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Associate Dean Advises NASA on Human Challenges in Space Programs

In two years, NASA plans to begin the new space program that will send human astronauts to Mars. It won't be easy, and technical issues aren't the only challenges.

The U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush want NASA to begin work on the new Constellation Program now. Yet NASA cannot expand its 18,000-member workforce, and its employees cannot devote their full attention to Constellation until the final shuttle mission is complete in 2010.

It's a conundrum for NASA administrator Michael Griffin, and for advice he has turned to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its human capital committee. Gerald Kulcinski, University of Wisconsin-Madison associate dean for research and Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering, is chair of the committee.

Formed in 2005 and chaired by UW-Madison engineering physics adjunct professor Harrison Schmitt, NAC is composed of seven committees that provide recommendations for Griffin on a variety of challenges currently facing NASA.

The 32 NAC members come from a variety of academic, industry and military backgrounds. Six former astronauts, including Schmitt and Neil Armstrong, are members.

Kulcinski says the council is helpful even if a particular problem isn't from their area of expertise.

"They'll make nontrivial suggestions or say 'I know x or y who's an expert in this area, let's get them on the phone,'" he says. "It's as much who they know as much as them actually solving the problem."

Kulcinski's connection to NASA began in the mid-1980s when he began researching commercial applications for Helium-3, an alternative nuclear fuel source that could ideally produce no radioactive waste. The moon is an abundance source of Helium-3; it contains approximately 1 million cubic tons of Helium-3, and merely 50 cubic tons could serve the electricity needs of the United States for a year.

Schmitt - the only geologist to walk on the moon - became involved in the research and co-taught courses with Kulcinski. Griffin was also connected as part of a proposal to send miner equipment designed by Kulcinski's team to the moon to extract Helium-3.

However, it's not his technical knowledge that helps Kulcinski lead the human capital committee. His experience as an associate dean qualifies him to tackle a variety of human-based problems.

One of those problems is how to attract the best and brightest young employees.

"They're not getting as many young folks as they need. These are the people who will take you to the moon and Mars and beyond," Kulcinski says. "NASA is worried about trying to solve cutting-edge problems, so they need dedicated people."

During the Apollo missions in the 1950s and '60s, college graduates flocked to NASA, viewing the agency as "the place to go." Now, recent graduates have more options as fields such as medical research, homeland security and finance grow. The average age of a NASA employee has risen to 50.

Kulcinski understands the challenge of attracting top-notch young people. And he knows how to succeed.

"UW-Madison is one of the top engineering colleges in the country. We deal with the best and the brightest students; we have a sense of what it takes to motivate them, attract them," he says.

NAC terms last three years with an option to renew at the discretion of the NASA administrator, who is appointed by the president. The council gathers four times a year, rotating the meeting locations among the various NASA labs around the country.

Sandra Knisely | Newswise Science News
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