Suggested Searches

20 Continuous Years

Season 1Episode 169Nov 2, 2020

Joel Montalbano, the International Space Station program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, commemorates 20 years of continuous human presence on the orbiting laboratory, highlighting the program’s milestones, its assembly, and the ground-breaking research. HWHAP Episode 169.

20 Continuous Years

20 Continuous Years

If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.

“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.

On Episode 169, Joel Montalbano, the International Space Station program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, commemorates 20 years of continuous human presence on the orbiting laboratory, highlighting the program’s milestones, its assembly, and the ground-breaking research. This episode was recorded on August 14, 2020.

Check out the Houston, We Have a Podcast Space Station page for more Space Station episodes!

Houston, we have a podcast


Gary Jordan (Host): Houston we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 169, “20 Continuous Years.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. We did it, 20 continuous years of human presence. The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for 20 years straight. On October 31st, 2000, the first mission and crew assigned specifically to live and work on the International Space Station called Expedition 1 launched on a Soyuz spacecraft. Once it docked to the then three-moduled International Space Station on November 2nd, continuous human habitation began. Twenty years later, the International Space Station is the size of an American football field. More than 240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the station. And more than 230 spacewalks have been conducted for assembly, maintenance, and upgrades. More than 3,000 scientific investigations have taken place onboard the station in every category of science, biology, biotechnology, Earth science, physical science, and more. Not only are we improving our understanding of how to live and work in space to extend human presence to the Moon and Mars, but we’ve opened up the station as a national laboratory to benefit life on Earth. And even for commercial businesses to conduct activities and build an economy in low-Earth orbit. There’s a lot to celebrate on this special anniversary. So, coming on the podcast today is Joel Montalbano, Manager of the International Space Station Program here at the Johnson Space Center. Joel has spent much of his career working on the International Space Station, whether in a management role, leading the program in the U.S. or in Russia, or as a NASA Flight Director. So here we go, the 20th anniversary of continuous human presence on the International Space Station with Program Manager, Joel Montalbano. Enjoy.

[ Music]

Host: Joel Montalbano, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have A Podcast today.

Joel Montalbano: Oh, my pleasure. It’s great to be here. Thank you for taking some time and inviting me over.

Host: Twenty years of continuous human presence, what a milestone. Let’s take a step back and just think about that moment. We are, it has been 20 years that people have been continuously occupying the International Space Station. What does that mean to you?

Joel Montalbano: Just an incredible accomplishment. You know, what we’ve done on the International Space Station, how we’ve taken what we’ve done with the Europeans, the Japanese, the Canadians, the Russians, and over 100 countries across the globe. We’ve set the tone for international cooperation. We’ve made it work. When people are going to look in the future and read about us in history books, they’re going to see that we were the model for international cooperation. And, you know, we’ve worked through the good times and the bad times. And when we’ve had troubles, we came together across the globe to go fix that. When we had accomplishments and successful activities, we celebrated together as well. So, it’s truly just been an incredible pleasure.

Host: Well, Joel, I’m excited to get your perspective because not only you are the program manager right now, but you’ve been with NASA a long time, and you’ve seen the International Space Station grow to what it is today. Take me through your career here at NASA and how you’ve seen the International Space Station change over time through your career.

Joel Montalbano: OK, excellent question. So, you know, I started over 30 years ago, and I was a contractor. I came right from Iowa State University as an Aerospace Engineer and was in a group called Proximity Operations. So, the group responsible for teaching the astronauts to deploy, retrieve satellites, and so just a cool place to start. And I just had a great time. After that, I moved over and started doing some work as a Russian interface officer. So, in the control center, working with the control center here and the control center in Moscow during the Shuttle-Mir program. And I was the interface between the two mission controls, kind of helping make that, kind of the coordination, the technical activities of what was happening, helping with procedures and flight rules, and you can imagine, everything needed in order to have that cooperation go as smooth as we can. And then, in 2000, I was selected as a Flight Director. I was the flight director for about two years, and then I was asked to go over to Russia and work in Russia for about, it was initially going to be three to six months, and it ended up being about a year, working over helping us operate the team in Russia. I was a deputy for the team over there. And then I came back. I was the flight director. I was the Lead ISS Flight Director for many years. I had an opportunity to work different shuttle missions as that job. And then, in 2008, I was asked to go back to Russia and run our operations in Russia and Kazakhstan. So, anything we did in Russia and Kazakhstan for human spaceflight was my responsibility. And I did that from 2008 to 2012. When I came back from that, I came back to the ISS program as the deputy program manager for utilization. And so, we were making a major change at that time and on utilization and how we as a program facilitate utilization and research, not only across our program but across everything we do at the agency and how we’re supporting those activities on orbit. I did that for seven years, and then just a few weeks ago, I was selected to be the ISS program manager. So, a quick run of 30 years but just an awesome time. I tell people every day we have the coolest jobs working for NASA, and what we do with human spaceflight is just outstanding.

