Purdue in Space

Mark Geyer brings daring-but-reasoned approach to director role at NASA's Johnson Space Center

Photo opportunity and media availability with former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden by the Orion mockup in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, accompanied by former JSC Director Mike Coats and then Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer. Photo credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz (Photo courtesy of NASA/Robert Markowitz)

When Mark Geyer started as a systems engineer at NASA in 1990, seven years removed from Purdue, he certainly had aspirations of reaching the agency’s great heights.

Right?

“Yeah … no,” says Geyer, laughing.

Back then, there were no thoughts of “some day,” of making a progressive ascent toward NASA’s most-influential positions.

But as he transitioned to other jobs -- “really cool jobs,” he notes -- with International Space Station and the Orion spacecraft, he recognized the weight and importance the director position held at each NASA site. He especially had a sense of that when he was selected in 2015 as deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

So when Geyer (BSAAE ‘82, MSAAE ‘83) was appointed as the director at JSC two months ago, replacing retired Ellen Ochoa, he was able to fully grasp the significance.

“Johnson plays such a key role in NASA, both in the past and in the future, and we have so many exciting capabilities here that it was really an honor to be picked and also kind of daunting, the responsibility for this place,” he says. “I was thrilled that they asked me and excited to take the job.”

Outgoing NASA Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa introduces incoming director Mark Geyer as the next director at an employee all hands meeting on May 14, 2018, in Houston. Photo credit: NASA (Photo courtesy of NASA)

'Perfect choice'

The timing seems ideal.

With the Trump administration’s emphasis on human exploration to the Moon and beyond, backed by a substantial funding increase to about $20 billion for NASA in 2019, Geyer is armed with resources and expectations to maximize the United States’ capabilities of leading human exploration.

In the next two years, commercial crew providers will launch Americans from Florida to the International Space Station, and Orion will be launched past the Moon, Geyer says. Geyer, the 12th director of Houston’s center that is the hub of human spaceflight activity, is charged with getting JSC ready for those launches, while still continuing to fly ISS. The next phase will be accessing the Moon.

“There’s going to be a bunch that’s going to be happening that I think are going to wake up the country and the world to say, ‘NASA is back in that business of launching people and doing exciting things,’ ” Geyer says. “Given that amount of work and the capabilities that only Johnson has, it’s important to help the team focus and prioritize so we get the right stuff done on the right timeline.”

Geyer’s appointment was praised by former director Michael Coats, who told the Houston Chronicle that Geyer was the "perfect choice," specifically mentioning Geyer’s intelligence and calmness in deliberations.

Mark Geyer (BSAAE ‘82, MSAAE ‘83) (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Ochoa tweeted after the appointment about Geyer’s “excellent” and “thoughtful” leadership, as well as his technical expertise and commitment to innovation and inclusion.

Certainly Geyer’s character is crucial to success in the role, but his professional experience may be just as valuable.

He has served in a variety of roles in his nearly 30-year career with NASA, including as manager of ISS Integration Office, ISS Mission Management Team chair and Orion program manager. He’s familiar with the challenges of working with partners on a common goal – he was heavily involved in the early years of space station, when it transitioned to adding the Russians in the early 1990s -- and he also has been a piece of the management team that tried a variety of approaches with commercial partnerships and succeeded.

All that lines up with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine calling the Indianapolis native “eminently qualified.”

“I think what helps is that people feel like we’re on the same team and that we’re aimed to the same goal. I think that’s something I can bring because they know me. I’ve been here for a while,” Geyer says. “The other part, too, is having kind of a daring but also reasoned approach on how to move forward. We want to be aggressive but also have an approach that the team can follow. A lot of that is a management philosophy, strategy, and, then, communication because there will be conflicts and difficult decisions, so we need to make sure the team knows how to work them and how to bring issues up quickly so we can talk about them and get them resolved.”

Purdue connection

Being surrounded by fellow Boilermakers in Houston certainly can’t hurt productive communication.

Bill Gerstenmaier (BSAAE ’77) is NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Julie Kramer White (BSAAE ‘90) is the deputy director of engineering, Scott Tingle (MSME ‘88) and Drew Feustel (BS ’89, MS ’91) are astronauts while Loral O’Hara (MSAAE ’09) is a candidate in training and Allison Bolinger (BSAAE ’04) and Marcos Flores (MSAAE ’15) recently were named flight directors.

And those are only a handful of Purdue alumni at JSC.

A group gathered this spring for a photo inside mission control, about 60 or so alumni were able to make it, and “that was, maybe, half the people I know of that work here who are Purdue,” Geyer says.

The picture showed Purdue’s impact in the human space flight program and, also, gave Geyer an opportunity to reflect back on his days in West Lafayette. He does so fondly, saying he was “blessed to get to go there,” following in the footsteps of his father Larry. Siblings Ronald Geyer, Mary Hand and Sue Sieker also graduated from Purdue. Geyer is married to a fellow Boilermaker, too: He met wife Jackie while in West Lafayette.

Geyer doesn’t get back to campus often, and he was forced to miss the ceremony after being selected in the 2016 class as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer by Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics when his daughter fell ill. Ultimately, Ochoa presented him the award – one he called “one of the coolest ones I’ve seen” – in Houston.

“To be honored by that school, to be recognized, it’s a great honor. I know it because I know the other people who have gone through it. It means a lot,” he says.

“I learned a bunch (at Purdue) about how to do hard things and really the vision of wanting to work in space. You go to Purdue, and they just have a heritage. They know what that’s about. It was great.”

NASA astronaut candidate Jasmin Moghbeli, left, NASA astronaut candidate Raja Chari, NASA astronaut candidate Robert Hines, meet with, NASA Johnson Space Center Flight Operations Director Brian Kelly, Johnson Space Center Deputy Director Mark Geyer and Johnson Space Center Associate Director Melanie Saunders, right, in the green room prior to an event where NASA introduced 12 new astronaut candidates, Wed., June 7, 2017, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. After completing two years of training, the new astronaut candidates could be assigned to missions performing research on the International Space Station, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, and launching on deep space missions on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls)
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