NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen learns about a habitat used to grow plants in space during a tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bill White/NASA

Q&A: NASA’s science head says investment in earth science is a ‘no-brainer'

Thomas Zurbuchen grew up in a tiny Swiss village with more cows than people. The heliophysicist, who in October 2016 left the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to take the reins of NASA's science directorate, was raised in a deeply religious family, where he says he was comfortable asking the hard questions: "Where am I from?" and "What's my purpose?" He could soon face more hard questions from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which is skeptical about the value of climate change research, much of it supported by NASA. ScienceInsider caught up with Zurbuchen last week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Working with a divided Congress is an important part of your responsibilities. How can your background help?

A: I grew up in a little town that you would call, by any political spectrum, ultra–right wing, right? Trust is important. You can't just go walk up and scream at people, like, "I tell you what's true or what's real!" Even if you're right! That's not the way to do it. Because listen to it from their point of view: "Wow, that's an arrogant prick. Just because he has this tremendous education doesn't mean that I'm stupid." Right?

The way to make progress is to learn with a little bit of empathy—listening to others: “What do you care about?”

Q: U.S. science and engineering schools are seeing a drop in international applicants in recent months. As an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, is this a trend you're concerned about?

A: I came here frankly because I wanted to learn a language. I felt that English is the language of science and I felt I did not speak it well enough. [And then] I really felt, because I'm such a believer in democracy, I'd really like to vote where I pay taxes.

Look at the Los Alamos [atom bomb] project. You see how many people had accents, right? This is what makes me passionately excited about the U.S. That amazing opportunity to really step up and do something, no matter your background. The fact that these applications go up and down a little, we've seen in the past. Things come together.

Q: You've written about the importance of taking risks. How did risk factor into your selection of Psyche and Lucy, two missions to asteroids, as the next Discovery missions in planetary science?

A: Risk is not an end in itself. It's like a mountain hike. If I want to get on top of a mountain, I don't want to go on the path that is the most dangerous. I could do that, but that's really stupid. However, I need to recognize that there's no such thing as getting to the top of the mountain without taking any risks. It's a necessary ingredient to ambitious science.

The way I felt about Discovery, risk didn't really factor in. I was all about the best science under the constraints we had. The moment someone told me it's category 1, low risk, I don't think any analysis can get the last digit right. So I actually never looked at this again. I'm not trying to minimize risk. I'm trying to do amazing science.

Q: The current administration likes to think of itself in business terms. What's the business case for NASA earth science?

A: The return of investment on earth science makes it a no-brainer. This morning, people [in Washington, D.C.,] went onto the [subway] with an umbrella. Because they know that it's going to rain. But for many of the forecasts we're addressing today, we want forecasts that are longer. For each of these forecasts, there's an immediate business case. How do I fuel aircraft, if I'm in aviation? How do I deal with traffic? What are the goods that should be in the front of the store? These are decisions being made based on earth science data.

Whether it's in agriculture, whether it's in water management, whether it's in trade, whether it's in logistics—these kinds of data really matter. Then you go into the longer timescales, and now you're into real-estate development. You're into risk assessment, the reinsurance business.

Q: Do you feel this message, about the importance of earth science, is being heard by the administration?

A: Well, when I'm in the room the message is being said. Because it's really important for me to be a champion for that message.

Q: The James Webb Space Telescope was, in the view of many, a scheduling and budgeting disaster. How can you prevent missions from getting too big to fail?

A: First of all, there's not a single mission in our inventory that's too big to fail. One thing I want to make sure we do right is that we sell the stuff with the price tag they actually have. For me what that means is that cost is a really important part of the design.

Q: You've been a supporter of small satellites. Could such spacecraft address high-priority science of the type identified in decadal science reviews from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine?

A: There is a revolution going on in technology in which small platforms are really becoming valid tools. I would not be surprised if the decadal in earth science really looks at these platforms and says, “Wow there's stuff that's possible today that we could have never done before.” It's the opportunity to solve some of these problems at a much smaller price point. That's the exciting part. There's science we can solve that is decadal-class.

Q: Commercial space launchers are coming fast—SpaceX, Blue Origin. How can the science take advantage of this?

A: Still the most important challenge for space exploration is to get there. We're asking as agency how much it would cost for us to put instruments on commercial platforms. If somebody goes to Mars, I don't want to miss the opportunity of sending a payload that we may be able to drop off. If our engagement helps to push a great project like this over the edge, and make it just viable and we show up, as an early customer, we pay for some of this, it's a double success. We get the science done. But we also help a company—we get a capability, infrastructure, we get that enabled.

Q: In 2020, NASA, China, and Europe all plan to put a rover on Mars. Next year, Europe will launch BepiColombo—like NASA’s MESSENGER, a mission to Mercury. Is there a better way to coordinate international missions?

A: It's not always the goal to be efficient and just have one shot on goal, so to say. For example, the BepiColombo mission will be a better mission because MESSENGER was already there—a more targeted mission. The science we'll get out is better than if we just went with one. Because we can do it in two steps. But can we do better? I hope so. I hope we can learn as we go forward.

From the beginning, NASA has been an important part of U.S. foreign policy, as a place where countries could partner and do things together that in a political realm, often we were not ready for. I still remember from my childhood, when the U.S. capsule and the Soviet capsule docked together [in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission] before the fall of the wall in Berlin.