Pete Worden earned a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Arizona and entered the U.S. Air Force in 1975 where he worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative and its successor, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, in the 1980s and 1990s, eventually commanding the 50th Space Wing, responsible for operating over 60 Department of Defense satellites. He retired from the Air Force in 2004 with the rank of Brigadier General and became director of the NASA Ames Research Center, where he worked until 2015. During his time at Ames, he promoted the idea of small satellites and low cost access to space. Prior to joining NASA, he had been an acerbic critic of its mode of operation, once characterising it as a “self-licking ice cream cone” and joking that its acronym stood for “Never A Straight Answer”.
In 2015, he became the Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, and is executive director of the Breakthrough Starshot project, whose goal is to send a swarm of nano-spacecraft to explore the planetary system of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun.