Former Astronaut Picked to Lead NOAA

Kathryn Sullivan


The first American woman to walk in space has been tapped to be the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). President Barack Obama yesterday nominated Kathryn Sullivan, currently NOAA’s acting administrator, to fill the post vacated in February by marine scientist Jane Lubchenco.

If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Sullivan will oversee a $5 billion agency with wide responsibilities, including operating weather satellites, monitoring ocean conditions, and regulating fisheries. The agency has been plagued in recent years by budget overruns and delays in several major satellite projects. Those problems have threatened the health of other programs as NOAA’s budgets have stagnated.

Early reaction to the pick is positive. Sullivan, who has doctorate in geology, “is a very capable and accomplished administrator,” says Robert Gagosian, president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit alliance of marine and atmospheric science groups in Washington, D.C. “She has been a stalwart supporter of ocean, atmospheric, and weather observations emphasizing the importance of a strong foundation for scientific research.”

Sullivan “brings a unique breadth of knowledge and diverse experience, which are commensurate with the extensive scope of NOAA's mission,” says Tom Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “She will enjoy respect and strong support from the academic and commercial sectors of the enterprise.”

Sullivan, 61, has been an assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s parent department, since 2011, overseeing the agency’s fleet of Earth-observing instruments and weather prediction programs. It is her second stint at the agency: She served as NOAA’s chief scientist from 1993 to 1996.

She’s best known for being one of the first six women selected by NASA for astronaut training in 1978. She flew on three shuttle missions during a 15-year NASA career, including the trip that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope.

Prior to coming to Commerce, Sullivan spent more than a decade in Ohio, directing a math and science education think tank at Ohio State University and leading the Ohio Center of Science and Industry. She also served as a member of the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, from 2004 to 2010. Sullivan earned her doctorate in geology from Dalhousie University in Canada in 1978.