Gary Martin, Director, New Ventures & Communications Directorate, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

Gary Martin began his career with NASA in the Microgravity Sciences and Applications Division in 1990 where he served as Branch Chief for Advanced Programs from 1992 – 1994 and Deputy Director from 1994 – 1996. In 2002 he was named NASA’s first – and as it turned out, only – space architect. Martin currently heads up the New Ventures & Communications Directorate at Ames.

NASA Tech Briefs: You began your career at NASA in 1990 as the primary interface between the microgravity science community and the space station designers. How did you become an expert in the field of microgravity?

Gary Martin: The way I became an expert in that area was through my graduate school work. I went to graduate school at Langley Research Center through the Joint Institute for the Advancement of Flight program with George Washington University, and my thesis was on the design of a platform to conduct microgravity experiments. Part of my research focused on the range of different kinds of experiments you would do and then what kind of platform and what kind of requirements were needed. That was when the microgravity group was being asked what requirements they needed to design to for space station, so it was kind of lucky that I’d had the type of expertise they were looking for at NASA HQ.

NTB: As they say, “timing is everything.”

Martin: Yes. It really did fit well.

NTB: Your career advanced pretty rapidly at NASA’s Microgravity Sciences and Applications Division. From 1992 to 1994 you served as Branch Chief for Advanced programs, and from 1994 to 1996 you were the Acting Deputy Director. Tell us about that phase of your career and some of the projects you managed.

Martin: We were a small group, but we were getting ready for space station in those days so we were flying a number of space shuttle flights with various kinds of microgravity experiments to see what kinds of things you could do in space, what were the types of experiments and the areas we were going to focus on for the space station, as well as doing real world-class science in orbit.

My work was focused more on understanding the effects of the vehicle and the space lab on the experiments. I had an acceleration unit that we flew on almost all of the microgravity missions. We had a low frequency accelerometer looking at the very steady state gravity in orbit. When you talk about micro-Gs, it’s kind of steady state. People thought by going into space, they could do any kind of experiment. What they didn’t realize was that in the shuttle there are compressors and all kinds of different mechanisms moving all the time, and they shake the space shuttle in a way that a normal laboratory on Earth doesn’t shake. So you have a lot of high-frequency vibrations, and we were looking at that issue and trying to make sure that the space station would be designed so that we could do the sensitive microgravity experiments that we’d been considering.

So, we characterized the microgravity environment on Space Shuttle, and we did small experiments through a microgravity glove box. We also put accelerometers on Mir to look at the effects of the compressors and the machinery there. That same family of accelerometers, the Space Acceleration Measurement System (SAMS) is on the space station today.

NTB: On October 11, 2002, you were named NASA’s first space architect. What is a space architect, and what were your primary responsibilities?

Martin: Before we jump from the microgravity phase into the space architect phase, let me tell you a little bit about the time in between because it answers your question.

Microgravity was part of NASA’s space science program in the early 90s; they weren’t a separate group until later. I went and worked in the space science area, especially in the Origins theme area, and in the theme called “Structures and Evolution of the Universe,” which was fascinating. They studied astrophysics, black holes, and other exciting topics. The agency had many separate activities; it had astrophysics, Earth science, the planetary sciences, the human space flight program, and there were few overlaps, with the exception of the space labs, but there really weren’t very many. There was not a long-term strategy to bring these different sciences together. In 1999, Administrator Golden looked at the long-term future for NASA and approached it with the attitude of what would be best to unite the agency. He started a number of studies – they were called at the time the Decadal Planning Team Studies – and they looked at a future where the NASA science program and human space program would work closer together. These two groups would work together to open up exploration and development of space, and to enable humans to go beyond low Earth orbit and go to the Moon, to Mars, and to small bodies, and what kinds of science they would do.

We worked to lay out a long-term plan, took a stepping stone approach where we would build up capabilities in the human program that would also help the science program and start to enjoy a long-term future where we all work together in one united NASA strategy. Those studies were actually confidential until Mr. O’Keefe became administrator. We made him aware of this unified vision of NASA for human and robotic exploration where all the different enterprises would work together, and he liked the idea so much that he wanted this overlapping, overarching strategy, so he created the space architect office to do that.

