A salute to NOAA’s champions
These women and men broke barriers and advanced the agency in many ways.
As NOAA celebrates its 50th anniversary, we celebrate and honor individuals whose service to NOAA deeply influenced our science, service and stewardship mission. They are the pioneers, the visionaries, the stalwarts and the champions for NOAA who helped shape our agency and pave the way for future generations.
First NOAA Administrator
Dr. Robert White became NOAA’s first administrator in 1972, following visionary leadership as the first Federal Coordinator of Meteorology and chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau. From the outset, Dr. White set a high bar for federal service by pioneering an approach to meteorology that linked it to observing, understanding, and interacting with the natural environment. He advocated for better weather predictions and improving the global weather observing system through satellites, and he is widely recognized as an early proponent of developing a capability to observe and understand global climate change.
First woman and African American to lead the NOAA Corps
RADM Evelyn Fields was not afraid to take risks—a characteristic that brought her a few “firsts” in her NOAA Corps career, including becoming the first woman and the first African American to hold the position of Director of the NOAA Corps and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. As a new graduate in 1972 with a degree in math, RADM Fields’ first career position was as a cartographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Marine Center in Norfolk, Virginia, where she worked on nautical charting surveys. She was there less than a year when the NOAA Corps began recruiting women as commissioned officers. Fields became the first African American female to join the Corps. By 1989, she was the first woman to command a NOAA ship. In 1999, she reached the rank of rear admiral and took the helm as NOAA Corps Director.
Pioneer in satellite technology
Weather forecasting took off in a big way in the 1950s thanks in large part to Dr. David Simonds Johnson, a meteorologist who played a key role in creating the nation's weather satellite program. Dr. Johnson was the founding director of the National Weather Satellite Center and directed its successors, the National Environmental Satellite Service and the NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service. In 1976, he became NOAA's first assistant administrator for satellites and data. During his tenure, NOAA launched two series of weather satellites that provided observations of the entire earth twice daily to weather services around the world.
Leader and mentor
Dr. Nancy Foster dedicated 23 years of outstanding service to NOAA, leaving a remarkable imprint on the agency. She is known for her mentorship - particularly of women in science - and as a champion of diversity.
She began her NOAA career in 1977, first with the Office of Research and Development, followed by nine years leading the National Marine Sanctuary Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Program. Much of the success of the sanctuary program is attributable to her tenure in its early years and through her long-term support and advocacy. From 1986 to 1993, she was director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. She also created the NOAA Habitat Restoration Center and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. She was a key player in developing the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Act, which established the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Dr. Foster helped lead NOAA Fisheries until 1997, where she helped to create a more efficient, responsive, and scientifically rigorous agency.
Dr. Foster was a marine biologist known for her science-based conservation of coastal aquatic life and led the National Ocean Service from 1997. During her short stay at NOS, she increased the agency's strength and stature, and positioned NOS to lead the nation in coastal stewardship.
Catalyst for National Weather Service modernization
Elbert W. “Joe” Friday was appointed the deputy director of the National Weather Service in 1981, and the director in 1988. In his role as deputy, Dr. Friday was responsible for developing a plan to modernize the agency, a plan that he later implemented as director. The Modernization and Associated Restructuring, or MAR, vastly modernized the agency’s observational infrastructure, radically changed the NWS field office structure and staffed them with degreed meteorologists and hyrologists with advanced training in the new systems to ensure more rapid detection of storms and deliver timely forecasts and warnings to the public. The modernization Dr. Friday oversaw significantly improved weather forecasts and warnings. Dr. Friday served as director of the NWS until 1997; his work to modernize the agency is among his proudest achievements.