Host: And congratulations, by the way, for that. What an accomplishment to see your career, and then now your sort of leading the charge on the whole thing. You have such an interesting perspective just based on your biography. You spent a lot of time over in Russia. That’s quite a perspective. Not only did you go there, you stayed there for quite a long time, and then you were starting to lead the International Space Station operations. Given your perspective, working so closely with Russia, you have to have some insight into how this international cooperation that we’re talking about for what is the International Space Station — that’s how you opened it up, how that was shaped? Can you talk about just how those years, exploring some of those years over in Russia and shaping this international partnership that exists today?

Joel Montalbano: You know our time with our Russian partners has just been — It’s been a learning experience. It’s been just a, you know, we’ve created friendships. Many of us who have worked with our Russian colleagues, we have awesome friends. And they have awesome friends here in the U.S. And it was, in the beginning, it was a little different. You know, they had the Mir Space Station. So, they were doing long-duration missions. We were doing shuttle missions, short shuttle missions, you know, two weeks, you know, maybe a little longer than two weeks on the longer missions. But, you know, they were doing months at a time, and we were weeks. And so, we had to learn how to change and what we talked to people about is you change from a sprint on the shuttle mission to a marathon. You know, these Expeditions that we do, you have to treat them more as a marathon. And that was a learning experience for NASA and how we operate and how we go do that. The other big challenge was when we started working together with the International Space Station, part of what was necessary was for the Mir station to end. And the Mir station was a huge sense of pride for the Russians. And it still is. It’s an incredible space station. And so, working through that and how we work together as team and how we transition from the Mir station, which was, you know, Russian operated, Russian control. We were visitors to an international cooperation where we worked all together. We have goals. Some of us, you know, not some of us, everyone has national goals. But how do you take those national goals from everybody, put them together, and have an international project that we can work with day in and day out and make everyone happy? And it’s just been fun. And, you know, there’s easy days and the hard days, right. You know, not every day is an easy day. But that’s part of the, to me, that’s part of the accomplishment we have with the International Space Station. We work through those hard days. We work through those. Any anomalies we have or any issues we have, we resolve them. We move on, and we’re a stronger partnership every time we do that.

Host: Now, the other thing you mentioned when you were going through your career at NASA was when you came on for utilization. You talked about international partnerships, everyone having a national goal for the International Space Station. A lot of its early years, the focus was assembly.

Joel Montalbano: Absolutely.

Host: And so, you were at that helm for thinking about things differently, for this thing called utilization. What is that, and how did you implement this idea of focusing on utilization?

Joel Montalbano: As you said, those first few years, the space station assembly was a priority. We worked together. We worked across the partnership to assemble the great space station we have today. And that took a lot of effort. It took a lot of time. But we still, you know, the goal was we were building the space station to do utilization and research. And we had an office at the time in the space station program that was focused on utilization and research. And what we did is we reorganized the program. This utilization research wasn’t going to be that office’s responsibility. It was everyone’s responsibility. So, every office had a piece of utilization and research. So, we distributed the task, distributed the responsibilities, distributed the authority across the program. And what that allowed us to do is everybody had the goal of utilization and research. And it was a huge change, you know, from assembly to utilization and research. And so, one of the big things we did is we took a chunk of time, so every week the astronauts have a certain schedule they have to do. And when we first started, it was assembly, assembly, assembly, and then maybe some utilization and research. And what we changed this, utilization and research comes off the top first. That’s number one priority. And then what’s left is you do the other tasks you need to do. And that was a huge shift for us. And it was hard. You know, everybody had their — we’ve been doing this for ten years, you know, why should we change? And you have to remind people of why we have the space station and what we do. In my opinion, we were hugely successful. Today, utilization and research is the number one priority. It’s what we do. We’ve added technology development, things we can do on space station for exploration, for the Artemis Program. And we’re learning things on space station that are going to benefit us for years in the future.

