International Space Station
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, TX – 29 September 2015
Wright: Today is September 29, 2015. This interview is being conducted
with Michael Suffredini in Houston, Texas at the NASA Johnson Space
Center for the International Space Station Program Oral History Project.
Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. We thank you for sharing your time
with us today.
It’s my pleasure.
For the last 10 years, you’ve served as manager of the International
Space Station [ISS] Program, but prior to that you served in a number
of positions for ISS. For instance, managing the Payloads Office,
Vehicle Development, Operations Integration, as well as serving as
a deputy manager of the program before you became manager in 2005.
Even before that, you worked as the assistant manager of the Space
Shuttle Program. If you would, share some of the valuable lessons
that you learned during that time period that you took into your new
role as program manager and have helped over the last 10 years?
It’s an interesting question. I always was drawn to the bigger
picture, even as a design engineer I was drawn to the bigger picture.
It was never really my calling to design a widget that was part of
a bigger widget that was part of a system that would be part of an
anything, including a spacecraft. When I came to NASA, that was the
job that I was interested in.
When I first actually worked for NASA as a civil servant, I came in
to an organization called the Orbiter Projects Office. I was what
they referred to as a MER manager, Mission Evaluation Room. We still
have them today. This is where the engineers sit and look at the real-time
data and make recommendations to the ops [operations] teams when things
are off-nominal. From that very moment, I started getting this feel
of the bigger picture and working in the bigger picture.
Even from that job—and it was actually an assistant MER manager
job that I was hired to go do; then the subsequent roles. I’ve
always been operating at that level. When you’re looking at
the big picture, I think, and what I’ve learned over the years,
is you tend to have this natural inclination to look at the strategy—the
future—and where it’s all going and how does it fit in
the big picture. I learned early on, even when just working an anomaly
in a system during a Shuttle flight, that you have to take that into
the context of the bigger picture—what are you working on? How’s
it important in the near-term, how’s it important in the long-term?—to
allow you to get the focus.
That’s one of the biggest things I learned in the Orbiter Project,
which was part of the Shuttle Program. In fact, I’ve benefitted
from it quite a lot when I moved into Station, where really it was
about, “What’s your goal? What is the overall strategy
that you’re trying to get to so that you can make your day-to-day
decisions?” I’ve never been a sit-down-and-work-the-details
of a specific thing. It’s always been about strategy, direction,
and keeping the team focused in a certain direction.
In the Shuttle Program, of course, that was one of the biggest things
you had to do, because it was pretty tumultuous in the period that
I was in the Shuttle Program. I have a wonderful experience in the
Shuttle Program because Brewster [H.] Shaw was the program manager
when he asked me to come over. He didn’t have a deputy program
manager. I was detailed over, out of the Orbiter Project, which Dan
[Daniel M.] Germany was the head of at the time. Brewster didn’t
have a deputy, so I had this opportunity to work on a lot of things
that normally a deputy would do.
Eventually he did get a deputy, and the job changed a little bit,
but this was an up-close opportunity to see the kinds of things program
mangers worry about, like how to lead your team through it even though
things don’t seem that great. The Shuttle went through a lot
of changes, but this was the beginning of the change where we were
thinking that Shuttle was going to be more and more specific. It wasn’t
back in the heyday where we thought Shuttles could do everything and
we were going to fly them all the time. We were starting to become
more focused, and talking about maybe we should manage it a little
bit differently. This is the advent of the integrated ops contractor
that was ultimately created that companies did, the last of which
was USA [United Space Alliance].
I got to witness all that very close up, and it helped teach me that
leadership was about understanding the strategy, pointing the team
in that direction, giving the team the tools to get the job done,
[and] helping them stay focused on a direction, particularly if it’s
not where you were heading in the first place, or if it was different
than where the culture was taking you. Your job really was to keep
talking about the direction, where you’re going, what the strategy
is. It’s harder if you’re changing the culture. It’s
a little easier if you’re not changing the culture, you’re
just saying, “Hey, this is where we’re all going and here’s
When you’re changing the culture, which I spent a lot of time
doing in my last several years in the ISS Program, it is very, very
difficult. It takes a lot of time and energy to know what the team
is doing, and make sure in certain areas where they’re losing
focus, to put the focus back on. You have to do that sometimes in
the face of some challenges, where people are challenging what you’re
doing and why. You have to a) explain it, and b) you’ve got
to make sure you got the right support from your management, and then
you need to spend a lot of time with the right folks to keep them
pointed—help them with the strategy, help them understand, help
them get pointed.
That’s change; change is difficult. How to lead a team is one
of the things I learned the most in going through this process, and
it started with just I’d come to work every day to solve problems
on orbit, to where I am today. You look back and you go, “Oh,
look. Look what I learned along the way. What do I like to do? What
do I think I’m pretty good at, and how do you get that done.”
That’s kind of a long-winded answer to your question.
No, it’s a very good one, which I would like to follow with—is
it still difficult after all these years to make sure that your vision
and your strategy are communicated clearly to the people that you’re
Technically how you communicate to your people is relatively easy
to know and to do. Sometimes we don’t do it so well, but it
is relatively easy to do. The hard part is when you’re doing
something that’s different than the norm, what people were brought
up to do. There are a lot of areas where this was a big deal, but
one of the biggest for the ISS Program is when we started to transition
from, “Okay, we’ve finished assembling this thing,”
to, “Okay, now we have to utilize it.” It was a different
set of priorities.
With assembly, it was okay that the systems guys got everything they
needed, and then the leftover crew time was allowed to be used for
research. Now, where we are today, just because you have a system
problem doesn’t mean we stop everything we’re doing. We
identify a number of hours that the utilization guys are going to
get, and then the ops team has to work within that. There are several
days where there’s things that have failed and they say, “Okay,
I’m okay with it like this. I think I can get it done here.
I’m still preserving the utilization time.” That’s
their goal—preserve the utilization time, because that’s
what’s most important. That’s why we’re in orbit.
