NASA pulled off three huge feats amid the COVID-19 pandemic: the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars and two successful flights of the first American-built and -operated spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station since 2010.
Central to these and other critical missions was Stephen Jurczyk, NASA’s highest-ranking civil servant. Jurczyk’s engineering and technical know-how, and keen people and management skills paid big dividends in 2020 and 2021.
“Steve kept a steady hand on the tiller, guiding the team to amazing achievements in a very tough environment,” said former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Steve has set an amazing example of focused, creative and inclusive leadership.”
Starting in January 2020, Jurczyk took the lead on developing a plan to guide the operations of NASA’s 10 centers scattered across the country during the pandemic. The framework, which combined medical data and operational information, enabled well over 90% of the agency’s employees to work remotely while keeping mission-critical projects on track.
An example is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the lead organization for the Mars rover mission. When California ordered a statewide shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jurczyk and his team coordinated with officials to ensure that personnel could continue to work on-site safely. At the same time, he developed plans to safely move spacecraft, equipment, engineers and technicians back and forth from California to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Steve was the heart and soul of the effort to help NASA through this pandemic,” said Jane Datta, NASA’s chief human capital officer. “There was something almost magical about the environment that he created around the agency. It remains one of the most singularly remarkable demonstrations of leadership I have seen in my career.”
Jurczyk’s recent management of three high-profile missions—the May 2020 and April 2021 space station missions with the private U.S. firm SpaceX, and the July 2020 launch and February 2021 landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars—embody the approach he has taken to his work at NASA since the late 1980s.
Melanie Saunders, NASA’s deputy associate administrator, said Jurczyk not only ran the agency on a day-to-day basis, but was also the senior technical official responsible for overseeing the planning and execution of all major NASA projects—including the SpaceX and Mars missions.
“Steve was ultimately responsible for managing risks and making the big decisions about whether those missions could proceed,” Saunders said.
Jurczyk began his NASA career focused on space-based remote sensing systems used to study the Earth’s climate and environment, and he worked on countless engineering and technical projects before becoming director of the Langley Research Center in 2013. In that role, Jurczyk led projects on advanced space technologies and vehicles, technologies to improve the safety and performance of commercial aircraft, and space-based remote sensing systems for earth science research.
He has also helped lay the groundwork for human exploration of Mars. Several years ago, he was named NASA’s associate administrator with oversight of all agency programs across aeronautics research, space technology, human exploration and science.
Jurczyk said that “managing space programs is really about managing risk.” While eliminating risk is impossible, he believes his job is to assess whether all risks have been identified and mitigated to the greatest extent possible. He said this concept applies to space flight, and also came into play as he managed NASA’s workforce and programs during the pandemic.
“Steve is successful because he is a great strategic and tactical thinker,” said Lesa Roe, the former deputy associate administrator at NASA. “His mission is about now and the future. He is thinking well ahead and then planning out the future missions regarding what is needed and adjusting based on what NASA is learning.”
When Bridenstine resigned as the head of NASA in January 2021, Jurczyk was named acting administrator, a role that put him in charge of all agency operations until former Sen. Bill Nelson was confirmed by the Senate as administrator in April.
Today, Jurczyk plays a critical role in managing several key projects that will shape the future of U.S. space exploration: the new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, the Lunar Gateway, and a human landing system that will put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. This latter initiative will help the U.S. establish a permanent presence on the moon to prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond.
Saunders said Jurczyk is effective because he is intellectually curious and genuinely interested in NASA’s missions and people.
“He keeps people focused, positive and never gets complacent. His overriding focus is always on what is best for NASA,” she said.