Host: Now, this utilization, this mentality shift to we’re building a lab now let’s use it as a lab. Not only do you have to think about it. And you talked about different parts of the program, and my mind is going to NASA, but this is an International Space Station. So not only do you have to get everyone within our organization on board, but you have to get the Europeans on board. You have to get Japan on board. You have to get Canadians on board. You’re going to have to get Russia on board. Talk about, not only the culture shift of changing to a utilization mentality at NASA but trying to get everyone with their own goals to fall in the same path, to realize that this a great national lab. Let’s use it and have that be the priority.

Joel Montalbano: Yes, so you know, we talked about earlier about each agency has national goals that are important to the agency or the country, depending on, you know, which agency you are. And in trying to work the utilization and research within those goals was one of our top priorities. So how do you do that? So, what you do is, if say, one agency says,” hey, I want to go do this type of research.” And NASA says, “hey, I’m already doing that research. Don’t go spend a lot of money on new hardware that’s very similar to what we have. Let’s work together.” And such that you go ahead and use the hardware that we already have. We can do the research. We can share the results. And it’s not just, come use NASA’s hardware. There’s European hardware. There’s Japanese hardware that the NASA teams and NASA Principal Investigators are interested in. So, we can go work with them, and together you spend money on — you’re focused on the different type of research, and you’re not duplicating efforts. And so, you know, as we look at what we want to do with the budgets as they shrink over time, it’s important that we maximize the hardware we have, the interest that we have, the people that we have. And combining those efforts and working together comes up with a better product that we’re able to spread across the globe.

Host: So, what really impresses me, I’ve had the privilege to sit in on a number of meetings that you lead and just get a perspective of what it really takes to manage this thing called the International Space Station Program. And it’s more than just, you know, here are some of the things we have. There are just things that you just don’t even think about when it comes to the things that you have to manage on a day-to-day basis to keep the International Space Station, you know, flowing in orbit. Talk about the grander perspective of what it is that you, as a manager, have to oversee for this program.

Joel Montalbano: You know, crew safety, vehicle integrity, number one. You know, we need to make sure that what we’re doing today, we’re maintaining our crews and keeping them safe for what we do, what we ask them to do. Keeping the vehicle, we need to have a vehicle that’s going to last for as many years as the partnership, and the governments allow us to keep flying, and so looking ahead, always looking ahead. You know, it’s kind of, this giant chess game where, you know, today’s move is good, but how’s that move going to help me, you know, a year from now or a month from now? And always looking ahead and trying to say, you know, these are the upgrades we need to, you know, technology changing all time. And, you know, looking ahead and trying to make sure that we’re ready for that change. And, you know, we want to move from a, you know, we talked about utilization and research. One of the other things we’re doing is commercialization of low-Earth orbit. And we need to move at the speed of business. You know, we can’t, they can’t be waiting for us. We need to be ready for them when they’re ready to go. So, looking ahead, increasing our capabilities, doing changes, upgrades to the International Space Station such that we’re ready. As technology changes on the Earth, we’re ready to incorporate that into space.

Host: What a shift from just, I mean, just taking a snapshot just 20 years ago when the station was just — What was it? It was Zarya, Unity, and Node 1. It was just this tiny little thing, and we had this vision of what it could be. Now, look at all the things that we’re talking about. We’re talking about research. We’re talking about working with nations all over the globe. And now we’re talking about this thing called commercialization. It’s just — it’s the landscape of what the International Space Station has become is just incredible. And you’ve seen this progression through your entire career. I mean, let’s go back to thinking about where we are now. Let’s focus back on — I want to zoom in on your experience as a flight director because you mentioned that you were a flight director for a few years, then you went to Russia, then you came back and started leading the flight directors. I’m curious on that time period from when you were a flight director and then what experiences you took back to lead the flight director’s office from Russia.

