On Monday 27 February, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that Dr Nicola Fox would be assuming the role of associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, effective immediately.
What makes this notable, is not only is Dr Fox only the second woman to hold this role in the long history of the space agency, she is the first Briton to hold it. She also happens to have been born in EAB’s patch in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
A lifelong passion for space
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’sToday Programme, Dr Fox said that her passion for space began when she was only nine months old, with the historic landing of Neil Armstrong and Virgil ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the moon in 1969.
‘I apparently stirred in my crib, so my father propped me up in front of the TV so I could watch this momentous event. He gave me a running commentary through the entire thing and now takes full credit for my interest in space.’
Having an interest in space is one thing, getting to hold such an important and prestigious role within what is arguably the world’s leading organisation in space exploration, is another. At the time, the British Space Programme was limited.
From Hitchin to London to the USA
Her journey from East Anglia to unlocking the mysteries of the universe began when she began studying at Imperial College in London, graduating in 1990 with a B.Sc. in Physics. She then obtained her Master of Science degree in Telematics and Satellite Communications from the University of Surrey in 1991 before returning to Imperial College to complete a Ph.D. in Space and Atmospheric Physics in 1995.
She moved to the United States first for her postdoctoral fellowship at Goddard and then in 1998 to the Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory. She served as the project scientist for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018.
Pioneering work around the sun
On its eighth flyby of the sun, on 28 April 2021, the Parker solar probe became the first spacecraft to “touch” the sun when it swooped inside the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, according to a statement from NASA. The probe took its name from pioneering astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who first proposed the existence of solar wind in 1958, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The probe also holds the record for being the fastest human man made object ever built, travelling at speeds in excess of 350,000 mph.
Yet for Dr Fox, the probe holds a more personal meaning. On the side of the incredible craft is her late husbands name, following his sudden death in 2010. She has told her children that their father is going to orbit the sun ‘for ever’.
Follow your heart
Remaining at NASA, in 2020 she was awarded NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal. In 2021 she was awarded the American Astronautical Society’s Carl Sagan Memorial Award for her demonstrated leadership in the field of heliophysics.
She told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Whatever you’re interested in, whatever your heart tells you you’re interested in, that’s what you should do.’ Inspiring words from an inspirational person.
Another stellar woman physicist, from EAB’s 2022 International Women’s Day coverage
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