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James Free Portrait

James Free

Former Center Director, Glenn Research Center, Jan. 2013 until Mar. 2016

James Free served as center director at NASA’s Glenn Research Center from January 4, 2013 until March 2016. Free completed a reorganization effort that sought to create a balanced and stable center that could withstand agency shifts in programs and budgets. At age 44, he brought a new perspective to the center that was focused on stability.

Free grew up in the Cleveland area, where he attended St. Ignatius High School. Free earned a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautics from Miami University in 1990 and immediately began his NASA career as an engineer, working on Tracking and Data Relay Satellites at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

In 1999, Free transferred to NASA Glenn to serve as the liaison for the center’s Fluids and Combustion Facility onboard the International Space Station. He also worked on electric actuation devices for Next Generation Launch Technology program and managed launch and docking activities for the proposed Prometheus spacecraft.  During this period, Free earned his master’s degree in space systems engineering from the Delft University of Technology.

With NASA’s initiation of the Constellation Program in 2005, Free led the development of a proposed liquid oxygen/methane propulsion system for the Orion spacecraft. Free subsequently held various roles supporting the development of the Orion spacecraft. These included leading Glenn’s Orion Service Module effort. He transferred to Johnson Space Center in 2008 to oversee the Orion test and verification work, and, then returned to Glenn in early 2009 to manage all of Glenn’s Orion work. In September 2009, Free was promoted to chief of the Space Flight Systems Directorate where he oversaw the center’s space work.

Following the cancellation of Constellation, Free was named deputy director in November 2010 and managed all of the center’s research activities. It was a period of threatened government shutdowns and federal budget reductions. Free and Center Director Ramon Lugo began taking steps to position the center to successfully operate with a lower budget. In 2012, they initiated a reorganization effort structured around core competencies:  space power, aeronautics and space propulsion systems, advanced materials, physical sciences and biomedical technology, and advanced communications technology.

Jim Free sitting in office.
Jim Free in his office in January 2013.

On November 16, 2012, the NASA administrator announced Free would replace Lugo as center director starting January 2013. At 44, Free was the youngest person to ever lead the center. Free solicited input from the center staff as he continued to pursue the reorganization throughout the next year. The process was slowed by headquarters reviews and approvals of leadership appointments.

Throughout 2013 federal agencies contended with repeated congressional budgetary threats that culminated in a three-week government shutdown in October. Free led the center’s attempt to elevate its profile in both government and industry settings through participating in events and hosting tours of the center.

Meanwhile, Glenn developed new hardware for its Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) experiment on the space station, vacuum tested a faring for SpaceX, and began utilizing a new icing capability in the Propulsion Systems Laboratory. A new Shipping and Receiving Facility was opened, and ground was broken for the Mission Integration Center.

Free unveiled the center’s new organization in early 2014. It featured the merging of two directorates into the new Research and Engineering Directorate, the expansion of the Aeronautics Directorate, and the integration of manufacturing with facilities and test installations. Free remarked, “NASA Glenn is now poised for an even greater future.”

Free also approved the establishment of a NASA Glenn Hall of Fame in 2015. The initial class consisted of six individuals and included a group award. At the induction ceremony, Free told the gathered audience, “We can build all the buildings we want, and we can have great test facilities, but what matters is the people who come to work here every day—and the incredible intellect and spirit and caring and devotion that these folks had.”

In March 2016 Free was appointed to the NASA Headquarters position of deputy associate administrator for Technical [sic] in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. He retired from NASA in May 2017. He served as senior vice president of Aerospace Systems for Peerless Technologies and as chief operating officer and senior consultant for Lead Off the X. Free returned to NASA in September 2021 as the agency’s associate administrator for exploration systems development.

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

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