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Michael Freilich, former NASA Earth Science director and Haverford College graduate, dies at 66

Dr. Freilich, who grew up in Ardmore, was honored by NASA and its international partners in January. They renamed an ocean-observing satellite after him.

Dr. Freilich was a key participant at NASA in 16 major mission and instrument launches, and eight small-satellite launches.
Dr. Freilich was a key participant at NASA in 16 major mission and instrument launches, and eight small-satellite launches.Read moreNASA

Michael H. Freilich, 66, of Kensington, Md., a 1975 Haverford College graduate and an internationally acclaimed scientist, died Wednesday, Aug. 5, of pancreatic cancer at his home.

Having retired in February 2019 as director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, a position he had held since 2006, Dr. Freilich was honored by the U.S. space administration and its international partners in January when they renamed an ocean-observing satellite after him.

In making the announcement, NASA Administrator James F. Bridenstine noted “the global reach” of his legacy.

“Mike’s contributions to NASA — and to Earth science worldwide — have been invaluable, and we are thrilled that this satellite bearing his name will uncover new knowledge about the oceans for which he has such an abiding passion,” Bridenstine said.

The satellite, once named Sentinel-6A/Jason CS, is now called Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich.

Born to Arthur and Paula Freilich on Jan. 14, 1954, Dr. Freilich grew up in Ardmore and attended Haverford High School. He joined the school’s oceanography club and embarked on a lifelong quest to understand, explain and interact with the planet’s natural forces.

Among many projects, he went on to become a key participant at NASA in 16 major mission and instrument launches, and eight small-satellite launches. He also championed the agency’s increased collaboration with international partners. Nearly every tribute from colleagues after his death noted Mr. Freilich’s passion and commitment to his work.

“A single word that describes Mike is determined,” said his younger brother, Steven. “Mike worked hard at everything he undertook. If he cared about something, he would become an expert. While we were kids playing Go Fish, he was reading about and learning how to play bridge and chess.”

Dr. Freilich was an achiever from the start. He and his brother opened a printing business when Dr. Freilich was just 13, and he was always interested in how things worked. He was fascinated with how ocean waves crashed into the beach, and later lectured often about the connections between the ocean and space.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, a young Dr. Freilich was glued to the TV during a family vacation in Paris.

After high school, Dr. Freilich earned degrees in physics and chemistry from Haverford College and a Ph.D in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He went on to become a researcher and flight mission leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor and associate dean at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

As NASA’s director of Earth science, he managed and expanded its $2 billion annual budget, and revitalized the fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Over the years, he received, among other honors, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, NASA’s Distinguished Achievement Award and Public Service Medal, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Director’s Research Achievement Award.

Away from work, Dr. Freilich had eclectic interests. He was a soccer referee. He loved to give tours of his vegetable garden. He was an accomplished chef and sushi connoisseur. He played the cello as a youth, and was a talented nature photographer throughout his life.

One of his favorite possessions was a custom-made wet suit he used for ocean projects. It was made by the same manufacturers who supplied suits to Navy SEALs.

“He will be remembered for his will, wit, and warm heart,” his family wrote in a tribute.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, called Dr. Freilich “a force of nature in Earth science.”

“We’ve lost a trailblazer,” Zurbuchen wrote. “But we will feel his presence as his namesake orbits above us, continually reminding us to be vigilant sentinels, to keep learning, and to keep doing the right thing for each other and our planet.”

In addition to his brother, Dr. Freilich is survived by wife Shoshannah; daughter Sarah; son Daniel; mother Paula; a sister; a granddaughter; and other relatives.

Services were private.