NASA Public Affairs Office
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
As director of NASA's Program Development Directorate at Stennis Space Center (SSC) in Hancock County, Stephen Brettel of Waveland is on the cutting edge of technology that will help fulfill America's Vision for Space Exploration. He is in charge of recruiting new business for SSC and seeking new uses for NASA technologies in the private sector.
Brettel also serves as Program Manager for NASA's Rocket Propulsion Test Program, which manages all of NASA's rocket propulsion test assets and activities around the country and is NASA's authority for rocket propulsion assignments.
He considers Mobile, Ala., his hometown and is passionate about his work with America's space program. But the path that brought the 1976 Montgomery Catholic High School graduate from Montgomery, Ala., to his current job was far from direct. Brettel studied metallurgical engineering at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and graduated as a civil engineer from the University of South Alabama in Mobile in 1982. He worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and later took a job as Chief of Office Engineering in El Salvador. An earthquake struck the country's capital city region shortly after Brettel arrived there in 1986. He spent six days volunteering in the disaster recovery efforts, earning the Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for Bravery from the Secretary of the U.S. Army.
Back in the U.S. two years later, Brettel worked on the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor (ASRM) project for NASA under an inter-agency support agreement. Brettel was selected by NASA in 1990 to manage its ASRM nozzle facility at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.
At the end of the ASRM project, he accepted a position as a lead engineer for Space Shuttle Main Engine testing at SSC. In 1994, he was chosen lead systems integration manager for the Superlightweight (External) Tank project at MAF.
In 2000 he was chosen to manage the MSFC's External Tank Upgrade Program. There, he was instrumental in developing a new technique that uses self-reacting friction stir welding to repair the Space Shuttle's External Tank material.
"It's about twice as strong as a fusion weld, with virtually no defects. That was one of my most significant accomplishments," Brettel said. The Superlightweight Tank Program ended in 1998. Brettel was selected in 2000 to be manager of the External Tank Program at MAF.
"Friction-stir welding was a huge success," he said. "It revolutionized the way we weld aluminum lithium."
In 2002, he was chosen manager at MAF. When Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in February 2003, Brettel was on a yearlong duty rotation at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.
After fulfilling those duties, Brettel returned to MAF and helped guide the plant's External Tank redesign effort.
He accepted his current position at SSC in April 2004. Since arriving at SSC, the priority of Brettel's office has been to develop new business opportunities for SSC. According to Brettel, new opportunities are being sought in the traditional roles of rocket propulsion testing and applied sciences, as well as federal city activities like the NASA Shared Services Center. Opportunities are also being sought in nontraditional partnerships that leverage the skilled work force of SSC, such as the hydrogen initiative.
"We want to develop new business opportunities for SSC's work force, to make sure we are sponsoring technology growth in this area of the country – growth that helps the adjacent communities, provides their children a place to come to work that is on the very tip of the world's greatest adventure," he said.
Brettel and the Program Development Directorate see an opportunity in the resources at SSC. Because SSC is the nation's largest consumer of hydrogen and is expert in handling the super-cold rocket fuel, SSC has submitted partnership proposals to the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy to have the center designated a national validation demonstration site for the hydrogen economy.
"It's a natural fit for the President's Management Agenda and his vision for a hydrogen economy," Brettel said. The designation would allow SSC and its partners – other NASA centers and federal agencies, universities, private companies, the U.S. departments of Energy and Transportation and the Southern Coalition for a Hydrogen Economy – to show how hydrogen fuel cells would work as an alternative to fossil fuels.
"We would develop, validate and verify the fuel cells' designs," he said. "We would produce lessons learned on the technical side and in safety of operation. Glenn Research Center would take the lead to enhance the fuel cells to make them technically better than their predecessors. Being the demonstration site will open avenues to learn how to apply the technology: What's the best method to put the cells into cars? Which cars run best? How do we partner with power companies?"
Negotiations are under way for that proposal, with an announcement expected before September. Brettel said the designation would ensure SSC maintains state-of-the-art rocket propulsion facilities and is prepared to be a strategic player in NASA's exploration program.
NASA's contribution to America, he said, is "far greater than a Shuttle flight. It's pushing the vision forward to allow further vision and further dreams to follow behind it."
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