Joel Montalbano: Gee, so you know, in those days, we were assembly. We were working hard across the partnership to get the space station that we have today. And we were bringing up new modules. And every time you bring a new module to the International Space Station, it changes, obviously, what you have. And so that changes into, you know, you have another habitable volume. Or you have a new vehicle, a you know, a new Japanese transfer vehicle or a European transfer vehicle. And you have these vehicles. So, everything is changes. What you learned in Russia is the ability to incorporate change and help that as we move forward. You know, going over as an American living in Russia, you have to learn how to work. It’s a different culture, different expectations. And you can visit as many times as you want, but when you live in a place, that’s where you learn things. And to be able to stay there. You know, that first time, I was only there for a year. But you still, you live in every single day, and you pick up, you know, how to interact with people, to understand what people, what they need to be successful. I can take those experiences I learned, bring them back, which I did, in the flight director office. And when you’re leading a team, having the team understanding the goals of the team, having the team understand what your vision is, how you want to move forward, that’s critical. If you don’t have that, your team isn’t successful. So, using some of those experiences we had in those early days in Russia, bringing them back to the team, I think helped me make a stronger flight director.

Host: How about that. Yeah, I love these experiences of, you know, some of these instances of taking all these experiences that are just not necessarily something that, like, a lot of people would think about, right. Just going over to Russia and working with Russia, coming back and then taking that and implementing it into how we do operations today. It’s just incredible. I want to continue with this journey through some historical parts of the International Space Station. I know another one. We keep talking about change, and the change seems to be a common theme actually with the International Space Station. One was actually the end of the shuttle program. Now, you have the shuttle. You talked about two-week missions with shuttle. You talked about long Expeditions with Mir. Learning to work together with some of those same ideas on the International Space Station, but then the shuttle ended. And now you have to — we’re working with Russia on the Soyuz seats. Talk about that whole transition from the shuttle mentality to International Space Station, continuing the, sure the assembly, but now moving towards utilization, that whole time period in the, I guess it would be the late 2000s.

Joel Montalbano: Sure. So, you know, we talked earlier about the shuttles being sprints. I mean, those were shorter missions where we trained different specific tasks we trained. And we trained, and trained, and trained. And the crew members, they knew these tasks. They can wake up in the middle of the night, and they would know exactly what to do because they’ve been training for years to go ahead and do these tasks. But they were specific tasks. They were designed for that mission, for that assembly mission to get us from A to B. As we move into Expeditions, we had to change that mentality. We now train more of, instead of a specific task, you do generic training. And it allows the crew members to be, not a better crew member, but a different crew member, an expeditionary crew member, where they’re able over six months things are not going to be exactly like you thought they were going to be when you left Earth. And so, they had that knowledge of that generic specialist knowledge that you can work on any system. You don’t have to be trained on every single task. You understand the system. You know the ins and outs of that system, so you can work on that system as well as the different science activities you have to do. You’re trained on how to use hardware and then, but as you go through the Expedition, you’re going to get different Principal Investigators that are going to use that hardware just a little differently each time. But you understand the hardware. You can go ahead and incorporate that. And as we move forward over time, that’s what we learn. We learn to be adaptable, to be flexible. Things are going to change. You have a much higher probability that your mission that you planned for on Earth is going to be much different over a six-month period than a two-week period. You know, I talked a little bit earlier about the sprint versus the marathon. You know, shuttles were a sprint. We had specific tasks. The shuttle had a, you know, a limited timeframe. We had to come home. We had specific tasks, we had to get them done. We had to get them done on time. Expedition, you have a little more flexibility to do that. You still have specific tasks. You still have to get those tasks done. But you know, you have six months over time where you can go ahead and do that. And it’s a learn — It’s a change. It’s a flip in your head of how you want to operate. The shuttle was awesome. We miss the shuttle every day. But you know, things change, and it’s time to, you move on to the next step. And you know, when space station ends, we’re going to say we miss space station every day and we will. I mean, space station has been awesome. We’ve learned how to use that. We’re going to take those experiences and bring them forward. And as we, you know, leave low-Earth orbit and go, you know, return to the Moon, and off to Mars, we’re going to use those experiences. We’ll use experience on those activities that we learned on shuttle. So, everything is growing. And it’s kind of, as you grow in life you learn something, and that’s kind of what we’re doing.

Host: That’s wonderful. I’m zeroing in on these skills, this shift from sprint to the marathon. I love that analogy. Thinking about astronauts, right, what you’re talking about, we’re going to keep building on, we’re going to learn, and this is going to be something applicable to missions beyond the International Space Station whatever might be next. Right now, it’s the Artemis Program, and you’re going to need some of the skills learned from space station in Artemis, particularly when it comes to longer duration missions. The idea of living and working on another planet for a long period of time, that’s something that the International Space Station has proved to refine some of those skills from the sprint to the marathon. That mentality in the astronaut office is called expeditionary skills. I love that term. It comes from the International Space Station Expeditions. What exactly is an expeditionary skill? What has the International Space Station taught us, now that we have so many — what are we now, Expedition 63. By the time this comes out, we’ll be at 64. That’s a lot of experience from learning how to conduct a long-duration mission and what traits an astronaut needs to be on that long-duration mission. What have we learned?