That transition was a big transition for the team. You went from this
NASA process—where just successfully getting a crew into orbit
and back home safely was everything—to okay, so we have to keep
the crew safe, surely, but we have a job to do. You talk about the
means to an end—the end wasn’t the assembly of ISS. Really,
the end was utilization of ISS. It’s about learning things that
you can’t learn on the ground, and it’s about implementing
things on orbit that you can’t do on the ground and trying to
do it as efficiently as you can.
That was a big, big change for us, emotionally, because safety wasn’t
taking a backseat, it was just more difficult to have the conversation,
because before you’d say, “It’s safer this way,”
and everybody did it. Now, “Is it safe enough?” and that’s
the conversation you have. How do you know? What is safe enough? What
isn’t safe enough? Making sure you’re managing your risk
while still getting the utilization job done. That’s probably
the harder part—where you’re changing a mindset, or a
culture it’s called sometimes.
Communicating is very, very important, but sometimes communicating
is not enough. People say, “Well, I hear you, but that’s
not the way I’ve always done it, so I’ll sit over here
and do it the way I’ve always done it.” That’s where
you’ve got to go find the little factions where they don’t
quite get it, and help them, however you need to, to change them over
to where they have to be in order for you to take the path you have
to take. That’s a big leadership challenge.
Communicating with your team, along with communicating with the global
Talk some about how the multi-national relationships and partnerships
evolved during your tenure. And then how you were able to do what
you needed to do to make those relationships work as well as they
When I saw your question, I started thinking about that. That’s
fascinating, too. You have 15 countries, all of them with governments
and people who are deciding what they’re going to do with their
taxpayers’ dollars. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear
that some countries have different ideas of what’s most important.
They put that on to their agencies, and those agencies turn around
and apply that to ISS, because that’s where they get their funding,
and that’s their responsibility.
Now, there’s the communication like we do. The agencies typically
are responsible for helping guide their future, so they know what
ISS can do and what the plan was, and they communicate that back to
their governments. But then their governments have to sell that to
the people, and so there’s that back-and-forth like we do here
in this country. That’s happening in 15 countries. Then they
all have to come together and utilize the same vehicle.
In the early years we were very, very fortunate in that everybody
was really focused on building these vehicles, building these platforms,
getting them assembled on orbit, and flying safely, just like we were.
Other than the challenges we had along the way—the big delays
once we got the first two elements up, the big delay before the Service
Module was ready—that was a two-year delay, give or take. Then
of course, the big delay associated with the loss of the Columbia
[STS-107, Space Shuttle disaster].
Everybody’s focus was the same. “We have to go build this
thing. We need to focus hard on that and get it done.” Along
the way, people, agencies were deciding, “Okay, here’s
what I originally planned to do.” Those plans evolved, but it
was always about building the Station, and that was the focus. Although
that was very, very hard, we were all focused on the same thing.
Then as we evolved to utilization, that by itself was fairly well
accepted as what we should be doing, but not all. We all agreed utilization
was important, but it was less important to some of us than others,
I’ll say. That was a challenging period, although not too difficult,
because the way we evolved the organization made sense. And since
we were evolving ourselves, it was easy for the countries to come
along with us.
Our Russian colleagues have always kind of been their own little area
of research, although we’re coordinating better and better with
every year, and I’m very proud of that. Back then it was pretty
much they were doing their thing, and USOS [U.S. Orbital Segment]
was doing its thing. We were an integrated crew and all that, but
research-wise, it wasn’t necessarily important that they have
an integrated effort with us.
On the USOS side, even though there are other elements—there’s
an ESA [European Space Agency] Columbus [laboratory] module, there’s
the JEM [Japanese Experiment] Module that the Japanese have—we’re
all tied together, we all have racks in each other’s elements.
It’s a pretty integrated effort, and the research tends to be
fairly integrated based on our history. With the Russian colleagues,
we weren’t as integrated as we should have been on the research
side, and so that let them be a little bit different as we were evolving
Again, everybody’s goal was roughly the same, “Let’s
evolve.” The big change for ISS where you started to notice
it was this idea of commercial use, the National Lab [Laboratory]
concept that the U.S. came up with. We all have a certain portion
of utilization rights, based on percentage of total capability. The
partners really don’t care too much what you do with your utilization
time, as long as you meet the requirements for crew safety and all
these other things. When a partner like the U.S., which is such a
big piece, starts down this road, everybody starts to watch. It’s
okay, but they kind of watch. We keep talking about why we’re
doing what we’re doing. Why we’re doing it is very, very
important to get the commercial piece of this going.
It’s interesting that now, as I leave—we’ve been
talking to them—but now they’re starting to actually ask,
“How are you doing it? Why are you doing that?” Some of
the commercial companies are starting to talk to the different countries,
so it’s kind of interesting to watch. Here’s this evolution
where we as a country did something—the rest of the partners
were still standard research—but now they’re starting
to see that, “Wow, this commercial thing, maybe this is important,”
and so they evolve.
I think this will be the wave of the future as we go forward into
cislunar space. The next step for our agencies, after ISS, will be
cislunar space and human exploration. What the partners want to do
will vary more dramatically than it does on ISS. Some partners want
to land on the Moon. Some partners want to just do robotic-only research
in the semi-near future. We have this idea about this ARM mission,
Asteroid Redirect Mission.
As we evolve, we’re learning that we need to build capabilities
to support whatever the different governments want to do, knowing
that what we all want to do is exploration well beyond cislunar space.
We started with everybody having the very same goal—build successfully
the Station and use it—to where we’re headed in the future.
You still have to accommodate what the governments need. The agencies
still have to be able to meet the needs of their governments, and
at the same time we all are trying to do a similar thing, so you have
to figure out a way to that path, and that’s what we’re
learning with ISS.
While the National Lab step’s a pretty big deal, it was sort
of take it or leave it for the partners. Now they’re starting
to understand the benefits and why we’re trying to do it, and
this will be a minor challenge. Going out here though, where some
people want to land on the Moon and some people want to go to an asteroid—those
are dramatically different things, but we can still build our systems
to support multiple things.
