Texas Tech University

Dreaming of Space: The Importance of Innovation in Space Exploration

TTU Office of Communications & Marketing

July 20, 2020

The Importance of Innovation in Space Exploration

For NASA, the sky has never been the limit for research and innovation; it's merely the starting point. Texas Tech University regent Ginger Kerrick's career is one example of how that is truer now than ever. During her nearly 30 years with NASA, Kerrick has witnessed and participated in countless breakthroughs in science, technology and the commercialization of innovations.

"When I first started working for NASA, the majority of the innovation occurred internally, as there was not a large community of companies, either domestic or international, that were heavily involved in human spaceflight," Kerrick said. "Fast forward to today, and we have a number of companies that already have 5-10 years of experience in spaceflight and are starting to get involved in human spaceflight.

"NASA has set up special contracts for various services and products that allow for those companies to come up with innovative solutions to some of NASA's more challenging problems, like building the spacecraft to take our crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) or designing and operating a human lander system that will take our crews to and from NASA's Orion spacecraft down to the surface of the moon. We are seeing a wider scope of innovative ideas now than we ever have before."

The ever-changing nature of technology requires NASA to always be on the lookout for the "next best thing." Innovation in technology allows NASA to be more efficient and cost-effective, as well as opening the door to new possibilities and opportunities for space exploration.

"While there are some aspects of human spaceflight that have a proven history and should not be changed, there are several things that we absolutely need to find a way to do differently," Kerrick said. "That's where innovation comes in."

A recent launch featured a new launch vehicle and spacecraft designed by the private company SpaceX. While NASA provided SpaceX with mission requirements, SpaceX had the flexibility to pursue any innovations deemed necessary to support the mission. SpaceX used innovation to design a new flight suit, parachutes and touch screens for the crew to operate the vehicle. Innovation made the flight's success possible by building new ideas in technology for the crew.

From Dream to Reality

At the age of 5, Kerrick found herself reading a book about astronauts. From that moment on, she dreamt of working for NASA and being a part of space exploration efforts.

After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from Texas Tech, Kerrick's childhood dreams became a reality.

"I have worked for NASA for 28 years," Kerrick said. "I started off in safety as a materials research engineer, then moved to mission/flight operations," Kerrick said. "I started there as a crew and flight controller instructor for the ISS environmental control and life support system. After a couple of years in that role, I was afforded an opportunity to be the first training-integration instructor in Russia, where I was assigned to support the first crew that would fly onboard the ISS. I spent four years in that role traveling back and forth between Russia and the U.S."

During her time as a Russian training instructor, Kerrick learned a lot about the ISS – how the systems worked and the responsibilities of the crew and mission control. Because of this knowledge, Kerrick had the unique opportunity to make history as the first non-astronaut capsule communicator. As a capsule communicator, Kerrick communicated with the flight crew from mission control. After serving as a capsule communicator for four years, Kerrick applied to be a flight director, the person in charge of mission control.

"I was selected in 2005 and served as a flight director for both the ISS and shuttle operations for eight years before transitioning to the management team in 2012," Kerrick said. "I have held numerous leadership and management roles since then, I now serve as the deputy director of the Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, leading a team that will enable our American astronauts to return to the moon."

Kerrick's career and personal accomplishments exemplify Texas Tech's motto "From Here, It's Possible."

Kerrick is a member of the Society of Women Engineers, volunteer coordinator for Triumphant Tails Inc. and serves as the emcee for the annual Galveston Polar Plunge benefitting Special Olympics. She was recognized by the Texas Governor's Commission for Women for her outstanding leadership and dedicated service to the nation's space program as well as her commitment to inspire others through giving back to her community.

In 2006, Kerrick was one of five women named to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. She was named a distinguished alumna by Texas Tech in 2004 in 2012 by the Texas Tech Alumni Association. She currently serves on the Texas Tech University System's Board of Regents, a 10-member committee composed of distinguished and dedicated Texans who seek to further higher education, health care, research and outreach in communities.

Kerrick was a two-year member (2014-15) of the Board of Directors for the Texas Tech Alumni Association serving on the Scholarship, Chapter Development and Academic Recruitment Committees. In 2015, Kerrick taught in the STEM Master of Business Administration program at Texas Tech's Rawls College of Business Administration.

Kerrick will be a speaker at the 2021 Discoveries to Impact Conference in April. The Discoveries to Impact conference seeks to shine the spotlight on the most notable achievements in Texas Tech's research and innovation. You can pre-register for the conference to hear Kerrick speak at the Discoveries to Impact website.