Co-founded the Sea Grant Program
Dr. John Knauss was Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Department of Commerce and Administrator of NOAA from 1989 to 1993. Through his extensive career in oceanography and marine policy, one of his notable achievements, in collaboration with Senator Claiborne Pell and Dr. Athelstan Spilhausoffsite link from Minnesota University, was the development of the Sea Grant program: “The Sea Grant idea was first proposed by Athelstan Spilhaus at a 1963 fisheries conference. It found fertile soil in Rhode Island where we believed we were already doing much of what Spilhaus was proposing,” said Knauss in a 2000 issue of Maritimesoffsite link. “The Sea Grant Act was passed in 1966. URI received one of the first grants in 1968 and became one of the first four Sea Grant Colleges in 1972.” And thus was established an academic/industry/government partnership in recognition that marine resources were an untapped asset for energy, development, and food resources.
First and longest-serving NOAA Corps director
After enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1942, RADM Harley Nygren attended and graduated from the University of Washington and was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. RADM Nygren received a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) in 1948. His ship assignments included the USC&GS Ships Explorer, Hodgson, Pathfinder, Pioneer, Discoverer, and Surveyor, serving as the Commanding Officer on the Surveyor. He was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in 1968 and became the associate administrator of the Environmental Science Services Administration, where he was instrumental in organizing NOAA. He was appointed as the director of the newly formed NOAA Corps in February 1971. RADM Nygren retired from the NOAA Corps in 1981, having served as the NOAA Corps director for a decade.
Solved the mystery of the hole in the ozone layer
When a hole appeared in the ozone layer over Antarctica in the 1980s, Dr. Susan Solomon and her colleagues at the former NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory wanted to know why. To solve the mystery, Solomon led two U.S. scientific expeditions to the frozen continent in 1986 and 1987. Her teams' observations supported her theory that chemical reactions of chlorine and icy clouds in the cold, polar stratosphere could be responsible for ozone losses during the Antarctic springtime. Through her career, Dr. Solomon received many distinguished awards for her work, including the 1999 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific award given by the U.S. government. She also shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Invented Science on a Sphere®
Dr. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald began working for NOAA in the National Weather Service Western Region Headquarters in Salt Lake City in 1973. When the Program for Regional Observing and Forecasting was established in 1980, Dr. MacDonald led its advanced weather prediction development team. He subsequently was the first Director of NOAA’s Forecast Systems Laboratory, and also the first Director of its Earth System Research Laboratory. From 2006 to the end of 2012, he was the Deputy Assistant Administrator of NOAA Research. He is the inventor of Science On a Sphere®, a display system that is in hundreds of museums and other institutions around the world, educating people of all ages about earth science.
Visionary in coastal management and sustainability
Dr. Margaret Davidson joined NOAA as the founding director of NOAA's Coastal Services Center, where she created a customer-driven organization that accelerated the use of technology, tools and skills required to make informed coastal economic development and ecosystem management decisions at all levels of government. Before joining NOAA, Ms. Davidson was executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium from 1983 to 1995. She served as acting director of the Office for Ocean and Coastal Resources Management when that office and CSC merged to form the new Office for Coastal Management. Ms. Davidson also took on the challenge of establishing a position to lead NOAA’s response to coastal inundation and resilience.
First female director of a fisheries field office
Dr. Usha Varanasi was the Science and Research Director of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center from 1994 until 2010. As the first woman to lead a fisheries field office, she dedicated much of her 35 years of service in NOAA to addressing critical biological questions and improving public policy decisions. Her revolutionary research on marine organism contaminants led to a reduction in damage to fisheries resources and improvements in food safety.
