After nearly three decades with NASA, including the past 11 years as space shuttle launch director at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., Michael Leinbach said goodbye to what was left of his team and turned in his badge Nov. 30, four months after Atlantis returned from the shuttle program’s 135th and final flight.

“What they had lined up for me after shuttle was not going to be exciting work for me,” says Leinbach, who was asked by NASA to join a newly created ground processing directorate at KSC that will support a variety of launch systems.

Instead, Leinbach, 58, begins a new job Jan. 16 overseeing human space operations for United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture that builds and flies Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, primarily for the U.S. government.

ULA has some new partners in the wings. It is the designated launch provider for Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and other companies developing space taxis for NASA and commercial customers.

Leinbach spoke with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz in Titusville, Fla.


What is your new job?

I will be ULA’s director of human spaceflight operations based at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, working to provide the commercial crew access providers with safe and reliable launch vehicles — Atlas principally, maybe Delta. It’s a great job for an ops guy like me.


Are you going to have to wear a tie?

I hope not.


Are you excited about this?

Oh yeah. It’s real good stuff. I’ve always wished the commercial providers good luck and hope they succeed. I have an opportunity to help — at least I think I can help. My big thing has always been the lack of redundancy in crew access to space when we shut shuttle down. It was never anything against the commercial guys at all.


What did you learn at NASA that you want to bring to ULA’s operation?

The psyche that goes with launch day, just making sure everything is right and that it’s not a purely technical go/no-go decision to launch. There’s an aspect to it that is almost emotional. You have to have that feeling that we’re good to go that day. You don’t get that unless you’ve been in that business for a while. My job will be to try to instill that gut check whether we’re ready to go for launch of a human being or not.


What will you be doing?

It’s a combination. I’ll be overseeing their policies and plans development for human spaceflight, launch pad upgrades — we’re going to have to put in an egress system — and working with the team that is going to be man-rating the rockets. It’s getting the human launch background into their operations because it’s so different than cargo launches.


Are you confident ULA will be a player in NASA’s commercial crew program?

The Atlas vehicle has one of the highest — if not the highest — success rates in the country and in the world. From a ULA perspective, they feel confident that they’re going to be in the running to be the launcher for whoever gets the commercial crew contracts. SpaceX, of course, has their own launcher, but all the other ones don’t, and so they have to ride on something. ULA feels confident they’re going to provide those rides.


So ULA seems like it is in good position no matter what happens. Would you agree?

I think so. If the administration changes policy again that could throw everything into a loop. If the administration decides they only want one commercial crew provider from the United States and that’s SpaceX, then that would be different. But here again, we as a country ought to have redundancy, as well as backing up the Russians. In my mind, it’s not just the two countries being redundant to each other, it’s having redundancy on the American side too.


How has life been after NASA?

It’s different. I miss the people a lot. I miss the shuttle launch work a lot, but shuttle is over. The work out there nowadays is just not as much fun; it’s just not as exciting. It’s just a fact. I need a challenge. I need to go out and do stuff.


Do you think there will be people launching from the United States again?

Oh, absolutely. I don’t think the country will give that up. I think it ought to come to a national debate and that hasn’t happened. The policy involving NASA has always been kind of behind-the-scenes. NASA had become almost like a political toy, a pawn to play with. I think there needs to be a national debate about space policy. I’ve always been an advocate of having a national space policy and sticking to it, one that has some longevity. These systems, these programs we put together are so long-term and expensive and complex that you can’t keep changing them or you find yourselves in the situation that we have.


You mean a policy that supersedes the cycles of politics and elections?

Yes. We need to figure out what we want to do, and if the answer, by the way, is that we don’t want to, or that we cannot afford to, put Americans on orbit on American rockets, I wouldn’t like that answer, but I would accept that answer because it would be the result of the debate. I don’t think it would go that way, but if it did, then we would all have to say, “OK, we’ve had the debate. This is where we’re headed.”


What would be your vision?

Leinbach speaking, we need to set, as a long-, long-, long-term strategy, colonization because eventually we’re going to need to get off this planet. The population is growing, pollution is growing, all those things are real and eventually we are going to get to the point where our planet will be really, really taxed to support another however many billions of people who will be here. We’ve seen the population double in our lifetime, maybe triple. It’s going to happen again in the not-too-distant future. I don’t know that the Earth is sustainable at twice the number of people. How do you deal with that? One way is go colonize.


How would you do that?

There are steppingstones. One of them is to remain on orbit, learn how to do that for real, and we’re doing that well with the space station. I believe the next logical step is a colony on the Moon, start small obviously. Learn how to live off the Moon. Go to those craters that have the ice and turn the ice into water and fuels. Do all those things you have to do when you’re away from home forever, but do it on the Moon because you’re only three days away. I believe Mars is a logical step later.


So do you think the people who go will be speaking English?

That’s part of the national debate. Do we want them to be or not? We go to the Olympics as a country. We don’t go to come in second place. We go to win. Do we want to win the space race? Do we want to be number one or not? If you ask me, I’ll say obviously yes, but if we have the debate and the answer is no, OK.


Do you think the model would be more like the international space station partnership?

If we do this colonization, it isn’t going to be just Americans. This is the world, the planet deciding, with hopefully American leadership, but the planet deciding that, “Hey man, we’ve got to go think seriously about this.” Then the practical kicks in, the finances of it. International cooperation — that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t see any one country doing anything like this by itself, for gosh sakes.


Do you think NASA’s best days are over?

No, I don’t think so. When I hired into NASA 27 years ago, I was the bright-eyed, enthusiastic 31-year-old and when I left there were people hiring in and you talk to them and they were all excited and had the big smile and they say, “Yay, I work for NASA.” You still get that enthusiasm, and with that comes great things. It’s a change in the direction of NASA. It’s going from an operations organization with the shuttle and station to more of a research and development agency, coming back to the roots of NASA. You’re going to see great things come out of NASA, but it won’t be the operations agency that it turned into.