Interview With Michael Interbartolo III

Michael Interbartolo III is the In Situ Field Test Project Manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He is responsible for overseeing the design, test and integration of the first generation system that will process representative Martian soil and atmosphere to produce power, water, as well as propellant for a LOx/Methane thruster. He had the honor to work 10 yrs on the Space Shuttle Program in Mission Control, as well as several other positions with the space agency.

1)      Is your accent still Bostonian or has it morphed with Texan slang?

I still have my Boston accent though not as pronounced and comes out more when I get around some of my friends from the old neighborhood that also live down here and when I have a few drinks in me.

2)      When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I have known since I was about 4-5 yrs old that I wanted to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer. The two impacts on my life at that age was seeing Star Wars and taking my first plane ride. We used to live right by Logan Airport in East Boston and Delta had a community day where you could take a ride above the city. Between the cool ships in the movie and flying I knew I wanted to design and build spaceships. My mom always said with my imagination I would work for either that George Lucas guy or NASA. 🙂

3)      If a High School student told you they wanted to work for NASA, what would you suggest they study?

Definitely Math, Science and Engineering are the easy answers, but it depends what they want to work on. Take for example a Robotic Missions to Mars to detect life that requires chemistry and biology for life detection, but also engineering to design the vehicle/rover and geology to dig and discover the samples. A Space telescope like the James Webb needs cryogenics and other Thermal considerations, as well as optics and electronics not to mention the astrophysics knowledge needed to pour over the data. Work in Mission Control needs engineering, but more so the ability to communicate, sometimes under pressure as well as be a self motivated person to learn the operational and hardware systems. For all the schooling in the world nothing beats on the job training to learn Flight Control and it takes a high motivated person willing to read, train and learn the system.

4)      Have you always wanted to work for NASA? How did that come to be?

When I started Grad school at George Washington University in DC, the co-op program with Goddard had been shut down so I decided the best way to get my foot in the door was to volunteer. It took a few months for NASA legal to figure out how they could let someone on site and work for free ( I think they were worried if I died onsite should they bury the body or just throw it over the fence), but in the end I worked at Goddard for 16 months ~40 hrs per week. When I was about to graduate from GWU I sent my resignation letter to the center director thanking him for my time there since it didn’t look like they had a civil servant slot for me. I was honestly fishing for a certificate of appreciation or something to show for 16 months of work, but they ended up finding a way to bring me on as a term employee. I transferred down to Johnson Space Center about a year later and was converted to a permanent civil servant shortly after that. Working at NASA has had its ups and downs but it is where I have dreamed of working since I was a kid so I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be unless Mr. Lucas calls with a cool job offering.

5)      What kind of work did you do when you volunteered at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland?

Since I was a volunteer they moved me around in within the Special Payloads Divisions’ Attitude Control Branch. I worked on some launch window analysis tools where we would try and figure out based on sun angle requirements, orbital decay and other payload requirements when the optimum time to launch would be. I also wrote a GPS simulator ( I had to teach myself C++ with one of those learn to program in 21 days books) so we could test out search algorithms for a GPS unit we were building in house. I also worked on some of the Spartan payloads that the shuttle would carry in the payload bay and helped test out some other spacecraft.

6)      What led to being awarded the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal?

I was awarded the Exceptional Achievement Medal for my work at the Division Technical Assistant for Space Shuttle. As the technical assistant, I represented both my division and the Mission Operations Directorate(MOD) to the Orbiter Project Office (the guys who manage the shuttle vehicle hardware) and was responsible for coordinating and integrating all vehicle operations and anomalies across the disciplines within MOD.  Within the Space Transportation Vehicle Division, I had to coordinate and approve all Shuttle crew procedures, flight rules and more. I was also lead for development of the Division Certification of Flight Readiness (CoFR) for each mission — the single most important document held within the division that essentially serves as a final checklist before flight. I was totally caught off guard by the award since I was just doing the job as I understood it to the best of my abilities, but I guess my dedication and drive made me really stand out compared to previous folks who held the position.

Atlantis carried a crew of five and the spacecraft Galileo which was deployed on a six-year voyage to Jupiter. Photo credit: NASA/Daniel Brandenstein

7)      How did your job change when the shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time?

 I actually left the Space Shuttle Program before Atlantis landed.  I left the Division technical Assistant job in November of 2009 (After STS-129 landed) to become the chief of staff for the Orion Avionics, Software and Power office. I kind of wish I had stayed with the Shuttle Program until the end given the chaos of cancellation/uncancellation for Orion that followed the President’s February 1st 2010 NASA Budget rollout. I eventually left the Orion position in November of 2010 for my current position in ISRU because it just hadn’t worked out the way myself and the office chief had hoped given the upheaval of 2010. The In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)  work has been very interesting because we are working on technologies that will help make a mission beyond low earth orbit more sustainable. If you can live off the land (Moon, Mars, Asteroid) it means you don’t have to worry so much about the next launch of supplies, plus if you have propellant, life support supplies made on site you have more flexibility in what you can do on the mission.