Spearheaded a giant leap forward in NOAA’s weather prediction
During her time as the longest-serving woman in Congress, Senator Barbara Mikulski was a tireless champion for science and for NOAA. As the first woman to serve as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Mikulski was instrumental in the passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 2013 (commonly known as the Sandy Supplemental) which enabled NOAA to evaluate new observing systems, to improve both global and local storm models, to upgrade NOAA’s research and operational high performance computers, as well as satellite data gap mitigation activities. These activities laid the groundwork for NOAA’s current high performance computing capacity and operational forecasting suite. Her support enabled NOAA to test and develop the new core of NOAA's operational global weather forecast model, the first major upgrade to NOAA's operational model core since the 1980s. Sen. Mikulski also supported the development of NOAA’s next generation of polar and geostationary weather satellites, the first of which was successfully launched shortly before her retirement from the Senate. Sen. Mikulski was also a tireless advocate for restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
Advocate for sound science
Senator Olympia Snowe served in Congress for three decades as an advocate for Maine’s marine and coastal resources. As a former Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, she advocated for sustainable fisheries management using the best available science while ensuring coastal communities and their ways of life could continue to thrive. She recognized the value of having an integrated ocean observing system and supported several pieces of legislation that established and expanded the system. She sponsored and worked for the passage of the National Sea Grant Authorization. She effectively promoted the conservation and restoration of the beautiful coastal resources and habitats of her beloved home state of Maine and was a strong supporter of efforts to detect and address harmful algal blooms, recognizing it was a growing problem in her state and around the country. Sen. Snowe continues to champion the use of strong science in natural resource management.
Leader in protecting our ocean ecosystems
Senator Daniel Inouye cared deeply about the oceans and was a leading champion for legislation to address major issues such as marine debris, sustainable fisheries, national marine sanctuaries and coral reef conservation. Sen. Inouye worked in a bipartisan fashion to ensure that the U.S. maintained and grew its leadership in the Pacific, particularly with respect to sustainable fisheries. He was instrumental, along with Sen. Ted Stevens, in the most recent authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act. Through Sen. Inouye’s vision and leadership, NOAA consolidated its 12 Hawaii offices into one facility, later named the Inouye Regional Center at Ford Island, a world-class facility focusing on fisheries, ocean, coastal, climate, tsunami, and atmospheric issues in the Pacific.
Co-Authored landmark fisheries legislation
In the 1970s, Senator Ted Stevens was flying above the Bering Sea when he saw a scene that alarmed him: Japanese trawlers, 90 that he could count, were fishing in Alaskan waters. The sighting prompted a discussion between Stevens and his Senate colleague Warren Magnuson of Washington about the sustainability of our national seafood supply and the competitiveness of America's fishing industry. Ultimately, these two men opened a dialogue with fishermen and other ocean users across the country. As a result, the senators crafted a groundbreaking law which expanded our national maritime boundaries, established national fisheries management standards, and kept local decisions in the hands of regionally-appointed stakeholders who know their waters and their communities' needs best. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, now more than 40 years old, remains one of the most successful federal-regional management programs ever devised.
Architect of the modern fisheries management regime and proponent for the creation of the Exclusive Economic Zone
Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington together with his colleague Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska authored what is today called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act. The Act set forth the foundation of today’s fisheries management by extending the jurisdiction of the United States 200 miles for the purpose of regulating marine resources, as well as establishing a Federal fisheries management regime to govern the area. The establishment of Regional Fishery Management Councils allowed for local stakeholders to work together with Federal officials to govern fisheries. While the passage of the Act was controversial at the time given its implications for international law, Sen. Magnuson’s observations at the time were prescient, “the United States now has the responsibility of making the new system work. I firmly believe that it will handle that responsibility successfully and that future generations will be better off because of it.” Today, the United States has one of the most rigorous fishery management regimes in the world, which has become the model, influencing international fishery management efforts.
Spearheaded laws to safeguard America's coasts and oceans
Over his long career in state and federal politics, Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina was a champion for ocean policy and conservation. Sen. Hollings spearheaded an extraordinary range of laws to safeguard America's coasts and oceans, including many of the seminal environmental laws of the 1970s such as the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He also played a major role in NOAA’s establishment in 1970. When Sen. Hollings retired in 2005, the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship was established in his honor to bolster undergraduate training in NOAA mission sciences, as well as increase environmental literacy.