Heavy lift [launch vehicles] can support multiple things, the Orion
[Multi-Purpose Crew] Vehicle can support multiple things. That’s
what we all have to do as a partnership, is to provide those capabilities,
and then support each other. Even if they have varying goals, you’re
kind of in the same area. You’re learning how to explore, because
ultimately we all want to go to Mars.
That’s another long-winded answer to the question of what are
you learning as you go, and how do you do that multi-nationally. You
have to accept that not all governments are trying to do exactly the
same thing, and if you accept that, then it broadens your view of
what your job is to keep us all together, and all productive, and
happy. As happy as you can be.
Other nations have provided cargo transportation to ISS through the
years, and recently America has been able to do that with its Commercial
Cargo Program. As with many things, this looks so seamless, that it
was just no big deal, but could you share with us your thoughts when
you first learned that this program was going to be initiated and
how it was being developed? What were your concerns? And/or what you
felt was going the biggest advantage with having an American-based
commercial cargo transportation system? Then, how this will affect
future crew transportation?
Yes, I can talk about that. Of course, the partner vehicles were part
of a barter arrangement. When we as a country reached those original
agreements, this is what ESA and JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration
Agency] owed the U.S. for what we called “common operations
costs.” It’s part of the power, and data, and all the
stuff that we provided to the partners as part of this big infrastructure,
and the services of getting to low-Earth orbit and all those kinds
of things. The partners owed us a certain amount for that. Both ESA
and JAXA wanted to provide these vehicles.
From the U.S. perspective, we had the Shuttle, so these were good
things, nice things, but they weren’t critical to us. Then with
the Shuttle going away, they became completely critical. I was a little
disappointed we didn’t get to keep [ESA] ATVs [Automated Transfer
Vehicles] around. I’m a little disappointed that we’re
changing [JAXA] HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] because it’s a reliable
vehicle. But the partners have their needs, and so they want to build
a more advanced spacecraft. ESA just didn’t want to make that
kind of investment into a spacecraft.
Both of them are very expensive to fly. They approach half a billion
dollars for each flight, or something on that order, so they’re
very, very expensive to fly. Rightfully so, they want to do something
different. ESA took a completely different tact—a good tact,
but a completely different tact. JAXA wants to evolve their HTV. That’s
At the time that we made our decision about commercial cargo, it was
part of this culture change. It was a mindset change. The idea was
we need to let the commercial industry step in and learn how to do
this, and perhaps do it more efficiently than NASA has. Just saying
that sentence to any NASA person is enough to really make their hair
stand on end. I was one of those. It would just irritate me. I’d
say, “Oh, sure. If this is the way we want to operate, we can.”
But it is a culture change. I’ll just tell you right now, in
the culture today, we couldn’t do it.
What we always said back then—the philosophy always was, “Let’s
do commercial cargo first.” [NASA Administrator] Mike [Michael
D.] Griffin was the big proponent of this, and we worked the requirements,
which was a big part of it. Well, first Shuttle’s going away.
How are you going to replace Shuttle, still do what you want to do
beyond Shuttle, and support Station? This idea was that commercial
capability should be less expensive to get cargo to orbit than Shuttle,
and this idea that you separate cargo from the crew was born.
The philosophy always was we would build the commercial cargo vehicles,
and we would see how this idea of letting commercial companies provide
a service would work. Then we’d say, okay, and if that worked
and we figured that all out, well that would evolve to commercial
crew. Perhaps we’d find a lower-cost way to get crews safely
to ISS and back home. That was really the genesis of the whole thing.
The whole idea was we’d learn with cargo, and if cargo supported
it, we’d go try to do it with crew.
Of course, things don’t ever work out the way you plan. One
thing is we got a couple more Shuttle flights, so it helped us close
the gap, because it always takes longer than anybody thinks it takes
to get started. Then we hired ultimately these two companies, SpaceX
[Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] and Orbital ATK [Inc.], to
provide this service. We learned how to do requirements. As an agency
we accept that the commercial companies want to be successful, or
it hurts their business. We, of course, want them to be successful
because we need the cargo, and we ultimately want them to be successful
around the Space Station, because it’s a safety issue.
We essentially said, “Okay, you’re responsible for the
launch and the ascent phase. We’ll pay attention. You owe us
some information, but we’re not going to core drill and know
everything about your design. But, when you get inside a two kilometer
sphere of the International Space Station—when you do the burn
that’s supposed to put you in that area—then we go back
to a requirements case. You’ve got to make us feel safe, you’ve
got to prove to us that you’re okay.” That was our “give
me,” the launch up to that point. Then we did our normal—not
normal, still we relieved requirements, but they were mission success
requirements. We put mission success on the provider, and safety requirements
we held on to.
That was successful. In fact, we learned a lot. We also—and
this is not well known, I don’t think, to many folks—we
assumed, I certainly assumed, that we would have a failure. I never
imagined we’d have three in eight or nine months, but what I
learned after the failures is we probably almost had to have the failure
so the companies really understood the pain of failure.
Orbital ATK and SpaceX now trying to recover from this, they have
felt it. They’ve felt it on the budget side, they felt it with
new customers. They felt it with existing customers and whether they
want to stay flying or not. That’s more SpaceX than Orbital
ATK right now. It really does affect their bottom line, and so they
almost had to have the failure to understand the impacts.
I would tell you that was part of a learning phase we had to go through.
Also, it kind of teaches you. Every failure teaches you. I think we’re
doing exactly what we set off to go do. I would tell you, we’re
off to go do commercial crew now, and honestly, because of the failures,
I think we’re going to be better with commercial crew.
Even though Orbital ATK is not trying to do crew right now, they have
aspirations for things in the future. [The] Boeing [Company] watching
what’s going on, of course is understanding the implications.
SpaceX, of course, one of the commercial crew providers, is learning
a ton about what you can and can’t do. I think the whole philosophy
is working. I have very high hopes for commercial crew, and I have
pretty high hopes that the cost to gets crews to orbit and back will
be reasonable, and certainly cheaper than flying Space Shuttle. That’s
a different beast altogether since it had such a cargo capability
to go with the crew capability.