So basically, we took the study teams at all the centers – all the centers had people working in these areas – and we made the studies non-confidential, and started talking about the stepping stone approach. The space architect office sponsored studies to look at the kinds of technology the agency needed to invest in to enable this stepping stone future to open the space frontier.

NTB: Less than four months into your tenure as NASA’s space architect, the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy occurred. That kind of put the entire space program in jeopardy for a while. What impact did that have on your office?

Martin: Well, one of the things we had been looking at for many years was what is the next generation of launch vehicles going to be; how did they fit into our long-term strategy; and what were the requirements? Those studies, and that kind of information, were provided to the commission that was looking at the Columbia tragedy, and they saw that we needed a greater strategic context. If NASA was going to go back into space, what was it we were really trying to accomplish?

I would say we had the information that made it possible for the White House to look seriously at a long-term vision of what the space program was able to do and how it fit into what the American future was going to be. That helped the vision for space exploration become a reality.

NTB: In August 2004, NASA eliminated the space architect’s position. Why?

Martin: When we knew that the White House was interested in developing the vision in the summer of 2003, we started right away looking at what NASA would look like organizationally, because the vision fundamentally changed our enterprise structure from being five independent groups working independently on independent strategies. What we needed to actually do the vision, when it was announced, was to work together in a way that hadn’t been done for many years. We had to have a strong strategic overlay, so what we proposed was a group called the Advanced Planning and Integration Office, which was very small, with five or six people at headquarters and another 70 or so who actually did all of the studies at the centers. It was not adequate to do any kind of overall agency planning, so we created what we called APIO – the Advanced Planning and Integration Office – which evolved into the PA&E (program analysis & evaluation) function that we have today. It was meant to make informed, strategic decisions for the agency at a high level, across the directorates. Being managed to a unifying strategy helped us move forward together.

NTB: Where was that office based?

Martin: It was all at headquarters. The PA&E is still there, continuing this agency strategy. I was in the administrator’s office, working directly for Fred Gregory, the Deputy Administrator, as the space architect, and the APIO was also in the administrator’s office. They eliminated the space architect’s position because it had served its purpose. We had pulled together this long-term strategy and it was now the agency policy.

NTB: You currently head up the New Ventures & Communications Directorate at Ames Research Center. When was that directorate established and what is its mission?

Martin: We were a year old in June, so we’re still a pretty new organization. We pulled together a number of areas and integrated them. Areas like education, government relations, and PAO, as well as our new business areas and Ames’ long-term strategy, and how we talk about it, how we pull in new lines of business, and how we pull it all together in a coherent strategy. That’s what we’re doing.

NTB: That would involve, I imagine, commercialization and spin-off of some of the technology being developed at NASA?

Martin: I’m sorry I didn’t mention that at the top of the list. Absolutely. We have the IPP activities within this group. We have Level 2 SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) and we have Level 3 SBIR. It’s a lot of fun. We get to work with industry on commercialization and partnering. We also manage things like the Google and other partnerships that we have, and we look for new partnerships all the time. It’s a real exciting place. It’s a busy place.

NTB: What are some of the long-term goals you’ve established for this New Ventures & Communications Directorate?

Martin: Well, one goal is what we just talked about – to increase innovative partnerships. We’re really looking at new ways to partner with industry. We are constantly pushing boundaries in that. We’re right here in Silicon Valley, so we couldn’t be located in a better spot. We’re looking at how to work with venture capitalists better and develop non-traditional approaches to partnering.

We’re also trying to create more competitive proposals for Ames. Ames was a research center, however, much of the research funding is now directed, so we have been successful in competing for science mission proposals, and we’re continuing to look at how to do that better. This group also has a function to look at how we manage our strategy so that we don’t become compartmentalized, that we have a center strategy and we’re able to put the resources in the right places. We have a group that’s constantly looking at that and having dialogue with the senior management here. We have a meeting every two weeks to talk about this so we’re all on the same page in the directions and where we should be making our investments.

One of the things I really like that we’re doing here is, we bring the excitement of space exploration back to the public. We’re looking at new ways and new media. How do we reach Gen Y and Gen X? There are so many different ways of communicating now, how do we stay on top of that?

