The year 1984 was a very different time at NASA. Space was emerging as a new battlefront in the Cold War. The United States was championing plans to launch anti-missile satellites into orbit. Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan used his State of the Union address that year to highlight a vision to one day build an international space station.
It was the same year that Eugene Tu, a mechanical engineering sophomore from the University of California at Berkeley, started his first internship at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. He was the new kid joining the computational fluid dynamics program, then a relatively new team tasked with simulating flight scenarios with computers.
Call it an apt mindset for space research, but Tu has never really looked back since staking his career at NASA, and today he could be called its most prominent local figure. After a 30-year career with the space agency, Tu last month was picked to serve as the newest director of the Ames Research Center, giving him a chance to guide research and development for the center's 1,200 employees and about as many contractors.
Stepping into that role, Tu takes the helm of an agency that has dramatically changed from when he first joined. Today, NASA's space shuttles -- previously the agency's centerpiece -- have now all been retired, and many aspects of space transit are deferred to private entities. Meanwhile, the agency's budget is leaner -- today the U.S. spends about 40 percent less on NASA as a percentage of the total federal budget than it did 30 years ago.
Nevertheless, Tu said that NASA and the Ames Research Center remain unparalleled and enormously influential in drawing on a much larger network of private partners and contractors to guide the future of science. Sitting in the auditorium in Ames Building 201 on Monday, the 50-year-old Tu described his vision for how to lead the iconic research park into the future.
"In the early '80s, it was all about the shuttle program," he recalled. "Now our focus is how to go beyond that. How do we go beyond the lower Earth orbit for humans? How do we keep pushing the bounds of exploration on the robotic side?"
He laid out three priorities for the future. At the top of the list is keeping Ames as a innovation hub within the agency. Second is keeping the dated infrastructure at the 76-year-old Ames campus functional, which is admittedly a tall order. The research park has key equipment including supercomputers, wind tunnels and simulators, some of which aren't working quite as well as in years past.
He told the
Voice that his third priority is to foster more private-public partnerships, which have become increasingly integral to the agency. The NASA Research Park today hosts more than 70 companies, satellite universities and nonprofits that share a common goal with the space agency. A common situation these days is that NASA's scope for lower-level research is limited because its resources are devoted a narrower set of priorities.
"What's often happening in this scenario is you're not able to fund the longer-term research as much as you could have back in the day," Tu said. "But if you harness it correctly, there's great out-of-the-box thinking (in the private sector). In some ways, the private sector can look at approaches that we don't typically look at."
As an example, he pointed to the partnerships between NASA and Google, a major stakeholder at the research park. The search-engine company's specialty -- data mining -- has been extremely useful for NASA to draw on when analyzing large sets of information. Another significant partnership between the two is developing autonomous vehicles. While this technology certainly has a future in the consumer market, it also is valuable for future space exploration, he said.
"There's nothing that needs more autonomy than a rover on a planet 30 million miles away," he said.
Last year, as self-driving cars started being tested throughout the research park, some NASA employees raised concerns that their safety could be compromised in the process. Tu emphasized that safety is the top priority in any experimentation. In response to the complaints, NASA assembled a committee to review the program and lay down rules for how the testing would go forward.
In his new role, Tu said he brings a strong scientific background as well as the benefit of longstanding institutional knowledge. After being hired at NASA in the late '80s, Tu earned a master's degree and a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University. In his time at Ames, he's led four research divisions, including the agency's supercomputer and its arc jet-testing complex.
Tu admitted he was still being briefed on all the other partnerships and initiatives NASA is involved in at the research park. Even though he has spent decades at Ames, there is still much he is learning about it every day, he said.
"The breadth of this center is really incredible," he said. "I'm still learning (about) part of this center that in 30 years I never knew about."