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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (AA)


Noah J. Michelsohn |
July 15, 2019


50 Years Forward

Fifty years ago a trio of brave explorers set out on a voyage that would forever change our perspective of who we are and the role we play in the universe. In a decade characterized by conflict, strife and a quest for understanding, the brave crew of Apollo 11 united the world in a moment of awe. A moment when we realized the challenges we face will never be as great as the bond we share.

“When NASA originally planned the Apollo missions, I don’t think the agency realized the impact the images would make,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “When we saw Earth from the Moon, we realized how truly unique our planet is and how blessed we are to live on it.”

“It gave us hope,” added Vanessa Wyche, deputy center director of Johnson.

Geyer and Wyche are taking the lessons of Apollo and using them to lead Johnson during an unprecedented era of human spaceflight. As NASA approaches 20 years of habitation on the International Space Station, it is also preparing to launch crews on three new vehicles, including the Orion spacecraft which will be taking the first astronauts back to the moon), developing a commercial economy in low-Earth orbit and beginning to establish a sustainable human presence at the Moon with NASA's Artemis program.

Geyer speaking to the Johnson team at an all-hands meeting where he rolled out the center vision of Dare. Unite. Explore. 

While the scope of these missions is large, and the challenges are fierce, Geyer and Wyche have been able to leverage their diverse backgrounds and a strong foundation of collaboration to form an unstoppable team.

The pair met while working on the Constellation Program and established a strong relationship before taking unique paths to the center director’s office. Geyer served as the program manager for the Orion Program and deputy center director of Johnson before assuming the role as Johnson’s 12th center director. Wyche served as the director of the Exploration Integration and Science Directorate prior to her selection as the deputy center director under Geyer.

“We have worked together for a long time, and as a great deputy she will challenge me,” Geyer said. “It is important in any relationship to have an open dialogue, be able to question each other and feel comfortable pushing back on decisions because it makes both of us better.”

Their relationship mirrors the partnership model that NASA has adapted in an effort to commercialize low-Earth orbit and accomplish a sustainable human presence on the Moon with international and commercial partners.

Wyche speaking to a large audience about NASA's missions at Space Center Houston.

As these partnerships continue to take shape with lunar missions in mind, Johnson is in a unique position to tie together lessons from international partnerships, with space station, Orion and commercial partnerships, with commercial crew to lead missions to the Gateway and the lunar surface.

“We define the mission,” Geyer said. “Johnson will always have a unique role as the integrator between the actual operator [crew] and the systems that get the crew to those exciting and yet hazardous destinations.”

This will require Johnson to explore the different capabilities and requirements necessary to sustainably accomplish these missions so NASA’s partners can help develop new ideas and innovations, which will lead to reduced costs and enable the agency to complete more missions going forward.

“Each partnership brings us challenges and opportunities,” Geyer said. “We benefit from their experience, their passion and their ability to innovate, and they learn from our experience pushing the envelope and having the overarching mission in mind. We learn from each other and benefit from the strengths of both teams.”

Geyer speaking with astronauts prior to a crew announcement. 

Even as Johnson leads the integration between the mission and the partners to stitch together the international and commercial partnerships required to accomplish these goals, center leadership recognizes that there will still be major technical responsibilities and components that only the Johnson team can accomplish.

“Going forward, we are going to have to continue pushing the boundaries of technology,” Wyche said. “There are things that companies may not have the expertise to do or the ability to profit from at first, and they will look to us to help them solve critical challenges and enable those capabilities going forward.”

While NASA plays a vital role in establishing a vision and leading technical capabilities, one of the greatest roles the agency plays is igniting a passion for exploration and inspiring the next generation.

Whether landing on the Moon, establishing new providers or leading the construction of the space station, NASA has always defined missions that challenge the nation and the world to dream big and follow our lead. The center has worked on a daring mission for the past 20 years with continued habitation on the space station, developing and proving technologies that allow humans to live and work off the Earth. 

Wyche presenting at her alma mater Clemson University.

