Science and Exploration

Thomas Zurbuchen – The Next Step, Across The Atlantic, As An Immigrant

By SpaceRef Editor
May 25, 2023
Filed under ,
Thomas Zurbuchen – The Next Step, Across The Atlantic, As An Immigrant
Thomas Zurbuchen
Image credit: NASA.

Editor’s note: The following is by Thomas Zurbuchen, the former Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, who served from 2016 to 2022.

I would like to provide you with an update on my future plans.

Many of you may remember that I left NASA as the Head of Science at the end of 2022. After enjoying a month of skiing and making friends during the most incredible winter in the Rockies that I could have ever imagined, I began engaging in some work. You might ask, why not just take more time off? Well, Erin and I have two kids in college for another two years, and given my previous role as a government civil servant, we simply cannot afford to slack off.

The good news is that I have come across some very exciting opportunities. I have been giving several talks on both sides of the Atlantic and have also secured some consulting engagements. I am constantly learning new things. However, I must admit that I have encountered more hurdles than anticipated in finding my next big calling. I am not fond of working alone, and not going to work while living in the DC area has been tough. Additionally, being away from Erin, who works as a music teacher in Northern Virginia, for an extended period while residing in Utah has been difficult. Furthermore, I still have significant U.S. government ethics restrictions in place until the end of 2023, with some lasting until the end of 2024. These restrictions have affected my job search more than I initially expected, and I have struggled with the nature of my job, which has impacted my self-esteem and sense of fulfillment on many days.

Hence, I have been searching for a way to complement my talks and consulting engagements with a part-time job that allows me to make a significant impact, learn something new, and spend more time with people as a teacher and learner. After considering offers from multiple places and carefully weighing the professional and personal aspects for both Erin and me, we have decided to take the leap across the Atlantic. I will be taking on a part-time job at Switzerland’s ETHZ, a renowned engineering and science-focused research university. This institution boasts a rich history involving prominent figures such as Einstein (although they did not hire him after he graduated from there!), Pauli, and Wüthrich (both Nobel Prize winners and professors there), as well as Wernher von Braun (yes, that one), among many others. However, ETHZ currently lacks a robust space exploration-focused educational program, and I intend to collaborate with them to rectify that. I am thrilled at the opportunity to shape this new Master’s program, focusing on the Space Industry of Today and the Future, which is significantly different in structure from the industry during my own education over 20 years ago when most similar programs were established.

For this endeavor to succeed, the University will need to work closely with other partners, including industrial partners in Europe and beyond, as well as new startups. I also hope to involve other universities. The travel distance from Zurich to Geneva is more reliable and shorter in terms of time compared to traveling within and around Washington DC, which means we can collaborate more effectively. Furthermore, I firmly believe that if we do an excellent job, the industry will experience the positive effects of the growing and ever-surprising global space economy.

Lastly, I aim to continue being an advocate for science in and from space and strive to push the boundaries of what is possible. Science, much like space exploration, is genuinely interdisciplinary and international, and it is crucial for science not only to undertake inspiring missions but also to be a significant contributor and leader in Artemis and Human Exploration in Low Earth Orbit.

I will be working in Switzerland 60% of the time, as I want to continue my work as an international speaker and consultant and even expand on those endeavors. I also want to bring my networks with me and ensure that both students and faculty benefit from them. Additionally, I am committed to undertaking a personal project—I want to continue documenting what I have learned at NASA and beyond. This may evolve into a book over time, but in the meantime, you may find some valuable insights on my blog and other platforms. Over the next 1-2 years, I will continue to evaluate my next calling, as I am still exploring various possibilities.

I once asked famed VC and Bay Area icon Sandy Robertson for the single most important advice to an entrepreneurial innovator seeking funding. His answer was both short and memorable: “Be an immigrant.” He immediately added, “I don’t just mean necessarily coming from a different country, but from a different background—one that allows you to see the world untethered from expectations and local customs.” I left Switzerland two weeks after completing my PhD and have lived my entire career in the USA. For me, Switzerland will be a place where I (mostly) know the language, but it will be like entering as an immigrant once again. I will need to adapt and learn to work with teams in ways that may differ from what I learned in the USA, and I hope to add value and achieve goals that create more opportunities for the entire ETHZ, Swiss, and global community.

One more thing: if you didn’t have a friend in Switzerland before, you have one now. To all my friends, come visit me. Let me show you around. And to all my professional friends, please do come and visit us, give a talk, and then let’s go and explore the landscapes, mountains, and dark skies together.

See also “Former NASA Science Director is joining ETH Zurich

SpaceRef staff editor.