NASA engineer joins Rice Space Institute

Mark Jernigan aims to boost collaborations as executive director

NASA engineer Mark Jernigan has been appointed executive director of the Rice Space Institute (RSI) for the next year under the space agency’s Executive on Loan program.

Mark Jernigan

Mark Jernigan

Jernigan takes over for astronaut Mike Massimino, who held the position until May. Jernigan will work with RSI Director David Alexander, a professor of physics and astronomy, to look for opportunities for Rice students and faculty to collaborate with NASA scientists and engineers.

“My function here is to be a catalyst to get researchers at Rice interested in problems at Johnson Space Center (JSC), and also to avail JSC subject matter experts of the breakthrough projects that are being researched here,” said Jernigan, who most recently served as human health and performance associate director for human exploration systems development support at NASA.

“My responsibilities in that position were to manage all our human health and performance support to the exploration systems development, the Orion and the space launch and ground systems we’re developing,” he said. “I’m also the directorate point of contact for the JSC Technology working group, where we manage internal research and development. I’m keeping that job because it’s well in line with what I’ll be doing at Rice.”

Alexander said, “Mark solidifies the connections we established with NASA through Mike Massimino and brings an entirely different range of experience to the institute. His expertise in the ways humans interact with space hardware will be a valuable resource for Rice students and faculty. Under Mark’s leadership, we have already submitted two proposals, one with a focus on engineering and another on psychology. I’m very excited about the opportunity to work with Mark for the next year.”

Jernigan earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering at Texas A&M and a master’s in system design and management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His previous contact with Rice faculty involved a six-month stint working with late nanotechnology pioneer Richard Smalley at the professor’s company, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc.

He sees Rice as a good launch pad for new ideas and collaborations. “The luxury of this position is that there are so many opportunities,” Jernigan said. “At NASA, we’re trying to grow the relationship between space, the energy industry and the health industry — the big three industries in Houston that are doing technology for significant research development.

“It turns out that a lot of the problems each domain is experiencing are similar to problems in the others. One of the things we’re looking into is doing the mash-ups,” he said.

One venue for collaboration is the Pumps and Pipes series of conferences. “It was started by folks at the medical center who wanted to get with the energy industry,” Jernigan said. “Last year they added the space program, and NASA hosted a meeting at our Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. The energy industry is working on plumbing and so are the cardiovascular guys, and they have some common problems. They’ve had a few successes where they’ve been able to cross pollinate. JSC is extremely interested in being a partner in these kinds of things.”

He said the commercialization of space exploration presents new opportunities for NASA and for Rice students and researchers who want to work in the field. “NASA is on board with getting the burgeoning commercial space sector off the ground,” he said. “We’d like to reduce the cost to achieve low-Earth orbit, and we’re enthused about all the high-level investment.

“We’re interested in keeping humans out in space for the rest of time,” Jernigan said. “We’re birthing humanity’s presence in the solar system. If you look at it in terms of civilization, we’re working on pyramid-level activities, things that will be remembered for thousands of years if we’re successful.

“That’s what keeps us going,” he said. “My objective here is to infuse the student body with that same kind of enthusiasm for conquering the universe.”



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.