Thomas H. Zurbuchen, known in the space community as Dr. Z, is a Swiss-American astrophysicist, leader, and innovator.

He was the longest continually serving Head of Science at NASA from October 2016 through 2022, the leading program worldwide for doing science in and from space. During this time, he drove all aspects of leadership in space science, launching 37 missions and starting another 54. His achievements include bringing the international James Webb Telescope to launch, overseeing two Mars landings – the Perseverance rover and the first controlled flight away from the Earth with the Ingenuity helicopter – and developing the Parker Solar Probe, a mission to touch the Sun. He also conceived and led the Earth System Observatory, an advanced multi-platform observatory that creates a 3D holistic view of the Earth, from bedrock to atmosphere, and oversaw humanity’s first successful attempt at moving a celestial object, using a spacecraft impact.

Thomas Zurbuchen Lecture Topics

  • Pushing Boundaries through Science

In his keynote, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen talks about current and future space missions and what humanity learns from space science. Beyond the what and the why, Thomas explaines how to build trust, how to do miracle missions, and how to make the teams and the public proud of this work.

  • Aiming High: The Story of the James Webb Space Telescope and How it is Changing our View of the Universe

A few times in the history of humankind, we have learned to look at the universe in a new way. Most recently, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on Christmas Day in 2021, and put into operation with the first images released in July 2022. Since then, JWST has been surprising us with the immense beauty and deep insights about our universe.

  • Whispers from Other Worlds: NASA’s Search for Life in the Cosmos

In this popular presentation, Thomas shares stories about the amazing team behind the project, enabling new technology through multiple challenges, and the insights that we are getting from this new telescope.

Whether life exists beyond Earth is among the most exciting — and toughest — mysteries that science can solve. For millennia, humans have wondered whether we are alone in the cosmos, but those musings have lived almost exclusively in the realm of philosophy, not science. Sixty years ago, the first scientific search for extraterrestrial technologies was met with curiosity, and at times cynicism and ridicule. Only recently has the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) begun to gain traction and legitimacy among scientists.

In this customizable presentation, Thomas Zurbuchen lays the framework for a dialog that examines the scientific concepts focused on this study, and outlines how NASA will tackle this and related questions in the future. He also draws parallels between this endeavor and other projects that seek to make history by bringing many individuals together to work as a team to achieve a common goal.

Dr. Zurbuchen was born in Switzerland in 1968, became the first college graduate in his family, studied physics at the University of Bern with a minor in mathematics, and was awarded his PhD in 1996 with a thesis entitled “Turbulence in the interplanetary medium and its implications on the dynamics of minor ions”.

Thomas Zurbuchen: Excellence is not the absence of errors, but constant improvement.

In that same year, Dr. Thomas H. Zurbuchen left for the US and joined the University of Michigan as a research associate, where, in 2008, he was made Professor of Space Science and Aerospace Engineering. His scientific research focuses on solar and heliospheric physics, experimental space research, and space systems. He is also well known for his work on innovation and entrepreneurship. During his time at University, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen co-founded the Center for Entrepreneurship, which was recognized as the US leading undergraduate program.

It’s much better to achieve 80% of a really ambitious goal, than to achieve 100% of a modest one.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen built multiple space instruments, such as the MASS sensor on NASA’s WIND spacecraft, launched in 1992, and the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, for which he served as team leader, on NASA’s Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

Due to his achievements, Dr. Zurbuchen is a sought after international expert in innovation and leadership of pioneering organizations. He chaired the US National Academy of Sciences committee, for example, that produced a report on CubeSats in 2016, widely credited for diversifying Mission portfolios and tech approaches for science and Earth observations.


Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen has received numerous awards.

2004: US Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
2018: Heinrich-Greinacher-Prize of the University of Bern
2020: NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal
2021: US Presidential Rank Award
2021: Honorary doctorate degree (Dr. of Science) of Northern Michigan University
2022: NASA Distinguished Service Medal
2022: Wernher von Braun Distinguished Science Award
2022: Honorary doctorate degree (Dr. h. c.) of the ETH Zurich
2023: Innovator of the Year Europe, Wirtschaftswoche