Joel Montalbano: So you know, working across the partnership, we’ve learned how to not only work with the different cultures to accomplish common goals, we’ve taken that small part of it, but we’ve learned how to treat a person that’s going to be away from his family or away from his friends for a long duration amount of time, and we’ve learned how to keep those people active, keep them productive. And there’s certain things as you do an Expedition that are really important to people. For example, you need to have some personal time as you go. Not a lot of personal time, but you need to — it can’t be work every single day for six months or for a year. You know, we’ve had the luxury of doing some long durations onboard ISS. We had an American and Russian do an 11-month mission. We’ve had just recently, in the last year or so, had a couple of astronauts do nine-month durations. And so, how do you treat those people and how do you have to change your operations from a, you know, we talked a sprint versus marathon. You know, what we’ve learned is, there’s a couple of things. Every once in a while, maybe give them a day off, you know, that they can just kind of relax. And they’re not married to the schedule of the day. They can go ahead and do what they need. And you know, we already give them some time off on the weekends. We keep them pretty busy on orbit. You know, we give them a little time on the weekends, but I’ll tell you, a lot of our crew members, they’re still working. Even on the weekends, we have a, just like you have at home, we have job jar list we call the task list. These items that the crew members can just pick off the list and go work and go do things. But it’s important to have them to do tasks that they want to do. And so, you know, there’s some certain crew members that, hey, they like life science activities or certain crew members that want to do flame type research we do on orbit. And you can kind of gear your scheduling when you can, when you have the opportunity, to some things that the crew members are interest to. You can work to their interest. Now, we still have priorities. We have to meet those priorities on orbit. But if you have opportunities to take advantage of what a crew interest is, that benefits everybody. It benefits the ground team because they’re excited. When the crew member is excited, they bring excitement to the ground. And not only to Mission Control Center Houston, you hear it on the radio across the globe. And that’s kind of the coolest thing, when the crew members call down. Food is a big thing. As you can imagine, and you know, just my limited experience just working in Russia for the one year and then the four years, you miss certain foods that you have, that you get every day where you’re from. Anybody who’s grew up in a city and then moved away for a while, when they go back, there’s certain restaurants or certain types of food that they’ll gravitate to when they visit. Astronauts are no different, right. And the people are happier when they do that on Earth. They’re happier when they do that on space. So, you learn things like that. Now, we’re not going to have all the luxuries we have today on the International Space Station as we return to the Moon and go off to Mars. But there’s certain things of certain aspects that we learn that we’re going to have to remember. And as we design those missions further and further away from Earth, these are things we’re going to have to keep in the front of our minds.

Host: Wow. There’s so many elements that define the International Space Station Program as a whole. I think long-duration Expeditions for an astronaut is just going to be one of those huge takeaways that we’re going to use for exploration missions. I want to zero in on the commercialization aspect too. You talked about this future and shift of mentality to a new commercial future. Taking a step back to what built that foundation, it start with commercial cargo and a COTS program [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] and kind of grew from there. Can you talk about the evolution of working with commercial companies and how that shaped what we have today where we’re trying to make low-Earth orbit a commercial economy?

