Remarks by 2023 Commencement keynote speaker Thomas Zurbuchen

Scott Hamilton

Thomas Zurbuchen, astrophysicist and the longest continually serving associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in NASA’s history, was the keynote speaker at RIT’s commencement ceremony May 12. During his talk, Zurbuchen encouraged graduates to “bet on hope and listen to the universe.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, astrophysicist and the longest continually serving associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in NASA’s history, addressed the crowd at the Gordon Field House during RIT's annual commencement ceremony on May 12. The full text of his speech is below:

Good morning, everybody.

I have had an opportunity to work with the Deaf community and I know Sean Forbes, a Deaf American Hip-Hop Artist, from Detroit who is also a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. I am going to pause and make a few comments in American Sign Language.




First, I want to congratulate all of you, class of 2023. You made it! You have achieved a very important goal that surely will help set you up for success. You are a college graduate, and you have worked hard for that achievement.

Also I want to congratulate those of you who are the first in your families to graduate. Many of you have walked a steep path to arrive here today. You make your families and your professors extremely proud. You have opened new doors for yourself.

How do I know? I, too, was first in my family to graduate from college.

And, I want to add my thanks to all your family members and friends who are here today.

As Fred Rogers once famously said, “All of us have special ones that have loved us into being.”

You have been part of these students’ paths and have supported them through ups and downs, and you will be there for them in the future. I feel the love and pride in this room. Congratulations to you all.

Join me, again, in a round of applause for all who have supported today’s graduates.

I remember standing in a nearly empty room last July. I was looking at a startling image of the universe captured in a totally new way -- in infrared light -- and I was in awe.

I was looking at the deepest image of space ever captured, something that only a handful of other scientists had yet seen.

It does not happen very often that we can look at the universe in a totally new way.

In 1610, Galileo looked through the first telescope and found stunning surprises – Jupiter had celestial companions, the Galilean moons, as we call them now! I always wondered how he felt when we saw the universe anew.

Then, on that afternoon last July, it happened to me.

I saw the universe anew.

Some light in the picture I was looking at had taken over 13 billion years to make it to the new telescope that imaged it, the James Webb Space Telescope – the most complex and most expensive space mission ever undertaken by humanity. As I stood there, I noticed that my eyes were welling up. The sense of awe was almost too much for one person.

But it wasn’t the only reason for my emotion.

As head of NASA’s Science program, I had been part of the struggle to build this telescope for 6 years.

At first it seemed almost hopeless.

Within less than a year on the job, I could see we were in deep trouble. Despite spending over a million dollars per day, we were not getting any closer to launching it. For nearly two years, every day, the launch moved one day to the right. Every 6 months, the team made a mistake that would set the team back another 6 months. Soon, I was invited to testify to Congress. Our elected representatives were wondering whether this project was just too much. It was devastating for the entire team and tens of thousands of astronomers worldwide. They wondered whether this groundbreaking technology would ever even get off the ground, much less photograph deep space.

The next steps were not easy. We had to make major adjustments in team leadership and culture. But, with a final lifeline given by Congress, and very deliberate changes, the team got better and better each day. When we launched the telescope on Christmas 2021 on a European rocket, we started the most complex and most risky deployment of any space-system in history. We were there, despite all odds. Earlier, when a science journalist did an online poll of experts regarding whether they believed JWST would work, the vast majority admitted they did not have hope.

There was another reason why my eyes were welling up that afternoon in July.

Growing up in a farm village in the mountains of Switzerland, I had looked at the sky as a child and I had dreamed about the stars. I did not know any engineers or scientists when I was little. I had read many books about human-made spacecraft, and dreamed about space exploration – but all of that seemed so remote. Growing up in my strictly religious family, science was neither studied nor appreciated. And, when I started to gain interest in studying science and engineering, a well-meaning teacher told me that I was probably not good enough. 

“This stuff is hard,” he said, “perhaps too hard for you.” He did not hold much hope that I could be part of a university.

Yet, that day, in front of the deepest-ever image of the Universe, I thought back to that little kid on the roof of the farm looking at the dark sky and dreaming…

…and now that same first-generation college student and his team were making history beyond any expectation.

Beyond any hope.

As we look at our world today, there are many things that truly worry us at a global scale.

The aggression of Russia against Ukraine, reigniting the fears of nuclear war I grew up with as a child in Europe. Tensions originating further East that challenge our deeply-held societal principles about freedom, and government for and by the people. Gun violence in this country. Inequities here and around the world. Fundamental concerns about how we treat one another as humans.

Hate and fear seems to have taken ahold of so many hearts. Hard-won freedoms are at risk.

