Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Incredible Partnerships: Dr. Byron Lichtenberg & NASA

It's never been a secret that LeTourneau University's influence spans worldwide; however, "worldwide" is now too narrow a description for LETU's reach.

Dr. Byron Lichtenberg has been a professor at LETU for the past year, and his experience before joining LETU knows almost no bounds, including gravity.

Lichtenberg began his career with the Air Force and was a combat pilot in Vietnam in 1972. He then attended graduate school at MIT, receiving his master's and doctorate degrees in biomedical engineering.

In the early 1980s, he was selected by NASA as a payload specialist contractor and flew his first space shuttle mission in 1983 on the Columbia, NASA's 9th shuttle mission. NASA selected him to fly again in 1992 on the Atlantis STS-45. Over two missions, he's spent 19 days in space. 

In 1992, he began a 17-year job as a commercial airline pilot for Southwest Airlines.

In subsequent years, he started Zero Gravity Corporation, the only company that lets individuals experience zero gravity on earth via a specially modified Boeing 727. Stephen Hawking was one of the company's many patrons.

Lichtenberg was also a founding member of the XPRIZE foundation, a non-profit that offers a series of prizes, ranging up to millions of dollars, to encourage innovation in areas including but not limited to medical diagnostics, ocean stewardship and lunar exploration.

NASA chose him three decades ago. He's since chosen LETU; now NASA's chosen him again, this time for the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

It's a first in space exploration. Through the CCP, NASA is seeking commercial contracts from companies Boeing and SpaceX that will transport astronauts and civilians to the International Space Station, ending reliance on Russia's space program by 2017.

Last spring, NASA contacted Dr. Lichtenberg, asking him to serve as the Chairperson of their Standing Review Board for the CCP.

"This is a small group of people who are generally independent of NASA," Lichtenberg said, describing the Standing Review Board. "We are asked to look at how the program's doing, whether the companies are meeting their objectives, if NASA is managing it properly and to provide an independent assessment of risk of the program, technical surety, and viability.

"We will review projects from both Boeing and SpaceX, convene and develop an independent assessment to give NASA a recommendation. It's another set of eyes and ears that have experience in the industry."

The CCP - a $7 billion program - is groundbreaking in that it's the first time NASA will utilize privately built spacecraft.

"What it's going to do is free up NASA money that they would have had to put into building this whole thing on their own. Even though NASA is still putting money into it, these commercial companies are putting at-risk capital into it as well," Lichtenberg explained. "This lets NASA take that money that it would have spent and put it into deep space exploration. Now we can start doing the big rockets again - go back to the moon, around the moon and start getting ready to go to Mars. That's the goal in the next 15-20 years."

Lichtenberg first became involved with LeTourneau when his wife chose LETU's online program to earn her teaching degree (which she did, with a 4.0 GPA). He then suggested LETU to his daughter, who was interested in engineering, during her college search. She's currently a biomedical engineering major at LETU.

During his first year on campus, Lichtenberg has been instrumental in launching LeTourneau's Master of Engineering Management (MEM), with specializations in aerospace, oil & gas, software engineering and program management. He now serves as Program Coordinator for the MEM, a degree that marries the university's tradition of excellence in engineering and business, which happen to also be two of Lichtenberg's areas of passion and expertise.

Dr. Ron DeLap, Dean of LETU's School of Engineering, shared that "Dr. Lichtenberg contributes a richness to our business and engineering programs that only an astronaut can bring. His decision to join our team is just one more example of how God continues to draw his very best to LeTourneau. Our students are thrilled that as a part of their education, they can meet one-on-one with a godly man who has been in space multiple times, and has also started several space-related businesses as an entrepreneur. I look forward to what God will continue to do through Dr. Lichtenberg at LeTourneau University."

We at LETU take great pride in that an individual whose advice is sought from one of the most advanced institutions in the world simultaneously teaches our students every day. Since 1946, we've had some of the world's leading experts instruct our students, and we're thrilled that we can now count a leading expert from space in that number.

You can find LeTourneau's resident astronaut on earth, in Longview Hall, bringing his entrepreneurial expertise to School of Business students, and teaching an occasional engineering class.