To me this is all great evolution. Meanwhile, the Agency hopefully
will benefit from this by getting safe transportation, cheaper than
we would have otherwise done it, and we can use some of the money
that we have ultimately saved to build the capabilities to go do exploration.
Even in cislunar space now, we’re talking about, “Okay,
what are the commercial companies going to do in cislunar space?”
There’s some things they can do. It’s the right step.
We hadn’t got to the point where we can completely take our
hands off and say, “Okay, you meet these requirements. You can
go fly whoever you want, however you want.” That’s partly
because there’s not anybody else that really needs to fly to
low-Earth orbit that’s willing to pay those costs, but it’s
also because we’re still learning how to evolve ourselves from
where we are today. How do you put requirements in place, that if
they meet those requirements then they’re good, and have those
requirements not be set such that the only way to do this is with
some sort big cost-plus contract with the Agency. That’s what
you’re trying to avoid.
Kind of back to research and development, aren’t we?
Speaking of commercial, SpaceX, I believe in one of its future launches
is going to bring the Bigelow Aerospace BEAM [Bigelow Expandable Activity
Module] to the ISS. The hope is that once it’s attached to the
Tranquility node, and all goes as planned, it’s basically going
to set a new path for the future. And, what I also find interesting
about Bigelow, I learned years ago, that many people may not know,
this was NASA technology that was done in the late 1990s, and then
now it’s licensed by them to use. Kind of an interesting type
Share your thoughts about this whole evolution of past NASA technology,
now being used by a commercial company, and how it will be impacting
Space Station in the future?
Well, first of all, that’s what we’re supposed to do,
right? We’re supposed to help evolve technology and capabilities
to advance space travel, essentially. [Robert T.] Bigelow was a good
example where he came in and said, “I like this technology,
I want to further technology. I’d like to license this technology.”
We do this in a lot of areas, but as you said, this is a well-known
one, given the capabilities of an inflatable module, if you will.
The idea behind the BEAM module, which flies on the next SpaceX launch,
as you said, is to test the technology. The module’s relatively
small. It’s got lots of instrumentation on it. The objective
is to test how do you inflate modules like this? By the way, there’s
a lot of dynamics we’re learning that we’re making changes
at the last minute to make sure the dynamics aren’t such that
it impacts the Station in a way that’s negative. Then once we
get it inflated, the object is to see how it does. As you go around
the Earth, you get warm and cold, and warm and cold, and you have
the normal vibrations and structural fatigue that’s caused by
that. It’s going to be interesting to see how this structure
holds up through a few years on orbit.
We didn’t give requirements to the module such that it was going
to house crew for long periods of time. That was not really the intention,
but if it holds up well for a while, then I think that’s also
an opportunity to use it for storage and things like that if we want,
before we ultimately dispose of it. What’s interesting about
that is not only did we hand over the technology, but then Bigelow
came in and said, “Hey, I want to fly this small inflatable.”
We provided money up front with them, so it’s really a group
effort where we put money, they put money to build it because we wanted
to test the technology. We’re very interested in that as an
We invested money to help build the module so that we could get this
structural data, look at inflations, and all these things that we
wanted to study as well—MMOD [Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris]
protection and things like that. This is one of those things where
we handed off the technology, but there was still more for us to learn
on orbit about how it worked. Bigelow’s flown a couple of very
small versions in orbit. We have very little information on those,
and so this is a great opportunity for us—working together to
test the technology that we ultimately gave to Bigelow so that he
could build these things.
We’re helping grow a capability for the future, and this is
the next step that you would normally take. Now you’ve got to
build a demonstration vehicle. You’ve got to instrument it like
you do, and then get it on orbit and test it out. It’s a next
step to basically what our charter is. I think this is fascinating.
It’ll be fun to watch it and see how it does on orbit.
At the end of last year, NASA held a [Commercial LEO (Low-Earth Orbit)]
workshop, and its goal was “to start a dialogue about creating
a thriving commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit over the next
decade.” The other part was to move the leadership of the effort
from government-led to significantly more private sector involvement.
Why are these changes important to NASA to move it more to the commercial
or the private-led?
If this Agency and this government want to explore, we’re going
to have to do two things. One is we’re going to have to do it
together with other countries, and we’re going to have to transition
low-Earth orbit to a commercial entity so that the precious dollars
we get as an Agency are available for us to use for exploration.
The Space Station, with all the cargo and stuff we do, is approaching
a $4 billion per year effort. By the way, more than half of that is
for the cargo and crew capability. We have to hand this over to an
entity in order for us, NASA, to spend our money on exploration. In
order to make that successful—and this is the advent of the
National Lab—we have to first show everybody what is feasible
and cost-effective enough to do in low-Earth orbit.
This is a very critical part of what’s going on in Space Station
today. We are evolving. We have the National Lab set up in about 2008.
Today, in 2015, we’re about at the point where we are starting
to get people who don’t traditionally use low-Earth orbit—big
[pharmaceutical] companies like Novartis [International AG], Eli Lilly
[and Company]—to orbit to do, in their cases rodent research,
and learn from this what they can’t learn in labs on the ground.
The only way to get to do this is to drive the cost down low enough
that they go test this. This is where Station really is critical for
our future. We really have to build the demand for low-Earth orbit,
and today the demand does not support the platform, or there would
be one built today.
As a government, we need to continue down this path. We need to resist
the urge to go make NASA pay a commercial company to build a platform.
We need to keep pushing the manned case. We’re just starting
to do that today. In this increment coming up, we will now have 50
percent utilization by crew time of the National Lab, which is what
we always strove for. The National Lab’s supposed to get 50
percent of the U.S. capability onboard ISS, and so we’re just
now starting to do that.
CASIS [Center for the Advancement of Science in Space], as the National
Lab company, needs to start choosing research based on best value.
This is going to get hard for them. We have companies that are interested.
Part of that challenge is not only that, but then figure out how do
you make obligations to companies that want to fly to low-Earth orbit
such that they can have a reliable capability to plan for? Today,
we don’t tell anybody that we’ll give you 200 kilograms
every six months to ISS. That’s exactly what a company needs
to know how their business case is going to work, and whether or not
they can utilize it.
