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James Free, Associate Administrator for Exploration Space Development

James Free

Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development

Jim Free is the associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, a position he will hold through the end of the year. On Nov. 15, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced Free will serve as the next associate administrator for the agency when Robert Cabana retires on Sunday, Dec. 31.

As associate administrator, Free will become NASA’s third highest-ranking executive, as well as highest-ranking civil servant. This role serves as a senior advisor to Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. When he assumes this position, Free also will lead the agency’s 10 center directors, and five mission directorate associate administrators at NASA Headquarters. He will act as the agency’s chief operating officer for more than 18,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $25 billion.

As associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development, a role he has served since 2021, Free is responsible for the development of NASA’s Moon to Mars architecture, defining and managing the systems development for NASA’s Artemis missions and planning for NASA’s integrated deep space exploration approach.

Prior to his selection as head of Exploration Systems Development, Free spent several years in various private sector roles after he left NASA in 2017. In his previous role at NASA, he served as the agency’s deputy associate administrator for technical in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.  

Prior to joining NASA Headquarters, he worked his way up to center director at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, where he was responsible for planning, organizing, and directing the activities required in accomplishing the missions assigned to the center. Free has served a variety of roles at NASA centers since beginning his career in 1990 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

A native of Northeast Ohio, Free earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his master’s degree in space systems engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.  

Free is the recipient of the Presidential Rank Award, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Significant Achievement Medal, and numerous other awards.