Defense Media Network

ISS: The Program Managers Speak

“We had to now look at hardware as being expendable, where it could not be returned, because we lost a lot of return capability when the shuttle went away. So that hardware had to essentially be disposed of on-orbit, then replaced in a steady stream from the ground. It changed our entire management and operations philosophy with the station,” he explained.

Gerstenmaier after Discovery landing ISS web

NASA astronaut Mark Kelly (right), STS-124 commander, talks with Bill Gerstenmaier (left), and Chris Scolese (center), former NASA associate administrator and current center director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, beneath Space Shuttle Discovery after landing. Courtesy Scott Andrews

“We were in a tremendous transition period and tremendous uncertainty about exactly how we were going to realize the vision of completing station assembly and then also moving into research. It looks all fine and well-ordered from today, but at that time there was a tremendous amount of angst in the system about how we were going to pull all of this off. I’ll tell you frankly, even today we’re not fully transitioned … but at least we’re down the path.”

The ISS was designed with hardware that was intended to be returned to the ground, repaired, then flown back up on the shuttle. Without it, a completely different tactic was required for ISS hardware.

It also was essential to honor NASA’s commitments to all of the international partners.

Oxygen was another problem.

“We used to just change out the huge, big oxygen tanks on the outside of the airlock. We could not do that anymore, so we had to essentially put a quick disconnect on the side so we could recharge them. We didn’t have the capability to bring high-pressure oxygen up, so now we have an oxygen recharge system and a compressor that actually raises the pressure from supply tanks,” he said.

“There was a ton of work of taking a station that was designed to be reserviced and operated with the shuttle in place to the new system. The big changes were really in the oxygen system, the nitrogen system, and the communication systems. All of those had to be redesigned to accommodate some new, smaller transportation system.”


Michael Suffredini – 2005-2015

When Michael Suffredini took over as ISS program manager in 2005, he had no idea he would become the space station’s longest serving administrator at 10 years.

Program manager Michael Suffredini ISS web

Michael Suffredini, former ISS program manager. NASA photo

“A number of factors played into that. My boss stayed in his job that whole period. The job evolved. I took over right after return to flight following the Columbia accident (and resumption of assembly). It was a very dynamic period. We also were bringing on the commercial providers and transitioning to a more commercial user support standpoint,” he recalled.

“There was always something different with ISS. It was a very engaging job, always on your mind, and that made it that much more exciting. You always have responsibility for the crew on orbit. I never got to the point where I was looking around for what I wanted to do next. With giant programs like this, there is a lot of transition; I think they kept me because the head of human operations missions – Gerstenmaier – and I worked well together and had a lot of trust in each other.”

“There was always something different with ISS. It was a very engaging job, always on your mind, and that made it that much more exciting.”

It was, indeed, a period of great change for the program: recovery from the Space Shuttle’s post-Columbia grounding; doubling of the size of the ISS crew; completion of assembly, immediately followed by the permanent end of shuttle flights; the resulting return to reliance on paid seats aboard the Soyuz for U.S. astronauts and their international partners, as NASA no longer had the ability to launch humans into space; transition from a construction program to an operational science lab; gearing up for commercial space transport to get America back into manned space flight and initial preparations for commercialization of the ISS by 2024.

“Getting back to flight was a big deal. As an agency, we were trying to balance risk with mission and it was important for us to know when we ultimately had to go do something and give the shuttle program the relief it needed as they were getting ready to fly again. It was a challenging period because we had to stand up and say ‘the mission is important and we have to get on with it,’” he explained.

“Then there was bringing the partners on and their vehicles. We had to start balancing more of the partner needs than we had in the past once their elements arrived. We had some phenomenally challenging failure modes. In one we had to move the solar arrays around and, at the same time, we discovered the big joint on the starboard side had gotten chewed up. Both problems were pretty dramatic. We focused on the solar array – and it was a minor miracle we pulled it off while the shuttle was docked. Once the shuttle left, we did a lot more work on it.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...