Cultivating interest in space into a full-time job

Mike Lewis, 38, chief technology officer and chief engineer at NanoRacks

As a boy in New Mexico, a chance encounter at school with geologist and former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt gave Mike Lewis a lifelong interest in space research. It was an interest that would take years of patience to cultivate into a stable, full-time job. In 2012, while working in Houston as a structural engineer in the oil and gas industry, Lewis began working on the side for NanoRacks, the Houston company that arranges experiments on rockets and the International Space Station, an is designing a commecial space habitat. Today, as the top technologist at NanoRacks, Lewis is among those at the forefront of space commercialization.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

I did my undergraduate in Fort Collins at Colorado State and my master’s at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in bioastronautics, basically people and plants in space. That ended up being conveniently relevant to what I do day-to-day now: interacting with astronauts, interacting with the space station as a system, connecting with its power and air and cooling. When I graduated, there was some confusion in the direction of the space program, so I jumped into a structural engineering job, where I was climbing radio towers. I stayed in touch with aerospace by teaching space systems engineering at Webster University in Denver. Next, I worked for Tethers Unlimited near Seattle, developing and testing aerospace mechanisms, sensor and systems. Then, shortly after my wife and I moved to Houston (she works at NASA), I met the founders of NanoRacks. I went to work for an oil field services company as a structural engineer for a bit while moonlighting at NanoRacks. NanoRacks grew organically. Like studio musicians, we would pull in people when we needed them. I did a lot of the engineering on the early projects, the research facilities we put on the space station. I would design late at night at my breakfast table. As NanoRacks gained momentum, I was able to jump in full time.

Imagine the world in 2050. What do you think will be happening in space?

My company is working on the next steps for the commercialization of space stations. In 2050, we are going to see space stations around the moon and, hopefully, around Mars. We’ll be a civilization that exists in more than one place. We will be utilizing the resources of other planetary bodies and moving beyond Earth. We will see a lot more cooperation between robotic facilities and manned facilities. Robots are well-suited for the harshness of the radiation environment and you don’t have to keep them alive. Robots will be used for fueling, mining and resource utilization. Inevitably, you need mankind up there for inspiration, so people care. People also have the adaptability to be able work through the unforeseen problems.

Cultivating interest in space into a full-time job