More companies are starting to fly to ISS to figure out whether it’s
viable for what they want to do. We need to increase that ten to a
hundred-fold in order to really get people in there, because some
will work and some won't.
Even manufacturing. We need to pick up on the manufacturing. There
are some manufacturing capabilities we can do in low-Earth orbit that
would be very valuable on the ground. We need to get a lot of customers
in to find out what will be commercially viable in low-Earth orbit,
that somebody’s got to have data to make a business case. It’s
going to be about what does it cost to do it, and what’s the
payback? We need to learn about the payback. That’s part of
Then the other thing we need to learn is now how do we deal with commercial
companies with the asset that we have today? How do you get them to
go, “Oh, I can use Station, because I can count on this kind
of capability every six months to low-Earth orbit, and I can tell
them late in the flow, and the requirements aren’t ridiculous,
and the cost is reasonable.” That’s part of what we’re
going to learn along the way. This is so, so very critical to building
the demand and the how-to, and we have to do that before Station goes
away. That’s mandatory.
As soon as we build the demand, somebody out there’s going to,
with their little piece of paper, go, “Oh, if I do this, it
looks like they’re going to get this out of this, and so I can
make it cost only this much, and so they’ll make this much,
and I can make that much, so now I’m going to go build a platform.”
The government then can go from a platform operator, to just utilizing
When we’re exploring, we’ve still got to be in low-Earth
orbit. We need to test our critical technologies, especially our fluid
systems. You can’t test them on the ground like you can test
them in low-Earth orbit. You need to do it close to Earth. We’ll
still be doing research that you want to do close to the Earth, so
if the crews have any problems or anything, you can get them home
We’re going to have a need for a low-Earth orbit platform, but
we can’t afford to operate a low-Earth orbit platform. Station
is so very, very critical to this capability, because if we don’t
get out of low-Earth orbit, we will never explore. There’s just
never going to be enough money to do both.
I’m sure as soon as the ISS was designed, someone was designing
the end of life for it, because there’s always a beginning and
an end. Those dates, fortunately, have been pushed out, and again
are being considered to be pushed out. What do you believe that, during
your tenure, you were able to do to give Station extended life? Where
would you like for it to be before it is actually put out of business?
First, I wish I could take credit for anything that was done in the
original design that allowed us to get to where we are today. I’m
the one who asked the team to assess 30 years. The team did all the
work, and given what they had to work with, and given what we’ve
done in flight, we are finding that we can last pretty long. The reason
why that is, is because the original Space Station was designed for
30 years of life, and each element was designed to fly twice to orbit.
We assumed that it was possible we’d get to—because none
of these elements saw their mate on the ground, physically. We assumed
that we’d get to orbit and that we might have some problems,
so each element was designed to fly twice to orbit. The ascent phase,
of course, really takes structural life out of your structure. None
of them had to do that, so that was a big plus. They only had one
A lot of the structure was originally designed to 30 years, and when
we went to 15 years, it was more costly to change the design than
just keep going with what we had. A lot of them already had a 30-year
What we have found is that given that, I just asked the team to assume
1998 for Node 1, and when the rest of the vehicles flew, how far do
you think we can go? Since Node 1 was 1998, let’s go look at
2028. That’s how we got 30 years. Today, all of the oldest elements
have already been certified to 2028. We’ve got to do the rest
of the elements, and we feel pretty good that 2028’s doable.
Encouraging to me is that quite a bit of the structure that’s
certified to 2028 had eight years of life left. We require four years
of life, so we have margin even on 2028. When you find particular
points where you have challenges—and in fact, we did have that
on P6 [Truss]. There was one area where we had a challenge, and after
doing some more detailed analysis, we decided it was okay. But when
you find a point on a structure, for instance, that needs some attention,
there’s all kinds of things you can do.
The other piece of that, of course, is the ORU [Orbital Replacement
Unit]. All of the systems are replaceable, at least on the USOS. As
long as we keep the spare train going, those systems will be fine.
You look at structure, you look at wiring, you look at seals, and
all these things. They all look like they’ll be good until at
I would like Station to stay on orbit long enough for it to build
the demand so that a commercial company can come and provide this
capability so that we continue to have access to low-Earth orbit for
the things that the Agency needs, and the things that companies on
the ground need. And when that day comes, then we can safely be over
at the ISS and go spend our money on going beyond low-Earth orbit.
As we move into the last part of this conversation, I would like to
ask you more about your reflections. I know that you were quoted recently
saying that, “You can’t do great things without great
challenges.” Would you describe for us some of the most significant
challenges you faced while you were serving as program manager and
how you were able to overcome them?
There have been a few in this program. I wasn’t even in the
program when we faced once of our biggest challenges. In the summer
of 1993, remember Congress had their famous vote? That was back when
we actually passed budgets before the fiscal year came. It was one
vote [to continue the Space Station program]. I think it was 215 to
216 or something like that. I was in Shuttle and that caught my attention.
All my friends in Station were, “Wow.” Politically, that
was a really big deal.
When I became program manager, we were just trying to get back to
flying after the Columbia accident. I’ve had a lot of challenges
along the way, and so I won't list every one of them, but before I
became program manager, we dealt with some pretty fascinating challenges.
I’ll try not to spend all day on this.
I was asked to create the Payloads Office, which is now called Research
Integration. It didn’t exist. Randy [Randolph H.] Brinkley and
George [W. S.] Abbey said we need one. There was a budget called the
Science and Technology [SAT] budget or something like that. It was
a hefty budget for a five-year program. I think it was about $3.5
billion dollar budget. It was farmed out to different [NASA] Centers
doing different things. The designs were more advanced than we even
knew the lab interfaces were. They were ahead, because they weren’t
They managed to get the SAT budget back as part of the big program
budget to manage, and they came to me and said, “We want you
to create this office. Pull these factions together, figure out how
to manage it so that you get in sync with where the system guys are.
