Earth is calling Michael Freilich. After more than 12 years leading NASA’s work in earth science and climate change, Freilich yesterday announced that he will be retiring from the agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., early next year. He will leave behind a $1.9 billion division that he has shepherded through several early failed launches and turbulent political times.
Although many associate NASA with exploring of the rest of the solar system, the agency has long supported a bevy of satellite-based missions focused on Earth. But when Freilich took the reins in 2006, the division was lurching along thanks to budget cuts during the administration of then-President George W. Bush. Freilich gave it a stable course, says Ricky Rood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who previously worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “There is no doubt that NASA’s Earth-observing satellite system is in better shape [now] than when Freilich came on board,” he says. “There is more innovation and more diligent attention to balancing budget, mission, and scientific outcomes.”
Freilich guided the agency’s response to the first decadal review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in 2007, creating a funding program for lower-budget “venture class” satellite missions awarded through competition. He led the way toward repurposing several planned stand-alone missions to instead be mounted on the International Space Station, turning it into a viable tool for Earth observation. He launched NASA’s first constellation of Earth-observing CubeSats (small modular craft) and embraced plans to mount instruments on commercial platforms, such as communication satellites. And he has started a pilot program to purchase data from commercial satellite providers. “NASA made tough decisions, and that is what you want in a leader,” Rood says.
The first half of Freilich’s tenure featured two spectacular launch failures: the crash of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite into the Indian Ocean in 2009, followed by a similar demise, in 2011, of the Glory satellite, which was meant to track the global distribution of fine atmospheric particles called aerosols. Following the OCO crash, “He quickly and forcefully articulated the need [for] a replacement based on the high scientific priority of its measurements,” says Charles Elachi, a planetary scientist who led NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, until 2016. That led Congress to fund the construction of an identical replacement, OCO-2, which was successfully launched in 2014. (Glory has not had a similar replacement.)
Freilich has always stood out for his blunt, no-nonsense style, adds Rick Spinrad, who collaborated with Freilich during his tenure as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Mike’s approach has always been a unique blend of high intelligence, real pragmatism, and programmatic savvy,” says Spinrad, who is now retired. He was never a bully in his interagency work with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey, despite wielding the biggest budget. “You know where he stands, and he knows how to compromise,” Spinrad adds. “I think it was that skill that allowed him to plow along during some rather dramatic changes in administration.”
Those changes included a surge of climate-focused funding during the administration of former President Barack Obama, followed by cuts proposed to his division by the current administration of President Donald Trump. At town halls and workshops, Freilich dutifully noted these plans, which included the elimination of a nearly complete OCO-3, meant to be mounted on the space station, while downplaying their size and hinting at his awareness that Congress would not support them.
Freilich’s departure means that Thomas Zurbuchen, who in 2016 joined NASA as its associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, will soon put his full stamp on his directorate’s four divisions. The agency has just announced a search for a new planetary sciences chief, following Jim Green’s promotion to chief scientist, and Zurbuchen announced this week that Nicola Fox, the project scientist on NASA’s recently launched Parker Solar Probe, would take over its heliophysics division next week. Only Paul Hertz, who has run astrophysics since 2012, would predate Zurbuchen.
Scientists, already wary of the Trump administration, will watch Freilich’s successor closely for any signs of downplaying climate change. But whoever is named to the post will be tightly constrained by the newest NASEM decadal report, released early this year, which NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has pledged to follow. That report pushes the agency to open up its missions to even more competition, hoping to avoid the budget creep that attended several high-profile satellites in the past.
Prior to NASA, Freilich had worked as a geoscientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis and JPL, where his research focused in particular on oceanic winds. After his retirement, he said in a statement, “my wife and I plan to travel and explore the planet we committed to understand and protect.”