Stern Out, Weiler in at NASA Science Directorate; Mather Will Reportedly Leave

NASA’s Science group has seen an abrupt turnover in its top leadership. S. Alan Stern, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, announced his resignation on Wednesday. John Mather, the directorate’s chief scientist, is also reported to be heading back to his full-time position on the James Webb Space Telescope program.

“Alan has rendered invaluable service to NASA as the Principal Investigator for the Pluto/New Horizons mission, as a member of the NASA Advisory Council, and as the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate,” Administrator Mike Griffin said in a statement. “While I deeply regret his decision to leave NASA, I understand his reasons for doing so, and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Dr. Alan Stern Stern returned the compliment. “I will remain at NASA for a few weeks. It’s been my privilege to serve the NASA and scientific community and to work with you. I also want you to know that Mike and I remain on good terms. He remains in my eyes the best administrator NASA has ever had,” Stern wrote in an email to co-workers.

Neither Stern nor Griffin explained the reasons behind the departure. However, the changes at the top come at a time when NASA is facing severe financial pressures from flat funding and projects that are behind schedule and over budget. Earlier this week, NASA Headquarters sent – and later rescinded – a letter to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ordering deep cuts in the operating budgets of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. The agency is also in the midst of refocusing its planetary exploration from Mars to the outer planets.

Stern will be replaced on an interim basis by Dr. Edward J. Weiler, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Weiler has served as the center’s administrator since August 2004.

The Pasadena-based Planetary Society has weighed in on the change. Executive Director Lou Friedman issued a statement:

“We are sorry to learn of Alan Stern’s resignation from his position as NASA Associate Administrator for Science. During his tenure, Alan made significant changes that have helped restore the importance of science in NASA’s mission. This was especially true in the 2009 budget proposal, which included two overdue Earth science missions and an outer planets flagship mission. He also worked to un-do the separation that had occurred between science and exploration in previous years, and redirected the Mars program to focus on Mars sample return.”

There is also a discussion going on over at Jeff Foust’s Space Politics blog.

Photo: Dr. S. Alan Stern. Credit: NASA