Joel Montalbano: So, you say, grew from there. I’ll say blossomed. I mean, we’ve done an incredible job with cargo. You know, starting with the Orbital company. At the time, it was Orbital, today, it’s Northrop Grumman. They’ve even had a name change in between there. As many people know, it’s a Orbital ATK. And then the SpaceX. The fact that we’ve created an industry around that, you know, the Antares rocket that’s used today by the Cygnus spacecraft, that rocket didn’t exist before the program. So, we’ve added a new rocket to the industry. The SpaceX, you know, the Falcon, you know, that we have today that just returned our crew just, you know, a few days ago, that started with our cargo missions. And so, we developed that program and we — I don’t mean we ISS, we NASA, we the country, right, you know, the teams at SpaceX, the teams at Orbital and Northrop Grumman, and those teams. Everybody has worked together. The international partners helped us, you know. This was — these were not — these vehicles were bringing up cargo and research and utilization and technology development for the partnership. Sure, NASA was leading the charge. NASA was, you know, helping in the development. NASA was at these facilities helping these providers get from point A to B. But the fact that, you know, on the cargo providers were able to use those to learn and go further. The SpaceX Demo-2 mission that just returned Bob and Doug, I mean, how cool was that. And they used a lot of the lessons learned we had in the cargo missions. Now, different spacecraft, different requirements, but you know, you have to learn. You know, you start, you kind of start, you know, I go back to that growth of a human. You kind of start with maybe a tricycle, and you go up to the bigger bicycle, and you just keep going and going. You keep learning. And you get stronger. You get more successful. You get better at what you do, and it benefits again, not only NASA, and not only the U.S. but all the partners in, you know, those 108 countries I talked about earlier, of experiencing what we’d see and learn on ISS.

Host: And that’s a huge theme, just in and of itself, right. What we see and learn on International Space Station. We talked about it being a lab, but we haven’t really explored it quite yet. What is it exactly about the International Space Station serving as a laboratory? What is the research that we’re doing onboard of this orbiting laboratory?

Joel Montalbano: So, we do research in a number of areas. We do rodent research. And so, research that we can learn onboard ISS that affect people here on Earth. And that’s kind of the coolest thing. We do things that benefit people on Earth. So, the rodent research, the work we’re doing here is helping the older population on Earth. What we can learn in space on the rodent research is going to help the people here on Earth, which is just an awesome thing. How cool is that? And again, not just Americans, everybody. We do research with burning fuels on orbit. How fuel will burn in space, and where does that help us? That helps us as we generate these next-generation satellites. And if we can find a better way to burn fuel and bring less fuel, you can bring more of the satellite to Earth or to orbit. And while you’re doing that, if you can bring a bigger satellite, well that’s fuel — you’re having more capability on the satellite. You know, you’re helping these companies in their business case. And so, you know, some of the work we’re doing. We’re also doing work, crystal growth. I think you’ve heard multiple experience that we do across the partnership on crystal growth and how that comes down Earth and comes back to Earth. And they go back to the laboratories and learn, and they could maybe adjust what they’re doing. And so just a number of areas. I can go on, and on, and on, and on. But I won’t bore you with that.

Host: Well, what I think is interesting, is you talked about what’s amazing is this research comes back to Earth and comes into our own lives. And I think part of that was the efforts of the International Space Station expanding beyond just NASA research. We’re incorporating, you know, our partners are doing research as well, but we also opened up the space station as a U.S. National Laboratory. And some of these things you’re talking about, crystal growth I know is a huge one that’s big in commercial markets. Commercial companies can do research aboard the International Space Station, and that was an effort, I believe by Congress, right, in 2005?

Joel Montalbano: Yes, so today, 50% of NASA’s resources are dedicated to the National Lab. So that’s 50% of the upmass, 50% of the crew time, 50% of the critical research and items we return. And so, we are helping industry here in the U.S. We’re helping them on, you know, materials, you know, 3D printing. We’re doing these things on orbit, helping these companies develop the capability on the space station. And the cool thing is, we’re trying to do it as quick as we can. So, you talked a little bit about, you know, what’s different between shuttle days versus ISS days. So, in the shuttle day, you know, we worked with different companies, and we worked really hard on mission success for these companies. And NASA had all these requirements and our — since these missions were only two weeks, we wanted to make sure that everything was going to work, but that costs money. When you’re working mission success, you have to add a bunch of requirements. It costs money to do that, and it costs time. For space station, what we’ve done is we’ve looked at, hey, it needs to keep the crew safe, needs to keep the vehicle safe. And the mission success work is all up to the customer. What the commercial person wants to fly, they can spend however much money they want on mission success. Again, they have to keep the crew safe and keep the vehicle safe. And what that allows them to do is move a lot quicker. So, in the old days, maybe on shuttle an experiment, you would work on it for maybe three, five years or so. On space station, we can get that down to three or six months. And so, you can fly a piece of hardware, and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK. We bring it home. You look at it. You fly it again in the next few months. And maybe in a ninth month period, you’ve flown twice, versus in the shuttle day, you flew, you know, maybe once every, you know, three to five years. And so, we’re able to take and move faster. You know, I talked about moving at the pace of business. That’s really important to us, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And commercialization is not going to survive if we don’t’ keep up at that pace.

