Managing NASA’s “special task”

William H. Gerstenmaier

Positions: Associate administrator for human exploration and operations
Notable: Spent much of his career in Houston. Was operations manager for the space shuttle-Mir program during the 1990s. In 1998, became program integration manager for space shuttle, then managed the International Space Station program during its critical construction and assembly period in the early 2000s. Moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to direct the final 21 space shuttle missions as associate administrator for space operations.
Age: 62
Residence: Alexandria, Virginia
Education: Bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University; master of science in mechanical engineering from University of Toledo in 1981

It’s often said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. That shouldn’t be a problem for those in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, given that the man in charge has been directly involved with decades of NASA’s human space flight history.

What about the space shuttle-Mir negotiations and operations in the 1990s? William H. Gerstenmaier managed them. Construction and assembly of the International Space Station? Gerstenmaier managed much of it. The phase out of the space shuttle? Gerstenmaier directed the final 21 shuttle missions.

These days, Gerstenmaier spends much of his time planning and defending NASA’s future human exploration endeavors and the hardware necessary for them. A special concern is how to wring the most value out of the International Space Station while simultaneously, it is hoped, inspiring the private sector to build and operate a successor to it.

Gerstenmaier spoke to Ben Iannotta by phone during a layover on one of his many work trips.


Robotics versus human exploration

It’s not that one is better than the other. We absolutely need both, but taking humans and actually placing them in this severe environment is a special task and it’s a special role. It gives our population a chance to have an aspirational goal, or an inspirational goal. There’s a special character that comes with human space flight. It’s present in robotics, but I think it’s more personal when you actually see human lives on the line and you’re actually, you know, launching your friends and colleagues on rockets into space.

For the U.S., perseverance and soft power

What we’ve done by keeping our international crews on orbit for 16 years is pretty amazing. That’s through the Columbia tragedy, through all those other activities. We’ve been able to keep this human presence in space. Two countries have done that really – Russia and the U.S. – and that also sets apart kind of a leadership or soft power role for human space flight. It differentiates us from other countries that have space programs but they don’t really have a human space flight program and they don’t have a human space program of depth and breadth. It’s really important for our character as a nation.

Inspiring innovation

You hear many, many times, “If we can land on the moon we can do: Fill in the blank.” The lunar landings really differentiated us as a nation, and said: There’s nothing that’s impossible. There’s nothing that we can’t do if we all work together internationally, and nationally too, to accomplish these tasks.

Team requirement: Total honesty

The thing I really like about human space flight is the fact that it’s really a team effort. We can’t say that it’s really one individual. It takes the absolute best of all the team players. It takes everyone describing what they know and more importantly what they don’t know, and being totally honest with each other and working together. If you look at what we’re doing on space station, it is truly an international team activity.

Lifespan of International Space Station

From a pure engineering standpoint, we’ve done studies that show the physical hardware has a life at least until 2028. Current policy has us ramping down station operations in 2024. We’re busy at looking at how we transition from this space station to other space activity.

Moving toward a privately run space station

The station that comes after the International Space Station may not be permanently crewed. It may be smaller, it might be a permanent space station, it may be transient. We’ll let the private sector determine what best meets their needs and then they’re free to go acquire that and build that on their own.

For ISS, “precious” final years

It’s 2017 now. We have roughly seven years until this end of mission for the space station as currently planned. Those seven years are pretty precious, so we’re trying to expose a broad community of terrestrial researchers to the benefits of research on board the space station. Many physical properties change when they get exposed to microgravity. We see combustion in a different way. We see materials properties in a different way. We see genomics changing. We’re trying to take terrestrial industry and terrestrial companies and expose them to these unique properties that occur in space and let them discover and be innovative. Trying to deal with combustion or genetics, they can look at this in the microgravity lens, which is different than the 1G lens to gain competitive advantage or a research advantage over others that are not engaging in this activity. Then hopefully they can use that knowledge to turn revenue around and actually make a profit from space activity. We’re using the space station as a catalyst or an innovation engine to get other folks excited about what we’ve seen as interesting phenomena in space and then turn it over to the imagination of individual companies. Then ultimately they may want to have their own space station or facilities in the future.

Relationship with space station researchers

We’re trying to expose an industry that doesn’t have any exposure to space to this facility. So the fact that we help them with transportation to space station, the time that crew members spend and the data, I think that’s really important, but we’re also asking them to invest dollars in building the equipment that’s going to fly on station. We don’t pay for that equipment. We’re asking also them to invest in putting intellectual property and imagination and creativity into these unique properties in space to figure out how they can generate revenue. That’s not a trivial ask that we’re asking them to go do.

Trending: commercial business in space

We’re starting to see some interest from many companies [for example] pharmaceuticals. There’s a commercial 3-D printing facility aboard station that they can use to investigate the properties of 3-D printing in space. Little pieces are starting. What’s encouraging to me is that I’m starting to see these flickers of interest from other companies saying, “Hey, there is something here that’s special. Maybe we can use this in a new way.” ★

Managing NASA’s “special task”