Nim­ble NASA looks to re­turn to its roots

New direc­tor sees op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on space ex­plo­ration

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Alex Stuckey

Mark Geyer isn’t wor­ried about NASA be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant as dis­cus­sions es­ca­late about the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of space, es­pe­cially the con­tro­ver­sial plan to end fed­eral fund­ing for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

In­stead, the new direc­tor of NASA’s John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton sees it as an op­por­tu­nity for the space agency to re­turn to its roots, fo­cus­ing on hu­man space ex­plo­ration after two decades of send­ing as­tro­nauts to the same place in low Earth or­bit, where the sta­tion flies.

“NASA’s job has al­ways been to pro­vide vi­sion … and to do things no com­pany can make money do­ing,” Geyer said Tues­day in an interview with the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle. “We need to let go of the stuff we know other

peo­ple can do and have the mo­ti­va­tion to do them­selves.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pro­posed ear­lier this year that space sta­tion op­er­a­tions be tran­si­tioned over to private com­pa­nies in 2025, mak­ing the United States a cus­tomer of the sci­en­tific lab­o­ra­tory in the stars rather than one of its bene­fac­tors. The pro­posal, which must be ap­proved by Congress, has drawn ire from leg­isla­tive lead­ers con­cerned that com­pa­nies will not be up to the task.

Fed­eral fund­ing for the space sta­tion was al­ready set to end in 2024, but Congress can ex­tend that date. Ex­perts be­lieve the space sta­tion will be op­er­a­tional un­til at least 2028.

“We need to start think­ing about what the fu­ture of the ISS is go­ing to be … (but) right now we’re just start­ing to see com­pa­nies ex­press an in­ter­est in go­ing to the space sta­tion,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a tar­get for when to tran­si­tion the sta­tion, but we don’t want to mess it up,” Geyer said.

Geyer, 59, sat down with the Chron­i­cle on Tues­day, about two weeks after tak­ing over as John­son’s 12th cen­ter direc­tor. He re­placed Ellen Ochoa, a veteran as­tro­naut who re­tired last month after 30 years with the agency. She was the sec­ond wo­man and first His­panic per­son to lead the na­tion’s as­tro­naut corps at John­son, where hu­man space flight re­search and train­ing take place.

Launch ca­pa­bil­ity re­turn­ing

Geyer, an In­di­ana na­tive who started his ca­reer at John­son 28 years ago, said he feels for­tu­nate to take the helm at such an ex­cit­ing time in the space agency’s his­tory.

In the next few years, NASA has plans to send Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts back near the moon, restart space­flight launches in Florida rather than Kaza­khstan (where as­tro­nauts cur­rently rocket to the space sta­tion) and build a mini-space sta­tion or­bit­ing the moon.

“I’m most ex­cited for get­ting back to launch­ing peo­ple from the U.S.,” Geyer said. “Our Rus­sian part­ners have been ter­rific, but I think it’s im­por­tant for us to have launch ca­pa­bil­ity.”

As the new cen­ter direc­tor, Geyer over­sees the na­tion’s as­tro­naut corps, the Orion pro­gram and mis­sion op­er­a­tions for the space sta­tion, among other things.

He wants to con­tinue the John­son tra­di­tion of “nearly flaw­less op­er­a­tions” on the space sta­tion since 2000, the first year crew lived aboard, and make sure the Orion space­craft is ready for launch.

Along with tran­si­tion­ing space sta­tion op­er­a­tions to private com­pa­nies, Trump’s $19.9 bil­lion pro­posed bud­get for the next fis­cal year tasks NASA with launch­ing an un­crewed Orion flight by 2021, fol­lowed by a launch of Amer­i­cans around the moon in 2023. It also would set aside $504.2 mil­lion in the com­ing year to be­gin work­ing on the foun­da­tion on a $2.7 bil­lion Lu­nar Or­bital Plat­form-Gate­way — ba­si­cally a mini-space sta­tion or­bit­ing the moon where as­tro­nauts could live and work.

This is a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans for the agency, which were fo­cused on send­ing as­tro­nauts to an as­ter­oid by 2025 and then near Mars by the 2030s.

And that dif­fer­ence is one of the big­gest ob­sta­cles NASA faces, Geyer said. With each pres­i­dent comes a new plan for the na­tion’s space en­deav­ors.

Im­pact of pol­icy changes

The Orion pro­gram, which Geyer worked on at John­son, is a great ex­am­ple of this. The space­craft was ini­tially part of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s Con­stel­la­tion Pro­gram, which aimed to send as­tro­nauts back to the moon. In 2010, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ended the Con­stel­la­tion Pro­gram say­ing it was too costly and in­ef­fi­cient, though the Orion space­craft was spared the ax to serve as a next gen­er­a­tion cap­sule for fu­ture Mars missions.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has now shifted back to­ward Bush’s plans, us­ing Orion to get as­tro­nauts back to the moon.

Pol­icy fluc­tu­a­tions “can be dif­fi­cult to weather,” he said. “It can cause fluc­tu­a­tions in the space pro­gram and that’s hard if you’re try­ing to move the coun­try for­ward. But that’s life, so you need to de­velop strate­gies to nav­i­gate that.”

Geyer said he’s in fa­vor of a re­turn to the moon, but that reach­ing Mars by the early 2030s will be dif­fi­cult if the agency does not start de­vel­op­ing a space­craft to take as­tro­nauts there soon.

“The cur­rent strat­egy is that we’re go­ing to start first by ac­cess­ing the sur­face of the moon,” Geyer said. “So in the bud­get hori­zon, which means over the next five years, we don’t have a Mars transport in that, so that would make it tough.”

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Mark Geyer, the new direc­tor of Hous­ton’s John­son Space Cen­ter, be­gan his ca­reer with NASA 28 years ago.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.