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Dr. James F. Spann, Jr. - Short Biography

Jim Spann

Chief Scientist
Science and Technology Directorate
Marshall Space Flight Center

Dr. James F. Spann, Jr. grew up in Recife, Brazil from the age of five, where his parents were missionaries. He attended local Brazilian schools until the 6th grade when transferred to a small American school. He graduated high school from the Escola Americana do Recife in 1975, received his BS degree with honors in 1979 from Ouachita Baptist University in Mathematics and Physics, and his Ph.D. degree in Physics in 1985 from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, under Dr. Charles Richardson. His PhD dissertation research focused on using an electrodynamic balance to suspend single micron-size particles and aerosols to investigate the deliquescence properties of the ammonium sulfate-sulphuric acid aerosol system. From 1984 to 1986, he was an Oak Ridge Associated Universities Post Doctoral Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he established a laboratory to investigate the radiative thermal environment required to explosively boil coal slurry droplet in order to more effectively disperse coal fragments resulting in a more efficient combustor. The electrodynamic balance technique developed at the University of Arkansas was the basis for the laboratory. Of course making supper high-speed movies (5000 frames per second) of exploding droplets after being irradiated with high power pulsed lasers was pretty cool.

In 1986, Dr. Spann joined NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. His experience with ultra-clean vacuum systems in his research at the University of Arkansas was a key factor in being hired at NASA. He initially worked in calibrating in vacuum an optical and extreme UV spectrometer flown on the space shuttle ATLAS-1 Mission (STS-45) that measured high altitude atmospheric and ionospheric emissions. He next worked on the design, manufacturing and assembly, testing, calibrating and operating the Ultraviolet Imager (UVI) on the NASA Polar mission. Launched in 1996 and operated for 10 years, the UVI imaged the aurora in the far ultraviolet regime with greater spectral resolution than ever before and since, yielding insight to the energetics and dynamics of the coupled magnetosphere-ionosphere system at the high latitudes. Dr. Spann was named Co-Investigator on the UVI and served as the instrument scientist. Subsequently he was responsible for the optics and calibration of the auroral Wideband Imaging Camera of the IMAGE mission launched in 2000 that provided context for space weather and system investigation of near-Earth space region called geospace. Additionally, he established the Dusty Plasma Laboratory and the Ultraviolet Instrument Laboratory. The Dusty Plasma Lab uses the electrodynamic balance technique to investigate space based charging and optical properties of micron sized dust grains. This includes lunar dust samples from the Apollo and Luna Moon missions, and interplanetary and interstellar dust analogues.

From 2000-2002, Dr. Spann served as a discipline scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC where he managed proposal review panels, initiated the instrument development program for the Sun-Earth Connection Division (now called the Heliophysics), served as program scientist for several space missions. He was responsible for the release of the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission announcement of opportunity and later served on the MMS mission Standing Review Board. MMS is a $1B mission launched in March 2015 to investigate the fundamental nature of magnetic reconnection.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Spann moved to Recife, Brazil at the young age of five where his parents served as career missionaries. After graduating high school from the American School in Recife in 1975, he returned to the US and earned a Bachelor's degree in Physics and Math from Ouachita Baptist University and a PhD in Physics from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (1984). He spent two years (1984-1986) as a post-doctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Energy in Morgantown, West Virginia prior to coming to MSFC. During that time he investigated at what temperature would coal slurry droplets explosively boil in a combustor by zapping droplets with a high power lasers and capturing their response using high speed movies (5000 frames/sec).

Until October 2015, Dr. Spann has been the manager of the Science Research Office, the science organization at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. With over 45 PhD civil servant research scientists and more than 100 partners and colleagues, in the disciplines of Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science and Astrophysics, the office is broad its content and significant in its impact. Examples of the work conducted in his organization range from developing and flying spaceflight instruments for observing the most intense explosions of the Universe and understand Dark Energy (Chandra and GBM), to providing disaster mitigation tools for decision makers in developing countries using space-based observations with a USAID-NASA program caller SERVIR, to developing better climate and weather forecast models in partnership with the collocated NOAA National Weather Office, to exploring the triggers of solar eruptions that impact GPS and communications at Earth, to investigating the geochronology of the inner solar system.

Currently, Dr. Spann is the Chief Scientist for the Marshall Space Flight Center Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate. In this capacity he provides scientific leadership to all MSFC programs, projects, and activities. He will represents MSFC science to the external community, including NASA Headquarters (HQ) and field centers, academia, other government agencies, and private industry for the purpose of growing successful partnerships. He serves as advisor to the S&T Manager and Center leadership on key scientific issues related to the health and growth of MSFC science, works to integrate science and exploration goals, and provides expert advice on maximizing science return on exploration architecture and space transportation infrastructure.

Dr. Spann was awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2010 and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 2013. He continues to be engaged in NASA strategic efforts in science and technology. He led the study and publication of the Heliophysics Science and the Moon (2007) and was Co-Chair of the Heliophysics Roadmap: The Solar and Space Physics of a New Era (2009). He has served on several Agency level teams including: the NASA Technology Roadmap TA08: Science Instruments, Observatories, and Sensor Systems Team; the NASA Competition Study Team; and the NASA Civil Service Scientist Funding Model Team. He served on the NOAA Space Weather Follow-On mission Independent Study Team. He was the Co-Convener of the 2014 heliophysics community Measurement Techniques in Solar and Space Physics Workshop and the senior editor of the two-volume special edition in Journal of Geophysical Research by the same title.

He is Principal Investigator for the recently awarded international CubeSat mission called Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) to be launched in collaboration with the Brazilian space agency that will investigate the conditions in the Earth’s ionosphere, just above its upper atmosphere, that lead to disruptions in communication and GPS signals.

Dr. Spann is an avid soccer fan, and he enjoys playing guitar and taking photographs.


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Last Updated: September 06, 2017