SMA Leadership Profile: Michael Hess

5-minute read
Mike Hess

Organizational Missions

NESC: Perform value-added independent testing, analysis and assessments of NASA’s high-risk projects to ensure safety and mission success.

NSC: Provide high-quality, value-added programs, services and policies that enable mission success, promote a safe workplace and influence a culture of excellence.

OSMA: Assure the safety and enhance the success of all NASA activities through the development, implementation and oversight of agencywide safety, Reliability, Maintainability and Quality Assurance policies and procedures. (Note: The NSC is part of OSMA.)

The NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), NASA Safety Center (NSC), and Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) all work to ensure the safety and mission success of NASA’s portfolio of programs and projects. While each has its own unique mission (see sidebar), collaboration and communication between these organizations is essential to NASA’s missions. As the new deputy director for safety for the NESC, Michael “Mike” Hess will work to strengthen the existing bridges between these organizations as the agency’s commercial partnerships and coordination with industry continue to evolve.

Hess enters this role with broad experience that equips him well to handle the varied areas of safety and engineering these organizations provide, especially as the agency re-enters a period of human spaceflight from U.S. soil:

“I will be a key liaison between the safety communities: OSMA and NSC and NESC,” said Hess. “As we [the NESC] do technical assessments, we want to make sure we’re in sync [with other organizations]. I see myself as an integration function between those communities.”

“I’ve got some significant experience with regards to human spaceflight operations,” he explained. “I was one of the folks who planned spacewalks and trained astronauts. And spacewalks are one of the riskier things astronauts do in human spaceflight. So having done that, I think I have an acute understanding of the risks.”

In addition, as the chief of Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, he has a solid understanding of facility safety, including risks associated with underwater breathing of high concentrations of oxygen gases and with critical lifts. He also served as chief of space medicine, where he was responsible for the health and well-being of astronauts and Johnson workforce, providing him with an understanding of the medical risks of training on-orbit and beyond Earth. Finally, his time as operations integration manager for the Commercial Crew Program gave him experience launching rockets and managing the risks associated with that in real time.

After officially starting his new role as deputy director of safety this summer, Hess’ first order of business is meeting the right people and finding the right groups to be a part of. 

“I’m trying to make the appropriate introductions and integrate myself into the existing forums and then bring value,” said Hess. “I’m starting to get the right invites to be in the right meetings. I need to make sure I establish the relationships with the right people and we open up and are talking about all the big issues. Someone over there could see something as a big problem and I may not knit it together if I don’t know the right people. That’s just communication and asking questions.”

Long-term, Hess still sees nurturing and growing these relationships as his main goal:

“Long-term, I want to achieve seamless integration,” said Hess. “There’s so many technical issues that bubble up [in the duration of a project], and I want to make sure the arrows go in both directions between safety and engineering to make sure we’re in sync on everything. And I know that happens at the highest levels already, but I want to make sure it happens at all levels so when a big, tough problem occurs, we’re talking about it appropriately. We can have different opinions on it but we need to be communicating on where we want to go with it.”

Communications between these organizations is going to be essential as NASA enters a new era where commercial companies are flying NASA astronauts into space and the agency’s role is changing, including how it will be able to ensure safety on these missions. In addition, NASA is preparing to fly astronauts for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) ended and return to the Moon for the first time in what will be more than 50 years. All of this brings new challenges.

“Things are changing,” explained Hess. “We have SLS [Space Launch System] and Orion getting ready to launch, James Webb [Space Telescope] is coming down the pipeline from a science perspective, and all this commercial activity with launching people to the station and also commercial companies going to the Moon, and I want to make sure we as a community are all talking about this. There are going to be very difficult challenges and it’s going to be different than what we did before. Whereas before NASA was always the designer of the rocket or the spacecraft, now with commercial, we’re buying things and it’s a very different model and we need to understand what risks we’re buying into from an engineering and safety perspective.”

Hess points to the SSP as an example of the challenges ahead. The agency was constantly adapting through the life of the program to address new findings and issues and manage risk. Knowing that commercial partners’ programs will experience similar issues forces some important questions for the safety and engineering communities.

“How do we remain vigilant?” asked Hess. “How do we not fall into the trap of normalizing a deviance? We need to still be really vigilant as a community and understand the risks out there. The next few years are going to be critical as we continue the commercial venture and then [go] to the Moon.”

As Hess explains, NASA’s science missions are evolving too:

“With James Webb, that thing is going to be far out there [in space]. With Hubble [Space Telescope], you could go service it if something went wrong. James Webb will be too far away to do that sort of thing. We have to make sure a lot of our important science instruments are ready to go.”

As Hess looks at the next few years and the missions ahead, he notes there are a lot of major decisions for NASA: Will the agency take a commercial rocket or SLS to the Moon? The Human Landing System is a commercial project, but the agency is still determining who will make the spacesuit for it. Communication between organizations like the NESC, NSC and OSMA will be crucial to ensuring well-informed decisions and integrated, seamless and safe operations once these decisions are made.

“There’s just so much we have to get settled,” said Hess. “As a safety community and as an engineering community, how do we work our way through those? In spaceflight, the question is going to be ‘Where do we go next strategically as an agency and what are the risks?’”