NASA People

Center Snapshot: Mark Shuart
07.18.09
Mark Shuart snapshot. Image above: Mark Shuart has had other jobs with NASA, but he relishes working with Ares V composites because it's technical, and "I'm a technical man down to my bone marrow." NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

A bit over a year ago, Mark Shuart was talking with a friend from Marshall Space Flight Center about the composites planned for the Ares V cargo launch vehicle.

"Can you use an old composites man to help with the project?" Shuart remembers asking. "And he said, 'Are you serious?' And I said, 'Yes I am.' And he said, 'How would you like to lead it?' "

Sitting in his office in Building 1209, Shuart is asked how long he thought about his answer.

"About a nanosecond," he says, laughing. He laughs a lot, and not just because the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals is on that night, or that Virginia Tech's football team is predicted to finish in the top 10 in the nation this year.

Not that those things don't make him happy.

At the time he had the conversation with his Marshall friend, Shuart headed the former Office of Strategic Communications and Education, and he was still fresh from a year spent as an advisor to California Rep. Jerry Lewis as part of NASA's Congressional Fellowship Programs in Washington.

He enjoyed both jobs, Shuart says, "but they weren't technical, and I'm a technical man down to my bone marrow."

The project he is working on involves using graphite-epoxy composites for the shroud of what could be a 65-ton payload on Ares V, as well as some other parts of the rocket. The use of composites will save weight that Ares V engines will be called upon to thrust aloft.

The difficulty in Shuart's project is the size of the composites. He offers an example.

"The fuselage of the Boeing 787 is made from graphite epoxy," Shuart says.

It's also about 20 feet in diameter. The Ares V will be 10 meters, or about 33 feet in diameter, and it may require a new process of fabricating the material outside of an autoclave, which is normally used to cure the composite material.

"If we do that, it will forever change the way composite aerospace structures are made," Shuart says. "The cost will considerably decrease for large structures because you don't have to pay for autoclaves."

It's a technical challenge, going from 20-feet-in-diameter barrels to 33-feet-in-diameter barrels, but technical challenges are what Shuart wants. It's what he has wanted since just after his freshman year at Virginia Tech, back home near Philadelphia.

"I worked for Prof. Byron Pipes at Drexel University," Shuart says. "Byron introduced me to two things: composites and research, and I was hooked. I was laser focused. I was going to work composites, structural materials. And oh, by gosh, it was going to be great."

Pipes later went to the University of Delaware and also did nanotechnology research at NASA Langley from 1998-2001.

Shuart is in charge of a $100 million program to develop composites technology for a rocket that will ferry equipment to the moon and beyond for astronauts to used in exploration efforts. It's an all-consuming effort that allows little time for him to keep up with wife Jane and their two daughters: Amy and Emily. Amy works for the Social Security Administration, and Emily is studying to be a broadcaster at the University of South Carolina.

His job also leaves little time for his primary away-from-center pursuit, anything and everything to do with sports, though he'll find time to get away to Virginia Tech football games this autumn.

Shuart came to NASA Langley to work on composites 34 years ago, and he's working on composites now. He's back where he wants to be, doing something technical.

"The emphasis of the agency is on space," he says, "and I wanted to jump into that."

He has, with both feet.