Mark Geyer, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, dies – Houston Chronicle

Mark Geyer, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, died Tuesday in Houston after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 63.

Geyer led the space center from May 2018 to May 2021 — a period of transition as NASA turned to private companies to design, build and operate the spacecraft that would carry its astronauts to the International Space Station. More human spaceflight programs were led from Houston during his tenure than ever in history.

“His ability to pick the right people, put them in the right place and allow them to manage was just exceptionally good,” said former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who appointed Geyer as director of the space center and currently works at private equity firm Acorn Growth Cos. “He worked to elevate people and promote people. And he was a mentor even to me.”

Geyer began his NASA career in Houston in 1990 on a project that was three decades ahead of its time: bringing home rocks from the surface of Mars. This mission didn’t get funding in the ’90s, though it has received support more recently.

So Geyer moved to the International Space Station program in 1994 and, ultimately, became lead negotiator with Russia regarding technical aspects of the space station’s design.

“Mark really helped to build the foundation of our technical relationship with the Russians,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s former program manager for the space station, who now works at Lockheed Martin, “but also overall with our international relationship with the Russians.”

In 2007, Geyer became the first program manager of the Orion capsule. Orion was slated to carry astronauts to the moon through NASA’s Constellation Program, but the program was canceled in 2010 and Orion’s future was left in question.

Geyer kept the development moving forward, and Orion took its first uncrewed test flight in 2014. Today, it’s an important component of the Artemis Program that’s working to return astronauts to the moon.

“That roller coaster of ‘How do we survive? How do we turn this thing around?’ And then we flew. That was pretty intense. I’d say that was the most exciting,” Geyer previously told the Houston Chronicle about his time working on Orion.

As director of the Johnson Space Center, Geyer had the technical, leadership and program management skills needed to get NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in a commercial SpaceX capsule, said Steve Jurczyk, a former NASA associate administrator who currently works at innovation and investment firm IBX.

He said Geyer worked with NASA’s engineers and safety and quality assurance personnel to make sure they understood their roles and responsibilities in this new model. And as the first launch got closer, Geyer voted on behalf of the crew and the Johnson Space Center that they were ready for flight.

“Mark led Johnson Space Center forward,” Jurczyk said.

Geyer also had a knack for asking the hard questions.

“He was willing — this is so true — he was willing to tell me exactly what he was thinking even if I didn’t like it,” Bridenstine said. “And there were times when that was very appropriate.”

Bridenstine recalled a meeting where NASA’s senior management discussed the messaging around why it’s important to go to the moon. People around the table were sharing their stories, but Geyer looked farther out. “He said, ‘This isn’t about the moon. This is about Mars. We need to go to the moon to get to Mars,’” Bridenstine recalled.

Bridenstine tried to get Geyer to run all of human exploration for NASA, but Geyer didn’t want to leave the Johnson Space Center.

“He really loved being at the helm of a center, especially the Johnson Space Center,” Bridenstine said. “He loved the Johnson Space Center.”

He led the center through the pandemic and the longest government shutdown in American history. People were always his top priority.

“When NASA opened back up (after the shutdown), Mark was out at the main gate waving to people coming back to work,” said Mike Hawes, NASA’s former associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, who now works at Lockheed Martin.

Geyer stepped down from his position earlier this year because he didn’t feel he could do the job justice while undergoing cancer treatment. He became a senior adviser to NASA’s associate administrator, Bob Cabana.

Vanessa Wyche succeeded Geyer as director of the Johnson Space Center.

“Today NASA mourns the loss of former Johnson Space Center Director Mark Geyer, a leader of human spaceflight, champion of diversity and inclusion, and friend to all who knew him,” Wyche said in a statement. “Mark’s initiation of the center’s vision to dare to expand frontiers, unite with partners to complete bold missions and explore space to benefit humanity is the hallmark of his legacy for Johnson Space Center.”

Geyer is survived by his wife, Jackie, and three children. A tree dedication will be held in the coming months at NASA Johnson’s memorial grove.

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