The Air Down Here

By Paul Lockhart, CEO, NoviSphere

I grew up watching America’s quest to do what President Kennedy challenged our nation in 1961 to accomplish: land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of that decade. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs achieved that goal in 1969, with Neil Armstrong stepping off of the lunar lander Eagle and placing the first human footprints on another celestial body. The dramatic decade of rockets, televised launches and recoveries, high-tech equipment, and national pride offered everything a young boy seeking adventure could want. At age six, I knew I wanted to be an astronaut.

After I earned my graduate degree in aerospace engineering, I joined the Air Force to become a fighter and test pilot. In 1996, I achieved my goal: I became one of the fortunate few selected by NASA for the astronaut program.

Space flight is exciting, but also difficult and dangerous. Arguably, the most basic, most important problem to solve in space is that of maintaining clean, breathable air. During my two missions as pilot of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, I operated a number of the critical systems during launch, on-orbit and during return to earth that underscored this challenge.

For one, on-orbit, I was responsible for the lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters used to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the shuttle’s breathing air. As you can imagine, having seven astronauts breathing in Endeavour’s oxygen supply and exhaling the CO2, with no outside source of fresh air, created a dangerous build-up of CO2 within the orbiter. We used the LiOH canisters to scrub the CO2 from the shuttle’s air supply. My job, in conjunction with NASA’s ground engineers, was to properly track the canisters and swap them out on a daily basis to maintain good, clean air that allowed our crew to operate at maximum efficiency.

I also served as the Intra-Vehicular Astronaut (IVA) for six spacewalks, responsible for suiting up the two astronauts conducting the spacewalks and performing work outside of the International Space Station or the shuttle. The IVA is responsible for the health of the two other astronauts and helps them perform their work by continuously observing, operating checklists and coordinating their activities safely and efficiently. Again, air supply is a critical consideration – getting astronauts ready to exit the space station or shuttle is a long process, most of which entails preparing their bodies to breath clean air at the proper pressure. During spacewalks, their air supply is closely monitored, and, just as with the shuttle or space station, the CO2 must be scrubbed to prevent a build-up in their space suits. During ingress back into the shuttle or station at the end of the spacewalks, the whole process must be reversed, and the astronauts must slowly acclimate themselves to the shuttle or station air supply.

I took to heart the lessons I learned from these missions regarding the critical nature of maintaining clean air as I moved on to pursue new career ventures.

After having returned to the Air Force for several years to support the nation in the difficult period post-9/11, I retired from the military in 2007 and entered the private sector. At Vencore, which provided technical engineering and services to NASA and the Air Force, I served as senior VP, leading the space technology team. Having benefited personally from the efforts of thousands of devoted NASA support personnel, my job at Vencore allowed me to give back, helping enable younger NASA astronauts to fly and complete the International Space Station.

I left Vencore in 2015 and joined PEMDAS, launched in 2008 by my wife, Mary Lockhart, to deliver atmospheric sensors and Big Data analytics to the Department of Defense – specifically, units that operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), i.e., drones. As a former acting director of the Air Force Weather Agency, Mary is a proponent of using atmospheric information to better support drones’ remote or autonomous operation. This cutting-edge work involves significant research and development, which, as director of engineering, I was able to facilitate using my aerospace, flight test and research skills, overseeing development of atmospheric air sensors and satellite antennas.

In this position, I further advanced my understanding of how pollutants, particulates and aerosols contaminate air environments. Moreover, I gained appreciation for what it takes to run a small business, including the effort, persistence and determination needed to overcome challenges, grow and mature. What I learned at PEMDAS will serve me extremely well at NoviSphere.

My experiences in the military, government service and the private sector have taught me that leadership built on integrity and trust is key to the success of any venture. Solid leadership is integral to an organization’s cohesion and its ability to deliver goods and services that the consumer trusts and respects. I am pleased to join forces with our COO, Joe Cestari, and Cindy Egnarski, our director of business development and marketing, in leading NoviSphere. With their knowledge and emphasis on developing products of the highest quality, safety and ease of use, our company will become known an international leader in delivering turnkey, rarified, ultraclean environments, providing safety and security wherever it’s needed.