8)      What is the next advance in science necessary for our reach into space?

I think the Kepler Mission is already pushing the science of planetary discovery and finding more Earth like worlds orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone”. The more they can find then the more excited folks will be about exploring and pressing further out into the solar system. Public Enthusiasm and support is the biggest factor in helping push us out there. If Kepler and others can show there are other worlds to explore that might get folks excited assuming we can get there quickly.

9)      What is the next advance in engineering necessary for our reach into space?

Probably ion/solar electric propulsion for deep space travel. the faster humans can get to a planet the safer it is because you don’t have to take as much supplies and worry or mitigate solar/cosmic radiation as much if the trip takes 40 days to Mars instead of six months. The other big advance is lowering the launch costs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). SpaceX and others are pushing the next generation of rockets so that it will be more affordable to get stuff into orbit. I was at a conference last fall and the speaker Paul Spudis I believe mentioned 90% of the energy you expend to get to the Moon from Earth is spent just to get to LEO so if you can combine lower cost to LEO plus ISRU propellant depots from Moon you can really open up the solar system. As cost comes down then maybe Virgin Galactic flights will be more affordable for the common man and I think once the average Joe can see for himself the beauty of the Earth from orbit then that will spark an excitement for a new age of exploration.

10)   What is the next advance or change in world governments necessary for our reach into space?

Internally we need relevancy, we need to show the public/tax payers what they get for their half a penny. We do a poor job marketing how spaceflight (human and robotic) impacts life on Earth. Most people just see us a money pit with nothing in return. We need to highlight and shout from every rooftop all the spinoffs from NASA that have impacted everyday life. Before the Superbowl this year there was an article mentioning 6 technologies for the big game from Space . We need to do more of that because I don’t think most people know about the Spinoff site ( or care to read it. Maybe we need a little sticker or label on all the products that have come from the space program. Once folks realize that the Space program is the engine that drives technology development they will be more willing to fund the program and extend our reach.

Externally we need Consistency, and leadership. NASA is at the whim of the budget ax every year the President proposes a budget and Congress does their sausage making. Big Plans are proposed whether it is the Space Station Alpha or Return to the Moon, but they end up being not much more than sound bites becomes when it comes down to the authorization bills folks look out for their constituents more than for the noble pursuit of space policy. NASA gets railed on for cost over runs, schedule slips and such but if the rug keeps getting pulled out from under us it is hard to get anything long term complete. For too long we have been a rudderless ship adrift in the shallow waters of Low Earth Orbit. Once in a while we get a plan from those in power, but they only fund us for a leaky dingy instead of the majestic clipper ship they proposed. It would be great if those in charge gave a clear goal and the collective parties involved (White House, Congress, International Partners) all were held accountable to the plan such that they couldn’t back out or change the direction mid travel. Short of allowing direct personal funding via Kickstarter or some other method I just don’t see how government will provide the bedrock foundation for us to go beyond LEO unless they think long term goals and not short term jobs. Private industry might consider it if the business case is there whether it is scientific, raw materials or tourism but with the cost to get out there it will be hard to find the return on investment.

11)   What’s the most common mistake movies, TV and other media make when portraying Mission Control and other aspects of NASA?

That as soon as the rocket takes off or lands we all break out into thunderous applause and celebration, heck even my mom believed that when I was working in the MCC. Spaceflight is very serious business and until the crew has gotten out and the vehicle is safed and turned over to the ground processing crew at Kennedy Post Landing the Steely Eyed Missile (wo)Man of Mission Ops don’t celebrate.

From Natalie Villalobos

12)   Are there any movies that have done exceptionally well showing what Mission Control actually looks like and functions?

Apollo 13 is the best example of how Mission Control looks and functions. Natalie Villalobos posted some pictures of the Apollo room  it may seem ancient by today’s computer standards, but those vacuum tubes and green CRTs got us to the Moon and back several times.

13)   Are there any SciFi movies or shows you really enjoy in spite of their science being less-than-plausible?

I Loved Firefly because it was probably more probable than most, no faster than light travel, and no sound in space. Star Wars, Stargate, Babylon Five and Star Trek were all enjoyable though I am not sure tech wise we will ever get there or there as fast as they lay out. I had some real issues with Space Cowboys being how ridiculous some of the shuttle operations were like fly by wire on entry due to a computer crash. The shuttle can not fly without the computers, but it makes for a dramatic scene for Clint.

