I Am NASA: Justin Kugler, Strategic Relationships Manager
I have always believed that my calling in life is to do what I can to make ours a spacefaring civilization. That’s why I studied aerospace engineering in college, worked as a NASA intern over three summers, take what I learned as a systems analyst for the intelligence community to help solve problems for the space program, and now work in the ISS National Laboratory Office.
The International Space Station is a key step for humanity in our progression to settling the stars. Through building the ISS, we have learned how to construct and maintain large, inhabited structures in space while working on interdisciplinary, international teams. The ISS is our only permanent outpost in space and is teaching us what we need to know to live there safely.
We are now ready to see the ISS come into its full potential, though, as a unique platform for scientific research and technology development. Nowhere else can we provide a sustained microgravity environment for long-term research or provide controlled access to the rarified ionosphere outside. Some researchers are investigating basic questions about how materials behave differently without the presence of gravity. Others use the ISS as a testbed to try out new technologies that we might use on future missions and see how they hold up when exposed to space.
The Space Station isn’t just reserved for NASA research, though. Congress designated the US portion of the Station as a National Laboratory to make it more accessible to other government agencies, academia, and private industry. For the past three years, the ISS National Lab Office has been blazing the trail with these new partnerships.
One success story is how we worked with NanoRacks, LLC, to bring their concept of small, modular experiment modules from concept to flight in around six months. The innovative NanoRacks business model of making the hardware open-source and selling their integration expertise is leading to new opportunities for both science education and private industrial research that weren’t available even a few years ago. NanoRacks is now enhancing the Space Station’s on-board diagnostic capabilities by modifying a commercial microplate reader to operate in microgravity. This will allow researchers to analyze some samples on-orbit and save the time and expense of waiting for a return flight.
I’ve been fortunate to watch all of this come together in my role as a strategic relationships manager. Every six months, I compile the transportation and on-orbit requirements for all National Lab partners when NASA updates the research plan for all science done on the ISS. I’m also the advocate in the NASA system for the National Lab partners assigned to my portfolio, which tends to be commercial and educational projects.
This role has been the most varied for me, without a doubt. I’ve briefed NASA managers on why a commercial propulsion experiment could change the way we build and fly spacecraft. I compiled on-orbit footage for Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs series. I’ve helped negotiate agreements between hardware developers and the ISS Program on how to prove they can safely fly - without adding additional costs. I’ve written white papers for senior NASA management assessing the benefits and risks of flying new systems on the Station.
I also run the National Lab Twitter ([@ISS_NatLab]) and Facebook accounts. It is vitally important to share what we’re doing on the Space Station and I’ve found that social media allows us to connect in special ways. For Christmas 2010, one of our followers in the UK sent us a video question from her daughter asking if Santa Claus visits the ISS. With the help of our friends in the Air Force and NORAD, we were able to give her a window of opportunity to watch the NORAD Tracks Santa website. Sure enough, NORAD posted animated video of Santa and his reindeer making a stop at the ISS!
NASA has gone even further, though, with its beloved Tweetups. This is where we randomly select Twitter followers to come to NASA centers and experience our work first-hand, whether by watching a launch, seeing a science probe being built, or talking with an astronaut. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Tweetup for the last Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, and speak to the attendees about the awesome work we’re doing on the Station. It was an honor to share the final flight of a program that shaped the vision of a generation with people who love NASA and impress upon them that the Space Station is carrying the torch forward.
The horizon is open for us, if we’re willing to chase it. Congress and the President have agreed that NASA should continue operating the ISS until at least 2020. Engineering teams across the agency are hard at work to ensure that we can keep running the Station as long as it is safe to do so. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is poised to take over management of the ISS National Laboratory and bring together promising researchers, space hardware developers, and investors in innovative ways that will expand the use of the Station for our benefit. Much of my focus these days is preparing CASIS to take over research planning for the ISS National Lab.
It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to help get the ISS National Lab on its feet. I can’t wait to see what the future holds in store. I believe that we will continue to expand our presence in the Solar System, so long as we take advantage of the special foothold in space that we have orbiting over our heads and provide real benefit to life on Earth through our work in space.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Go outside on a clear night when the Space Station is due to pass by and see it for yourself. Know that speedy point of light is the size of a football field, contains a fully-functional research laboratory, is home to six people, and represents everything great we can accomplish when we work together. If that doesn’t get you excited and proud of our country and our species, I don’t know what will. =)