When I was a space architect, we received permission from OMB to go out and find what the American people felt about space exploration, and this was before the vision. We were were happy to find there was a lot of support. But we were really surprised to find the support was age differentiated. It was mostly in the older generation, the people who had witnessed Apollo, and the first generation of their children. But when you got into the younger people, the under-35s, there was a big disconnect. The numbers of people who understood what NASA was doing dropped a lot, and it really alerted us at headquarters about a real issue that we needed to figure out – how do we connect with the new generation who doesn’t know Apollo?

NTB: That leads into my next question. Your directorate gets involved with some pretty innovative programs, such as the 2009 Exploration Sustainability Expo and the Spirit of Innovation Awards. How do these programs contribute to accomplishing some of the goals you’ve established?

Martin: One of our strategic points that we help the Center with is to help Ames become greener. In fact, we have a Web page section called “Green Space” where we summarize all the different things and the research that we’re doing here, and some of the things that we’re doing at the Center to become greener.

The Exploration Sustainability Expo was a place where we could show off the things that Ames was doing in that area, as well as the companies that we have here in the NASA Research Park that we have partnerships with. That was really an excellent activity to highlight what is happening at Ames and in the NASA Research Park.

The Spirit of Innovation Awards was Nancy Conrad’s idea of having high school students think about innovation and compete, much like a science fair, on innovative proposals in energy and in space. It’s one of those things that when you hear it, you automatically say, “Boy, that’s an amazing idea.” As soon as we heard about it, we started partnering with her. This spring she held her awards at the Spirit of Innovation Summit Meeting here at Ames, so a lot of our researchers got involved and next year we’re hoping to see it do much more.

Another thing that is really great at Ames – and it didn’t start in our group, but it started with people from our group helping in 2008 and we’ll do it again in 2010 – is we host Yuri’s Night, which celebrates space in a new way for the younger generation and for families. We had 8000 people come in 2008. This year we didn’t have Yuri’s Night at the Center because we had two major activities going on this summer and we only have a certain amount of resources. The International Space University is holding its Space Studies Program on the NASA Research Park this summer, and it will be here for nine weeks. And we’re starting a new university here in partnership, called the Singularity University. Those are separate entities. What we have done is partner with them so that they can conduct their programs at our NASA Research Park, and then our researchers can participate and talk with the students and learn about the different things they’re doing. But getting back to Yuri’s Night, next year we’re planning to bring back Yuri’s Night here at Amesand it will be an amazing event, I can guarantee you.

NTB: Looking ahead, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing NASA today?

Martin: I think, just to stay on a theme, to have a coherent and long-term integrated strategy. I think it’s important to keep long-term goals. The issue that NASA has had, especially in the human space flight program, is that these programs take decades to mature and to reach their long-term goals, yet our political system operates on a four-year cycle. It’s been difficult to maintain momentum. Every new administration, and rightfully so, likes to see and get behind NASA’s long-term plans because there’s a lot of money involved, but it is difficult.

For NASA, it’s a very complex issue. How do you make a program stable over many years, many generations actually, which gets back to this point about the younger generation. If they aren’t as excited about space and opening this new frontier the way old folks like myself are, then you won’t reach the goals that take generations to reach.

I think this is something that, in the last couple of years, NASA has paid a lot of attention to, and we are making some inroads there, but we’ve got a long way to go. And I think that, especially with all these new tools on the Internet, one of our challenges – and one of the solutions – is to involve the American public in space exploration so that they feel part of it and they’re not just spectators. We have all kinds of ways to bring this excitement to people now, and we have to continue to do that as the tools change and new technologies come about. I’m really happy to be here at Ames because the groups here – as well as the rest of NASA – are so energized on this subject, and they’re interested in seeing how to push it forward.

I was away from the day-to-day operations of NASA for two years while I was director at the International Space University, for the summer program. When I came back it was very refreshing to see how many great changes had been made in the way that NASA approaches things. There is a new energy at NASA and optimism about the future.

For more information, contact Gary Martin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

To download this interview as a podcast, click here

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