14)   Do you self-identify as a geek or a nerd? But you still found a woman willing to marry you? 🙂

I would say even though I am a rocket scientist I am more Geek than Nerd since I am not the reclusive type that is the typical nerd. I collect comics, some Star Wars memorabilia, movie swords and such. Though my wife relegates all my space/scifi/movie ornaments to as she calls it “the Nerd tree” My wife was a teacher and not at all into science fiction yet she some how puts up with me and the fact that I have passed on my interests to my oldest son M4 and to a lesser extent my daughter. I used M4 as an excuse to buy the Tron: Legacy toys 🙂

15)   Do you or any of your colleagues identify with the characters on The Big Bang Theory?

Lots of fans of The Big Bang Theory at NASA ( I was disappointed in how underutilized Mike Massimino was after all the hype about his guest appearance) and sure we have some folks around that are definitely Sheldons, but at the same time at least in Flight Control we are more social and outgoing than those nerds 🙂 In theory since we are engineers we are more the Wolowitzs of the bunch.

16)   What effect does Science Fiction have on real science?

I think science fiction inspires real science. I have been watching the Science Channel Show “Prophets of Science Fiction” and it covers Verne, Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Heinlien, Shelly, Wells and Lucas showing how  their works and ideas are now influencing the technology folks are working on. Imagination is the most powerful tool to drive development and discovery and those creators touched on things years before folks realized it was possible. The science fiction stories of today become the technology of the next decade.

17)   Have we stopped dreaming?

In reference to Neil deGrasse Tysons speech and the video going around, Yes we have. Lot of folks have taken a pretty myopic view of space. How can we spend billions on space when we have poverty, disease, infrastructure and education problems here on Earth. That view goes back to the relevancy issue I touched on because if you don’t understand that space travel drives technology development that impacts here on earth you fail to see the return on investment. All the problems at home can be lessened by dreaming big and going far in space. Space travel funnels back technology for clean water/recycling to impact arid and impoverish areas, or new materials that can withstand harsh conditions on other planets as well as in building materials here on earth or spacesuits technology that trickled down to help firefighters stay safe or biomedical advances from microgravity or long duration spaceflight. Going out into the solar system and understanding how life here can also begin out there is fundamental to our existence. We can not survive on this planet forever. To quote Commander Sinclair from Babylon 5 – ” Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and – all of this – all of this – was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars. “

18)   When did you write Pursuit? What do you hope to do with it?

Summer before Senior year at Michigan I took a creative writing course since I was one Humanities credit short and senior year was going to be packed with design projects and other engineering classes. When I got back to school I started brainstorming the story, but it wasn’t until I was working at Goddard that I finished the first draft of the movie script. I printed out a bunch of copies for friends and coworkers to read and fill out a survey on. Most were positive and helped with ways to make it better. One guy (more of a Sheldon) typed up 4 pages single spaced on issues and such. It was a little disheartening but in the end I think the next draft became much better for it. I have had delusions of grandeur of doing a Kickstarter campaign or teaming up with Dave School to somehow get it made as an animated feature, but so far I really haven’t done anything with it except for put it out in segments on Google Plus  (the conclusion with links to previous parts . I would love to work with an artist to maybe turn it into a graphic novel or maybe an art story book like Oblivion by  Joseph Kosinski  and Andree Wallin 

19)   If a position opened up on a Tau’ri battlecruiser with comparable pay and benefits, would you leave your job at NASA?

Yes because I would love to explore the solar system and galaxy even if it meant having to fight the Gouald. Seeing the images from Hubble, Cassini and others are cool, but to behold majesty of this vast Universe from the Horsehead Nebula or the rings of Saturn up close or the swirling storms of Jupiter is just something ingrained in our DNA. Exploration would be awesome even if it came at the risk of battle.

20)   Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

I am all for Han Shooting First, because it makes him a badass, but Lucas’ revision whimpifies him (no offense to George or my friends at Lucasfilm). Malcolm Reynolds would (and has had) no problem shooting first so why should Han, they are cut from the same noble scoundrel cloth. I am okay with George cleaning up some of the effects with CG (like the snowspeeder cockpit masking) but fundamental changes to a character while his right as the author/creator doesn’t mean we the fans have to agree with it or embrace it

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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2 Responses to Interview With Michael Interbartolo III

  1. Pingback: SciFi Question of the Day: Those Aren’t Planets… | AmyBeth Inverness

  2. Sheryl says:

    Very nice. I’m proud of you

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