We’ve got to slow down. We’ve got to get more focused,
and we need to get our schedules in sync with where we are with the
lab that you’re actually going in.” And, they needed money,
so that was probably the biggest reason why they did that.
That was a huge challenge for me personally, and it was quite fascinating.
Payloads was its own program inside a program. It had the payload
ops organization. We were designing hardware, we were deciding what
integration requirements were, design requirements. All those things.
We had our little program inside a program, and then we went out to
all these different Centers and all these different organizations,
doing all these things, and understood what they were doing, how they
were doing it, why they were doing it.
Then we helped evolve them—sometimes not something they wanted
to do because we were slowing them down—but we involved them
such that we got them synced up on a plan that we could afford, that
was going to get the research done we needed to do, on a schedule
that was in sync with when the Station was going to fly. We saved
money in the early years, which we gave to the development guys in
ISS, and we got every dime back when we needed it for research. That
was a major challenge in my career.
The next part of my career, before I became program manager, was in
the Vehicle Office. That was the time when we were building all these
elements to go fly—the lab and its challenges when we first
turned it on on the ground. One I remember very clearly was P6, before
it was going to roll out to be on the [Assembly Mission] 4A [STS-97]
flight, we called it. We discovered a problem with a component inside
a box called a DC [Direct Current] Switching Unit.
These were big boxes and had great big covers on them. They were installed
inside this module, and we found a component through testing that
was in question. We were just about to roll out to go launch. I like
to tell people when I was in the program that we never delayed a Shuttle
launch for readiness of hardware, and I’m very proud of that
coming out of the Vehicle Office. That was one that was very, very
close, and right before it rolled out.
The normal thing to do, go back into the rack. Pull the box out, fix
the box, test the box, put it back in, re-test everything. Go through
all that and get ready to go fly again. What we ultimately did was
figured out a way to take the lid off the box in place, change this
component, put the lid back on, do some minor testing, roll out to
the pad, and go fly. That was just part of the nature of the beast.
When I became program manager, we had one or two technical challenges
along the way. One, there was a flight—I think this was 10A—where
we were trying to move P6 out to the outboard truss. After some struggle,
we finally got the [solar] arrays retracted. We put it out there and
we were ready to deploy those arrays, and at the same time, on the
starboard side, we had installed the starboard truss, and we were
rotating it. We were noticing some problems with the alpha joint.
We ripped an array trying to deploy it, which we had no spare for
and no plans. That wasn’t a problem we’d ever planned
for. That was a major moment. I can remember thinking that my job
is to be cool, calm. “This is just a problem. We’ll sort
it out, we’ll move on.” Meanwhile, we had this limp array
out there that we couldn’t maneuver. We couldn’t do anything
because it was in the state it was in. We couldn’t stiffen it
because of the rip.
That happened, and then about the same time we did an EVA [Extravehicular
Activity]. I don’t remember if the EVA was before or after the
ripped array, but we did this EVA to go look at this alpha joint whose
signature was kind of strange. We found out the whole array had just
been basically chewed up. This is the big alpha joint. We got through
both of those, but it was quite the challenging part of my job as
a program manager.
It’s one of the first times I got challenged by the press, because
I decided almost immediately that we couldn’t work two structures
problems. We could work one structures problem at a time, and the
Shuttle was docked. I remember them saying, “Why don’t
you split up the team? You go work on this, you go work on that.”
I said, “Nope. As a team, we’re going to focus on the
solar array. That’s the most important thing. I can live with
the alpha joint for now, we’re going to be fine. This has got
to get worked now.”
I can remember getting, “Don’t you normally have a bunch
of people that—” Yes, normally, but this is what we’re
going to do, because we had to focus everybody. Because all these
systems were new, it wasn’t like you had a lot of experience
with them. We were learning how to operate them. We knew the alpha
joint was going to be okay. It was okay up to this point. We could
not rotate it if we didn’t want to, but the solar array, we
had to get that one fixed.
What an ingenious effort. I had nothing to do with the repair—we
let the teams off. We said, “This is what you’ve got on
orbit. What are we going to do?” Folks came up with a design,
and my job was to say, “Yes, I think that’s a good design.
You guys have figured it out. Go do it.” That’s what the
team did. That was fascinating to be a part of. That was early as
a program manager one of the challenges that I got to deal with.
I think we talked earlier about probably one of the biggest challenges
as a manager, and this is this idea of evolving the culture. We have
spent years trying to convince people that we’ve got to drive
the cost down. One of the big ways to drive the cost down is to use
commercial off-the-shelf technology. We at NASA would say, “Hey,
we have COTS,” commercial off-the-shelf technology. We’d
say, “Fine. That’s going to save us a lot of money.”
Then the engineers come in and say, “Okay, I used this COTS
product, and it’s going to cost you only $43 million.”
I go, “My God. A hundred bucks buys the COTS product, where
did the $43 million come from?” By the time we buy the COTS
product, and do all the things we do around it to make it what we
wanted it to be, we had cost $43 million. That’s a huge exaggeration,
but that was basically it.
We used laptops on orbit, and we even found a laptop that met the
radiation requirement. I walk into a lab one day, just to see how
we’re processing our laptops. Every laptop gets completely torn
open. Every card gets conformal coated, we put in special clips for
the adapter, we get rid of the adapter and we put a different power
supply on it. Then we put it all back together, and we take the $2,000
laptop and turn it into a $10,000, $12,000, $14,000 laptop.
One of the big challenges we’ve had as a program is to try to
get comfortable with commercial off-the-shelf technology. One of the
things I did that was a huge challenge for the safety community was
we built AC [alternating current] adapters, 110 volt just like you
have in your wall. The adapters look just the ones you could probably
find one in here somewhere. We have that on orbit now.
Now when I buy laptops, we don’t make mods [modifications] to
them. They get no mods. We tested the laptops for radiation susceptibility,
and if they’re sensitive, then we just don’t use them.
