His love of astronomy first flourished in Don Vinson’s chemistry class at Burlington High School, but now Burlington native Jim Green can call himself the chief scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Green began working at NASA in 1980, after he graduated from the University of Iowa with a Ph.D. in space physics. He has held several positions in the years since then, including head of the National Space Science Data Center, chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office, chief of the Science Proposal Support Office, and most recently, the director of NASA's planetary sciences division.

Beginning May 1, he’ll be an advocate for everything NASA does, covering not just planetary science, but also astrophysics, heliophysics and Earth science.

Green will advise federal government administration on approaches and activities NASA should undertake to meet its goals and objectives. He will also serve as a public face for the organization, sharing science and accomplishments with the public in a variety of ways.

“In many ways we are a public service,” said Green. “So what do you get for the money that you spend on your taxes in space? You get an enormous value.”

That value includes initiatives such as a series of Earth science satellites monitoring changes on Earth over time; studying space weather to protect technology from hazards; assessing objects in orbit near Earth at risk of dangerous impact; and visiting other planets and determining where other life might exist in the solar system, to name a few.

“I’m tremendously excited about doing [this job],” said Green. “It gives me an opportunity to continue talking to the public, and not only just in planetary, but now in many other ways.”

And yes, Green said he’ll likely brush elbows with the president of the United States at work. NASA works as part of the executive branch of the federal government for the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He said the current White House administration has been supportive of NASA’s efforts.

“It’s one of those agencies that is really not in the political realm. It’s bipartisan,” said Green. “NASA is one of those organizations that work for the country whether the president is Republican or Democrat, and what we do is so obviously of importance that it’s non political.”

Judy Smithson-Hilkins, of the Southeast Iowa Astronomy Club, organized an event in August 2017 when Green came back to Burlington to talk to local students about his work in astronomy. Smithson-Hilkins said it’s hard to believe someone who is a director of something so big could be so humble.

“Just because you are from a small town doesn’t mean that you can not dream your dream and complete it,” said Smithson-Hilkins.

The same goes for Edward Stone, another Burlington High School graduate, who went on to become former director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Stone, now living in Pasadena, California, stressed the importance of Green’s new role, saying Green will basically oversee all of the science that goes on at NASA. He’ll report directly to the NASA administrator.

Throughout his 12 years as director of planetary sciences, Green said some of his proudest accomplishments included launching the Curiosity Rover and landing it on Mars, flying by Pluto and putting a spacecraft into orbit around the largest-known asteroid. Now, he’s ready to set some new goals.

For those interested in the work Green does, he suggests listening to his podcast, “Gravity Assist,” at www.nasa.gov/podcasts. It’s like eavesdropping on two scientists talking about the latest astronomical discoveries over lunch, he said.