And, after running the largest Earth science research program worldwide, I am keenly aware that our planet is changing more rapidly than many had predicted. That is not a matter of belief or theory, but about collecting and understanding data gathered from space.

From the unique vantage point of 39 active NASA-built spacecraft looking at the Earth as we are gathered here in Rochester, we measure ice levels, floods and draughts, and sea-levels each day.

We also observe devastation, both natural or human-made…

There were two so-called “500-year floods” in Florida since 2020…

These past few years have been record-setting in terms of fires and droughts…

So, with all this, how can we have hope?

Because we can choose to be hopeful.

The decision to have hope is sometimes not popular or even reasonable.

How do we think of ourselves?

Do we stack up our anxieties and doubts until they become a wall of doom?

Or can we see ourselves like Gene Kranz, who spearheaded the return of the Apollo 13 mission, when he declared that “failure is not an option!”

It takes lasting courage to achieve big goals, and it is not a one-and-done. We need to recommit to hope on a regular basis. And, yes, when it comes to big goals, failure is an ever-present possibility.

Fear and hope are often neighbors.

Know that, and then do your best anyway.

Gene Kranz also said “It isn’t equipment that wins the battles; it is the quality and the determination of the people fighting for a cause in which they believe.”

See, hope is not just a feeling, but is manifested in belief, and in action. When asked what he would do if he was told the Earth would stop tomorrow, reformer Martin Luther said “I would plant a tree” – he wanted to commit a last act of hope.

Here is what I believe: It is acts of hope that change the world for the better.

Inventing a new medical device.

Harnessing a new form of clean energy.

Creating a non-profit that is focused societal impact.

Advocating for deaf actors in the theatre and the movie industry.

Imagining an astonishing telescope.

Each of these acts of hope and courage matters… and, in their aggregate, they create new ideas, new solutions, new ways of seeing, and being.

Primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall warned us about the absence of hope when she said that “the greatest danger to our future is apathy.”

The decision whether to be hopeful is up to us, each day. And so is the courageous decision to act on that hope, and work hard to make it happen.

Let’s go back to that Christmas Day in 2021, the day we prepared to launch the James Webb Telescope into space.

I was in Kourou near the tropical Rainforest of French Guyana, at the European spaceport right by the equator. The teams had worked so hard. All of it, now, hung in the balance. The pressure was enormous, as tens of thousands of researchers and millions of space fans were watching live as the count-down occurred. This event drew the international community together in a big way.

So, there I was, listening to the countdown in French – cinq, quatre, trois, deux, unité.

I sat there as the count went to zero, and the rocket slowly lifted off the pad into the clouds and beyond. People were in tears all around me, some having put two decades of work into the telescope project. I felt relief, and great hope. We celebrated as we watched the full release of the solar panels. We saw it all on camera, the telescope waving back at us as it journeyed into space.

The European led launch team and the US led spacecraft team had achieved perfection. They brought diverse sets of skills and strengths together as a powerful collective.

The spacecraft was unfolded and put a million miles away from the Earth.

We were opening up a new period of science and exploration, and exploring the sky in ways that will surely affect how we think not only about the sky itself, but also about our place in it, and the history that got us there.

From all of this, I learned something important I want to leave you with today:

Do not let fear or doubt win out over hope. Bet on hope. Dare to do mighty things.

It is much easier to succumb to fear and not try, than bet on hope and put in the hard work to achieve something others may have thought was unachievable. Even worse, it is easy to critique those who try.

And know this: You have superpowers to help you harness hope in the journey ahead.

I was an immigrant. My upbringing was humble. I had to work hard to solve challenges that seemed easier than others. I had to think differently. At first, it seemed these characteristics were barriers. But in retrospect, it turns out those tools have been kind of a superpower for me.

You, too, have your own backgrounds, your own story, your special strengths. Some of you have had tremendous challenges to overcome in your life. Some of you have experienced disadvantage or discrimination. Or perhaps, like me, you didn’t have a roadmap for higher education.

Some of you have just always colored outside the lines.

But each of you has superpowers that are unique to you. Use them. Better yet, find others to team up with whose skills and experience are different than yours. The power of that kind of diverse team is unstoppable in this business of hope.

This is a day of hope -- a day of new beginnings.

As you look forward to the path in front of you, it may look a bit ambiguous and sometimes even a little scary.  But, know that being your authentic self gives you super-powers. Don’t worry so much about a grand master plan for your career and your life. Go ahead and dare mighty things. Bet on hope. Listen to the universe. Find opportunities to work with, and learn from, those who bring different skills and experience to the table.

And remember that, even in challenging times, there is an opportunity the make the impossible…possible.

For that journey, I wish you nothing but the best of luck! Congratulations graduates!