NASA’s latest Project: How teams are preparing to land back on the Moon

The Logistics Manager for NASA’s Gateway Program talks about his role in getting astronauts to Mars – and why he’s always believed in reaching for the stars.

Mark Wiese credits Tom Cruise – or rather the 1986 Tom Cruise blockbuster “Top Gun” – for inspiring his career at NASA. “I was so thrilled by that movie!” says Wiese, who admits he’s excited to see the sequel this summer. “I love high technology and pushing the envelope to find out what’s really possible. I also love watching aircraft going extremely fast. At high school I had an aptitude for math and science, and was told I should consider a career in engineering. So, encouraged by “Top Gun,” I chose a degree in aerospace engineering.”

After graduation, he took a class in small satellite design at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which helped him land his first job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was, he says – with a large dollop of understatement – an amazing opportunity. “There I was: a young engineer working in Mission Control just as NASA was sending the first crew to the International Space Station. It was mind-blowing to be a part of that. My grandparents had talked about watching the first man land on the moon, so it really resonated with them to know their grandson was working for NASA. It resonated with me, too! I remember thinking: ‘Wow! I’m in a special place.’”

Wiese has spent the last 17 years living his NASA dream. His career highlights include planning, organizing and directing activities to influence the safe and successful launch operations for the final 20 Space Shuttle missions, and working on the Atlas V program – the rockets that launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Pluto New Horizons space probe. Currently he’s involved in NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, overseeing the design, development, testing and evaluation of spacecraft along with the program’s integration of commercial logistics missions to the Gateway. This is a small spacecraft that will give astronauts continuous access to the surface of the moon so they can mine its resources and use the lunar surface as a launchpad to Mars.

“Mars is in our sights,” confirms Wiese. “But right now we are laser-focused on landing the first woman on the moon in 2024. That will be an incredible moment. It’s so neat to see my seven-year-old daughter get inspired when I show her videos of Christina Koch (the pioneering astronaut who was on the International Space Station for 328 days). That’s what we want to do with Artemis: get another generation inspired about the possibilities of space exploration.”

How does it feel to have been part of the final Space Shuttle missions?

I feel extremely proud. I remember being aware of the Space Shuttle in elementary school. Space Shuttle Atlantis (the last Space Shuttle to fly) is on display here at our visitor center in Florida, and when I have the opportunity to see it with my family ... wow, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. The Space Shuttle was a moment of pride for my country, but also for the world.

Was Atlas V another career high?

That was also pretty special! Atlas V represented the next generation of rockets and I thought that was incredibly exciting. I was young and maybe not so cautious, so when my boss asked what I wanted to work on, I raised my hand and said: “Atlas V – because everyone thinks it’s going to be really hard!” I think that’s how I was raised: to take the more challenging path.

How stressful is it in Mission Control at launch time?

It’s funny, but in those moments I’m in high gear and it feels as though everything has slowed down. I don’t feel stressed. To use a sports analogy: As an athlete, you can get really nervous in the lead up to a game. But when you’re in the game you have to get into a Zen-like state and employ all of your training and experience. It’s “show time” and the chance to inspire the world and the next generation of kids.

If there’s an issue during a launch or a flight how do you respond to it?

NASA does a lot of training to make sure we have a rigorous method for working through a problem. That practice really pays off when real issues occur. Safety is paramount in everything we do. Yes, there’s a lot of money on the line when we’re dealing with an unmanned exploration satellite; but if there’s a mission with a crew involved then – oh, my gosh – those are our brothers and sisters and we have to do everything we can to make sure they’re as safe as possible.

How likely is it that humans will visit Mars?

That’s what NASA’s Artemis mission is all about: By using the moon as a base we’ll be able to travel further into our solar system and maintain our presence in space. Basically, the moon will become our logistical hub, which makes going to Mars in the 2030s very realistic. That’s so exciting! ― Tony Greenway

Published: April 2020

Image: NASA