A week after Trump won the presidential election, the biggest names in the aerospace industry gathered in Houston, Texas to discuss new space applications and forge business partnerships. On everyone’s lip though, was what the new Trump administration would mean for NASA and space. In the middle of it all, Cosmic Chicago sat down with director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Ellen Ochoa, to find out what the myriad of changes will mean for NASA.
Cosmic Chicago: SpaceCom demonstrates how the commercial market has changed the way we work and live in space. What challenges does NASA have in working towards a single vision for space exploration as so many private companies and startups pitch their ideas to NASA and the public?
Ellen Ochoa: We are right in the thick of it. At Johnson Space Center we are the ones that really develop the whole commercial resupply service need for the International Space Station(ISS). So starting from initially when we provided the funds for development, because the systems didn’t exist yet, until now and we have contracts with three different companies- two of which are already delivering supplies to the ISS, and one more that is in development. And then along with Kennedy Space Center we work on the Commercial Crew Program, so again working with two companies that are developing those services.
But we have such a wide variety of other public and private partnerships, and we work with almost any kind of company that you can think of in space right now. In some cases, there is no exchange of funds but we provide expertise, and in others we are helping with testing, or we are working closely towards collaborative goals. I expect to see that continue and grow in the future, especially in the area of low Earth orbit. We may be providing a lot of the demand for what’s needed there, but other companies are providing the services in a variety of different ways.
As a new administration is about to come into place, when it comes to NASA’s budget and direction, where does our focus need to be? Should we be worried?
Right now we have a very balanced budget across NASA, and that includes human spaceflight, our science missions, both planetary and heliophysics, and Earth science. It also includes aeronautics, more specifically, a space technology directorate that really lets us look at new technologies that are going to be needed both for human and science missions. So, I think we have a balanced portfolio and we are moving forward with it.
How critical is international cooperation as NASA moves to a new phase of human space exploration?
We are already doing it. We are planning really all of the journey to Mars and space exploration to include international partners. With the Orion vehicle, the European Space Agency is providing an important part of that- the service module- so that is our first definite piece of important hardware being provided by an international partner and we see that growing in the future.
As an astronaut who flew missions as we began to build the ISS, how have those experiences influenced your leadership at Johnson Space Center?
I think being in the astronaut office you really get to experience first hand the importance of teamwork. And it’s not just the team that’s the crew, right? It’s the team that is on the ground, that has worked to train you, that has helped process the spacecraft you are flying in. If you are working on science experiments, or other types of tech development, it’s the team that helped you to learn what they are trying to accomplish, and you work with them. And I think that’s important in any type of leadership position: to understand how all the pieces work together in order to accomplish the mission. It may not always be a single space mission, but it’s the same idea.
What advice do you have for young adults interested in STEM careers wanting to work in the space program?
I would say that there are a lot of really interesting and exciting jobs in the STEM fields, so I encourage everyone to look at those. A lot of it is about just understanding that education is really important, so not only do you need to finish high school but take a variety of classes in high school. Not only math and science, but english and communications skills, any kind of communication skills are really important.
And then, specifically for working in space, I would say work hard. If this is something you are really interested in doing, it’s what people before you have done. They’ve persevered and worked hard when it got tough. I think you’ll find that rewards are really spectacular….