and instrument launches and 8 CubeSat/small-satellite launches; the Earth science program has some 20 additional large Earth-observing missions and major hosted instruments well along in development for launch before 2023.

“It has been a great privilege to be able to help strengthen NASA’s Earth science and applications programs and to contribute to advancing humanity’s knowledge of our home planet,” said Freilich. “But understanding our complex globe takes a dedicated, skilled, and creative team of scientists and engineers. The tight-knit group of NASA professionals at Headquarters and the Centers, along with our colleagues in industry and academia, are among the best that our agency and nation have ever assembled. I am honored to have had a chance to work with, and learn from, the NASA Earth science team.”

According to Zurbuchen, NASA will issue an announcement this fall to begin the search for a successor, providing ample time to identify a highly qualified candidate to lead this exceptional area of NASA science.

“I want Mike’s successor to be on board so as to ensure a smooth transition and allow the new director time to fully understand the team’s chemistry and structure and how the division collaborates with other agencies and international partners,” said Zurbuchen.

Photo of Larsen Ice Shelf and Ice Bridge
The edge of the Larsen Ice Shelf meets open water and sea ice, viewed from above
during the 20th Ice Bridge flight in Antarctica. The flight, which lifted off on Nov. 16, 2009,
surveyed the Antarctic Peninsula including the Larsen Ice Shelf and nearby glaciers. 
Credit: Michael Studinger, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

NASA science monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA also develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. Scientists worldwide use NASA data to tackle some of the biggest questions about how our planet is changing now and how Earth could change in the future. From rising sea levels to the changing availability of freshwater, NASA enables studies that unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to its core.

“NASA’s Earth Science Division team has unmatched expertise, effectiveness, and passion,” said Zurbuchen. “There is clearly strong support within NASA and among all of our stakeholders for continuing groundbreaking work in Earth science and for using the knowledge to improve people’s lives within the United States and beyond.”

Freilich graduated from Haverford College in 1975 and received his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1982. Prior to coming to NASA Headquarters, Freilich had been a professor and associate dean at Oregon State University for 14 years. He was a researcher and mission principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1983 through 1991. At JPL and Oregon State, he also served as science lead on three NASA orbital missions to measure global ocean surface winds.

An elected Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, Freilich has won several awards over his career, including the JPL Director’s Research Achievement Award, the NASA Public Service Medal, and the AMS Verner Suomi Award. He delivered the National Research Council/Smithsonian Institution’s prestigious Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture in 2008.

After almost a dozen years at NASA and more than three decades as an Earth scientist, and with his retirement still several months away, Freilich will continue his focus on the job at hand.

Imagining the future, he mused, “In the near term, my wife and I plan to travel and explore the planet we have committed to understand and protect. After I recharge, there are a few research questions I’d still like to solve. For sure, however, I look forward with great anticipation to the discoveries that the NASA team and our many partners will make in the coming years.”

Illustration of Earth Science operating mission spacecraft in orbit
Illustration of NASA's Earth-observing fleet. Credit/NASA

The NASA family will always be grateful for Mike Freilich’s service and contributions to the agency, the nation, and science.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: 

https://www.nasa.gov/earth