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Henry May Helping Open the Way for the Next Generation of Explorers
June 14, 2013



By Bob Granath,
NASA's Kennedy Space Center

Henry May grew up on Florida’s Space Coast. From his home he watched rockets lift off from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the time, his father helped launch astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo Program. May now is a member of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), a team that is developing new ways for the next generation of space explorers to travel to low-Earth orbit.

May, the Launch Vehicle Systems lead for Boeing, is working in an effort to design transportation for astronauts to the International Space Station. His job focuses on ensuring the partner’s spacecraft will integrate with the designated launch vehicle.

A second-generation participant in America's space program, May spent his earliest years in California.

"My father worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base," he said. "We moved to Merritt Island when he got a job working in the Apollo Program on the Saturn V launch vehicle at Kennedy."

May was inspired by the sight of missiles heading to space from Kennedy and the Cape.

"I remember running into the backyard and looking into the sky and seeing rockets take off and being excited that all this was happening so close to my home," he said.

Shortly after the space shuttle Columbia arrived in 1979 to be prepared for its first mission, May had an opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I started at Kennedy fresh out of high school," he said. "I was 18 years old and was hired as a tile technician working for Rockwell International. I did that for about seven years."

When Columbia rolled out to the launch pad at the end of 1980, May was selected for a special honor.

"I bonded the last tile on Columbia before it flew the first time," he said.

When the shuttle lifted off for the STS-1 mission on April 12, 1981, he stood in awe as the engines thundered to life.

"When I saw the solid rocket boosters ignite on the first flight," he said, "I was surprised at how much power they generated."

"In 1986, shortly after I witnessed the Challenger accident, I thought about my future and realized I needed more formal education," he said.

While working full time, he attended the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he was awarded a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1999. He later earned a master's degree in industrial engineering from UCF in 2011.

"I believe almost anyone who works in the aerospace business wants to work for NASA," he said. "In 2007, I learned that there was an opening in the Shuttle Transition and Retirement organization."

In his new role, May worked with a team that was laying the groundwork to decommission the shuttles and transfer them to be exhibited at museums.

When the CCP office was established a few years later, May was assigned to work in their Launch Vehicle Systems Office. The commercial space transportation effort will be a vital component of future human spaceflight as NASA focuses its efforts on sending humans deeper into space.

"NASA will be purchasing transportation services to the space station," May said. "It's going to be like the start of the commercial airline industry in the early days of aviation. Our commercial partners have told us they are ready to take on this challenge and they've showed us that they can do the job."

With industry providing access to low-Earth orbit, NASA can concentrate on new destinations.

"This will allow NASA to do the big jobs such as the mission to an asteroid or going to Mars," May said. "These are efforts that will require considerable resources and allow us to explore beyond Earth."

In the Launch Vehicle Systems Office, May's work is focusing on the rockets that will boost commercial spacecraft to low-Earth orbit.

"We're now working the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability phase of the CCP in which our partners come to us with an integrated capability – that is a transportation system including the spacecraft and the launch vehicle," he said. "I'm currently a part of the Boeing team integrating their CST-100 crew module with United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket."

In addition to Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems is developing the Dream Chaser, also set to launch atop an Atlas V and SpaceX is building the Dragon spacecraft that will lift off on their Falcon 9 rocket.

"It's going to be a shift in the way we do business," May said. "That first commercial crew launch is going to be awe-inspiring."

Commercial spaceflight, May believes, will open vistas for more individuals to travel in space, especially for the next generation of space explorers.

"The opportunities for kids today are endless," he said. "In the future, spaceflight will be open to anyone."

NASA Launch Vehicle Systems lead Henry May
Image above: Henry May is a NASA Launch Vehicle Systems lead in the Commercial Crew Program office at the Kennedy Space Center.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Henry May bonding tile
Image above: In early 1981, Rockwell technician Henry May was selected to bond the last thermal protection tile on Columbia near one of the space shuttle main engines. STS-1 launched on April 12 that year.
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Anna Heiney