On last Sunday’s ‘The Space Show’, Dr. David Livingston interviewed NASA’s Ken Davidian (an event I previewed here). Most of the interview was spent talking about ‘NASA culture’ and Ken’s new role in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) part of NASA.
Ken has also been heading up NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, the program which funds (among other challenges), the Space Elevator Games. NASA’s willingness to put up $4,000,000 (four million US Dollars) has been the driving force behind these games. Anyone who has been at the previous year’s Space Elevator Games has almost certainly met (or listened to) Ken. He has been a real pleasure to work with.
During the last part of the interview, however, Ken told the listening audience that he would no longer be involved with the Centennial Challenges program and that a new guy, Andrew Petro, would be taking his place. I emailed Andy and asked him to write a few words about his background, and what he thinks of the idea of a Space Elevator (and the Space Elevator games in general). He graciously answered me – here is is reply:
I’ve been working in the space field since 1978. I began with McDonnell Douglas in Houston working on Space Shuttle mission operations. Then I joined NASA at the Johnson Space Center in 1985 in advanced project engineering, doing conceptual design and systems integration for numerous next-generation spacecraft, launch vehicles, space stations, lunar vehicles, lunar bases and Mars missions. I did some early work on space debris mitigation. I also worked with the Russians on adapting the Soyuz spacecraft for use with the Space Station. For about seven years I worked on a magneto-plasma propulsion project and in particular, on the superconducting magnet systems for that type of engine. I was briefly the Deputy Manger for the In-Situ Resource Utilization Program and most recently, Ares Launch Vehicle Integration Manager for the Mission Operations Directorate at JSC. In late January, I joined the Innovative Partnerships Program Office at NASA Headquarters.
My title is Program Executive for the Innovation Incubator which, in addition to the Centennial Challenges, includes a program to increase the availability of space environment testing opportunities for emerging technologies (such as parabolic aircraft flights and eventually suborbital flights) and a program to bring fresh ideas into NASA by allowing some employees to work for a time in outside organizations. Some of these efforts are just getting started and we might be doing lots of other things as time goes on. I am new to this office and most of what we are doing is new so the possibilities are really wide open, which is a pretty exciting position to be in.
I have been interested in the concept of space elevators for a long time. I was exposed to orbital mechanics (long before I studied it in school) through the non-fiction books of Arthur Clarke and I was intrigued by the possibilities offered by geo-stationary orbits. Later I was amazed to find how much serious analysis of the space elevator had already been done. The technical challenges of actually building a space elevator are daunting, and I think everyone realizes that, but I am thrilled to see that there are people actually taking the first steps and it is a distinct pleasure to now have a small role in encouraging this work. I know that it can be tough to work on the fringe of what other people may consider realistic and I experienced that personally while working on magneto-plasma propulsion. It takes imagination and persistence. I think that the beamed power and tether challenges that NASA and the Spaceward Foundation support are a way to not only bring space elevators closer to reality but to also advance technology more broadly for applications we might not even imagine.
I am looking forward to the Space Elevator Games this year. It promises to be the most impressive ever. I look forward to meeting the competitors and others involved in the space elevator community. Good luck to everyone!
So, so long Ken, it’s been great working with you (and if you’re bored in early September, come on out to the Games 🙂 ) and Hello Andy – we all look forward to meeting you and working with you.