William H. Gerstenmaier

Associate Administrator for Space Operations

For his outstanding accomplishments in a career dedicated to the human exploration of space and international cooperation in space

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

For a man who is deeply involved in space, William Gerstenmaier is refreshingly down to earth. As associate administrator for NASA, Gerstenmaier directs human exploration of space. That includes programmatic oversight for the International Space Station, the space shuttle, space communications, and space launch vehicles. It’s a heady job, but you’d never know it to talk to him.

A few days after the space shuttle launch in December 2006, Gerstenmaier sat in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and watched as video came down from the International Space Station, showing crew members trying to retract a solar panel. The operation–to retract the panel for eventual movement to another location and to allow another permanent set of solar arrays to rotate and track the sun, thus providing a power source for the space station–wasn’t going as smoothly as they wanted, but Gerstenmaier was calm. They’d just have to keep trying, he said.

In the week of the shuttle launch–the third in 2006–Gerstenmaier zipped from a Houston conference on lunar exploration to a spot on the console for the shuttle launch in Florida and back to Houston to monitor the mission. ”I don’t have a life,“ he jokes.

But, really, what a life–the stuff of childhood dreams: space exploration, rockets, and astronauts. As a child growing up in Akron, Ohio, Gerstenmaier liked to run, camp, and hike. He wasn’t a space nut but distinctly recalls being taken outside at night at the age of 3 or so to see Sputnik fly overhead.

As a teen, Gerstenmaier followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions and then set his sights on becoming a test pilot, enrolling at the U.S. Naval Academy. A glut of pilots returning from the Vietnam War, however, convinced him that he wasn’t going to get a chance to fly there, so he transferred to Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and hoped to slide into flight through the back door. Along the way, his dream of becoming a pilot morphed into one of working with space technology.

Propulsion Work and the Shuttle

After graduating in 1977, Gerstenmaier joined NASA’s Lewis Center in Ohio, doing research related to supersonic wind tunnel tests and mixer nozzle work. He also completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Toledo. In 1980, he transferred to the Johnson Space Center, where his research in propulsion led him to work on the space shuttle, which first launched in 1981. He was also involved in the early phases of space station design, which began in 1985; served as head of the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle Operations Office; directed Space Shuttle/Space Station Freedom Assembly Operations; and then did something a bit unusual: he returned to college.

Gerstenmaier received a fellowship from NASA in 1992 to pursue a doctorate at Purdue. Working with Professor Robert E. Skelton, Gerstenmaier immersed himself in the fundamentals of first principles, basic control laws and control theory, and physics. ”I got to the point in my career where my technical skills were getting weak, and I wanted to go back and retool and get sharp again,“ he says. ”It was the most humbling experience of my life.“ Although he didn’t receive a degree, Gerstenmaier got what he wanted.

By 1995, Gerstenmaier had resumed work with NASA and was appointed Shuttle/Mir Program Operations manager. As such, he was the primary interface between NASA and the Russian Space Agency for operational issues and was based in Russia for the first half of 1996. He negotiated all protocols related to shuttle/Mir missions and was responsible for the daily activities, health, and safety of astronaut Shannon Lucid, who was on the Mir mission.

Over the next decade, Gerstenmaier rose in NASA’s ranks, with leadership roles in the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station Program. In 2005, he was appointed associate administrator for Space Operations; his areas account for $6.2 billion of NASA’s $16.8 billion budget.

Onward and Upward

In almost 30 years with the U.S. space program, Gerstenmaier has seen NASA’s space exploration become a global endeavor, with 16 partner countries now involved in the effort. The space station, which is 50 percent complete, will in the next year gain complete power systems and receive the first of several international partner research modules; the European module is scheduled for launch in 2007. In addition to overseeing a planned four or five shuttle flights in 2007, Gerstenmaier’s team will oversee the launch of nine expendable launch vehicles and begin procurement of a replacement set of communication satellites for NASA. His team is also preparing for operating the next generation of vehicles that will replace the shuttle when it retires in 2010.

”People in the space business understand and feel the excitement [about space] we felt as kids,“ says Gerstenmaier, ”but the younger generation doesn’t see that. They see the Challenger and Columbia disasters and problems plaguing the space program and the high costs. I truly believe [our work] is about leadership in space. It’s like the early countries that chose not to explore the seas. When they gave up exploring frontiers and turned inward, they gave up leadership. We are moving out and looking beyond our own shores, and we have to do this if we want to be a leader.“

2007 AIAA Fellow
2006 AIAA International Cooperation Award
2006 National Space Club Astronautics Engineer Award
2005 Associate Administrator for Space Operations, NASA
2005 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for Distinguished Executives
2003 Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, Purdue
2000–02 & 2002–05 Deputy and Manager, International Space Station Program, NASA
1998–2000 Manager, Space Shuttle Program Integration, NASA
1995–97 Shuttle/Mir Program Operations Manager Russia, NASA
1996 & 2002 Aviation Week & Space Technology Laurels Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Space
1992–94 Graduate Study Fellowship, Purdue
1988–92 Head of Space Shuttle/Space Station Freedom Assembly Operations and Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle Office, NASA
1980–85 Propulsion Flight Controller Space Shuttle Program, NASA
1977–80 Research Test Engineer, Glenn Research Center, NASA
BSAAE ’77, Purdue University
MSME ’81, University of Toledo