Dr. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist, commercial space astronaut, space program executive, aerospace consultant, author, and public speaker. In 2020, NASA appointed him to be the first researcher NASA will fly to space as a crew member aboard a commercial suborbital space mission; the mission is expected to fly in late 2024. In November, 2023 he is flying a suborbital space mission for The Southwest Research Institute on Virgin Galactic’s space line. In 2018, was he appointed to a six-year term on the U.S. National Science Board. In 2022, he took part in an expedition to explore the RMS Titanic on a submersible.
Dr. Stern’s research has focused on studies of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, comets, the satellites of the outer planets, the Pluto system, and the search for evidence of solar systems around other stars. He has also worked on spacecraft rendezvous theory, terrestrial polar mesospheric clouds, galactic astrophysics, and studies of tenuous satellite atmospheres, including the atmosphere of the Moon.
Since 2001 he has led NASA’s $900+M New Horizons mission that explored the Pluto system and is now exploring the Kuiper Belt—the farthest exploration of worlds in history.
In 2007 and 2008, Dr. Stern served as NASA’s chief of all space and Earth science programs, directing its $5B/year Science Mission Directorate (SMD), with 93 separate flight missions and a program of over 3,000 research grants. During his NASA tenure, a record 10 major new flight projects were started and deep reforms of NASA’s scientific research and the education and public outreach programs were put in place. His tenure was notable for an emphasis on cost control in NASA flight missions that resulted in a 63% decrease in cost overruns. In both 2007 and 2016, he was named to the Time 100 list.
Since 2009, Dr. Stern has been an Associate Vice President and Special Assistant to the President at the Southwest Research Institute. Additionally, from 2008-2012 he served on the board of directors of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and as the Chief Scientist and Mission Architect for Moon Express from 2010-2013. From 2011-2013 he served as the Director of the Florida Space Institute. Dr. Stern serves as the Chief Science Officer of World View, a near-space ballooning company that he is co-founder of. In 2016 and again in 2017 he was elected to be the Board Chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Dr. Stern is also on the advisory boards of Lowell Observatory and Space for Humanity, both nonprofits, and on the board of directors of KinetX Corp. and Voyager Space Holdings.
Dr. Stern maintains his own aerospace consulting practice. His current and former clients include Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, as well as Ball Aerospace, Paragon Space Development Corporation, the NASTAR Center, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Johns Hopkins University.
His career has taken him to numerous astronomical observatories, to the South Pole, and to the upper atmosphere aboard various high performance NASA aircraft including F/A-18 Hornets, F-104 Starfighters, KC-135 Zero-G, and WB-57 Canberras. He has been involved as a researcher in 29 suborbital, orbital, and planetary space missions, including 14 for which he was a principal investigator; and he has led the development of 8 scientific instruments for NASA space missions. In 1995, he was selected as a Space Shuttle Mission Specialist finalist, and in 1996 he was a candidate Space Shuttle Payload Specialist. In 2010, he became a suborbital payload specialist trainee, and is expected to fly at least two suborbital space missions aboard Virgin Galactic vehicles.
Before receiving his doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1989, Dr. Stern completed twin master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and atmospheric sciences (1980 and 1981), and then spent six years as an aerospace systems engineer, concentrating on spacecraft and payload systems at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Martin Marietta Aerospace, and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. His two undergraduate degrees are in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas (1978 and 1980).
Dr. Stern has published over 500 technical papers and 35 popular articles. He has given over 400 technical talks and over 200 popular lectures and speeches about astronomy and space exploration. He has written three books, The U.S. Space Program After Challenger (Franklin-Watts, 1987), Pluto and Charon: Ice Worlds on the Ragged Edge of the Solar System (Wiley 1997, 2005), and in May of 2018, his new book with coauthor David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons (Picador Press) was published. Additionally, he has served as editor on three technical volumes, and three collections of scientific popularizations: Our Worlds (Cambridge, 1998), Our Universe (Cambridge, 2000), and Worlds Beyond (Cambridge, 2003).
Dr. Stern has over 30 years of experience in space instrument development, with a strong concentration in ultraviolet imaging and spectroscopy. He has been a Principal Investigator (PI) in NASA’s UV sounding rocket program, and was the project scientist on a Shuttle-deployable SPARTAN astronomical satellite. Dr. Stern was the PI of the Alice UV Spectrometer for the ESA/NASA Rosetta comet orbiter, launched in 2004, and served as the PI of the LAMP instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, which launched in 2009. In total, he has served as a science team member on 29 NASA and ESA science missions.
Dr. Stern is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Explorer’s Club, and is a member of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA); he was elected to chair the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences in 2006-2007. He was awarded the 2006 Von Braun Aerospace Achievement Award of the National Space Society, the 2007 University of Colorado George Norlin Distinguished Alumnus Award, the 2009 St. Mark’s Preparatory School Distinguished Alumnus Award, Smithsonian Magazine’s 2015 American Ingenuity Award, the 2016 Sagan Memorial Award of the American Astronautical Society, the 2016 Cosmos Award of The Planetary Society, the 2016 NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, its highest civilian award, the 2017 Distinguished Alumnus Award of the College of Natural Sciences of the University of Texas, the 2018 The National Award of Nuclear Science and History, the Explorer’s Club 2018 Lowell Thomas Award, and the 2019 Sir Arthur C. Clarke International Space Achievement award.
Dr. Stern’s personal interests include running, hiking, camping, gardening, and writing. He is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor, with both powered and sailplane ratings. He has two adult daughters and a son. Dr. Stern lives near Boulder, Colorado.