We find a brand that’s not sensitive. We buy them from the store,
online. This last batch we bought online. We just put in our specifications,
“These are the systems we want,” they deliver the laptops
We can either use the adapters we already have on orbit, or we can
just plug them in like you do at home and plug it in to one of our
power strips and you’re good to go. This idea of trying to really
use commercial off-the-shelf capabilities to really save money is
a big, big challenge. Part of that was the safety associated with
it. This is one of those things I was telling you about, “What’s
safe enough?” We go through a lot of that. That was a big challenge.
Probably the one I’m most known for is this idea of evolving
to this commercial capability and pushing us. We’ve already
spent a lot of time on that, but it’s my belief that as an Agency,
if we’re going to explore, we have to build the demand in low-Earth
orbit. We have to be focused on that like it’s the difference
between us getting to explore or not, because I really feel strongly.
That’s been one of my bigger challenges, and it’s still
a work in progress.
You have two ISS residents up there for a year. Share your thoughts
about that [Year in Space program], and about doing things now that
will help to explore further in the future.
Yes. That’s a whole dissertation almost. I won't get into the
details of the dissertation, but really our Russian colleagues came
and said, “Hey, we think we ought to do a year in space.”
They really wanted it as a follow-up to their Mars500 [psychosocial
isolation] study. They were really trying to get interest from the
population about exploring beyond low-Earth orbit. They said we need
to do something that people can look at and say, “Oh yes. ISS
is doing exploration.”
We had always kind of been in the mindset that we’re going to
do six-month missions, and eventually we’d evolve to longer
missions. If you asked the research and medical guys when that was,
it wasn’t now. It was years in the future. That’s how
it kind of started. When the Russians sat down and said we really
would like to do this, we went and sat down with our research community.
We started looking at it and going, “We can do this. We can
make this work.”
One of the aspects of that was to use it to help force more integrated
research between the NASA partners and Russian partners. This started
off as kind of a “pulling the interest in” on why you
do ISS. Not so much for the research we were going to get, but people
needed to be interested in ISS and understand that it’s connected
to future exploration, to now we have the two one-year gentlemen flying
on orbit—Mischa [Mikhail B. Kornienko] and Scott [J. Kelly].
They’re doing great, by the way. We have an integrated research
program now. Probably the most integrated research program we’ve
had for human research for these two guys.
In the midst of all that, the twins study came up. Once we selected
Scott, one of the researchers got the bright idea that, hey, we have
this ground truth in his twin brother [astronaut Mark E. Kelly]. This
has really evolved to be a very productive effort, and we’ve
gone from our Russian colleagues suggesting it and really wanting
to do it for the reasons that they stated, to now our research guys
keep saying to us, “When’s the next one-year study? ”
We’re trying to work with our Russian colleagues to figure out
when we can make the next one happen. It’s an interesting study
in how you get to do something that you’ve always thought you
needed to do, and how does it end up happening when it actually happens?
It’s been fascinating. The research is unprecedented. Even though
it’s only two subjects, because of how we’re doing it,
it will be meaningful. Two data points is not anything you can kind
of draw a line through, but because of what we’re looking for,
and the comparison to six-month astronauts, we can get some meaningful
data out of it.
Of course, the most meaningful data is, we can do a few more of these,
which the research guys have asked us if we can do about 10 or 12
more subjects. This is the beginning of a longer-term effort, which,
as you said, is connected to exploration. It is part of what we’ve
got to do to be able to explore. By the way, that’s why we have
got to extend ISS, because we can’t possibly get that all done.
Of course, that’s for exploration, but there’s also the
other parts that are already benefitting humanity here on Earth. You’ve
been so involved in that through these last years. What are some [benefits]
that you believe that have come from the work on the Station that
have certainly proved to help those on Earth?
That’s always a struggle. You think, “Okay, I’ve
been at it 10 years.” Most of the time they tell you there’s
this 10-year lead time from the time things are learned in a lab to
the time that they’re applied on the ground. That’s true
in a medicine, in particular. Any sort of bio [biology] thing that
turns out to be a sort of treatment for humans, which is very, very
important. It’s not true for technologies.
There are technologies that have been advanced as a result of the
regen [regenerative] system that today is allowing us to provide safe
drinking water to folks in devastated areas where they don’t
have power or anything. You get gravity-fed water through this system.
Same filters we use on ISS for potable water. We’re saving lives
today. Technology-wise, there are advances. Again, it’s just
stuff we’ve learned on Station.
Ultrasound is on orbit today. A lot of the other systems that normally
you use for treatment you can’t really get to orbit, although
we’re making progress there, too. One of the big things about
ultrasound now is we’re learning how to utilize ultrasound for
a long-distance treatment or assessment of patients. In northern areas,
very, very rural areas where they can’t get access to medical
treatment, there are cases now today where they have small clinics
that just have ultrasound. They even show mothers how to ultrasound
themselves, and then a doctor somewhere in New York or wherever can
take a look at the ultrasound and give recommendations for treatment.
This kind of stuff just was never even thought of, but it’s
what we do every day on ISS. We have the crews ultrasound themselves.
The docs [doctors] look at it and make an assessment. If there’s
anything that we have to do, then we’re able to do that. These
kinds of areas, there’s probably hundreds of examples where
this is the case.
On the medical side—the rodent research, protein—it takes
a lot longer to get to market. I’m very proud of one that we’ve
been following along. It’s called microencapsulation. What we
learned is you can take a drug and encapsulate it in a membrane, and
that membrane can only be absorbed by the specific cancer that you’re
trying to treat. If you can imagine, today, chemotherapy just attacks
the whole body. If you can put treatments in a membrane that means
once it gets only to the cancer does it get absorbed, and otherwise
the body doesn’t consume it. That’s just a fascinating
That’s work that was done in low-Earth orbit, and that’s
work that we’ve helped take to the next step a little bit. Now
we’re starting to get to the point where we start doing a testing
on the ground. That’s still a ways away, but it’s making
great progress. That’s one area where I’ve always said,
“We know we’re successful when we’ve cured the common
cold and cured cancer.” That’s just one step towards cancer,
so we’ll see how we go.
I know great things will come from this particularly as we involve
more and more users—medical companies and all these folks that
know what the challenges are on the ground, and if they could figure
out a treatment, they could really make some money. This is where,
I think, the pharmaceutical companies can really benefit. When you
take gravity out of the equation, we learn quite a bit about what
the other major forcing functions are.
