Federal Faces: William Borucki

May 6, 2013

Name: William Borucki

Position: Space scientist, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif.

Best known for: Borucki conceived, designed and is now leading NASA’s Kepler space mission, which will bring the world a step closer to knowing whether life exists on other planets. Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory is the result of Borucki’s nearly 30 years of pioneering work demonstrating a technique for discovering thousands of planets orbiting distant stars in our region of the Milky Way. Many of these planets are the size of Earth or larger, and a small portion of these exist in the habitable zone, the region around a star where water may exist.

The Kepler mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems hundreds of light-years away from Earth. Borucki’s scientific knowledge, exhaustive mastery of technological challenges and sheer persistence convinced skeptical astronomers and NASA managers of the feasibility of the Kepler mission.

The Kepler orbiting telescope has catalogued more than 2,700 planet candidates and confirmed 114 as planets. It has discovered the first rocky planet in the habitable zone of another star; a tightly compacted six-planet system; the first pair of planets orbiting a double star; several planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars; and planets as small as the size of Earth’s moon.


Space scientist William Borucki joined NASA in 1962. (COURTESY OF NASA AMES RESEARCH CENTER)

Borucki published a seminal paper in 1984 on the requirements for detecting presumed planets outside our solar system. Starting in 1992, he made four proposals that were rejected before earning the NASA go-ahead on the fifth try in 2001. It took eight more years before the launch.

Government work: Borucki joined NASA in 1962, working on the heat shields for returning spacecraft. During his five-decade career at NASA, he engaged in research regarding the effects of nitrogen and Freon compounds on Earth’s ozone layer; published papers on the lightning activity in planetary atmospheres; modeled the electrically charged aerosols in the Venus, Titan and Jupiter atmospheres; and spent many years working on the technology and scientific underpinnings that led to the Kepler space mission.

Motivation for service: As a young man, he always wanted to explore space and was taken by NASA’s determination to go to the moon. After college, he applied for work only with NASA.

Biggest challenge: “My biggest challenge is to be positive, creative and to get the job done in the face of endless frustrations and obstacles.”

Quote: “I’m a space scientist working a project that is trying to determine whether other Earths are common in our galaxy. If they are common, then life could be common in the universe.”

— From the Partnership for Public Service

For a full profile, go to The Fed Page at washingtonpost.com/politics/federal-government.

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