Continuing to push these boundaries led Geyer to establish a new center vision statement of “Dare. Unite. Explore.” in 2018. The vision is a call to take these lessons and apply them to even more daring destinations in the solar system as we continue to utilize the space station for groundbreaking research.

“‘Dare. Unite. Explore.’ means that we can’t sit back on what we have done,” Geyer said. “We have to think into the future in a daring way and ask how this center can keep the United States and NASA first in the world.”

In addition to commercial partnerships, this effort includes developing various strategy teams to prepare the center for the future. The teams assess future work requirements and envision Johnson’s upcoming roles, plan milestone celebrations to unite the Johnson team and assess risk and decision velocity to prepare for an accelerated mission tempo.

By planning for the future now, Johnson is preparing to inspire the world from a position of leadership once again as NASA returns to the Moon and establishes the groundwork for daring missions to Mars.

Geyer, Wyche and the NASA team preparing to walk in the Houston Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Wyche, who is too young to remember the Apollo 11 Moon landing, but has always had a great appreciation of the phenomenal technological achievement and impact of the mission recently learned of a more personal connection while reading a high school report her niece wrote: It covered Wyche’s father’s reflections on the lessons he learned during his life.

“He said that it was the images of the Earth from the Apollo missions that inspired him to get involved in the civil rights movement,” Wyche said. “Here was a man that was raised in the depression, served in World War II, was an educator, raised five children, and when asked to reflect on the important moments in his lifetime he mentioned the Apollo program and how those missions brought hope to humanity.”

Geyer reflects on his own personal memories as a child and the moments he watched in awe as the Gemini and Apollo astronauts launched on their voyages and eventually walked on the Moon. Half a century later, he is leading the team that will launch the next chapter of exploration.

“As a kid, I didn’t realize all the work that goes into these missions,” Geyer said. “But it makes the accomplishments even more satisfying when we get there. When we go back to the Moon, it won’t be the same as Apollo, but in some ways it will be more challenging, and the long-term impact on the world will be even greater.”

What Geyer and Wyche both know is that the next 50 years will be just as daring as the last. And those giant leaps start here, in Houston. 


Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center


Mark Geyer is center director of NASA's Johnson Space Center and Vanessa Wyche is deputy center director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.This story is part eight of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find  previous stories on the directors website.

Mark Geyer, Center Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Mark Geyer, Center Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Vanessa Wyche, Deputy Center Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Vanessa Wyche, Deputy Center Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Mark Geyer meets with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner prior to an event at JSC during Black History Month put on by the African American Employee Resouce Group.
Geyer meets with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner prior to an event at JSC during Black History Month put on by the African American Employee Resouce Group.
Vanessa Wyche meets with lawmakers at NASA day at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas.
Wyche meets with lawmakers at NASA day at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas.
Mark Geyer welcomes employees back to work following the partial government shutdown.
Geyer welcomes employees back to work following the partial government shutdown.
Mark Geyer and Vanessa Wyche have worked to foster a strong partnership with the University of Houston Clear Lake .
Geyer and Wyche have worked to foster a strong partnership with the University of Houston Clear Lake.
Geyer and Wyche at the 2017 Johnson Open House.
Geyer and Wyche at the 2017 Johnson Open House.
Wyche riding in the parade at the 2019 Houston Pride Parade.
Wyche riding in the parade at the 2019 Houston Pride Parade.
Geyer accepts the key to the city on behalf of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Geyer accepts the key to the city on behalf of NASA's Johnson Space Center at the 2019 Freedom Over Texas Festival.
Wyche meeting Ariana Grande at a  tour of Johnson's Mission Control Center.
Wyche meeting Ariana Grande at a tour of Johnson's Mission Control Center.
Geyer at the dedication of Kranz Junior High.
Geyer at the dedication of Kranz Junior High.
Geyer poses with Mayor Sylvester turner after accepting a key to the city on behalf of Johnson Space Center.
Geyer poses with Mayor Sylvester turner in front of NASA's Orion Spacecraft after accepting a key to the city on behalf of Johnson Space Center.