I really think that we will be discovering fascinating things with
ISS. Over the years, we’ll look back and go, “Wow.”
Then when ISS is gone, we’ll still be doing, “Wow,”
because the last things we do before we dispose of it will be 10 years
before it turns into something that you can look at and go, “Wow,
that’s fascinating.” I think there’s a lot that
we’re going to learn, and find that we’ve benefitted humanity
quite a bit from the ISS.
You’ve been in this field for over 26 years. There has been
continual presence in space with crewmembers since 2000. How do you
explain to people, why is it so hard to live and work and get to space?
Of all the advances that you’ve made and all the technology
that you’ve worked on, how do you explain to people why? Why
is it so difficult to be there? Why is it so difficult to keep them
safe while they’re there?
That’s about where technology is relative to what it takes.
Today, the best way to get off the planet is with chemical propulsion
systems. By their very nature, they operate at extreme temperatures,
and pressures, and fluid flow, and all sorts of things. Propulsion
engines are still a challenging system to operate. We evolve the technologies
as we go.
We learn how to do things better and we take benefit from those, but
still it’s a challenging business, to overcome gravity to get
into the microgravity environment. Then when you get into low-Earth
orbit, we have this big challenge of debris, both manmade and that
that’s just part of the environment. The manmade debris is by
far the most challenging, and you just can’t build a spacecraft
today that’s strong enough to withstand the size of debris that
we can’t track, and still get it to low-Earth orbit. It would
be a very, very heavy spacecraft. That’s part of this risk balance.
Also, radiation is pretty high in low-Earth orbit, although generally
speaking we can manage the crew’s time on orbit to be safe.
We’ve learned a lot about the systems that allow you to breathe.
Of course, the microgravity environment in space is not conducive
to human life, so you have to protect human life. I think we’ve
learned those systems and those technologies. We know how to operate.
You never hear us talk about, “Oh, goodness gracious, we might
have to bring the crew home because the CO2 [carbon dioxide] removal
system’s not working.” We’ve started to figure out
redundancies and how you have to do that.
Still challenging technology, still very expensive to build, but as
a community we’re starting to learn more and more about those,
so you don’t hear as much about that. But the challenges, the
things we can’t do a whole lot about, are the chemical propulsion
systems that are necessary to get to low-Earth orbit. And the microgravity
environment that we fly in, around Earth’s orbit is just a challenging
place to live in.
The other half of that question is, if it’s so difficult, why
do we keep wanting to go? What is in humans, do you believe, that
makes us want to explore and see what’s there beyond low-Earth
Well, because it’s in our genes, right? We’ve never sat
still ever, so we think we’ve checked out the big ball we’re
on, and we want to go see what’s next. I think that’s
very important. Not to get too deep, but I think it’s engrained
in all of us somewhere that we need to protect the species. The way
to protect the species is to make sure that you have alternate locations
to live in. This is just part of that.
We need to figure out how to live off this planet, so if someday our
planet can’t sustain us, we have a place to go. I don’t
know where—we’re born with it—but it’s certainly
in our genome somewhere, that drives us to want to make sure our species
is going to survive. I think that drives us all to want to, “What’s
over there? What’s over there? What’s over there?”
We don’t know why we always want to know what’s over there,
but we do. We are, at all costs, willing to do that.
People talk about the risks of flying in low-Earth orbit. There’s
a big risk in that, but explorers took risks for as long as history
records. Every time somebody went off and did something, generally
speaking, going somewhere new, people lost lives in ships. Thousands
of lives were lost in ships trying to explore the world. If you know
anything about the Lewis and Clark [Corps of Discovery] Expedition,
that was no picnic. This is just part of the human system, to want
We’ll keep wanting to explore, and I think that’s very
important for us, like I said, to preserve the species. Because the
species is the same on this whole big planet Earth, this whole species
together should go explore beyond this planet Earth. It’s not
something any one government should do, not that they can afford it,
but it’s just not the right way to go do it. We ought to go
explore together as a species. Hopefully we’ll do that here
in the near future.
I would like to close out the session by just asking you a couple
questions. One, what do you believe the legacy of the ISS will be?
The legacy of ISS will be that we created an environment that allowed
us to permanently have humans in low-Earth orbit. That, by its very
nature, will mean that the ISS helped us do exploration, because we
have the capability permanently in low-Earth orbit to do the things
we need to do to safely travel beyond low-Earth orbit, and the fact
that ISS allowed us to create the demand so that the commercial entities
would take over, allowing us to have the budget to do exploration.
That’s not a concise legacy, but really to me the legacy—and
it has implications to exploration—the legacy when ISS is gone
will be at that point: we’ve always had humans in low-Earth
orbit, and we will continue to have humans in low-Earth orbit. That’s
what I believe.
As we close, in the next couple of days you’ll be starting a
new adventure, not associated with NASA as part of its employee force,
but doing related work. Share with us what you feel is you legacy,
or your lessons; what you would like people to think of when they
think, “Mike Suffredini was program manager of the ISS and this
is what we’ve learned from him to go forward”?
I hope it’s that we’ll look back together and go, “We
built a Space Station that by any measure was wildly more successful
than we could have imagined, and that we did the right thing, after
we built it, to transition ourselves for what it was supposed to do
for mankind.” If people look back and go, “Mike helped
us do that,” then I’d feel really good.
Thank you. Is there anything that you’d like to add, or a moment,
or an event that you’d like to share with us before we close?
I say this to people all the time. The team of folks that built and
operate the ISS has no peer, and while leadership is important, it’s
the individuals that every day do their part to make it successful,
that’s made the International Space Station the success it is.
I just want to recognize that while I got a front row seat for 10
years—the best seat in the house for most events—my part
was small when in comparison to what the 7,000-plus people have done
to make Space Station successful. I’m looking forward to watching
them be successful for the next 15 years or so.
Thank you. Thank you again for taking time today.
Thank you very much.
[End of interview]