Host: I think that’s a perfect lead in to moving away from what the International Space Station has built and what it has shaped, to moving to what we can expect, now that we’re reaching 2020, what we can expect in the 2020s? What can we expect for the future? This commercialization idea is a big one. We’re talking about a shift in the landscape of low-Earth orbit. Talk about what the International Space Station is trying to build. What does commercialization really mean?

Joel Montalbano: You know, first and foremost, we’re developing a commercialization delivery of astronauts to the International Space Station with the SpaceX and Boeing teams. SpaceX just finished their demonstration spacecraft. We have some lessons learned on that mission. We’ll understand that and move forward. Boeing had their mission last year. They had some lessons learned too. They’re going to understand that, and they’re going to move forward. And we’ll have this capability to bring four astronauts. So today, our standard practice is three USOS astronauts and three Russians. As we go to the commercial crew model, we’ll be able to bring four people. And so, first and foremost, that is going to double the amount of time we’re able to put towards utilization and research. So, today we say with a three-crew member compliment, we do an average of about 35 hours of man-tended or human-tended research onboard ISS. We do much more research than that. That’s just the touch research. And so, we do other research where you can command remotely. And that’s all done by the ground. And that’s in addition to those 35 hours. When we get the fourth crew member, we’re going to double that number to 70 hours. And so, 70 hours per week of touch research that we’re doing onboard the International Space Station. So, we’re developing that capability. We’re putting extra resources on it. That means we can have more hardware on orbit. We could have more Principle Investigators doing the different experiments. And they can learn, get their results, whether we bring it to the ground, whether it comes down on video, data, or the physical hardware comes back, we’re able to double the productivity we have today with the commercialization.

Host: Now, it goes even beyond that, right. That’s the commercial crew aspect. But I know we’ve actually dedicated, you talked about 50% of NASA’s time and mass and everything. That’s National Lab. But we’re also dedicating time and energy towards commercial efforts.

Joel Montalbano: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, as you said, I talked about the commercial crew providers but having the ability on orbit, the crew time, to help these different activities that the Nanoracks company is doing, the Made In Space company is doing, the Techshot company, and there’s hundreds more, of trying to work onboard space station, giving them the dedicated crew time to test their ideas. Some of these are just ideas that, hey, I think this could work. I think there’s a business case here, but I want to give that a shot. Well, the cases in the National Lab, the ability that 50% of the resources are dedicated to these activities, that’s a huge benefit to these teams. Especially if you’re a startup, you have to be able to manage your resources pretty tightly in the beginning. And if we’re going to cover the upmass. We’re going to cover the crew time. We’re going to cover the return time. We are stimulating that group, that environment, such that, if what we can do on space station with them proves to be successful, they could go and expand that and move forward. CubeSats are a perfect example of that, you know, we started on space station deploying one or two of these CubeSats and helping the different folks and deploying these satellites from the International Space Station. We developed that industry. Today, there’s dedicated rockets to deploying CubeSats. You see the SpaceX Starlinks. They’re knocking out 60 at a time every few weeks. There’s other companies that are starting to look at the same type of model. That work was first started on space station. We developed that industry. Now, every industry isn’t going to develop and be successful as CubeSats. But our job as the government is to help that process, give the opportunity, and then let’s see what happens.

Host: I had the pleasure of talking to Dan Hartman recently. We did an episode on Gateway not too long ago. And I was curious to hear from him, since he was part of the International Space Station Program, what is it that he’s taking to Gateway? And he said one of the biggest lessons is international partnerships. And I think that it’s maybe undervalued at the surface, right. When you see this gigantic space station, just the relationships that we built because just knowing and understanding how to navigate the international partnerships on the International Space Station, that whole strategy, all of that was under the foundation of the International Space Station and is now going to Moon programs. You know, these ideas of things we learned on the International Space Station being applied to Moon programs, I think it’s more than just that. I think it’s more than just relationships, right. I think there’s just so much we can learn, or we have learned from the International Space Station after 20 years that are being applied to Moon programs and exploring beyond.

