The call of the cosmic
Daniel Schumacher stays grounded so that NASA can fly
By Monica Elliott
“It’s not hard to be inspired by the great science and technology findings of our time,” says Daniel Schumacher when asked what inspired him to join NASA 10 years ago.
From the moment it began in 1958, people have been captivated by NASA’s wondrous achievements, and Schumacher is no different. Some of the more recent findings he is referring to are the Kepler mission’s latest discovery of a planet similar in atmosphere to Earth, super massive black holes revealed by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and mineral deposits found on Mars that may indicate water flowed on that planet.
As the new director of the Science and Technology Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Schumacher knows that there is a discovery waiting to be revealed almost every day. And, along with his staff, he is tasked with helping NASA reach its mission “for a sustainable program of exploration and innovation through science and technology development.”
“At Marshall, we’re one of 10 NASA centers. We support three of the four mission directorates in the agency, which are science, space technology and exploration. What we do here is we support both the science and technology projects within the agency,” says Schumacher.
The core responsibilities of the center, which began operations last August, include basic and applied research; management and development of new technologies for exploration; integrating early-stage research and game-changing technology development activities for assigned and won projects; and overseeing the technology transfer initiative to ensure awareness and open communication.
According to Schumacher, science and technology represent one-third of the overall agency budget, and one of their key priorities for staying within that budget and enabling more projects is to embrace sustainability. The center develops sustainable technologies like long-duration life support for lengthy missions and produces new kinds of propulsion to move more mass more efficiently at increased speed but not at an increased cost.
“The fiscal environment of the country right now will tell you that we have to be sustainable, to be fiscally responsible. That means we have to come up with new technologies that can do more but not necessarily cost more. … We want to get beyond low-Earth orbit, but we can’t do it on an Apollo budget. We have to do it on a much smaller budget than we had in those times. And so sustainability and innovation are necessary to us being able to continue to do great things in the agency.”
Schumacher has been doing great things in the agency since he arrived, going from managing systems engineering, integration and testing for the X-37 (“Anytime you work on something and it flies, it’s pretty rewarding.”) through leading hardware and integrated systems design for future crewed moon landings as deputy project manager of the Lunar Lander Project Office. Although the project was canceled, Schumacher has no regrets.“
A lot of the things that we learned from that are going to be factored into the systems that we’re going to use for whatever destination. So it’s not like the information is lost. … We did a lot of great analysis that’s going to be applicable to the future.”
Another notable project involved leading work on the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the spacecraft that will carry a new generation of explorers to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
“We worked on a number of Orion support things, but the main thing was the launch abort system. What’s really important about that is that’s the way that the crew is going to escape if there were a launch failure or an in-flight failure. It pulls the Orion vehicle away from the rocket, … greatly improving the safety of the crew.”
In the last few years, he also served as director of Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications and manager of Marshall’s Science & Mission Systems Office, which managed the Chandra.
In his new role, he serves in an executive capacity, managing the staff and ensuring that all the cool projects go off without a hitch.
“My first priority right now [with] the missions that we do have is that we execute them to the technical requirements that are asked of us and that we do them within the cost and schedule that we agreed. So that’s my No. 1 priority because that’s what I owe the taxpayer and I owe the agency.
“Right close to it is planning for the future and trying to come up with new technologies and new science concepts ... so that we’ll have more missions to execute,” he explains.
One of his long-term goals is to ensure that his engineers have in-house work instead of simply inspecting and buying the work of contractors.
“To really keep engineers fresh and technically sharp you have to have some part of your portfolio that is allowing them to do that – to be smart buyers. You’re not going to be a smart buyer if you haven’t really done that type of work. … We’re not trying to compete with industry, but it’s to keep the workforce at a high level.”
The center also has the opportunity to foster new talent by managing NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program, contests that allow nongovernment-funded teams to produce revolutionary solutions to some of NASA’s toughest problems and compete for million-dollar prizes.
“The purpose of it is to infuse technology into the space industry or the aeronautics industry, but also you’re generating economic growth because a lot of times these groups will create a company,” Schumacher explains. “Some people may take issue with the government issuing prize money, but … if we put a contract out, it would probably cost 10 times as much to get the same kind of work done. … I’m always pleased when, even in what most people would consider a bureaucracy, we do something that is innovative and actually is much more beneficial to the taxpayer. That’s a good thing.”
Schumacher seems continually to keep an eye out for good things for the agency and the community it serves. He attributes his “big picture” view of things to the systems view he cultivated from his industrial engineering training. Schumacher earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Texas A&M University, and he also holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Alabama.
“In a lot of cases most of the people that I’ve worked with didn’t have a big picture view of how things should work together, and also they were very focused. They may have been a mechanical engineer who was focused on the struts of the system, or they may have been an electrical engineer that was working on avionics. But right from the get-go I pretty much got to work at the system level because of my background. … It was probably the perfect degree, and I think it’s had a lot to do with my success.”
Having grown up in an Air Force family, Schumacher says that he always has been fascinated by aerospace. He even began his career in the Air Force. He embraces the idea of civilians exploring beyond Earth’s atmosphere on commercial space flights. While conceding that many issues would need to be addressed, he believes that such an initiative would be in keeping with NASA’s goals to be on the cutting edge.
“I think it’s a good idea. Maybe if more people were going into space, there’d be a lot more understanding of how important it is.”
Monica Elliott is the director of communications for the Institute of Industrial Engineers.