A World View from Space

An expert's point of view from alumnus and NASA administrator Bill Gerstenmaier

As NASA's associate administrator for space operations, William H. Gerstenmaier directs the organization's human exploration of space and has programmatic oversight for the international space station, space shuttle, space communications, and space launch vehicles. Gerstenmaier received a BSAE from Purdue in 1977 and an MS in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo in 1981. He also completed coursework for a doctorate in dynamics and control with emphasis in propulsion at Purdue University. Here he shares his insights on the accomplishments and future potential of aerospace exploration.

Q: As a veteran of more than 30 years in the aerospace industry, what do you see as the most significant development(s) over that time

A: The scope of space programs has gone through a tremendous expansion. The military has incorporated space-based assets into almost every facet of its operations. Commercial activities using space assets are making space an active part of the global economy. Satellite communications, internet conductivity, and the role of global positioning systems for everyday folks are huge. More countries are building space capabilities. India has a satellite conducting scientific observations of the moon, and NASA has two scientific instruments on it. With the shuttle and the International Space Station, we have developed the ability to actually work and live in space and have written a new chapter in international cooperation.

Q: In your opinion, what challenges does the industry face today

A: We're facing a big demographic challenge over the next decade, as a large fraction of our current workforce heads for retirement. We need to bring new talent into the industry and give them the experience necessary to become broadly competent professionals. Often, projects are so complex, with such extended development cycles, that young engineers can wind up spending a lot of their careers in narrow compartments and don't get to see their work tested in flight. We need to look for small, short-term projects that new engineers can learn on and be able to make mistakes. Universities also can help by providing some of this small project-management experience.

Q: What personal satisfaction do you get from your work with NASA

A: It's a privilege to work with a group of folks who take on challenges that are greater than one individual alone could solve. I love the feeling I get when we're solving problems as a team, fusing the talents of highly competent people, and fulfilling our objectives.

Q: As someone who has worked extensively with the Russian Space Agency, what challenges and special opportunities do you feel arise from international collaboration in aerospace exploration

A: The Russians are justifiably proud of their heritage and capabilities in aerospace engineering, and we've learned a lot through our partnership with them. It's been especially beneficial to observe different managerial styles and different approaches to problem solving. One of the biggest challenges for any major international aerospace project is coordinating top-level decisions. We all have different budget processes and political priorities, so it can be hard to stay in step. Another challenge is learning to effectively manage in a multicultural environment and ensure all parties are on the same page. Cultural background changes the way technical information is presented and received.

Q: What's the next frontier for NASA

A: The next generation of Earth and space science missions will be driving our new knowledge about global change, the origins of the universe, and conditions on Mars. Aeronautics research has the challenge of expanding the capacity of air transport in the crowded skies of the coming decades. And we're resuming the quest to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, building an outpost on the moon and preparing for eventual expeditions to Mars. Exploration in space with robotics and humans is teaching us more about ourselves and our planet than any endeavor on Earth ever could. Our country is great because, even in tough financial times, we dare to spend money on exploration. That investment yields benefits in technology and radically changes our view of our world and universe.