Joel Montalbano: Sure. You know, having one of the benefits of an international partnership, it brings you a diverse group that has different opinions, different methods of achieving sometimes the same results. Sometimes that group is going to achieve something different that you didn’t even think about. And being able to work across the partnership on the common goal of space station and then in the Gateway Program you know, the lunar work is just — you have so much more capability, so much more tools in your tool case, you know. It’s just you learn so much by working this program globally than you would do just at a bunch of, say, engineers at the Johnson Space Center. And you can take that knowledge and bring and build upon what you’ve done with the International Space Station, use it for the Gateway, use it, you know, as we go back to the Moon. It’s just an incredible asset that is, it encourages. To me, it encourages advancement. The fact that you have the internationals working together, that’s going to help you go quicker and faster to reach your goals.

Host: I think we’ve taken a look at everything that the International Space Station has accomplished. I’m reflecting a lot on just, you know, what 20 years means. But I haven’t really honed in on what we’re celebrating here is 20 years of continuous human presence. I think that just — humans have been onboard the International Space Station non-stop despite many setbacks, right. This was through Columbia. This was through the end of the shuttle program. This was through so many hardships, and, you know, I’m late in the game, right. I didn’t start full-time until 2015. But you know, I sit back, and I look at it very proudly, like, we did it, you know. It seems like it’s just not an easy thing to look at 20 years and say we occupied the International Space Station 20 years continuously.

Joel Montalbano: Yeah, how cool is that? I mean, the fact that, you know, every 20-year-old and younger, every day of their life, there’s been a human in space. And, you know, that’s a luxury. That is something that, you know, that no other generation can claim. I mean, and what we’ve learned and how we’ve worked together. And you know, you said it a few questions ago. It wasn’t always easy. There were things that we had to learn and how to work together. And when we had problems, you know, putting together, think about it. We design a module here in the United States. Japan designs a module in Japan. They bring it over to the United States. They never see each other. We fly it to space, they see each other for the first time, and we’re able to connect these modules together. And not only physically but, you know, digitally. And it works. And sure, we’ve had some bumps in the road. And we’ve learned things just like anybody does. But the fact that we’re able to have these laboratories built in different countries, these vehicles built in different factories. We bring them to space station. We connect them, and they fit physically. They fit digitally, and we work together. It’s just an incredible accomplishment.

Host: Thinking about that, thinking about the accomplishment of 20 years of continuous human presence, what is your hope for what the International Space Station brings in the years to come? Now that we’ve crossed this milestone, and we’re thinking about the future. And we’ve talked about this landscape of the space station and how it shifted to what it is today. But what is really your goal, your focus now as the program manager? What is your hope for what the space station is going to bring years to come?

Joel Montalbano: So, you know, in the next few years we have a couple of goals. One, we need to support the Commercial Crew Program and make sure we fully develop the delivery of astronauts by these commercial providers. We need to have a continue technology development onboard International Space Station. Things that are going to help us go return to the Moon, go to Mars, and have, you know, this program that we want outside of low-Earth orbit. And so, we need to focus on those activities, a commercialization of low-Earth orbit. You know, our goal is, you know, many low-Earth orbit platforms. How many is many? You know, time will tell. The business case will tell. But what can we do? What can we do on space station to develop that to help these companies, these companies, these guys who have ideas and what they want to do in low-Earth orbit. It’s our job to go do that, and we need to be using space station to assist them in helping them move forward.

Host: Wonderful. Joel Montalbano, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have A Podcast. What a pleasure to reflect on these 20 years with you. I mean, like I said, I can’t take credit for anything in these 20 years. But just, I have a huge sense of pride just reaching this milestone, and I’m sure you do as well. I appreciate your time.

Joel Montalbano: My pleasure. This was awesome. Ready to come back any time. Thank you very much for your time today.

[ Music]

Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Joel Montalbano as much as I did. A lot to be proud of for 20 continuous years of human presence onboard the International Space Station. We’ve put together a collection of some of our conversations about the space station on Houston We Have A Podcast. You can go to our website. It’s There you go. And that’s where you can find all of our space station themed episodes. You can listen to them in no particular order. If you like our podcasts, NASA has quite a number of them. You can go to to check some of them out. And if you like the International Space Station, we post a lot on the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram International Space Station pages. So, if you want to ask a question to us on one of those pages, you can use the hashtag #AskNASA on any platform. Pick your favorite. And if you want to direct it towards us on that page, just make sure to mention us, Houston We Have A Podcast. This episode was recorded on August 12th, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Jennifer Hernandez, and Greg Dorth. Thanks again to Joel Montalbano for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of the show. We will be back next week.