Before he answers any questions, Mark Kirasich wants to clarify the nature of his job. “I am NASA’s Orion program manager,” he says, presuming — correctly — that emphasizing his employer’s name would hold particular significance for his alma mater’s quarterly magazine.
Because, as it turns out, another guy occupies an equivalent position with Lockheed Martin, NASA’s main contractor on the Orion deep-space exploration project. His name is Mike Hawes. “And Mike, believe it or not, is also a Notre Dame graduate,” Kirasich says. The two engineers and their teams work together every day on the development of a spacecraft intended to transport humans to Mars.
Kirasich ’82 mentions the Notre Dame connection so he’s not singled out as the lone Domer leading the country’s next generation of human space exploration. It’s nice of him to share the credit, although Hawes ’78 now has to find time on his calendar for an interview. “I may have to cancel a meeting with Mark!” he (probably) jokes in an email to schedule the conversation.
A NASA lifer, Kirasich started at the Johnson Space Center in Houston after completing a Stanford master’s degree in 1983, working on projects such as the space shuttle and the International Space Station. Hawes worked at NASA for 33 years before moving from “the government side” to “the industry side” eight years ago, acquiring quite possibly the coolest job title on Earth: vice president of human space exploration.
The two have seen public interest and investment in space exploration wax and wane. The moon landing was a long time ago — 50 years this July 20, to be exact — and the Apollo mission that produced that giant leap was shuttered after just a few more lunar excursions. People went from slack-jawed awe to a shrugging, “been there, done that” attitude at hyper-speed.
Since 1972, no astronaut has ventured beyond low Earth orbit, a couple hundred miles from Earth’s surface — never again the 238,000 miles to the moon, let alone the millions to Mars. Kirasich and Hawes built their careers on those low Earth orbit projects. The missions were massive, complex undertakings, and the people who worked on them never mistook them for minor simply because the distances from Earth were shorter.
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