Steve JurczykEnabling the space missions of the future.
Steve Jurczyk is the new associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (Chet Susslin)In the summer of 1969, seven-year-old Steve Jurczyk watched Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Like many American kids who saw that historic moment on the family TV, Jurczyk immediately became hooked on space travel. But unlike most of his peers, he didn't want to be an astronaut. It wasn't until college, however, when a researcher from NASA's Langley Research Center came to recruit on the University of Virginia campus, that Jurczyk really put his finger onwhat he did want to do. "I wanted to build hardware," he recalls thinking. "And it would be even better to build hardware and fly it in space."
This past March, Jurczyk, 53, left his post as director of NASA Langley to become associate administrator for the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate. In his new job, he oversees 51 people and a $596 million budget dedicated to researching and developing flight hardware for NASA missions—the robotic kind as well as the human variety. "Building successful hardware, getting it to the launch pad, and successfully watching it work in space—that's what I love," he tells me when I visit him at NASA headquarters in Southwest D.C. "We all live for day of launch, and then we hold our breath, and then we get the data down from space."
Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, Jurczyk got his start with the space agency early. After he completed his bachelor's and master's of science degrees in electrical engineering at UVA, in 1988, he went to work for the Langley center as an electronics engineer. In 1994, he left for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. There, he served as the instrument systems engineer, leading a team that designed and developed the instruments that would fly in space for scientific research; later, he became the spacecraft systems manager for the Landsat 7 satellite project. But by 1997, he'd returned to Langley. He served in numerous capacities there—including as director of the center's systems-engineering competency; director of research and technology; and, ultimately, director of the center itself—before being plucked for his current leadership role at NASA in Washington.
At Langley, Jurczyk says, he was focused on "running the organization and delivery on very specific projects." And while he got to work on some great ones, including the Curiosity Rover—the car-sized vehicle that has been exploring Mars since 2011—he now gets to think about the state of mission-related technology more broadly. "I'm a space guy, and I do have a passion for enabling the missions of the future," he says.
High on his agenda: developing a deep-space atomic clock, which would provide more accurate timing for global-positioning satellites. Another major project is the creation of an advanced propellant for in-space propulsion; currently, he says, missions typically use hydrazine, a highly toxic fuel. NASA's "green" alternative for all next-generation launch vehicles and spacecraft is expected to be ready by mid-2016.
Mostly, though, Jurczyk brings to the job a genuine enthusiasm for NASA's mission, which has grown considerably before his eyes. In the 27 years he has been with the agency, it has gone from developing the space shuttle and assembling the International Space Station to developing the spaceships aimed at exploring beyond Earth's orbit, he says. And by the 2030s, he adds, NASA is aiming to repeat that 1969 space walk—on Mars.