What I Do: NASA Manager Dennis Davidson ’82

Photo: Formal head and shoulders studio portrait of Norwich alum and NASA manager Dennis Davidson
WHAT I DO:

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Dennis Davidson ’82
Manager, Program Control and Integration Office

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NASA Commercial Crew Program
Johnson Space Center

Mention NASA and most people think of astronauts and engineers. But any space program “starts with the budget,” says Norwich alum Dennis Davidson. “Without money, nothing’s gonna happen.” During the Shuttle era, Davidson was the no. 2 in charge of business operations for the $4 billion-a-year program. Today he manages 35 staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 billion for NASA’s crewed space flight program. The program’s main thrust is vehicle development contracts with commercial aerospace companies Space X and Boeing to send astronauts to the International Space Station and on other low-Earth orbit missions. He started his de facto NASA career shortly after his NU graduation, working for five years at Johnson Space Center while wearing an Air Force uniform. Thirty years on, he helps navigate Congress’s stopgap continuing budget resolutions to keep agency missions aiming for the heavens.

What’s your job at NASA?
In government lingo, program control is all the business functions. It’s procurement and contracting. It’s the finances. It’s IT. It’s security. Public relations. Legislative affairs. Interfacing with the center legal offices. We have a lot of oversight committees, seven or eight, including an aerospace safety advisory panel. It’s also about keeping the money flowing from fiscal year to fiscal year, so that the astronauts and engineers can go do their jobs and the contracts can perform.

Are you the top guy?
I am.

What’s it like to work at NASA? Any highlights?
There was a point in my career where I had an office in the same building as Mission Control. So being there every day, walking past Mission Control Center, being aware of that history. “Houston, we’ve got a problem” from Apollo 13. Or “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That all those words came to Houston first. Being a part of that going forward was just huge.

The second piece is just the quality of the workforce down here. I mean you come in every day and work with just awesome people, who are fun to be around, smart, [and] solving hard, hard problems every day. Being in a position to participate and at times just observe and see that take place has just been fascinating.

I’ve moved around to several different jobs. But I was in the Shuttle Program for the last few years that we were flying. Being a part of those last few missions, when you knew STS-133, STS-134, STS-135 were almost at the end. We finished assembling the Space Station. We were not going to fly these vehicles anymore. These were the last flights. Just knowing the importance of what was going on at that point in time and being a part of it.

What do you see when you look at the space exploration landscape today?
NASA on the whole is still doing in-house development for deep space exploration. Whether it’s the robotic spacecraft that are currently operating on Mars or the Orion crewed vehicle that’s being developed here that will be capable of going to the moon or to Mars. There’s also a new NASA rocket, called the SLS, the space launch system, that’s going to take the Orion into space.

What we’re starting to do commercially is operating in what we refer to as low-Earth orbit, so up to 250 to 300 miles. Primarily that’s the International Space Station. We’ve got three vehicles that they’re working on for cargo. Two of them are operational already. Then we’re working on the two vehicles with Boeing and Space X for crewed transportation, getting us away from reliance on the Russians. The big focus outside of NASA, a lot of it is what they call the tourist industry. Those folks would take passengers up to space, but not for long.

What’s driving advances in your field and what are the big hurdles?
The big hurdle is the cost of getting things launched. A couple of companies are working on reusable launch vehicles. It’s the single use vehicle—you got to build a new one every time—that drives the cost. With Shuttle, it was a multiuse vehicle. But because of the nature of it’s design, it was almost as expensive. So finding a reusable way [to launch]. Both Blue Origin and Space X have working concepts to land their first stage rocket. They do the launch. They bring it back. They can actually fly it back and land it on landing legs, where you then refuel it and use it again. That will be the biggest single thing that will open up the market.

Why does exploring space matter?
The simple answer is, what if Columbus never had a desire to set sail for India? What if Lewis and Clark had never set out to see all the country of the Louisiana Purchase? What if those people had never done that? What would we have missed out on? We’re taking the human race into that next unknown. Will we ever colonize another planet? Maybe. [We’re taking] that next step. Asking, is it possible? Could we colonize another body—the moon, Mars, or anywhere else—if we needed to?

Dennis Davidson serves on the Board of Fellows advisory panel for the Norwich University College of Science and Mathematics.

Norwich University Office of Communications

September 14, 2016

Norwich Students Join NASA Competitions, Internships

From space launches to telerobotic challenges, Norwich engineering students pushed their skills at a number of NASA summer programs.
David Crawford School of Engineering

 
October 22, 2014

Norwich engineering students participated in a variety of challenging NASA competitions, internships and space launches over the summer. Here’s a brief roundup of their endeavors:

RASC-AL Competition

A team of mechanical engineering students was selected as one of fourteen finalists in the 2014 NASA/NIA Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition. The contest provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate engineering students to tackle challenges tied to NASA’s vision for human space exploration. Invited to participate in the RASC-AL forum in June at Coca Beach, Fla., the Norwich team comprised recent graduates Peter Gill, Savanah Medlar, Matthew Roberts and Ethan Hanks. Gill and Medlar along with faculty advisor Danner Friend represented the Norwich team in Florida at the RASC-AL forum. The group selected the tele-operated robot challenge, producing a creative design concept for a free-flying robotic inspection and repair vehicle that could repair torn solar panels. “The Norwich team stood out among all other teams with their detailed physical prototype that was built using 3D printing technology,” Friend said.

LARSS Program Internship

Mechanical engineering senior Spencer Nath worked over the summer as a NASA intern for the Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars (LARSS) Program in Hampton, Va. He was assigned to the Advanced Sensing and Optical Measurement Branch, where he worked on a project to precisely measure the sound created by the undercarriage of an aircraft in landing configuration. The ultimate goal was to compare measurements before and after noise-reduction modifications were implemented. He worked with a team of engineers using optics and additive manufacturing technologies to create a custom array of super-powered LEDs capable of highlighting the aircraft (equipped with reflective materials) flying some 400 feet in the air.

RockOn Workshop

Sounding rocket launch during RockOn Workshop at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility
Electrical and computer engineering senior Nathan Tong attended the RockOn Workshop sponsored by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium and hosted at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The workshop allows student teams to build rocket payloads from a kit that is later mounted and launched on a sounding rocket. The payload kit included an Arduino microcontroller acting as the central processor, a Geiger counter and an assortment of accelerometers and environmental sensors. The data collected during the launch allowed the students to study the physical effects of the launch, the rotation of the rocket, the radiation levels (which spiked when the rocket cleared the atmosphere) and the length of time the rocket was in space. “Although we were one of many teams with similar payloads on the rocket,” Tong said, “it was a great experience and a good program for Norwich students to consider in the future.”

Both Nath and Tong received support from the Vermont Space Grant Consortium and presented the results of their experiences at a consortium awards ceremony and reception held on October 8 at the University of Vermont.

State space grant consortiums like Vermont and Colorado’s are part of a national space grant program funded by NASA linking 850 colleges and universities. The program promotes STEM education and provides avenues for students to participate in NASA-related aeronautical and space program research.