Bruce Pittman is the founder and president of Profit Engineering Technologies and is currently working as a contractor at NASA as the Director of Flight Projects and Chief System Engineer in the NASA Space Portal and the Emerging Space Office at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.
In this position Mr. Pittman supports programs ranging from suborbital human-tended research; orbital applications of the International Space Station and other orbiting commercial facilities; low cost, reliable access to space, reusable space infrastructure as well as cis-lunar commercialization. He has been involved in high technology project development, project management and system engineering in a variety of industries for over 30 years.
For his Mr. Pittman has been awarded 2 NASA Special Achievement Awards, four NASA Group Achievement Awards. In 2011 NASA award him the Exceptional Public Service Medal for "exceptional leadership in pioneering the development of commercial space for public benefit." In 2012 he was presented with the "Service to the Frontier" award by the Space Frontier Foundation.
Who inspired you to venture into the field of space science and engineering? Did you always dream of working for the NASA?
Bruce: I got interested in space from reading science fiction when I was a kid. I remember reading Tom Corbett Space Cadet when I was in 4th grade. Also John Glenn made his orbital flight on my 10th birthday Feb. 20, 1962, that is the first time I paid much attention to NASA.
You were involved in several projects for NASA. Can you talk to us in detail about the days when you started working for them? Which project did you find the most toughest to work?
Bruce: I started working for NASA when I was still in college as an undergraduate. My first job out of school was as the NASA representative at Hughes Aircraft Co., the prime contractor on Pioneer Venus. Here I was 24 years old and they were paying me to help build and test a spacecraft to go to another planet.
It was really hard work with long hours but I never had more fun and it was such a thrill to be on the launch pad the day of launch and be one of the last people to touch the spacecraft before it left Earth forever, really exciting stuff. The toughest project I worked on was the Infrared Astronomical Satellite that was the first superfluid helium experiment ever flown in space. We really did not understand how difficult that this was going to be but we eventually were able to successfully complete the project even if it was a couple of years late.
Of all the projects you have worked for NASA, which was your most favorite? Can you tell us about it?
Bruce: Of all the projects I have worked on at NASA I think my work in the Space Portal has been the most rewarding because we are not only trying to accomplish important things in space but finding better ways to accomplish them. We have been advocating the use of public/private partnerships as an important tool for enable collaboration between government and industry.
You have worked as a consultant for several fortune 500 companies. Can you tell us about your days with them?
Bruce: When I was working as a consult most of my time was spent teaching system engineering and project management. This was interesting because I got to see a lot of different industries and came to realize while everybody thinks their situation is unique most of the problems I encountered everyone had.
Failure to communicate, inadequate up front planning, success oriented planning, never time or money to do it right but always time and money to do it over, things like that. I discovered that although I enjoyed the teaching and consulting but ultimately I like doing it more than I liked telling other people how they should do it.
You have founded and been a member of several start-up teams. Can you tell us how fundings for such space-tech companies go by? Is it based on the commercial viability or the technology they offer?
Bruce: Funding of space startups in the 80’s and 90’s is much different than it is now and much harder. SpaceHab was my first startup and the CEO was Bob Citron. Bob was a great salesman but he was only successful after I teamed up with my friend Tom Taylor was not a salesman but a really good engineer. Between the two of them they came up with something that was doable, that had a customer, and the customer had money.
While it took a long time to accomplish and there was a certain amount of luck involved SpaceHab was ultimately successful and it was the first privately funded space vehicle that I know of. The early funding came from Walt Kistler, an angel investor and from private placements memorandums. This allowed us to hire McDonnell Douglas as our prime contractor and then sign a contract with NASA, a public/private partnership that was kind of complicated but it worked.
Can you talk us about the experience when co-authoring the books in Beyond The Earth: The Future of Humans in Space and Space Commerce: The Inside Story? What research did you do? How did you go by writing it?
Bruce: Writing about the future is not hard for me as I spend most of my time thinking about it. The real challenge is just taking the time and actually to sit down and start writing. With the internet it is now so easy to get access to such an amazing array of information the real challenge is figuring out what is most important and how to tell a compelling story that is still understandable to the general public.
What are the space commercial possibilities we can achieve in our quest to reach Mars?
Bruce: I believe that the Moon will be the economic engine that drives our expansion to Mars and then throughout the solar system. Mining the Moon and the near Earth asteroids for water, other volatiles and valuable minerals could start within the next few years, for use in space not back here on Earth. Initially this will be done using robots but I don’t think people will be too far behind. I do think additive manufacturing in space using materials from space could truly be a game changer in the economic development of the solar system and the expansion of human civilization out into space. The next 100 years are really going to be exciting.
Do you believe in Aliens? If yes, why? If you do not believe in their existence, can you explain the reasons too?
Bruce: I do believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe there are just too many potentially habitable worlds based on the knowledge gained from the Kepler Mission for us to be alone. The work that NASA and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have been doing show that the building blocks for life are pretty much everywhere and as my friend Chris McKay as discovered life exists on Earth in the most hostile and unlikely places.
Which International Space Agency do you always admire?
Bruce: I think ISRO, India’s Space Research Organization has done a remarkable job of not only building a launching satellites but also for put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars on their first attempt and for a very bargain price, very impressive.
Which is your favourite science fiction movie and your favourite book?
Bruce: My favorite movie is 2001 A Space Odyssey which came out when I was 17 and really inspired me. Robert Heinlein is my favorite author and I have read all of his works many times but the one I have read the most is "Stranger In A Strange Land."
Has NASA undergone any changes under Donald Trump's presidency?
Bruce: NASA under Trump is revectoring from a focus on Mars to a focus on the Moon first which I agree with. We still do not have a NASA Administrator confirmed by the Senate so until that happens I don't believe we will see any major changes.
To someone who dreams to work for the NASA one day, can you share your best piece of advice to them? Also, can you tell us about things a person should have in mind to be a better engineer?
Bruce: While NASA is a great place to work the good news today is there are an amazing array of other space agencies and private companies that are doing amazing things so I would recommend researching all of the alternatives and choosing the best option for your particular situation. Space is a very challenging environment that attracts a lot of talent so whatever you decide to do, do it well.
Find ways to make yourself stand out in the crowd. One way to get good experience is to volunteer somewhere that will give you experience and contacts that can be useful to you later. It is easier to get hired when you are a known entity rather than just a resume. Also, persistence pays off, don’t give up. Dream big and go for it!