A Tribute to Dr. Michael Freilich

Release Date:

The USGS lost a good friend and partner earlier this year – Dr. Michael Freilich, former Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. The renaming of an international Sentinel 6 Earth observing satellite mission in his honor, and its successful launch on November 21, 2020, was a fitting tribute to his life and legacy.

L8 Hand off Press Conference

Dr. Michael Freilich, second from right, speaks in 2013 about the handoff of Landsat 8 to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The new U.S.-European satellite, which will continue the monitoring of global sea level and its changes over time, was launched from French Guiana. The satellite was formally renamed Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich earlier this year, following Dr. Freilich’s untimely death from cancer not long after his retirement from Federal service.

The mission’s new name was a fitting tribute to Dr. Freilich, a pioneer in space-based oceanography and longtime leader of NASA’s Earth Science Division. He was a visionary leader in the field of Earth science, and a valued and longstanding partner of USGS and countless organizations and individuals involved in Earth observations.

It is fitting that Sentinel 6, a partnership among NASA, the European Space Agency, NOAA, the the European Meteorological Satellite Organization, and the European Commission, should be named after Dr. Freilich. His life and career modeled continued collaboration and partnership to better understand the Earth’s climate processes.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth day earlier this year, Dr. Freilich stated, “Thanks to satellites and to science, we now know much more about Earth than we did on the first Earth Day fifty years ago.” The Earth science community has Mike to thank for making that a reality.

In 2008 while at the helm of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Dr. Freilich enthusiastically supported the Department of Interior’s decision to make Landsat data free and open to the public – one of the most important and historic decisions affecting civil Earth observations. He led the revitalization of our Nation’s Earth observing research missions through the introduction of significant programmatic innovations, private sector partnerships, and the expansion of numerous interagency and international partnerships.

Additionally, Dr. Freilich was a strong supporter of the work of the international Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), and its Land Surface Imaging (LSI) Constellation. The LSI group is enabling the development and release of new, analysis-ready data products from CEOS members, including USGS. These data products are easier to use and support a growing number of scientific analyses to better monitor Earth’s landscapes, surface waters, and coastal regions.

Mike’s friends and colleagues at USGS remember him as dedicated and determined civil servant who pushed initiatives and collaborations that would otherwise never have occurred. Bruce Quirk, USGS liaison for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, knew and worked with Mike for many years, saying “I always found him very professional, especially knowledgeable about Landsat, and not afraid to ask the hard questions. He was an ardent Landsat supporter and was one of the key players in making the Program a success.”

Tom Cecere, USGS cartographer added that “Mike was an amazing storyteller who knew how to captivate those around him and had a sharp and quick wit. He also was a kind and caring individual and leader who would take time out of his busy schedule to make sure that those in his extended NASA and CEOS family were helped during times of need.” During one CEOS meeting, Tom became ill with stroke-like symptoms and had to be hospitalized. When Tom was released that night, it was Mike and his wife who were waiting for him to ensure he returned safely to his hotel and had everything he needed.

Tim Newman, USGS National Land Imaging Program Coordinator, emphasized Mike’s long-term beneficial impact on land remote sensing: “Mike understood what we were doing and why we were doing it more than anyone else.” Mike’s leadership was indispensable to the establishment of the multi-mission, multi-decadal, NASA-USGS Sustainable Land Imaging Program.

Mike received numerous awards and recognitions throughout his career, including NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Achievement Award, and Public Service Medal as well as the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award. But his impact extends well beyond his service to the U.S. Government. The European Space Agency gave Mike the unprecedented honor of naming the Sentinel-6a mission after him, showing the breadth of respect and admiration among his international colleagues.

Mike will always be remembered as a good friend and colleague. USGS and the Earth observation community will be forever enriched by his work and legacy.