by Laura Hammel
Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson. Buzz Aldrin. Jim Free ’86. What in—or out of—this world might these men have in common?
One Giant Leap
When it was time for Free to choose a high school, his inclination was to follow the footsteps of his beloved grandfather—a Cathedral Latin man. This wasn’t in the cards, however, as the school had closed.
“I had friends whose brothers attended Saint Ignatius and a few other schools, so I visited them all. There was something different about the environment at Saint Ignatius. I felt it when I set foot on campus. This was the deciding factor,” he recalls. Free took the leap and enrolled. “I attribute the man I am today to the school and my grandfather,” he says.
Free earned degrees in aeronautics and meteorology from Miami University before landing at NASA. During his 27 years there, he achieved a combined MS/MBA in space systems engineering from the Netherlands’ Delft Institute of Technology and held numerous posts in space programs. In 2017, he retired early, intending to operate his consulting business—until NASA invited him back to lead the project of a lifetime.
Fly Me to the Moon
As associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, Free oversees the Artemis Program. “This project is significant because the people involved have designed the hardware and systems to sustain life on the moon and Mars for long periods of time,” he says. Under his direction, NASA is preparing to send four crewmembers to the moon where they will stay on its surface for 30 days.
“Science is at the forefront of the mission,” Free says. “The Artemis crew will use a lander to explore the moon and ascertain if the ice at the South Pole and surface dust are usable.”
Having his mind on the moon has not prohibited Free from keeping up with all things family. “I have always traveled quite a bit, so my wife, Amy, managed things at home so I could pursue my dream career,” he says. They have four children. Jacob ’21 studies aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee, and Nathan ’23 is an active student at Saint Ignatius.
“It was absolutely surreal dropping my sons off on campus at the same place I was dropped off on my first day,” Free says. “Watching them grow into Men for Others has been a lot like watching myself.”
Free helps coach Saint Ignatius hockey and enjoys his fellow coaches as well as the students. “My goal is to develop students as leaders first. If they become great hockey players along the way, that’s a bonus.” All of Free’s teams no doubt are learning to be leaders from the example he sets—he’s a high achiever who remains very down-to-earth.