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Executive Edge: Michael Gass

Lynn Bronikowski //March 1, 2010//

Executive Edge: Michael Gass

Lynn Bronikowski //March 1, 2010//


As Michael Gass prepares this month to witness United Launch Alliance’s 38th rocket launch in three years, he reflects on the first space shot he ever saw – as a second-grader watching on a grainy 19-inch TV in a school gymnasium of his native New York.

“John Glenn went up, came back and everybody was really excited about the start of the space age,” recalls Gass, 53, who on that day went home and told his grandma he wanted to be in the rocket industry. “And she said in her thick Eastern European accent, ‘You have to be an engineer.’ Growing up in New York, I had been around subways and thought, ‘What do rockets have to do with driving a train?'”

Gass would go on to graduate from Lehigh University with a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering and earn a master’s degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“John Glenn went up on top of an Atlas rocket, and we still build them today,” said Gass, who before joining ULA as president and CEO served as vice president and general manager of space transportation for Lockheed Martin, overseeing the Atlas, Titan and other space launch projects. “And I got to meet our national hero several times, so you couldn’t ask for a more exciting field to be in.”

ULA – the merged rocket operations of Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. – employs 3,800, including 1,800 at its headquarters in Centennial. It was Gass’ job to bring together the two competitors, make tough decisions on layoffs and build a team that would no longer be “us” and “them.”

Gass points to a coffee cup in his office in which staffers from each of the former companies who used the term “us” or “they” had to plunk down $5 as a fine. Three years later, it is empty.
“Both teams were a great group of professionals, and their common bond was in the rocket business – a bunch of rocket scientists who had that heritage and came together,” said Gass, noting ULA employs more rocket scientists than any company in the United States.

He says business is stable and poised for growth opportunities as NASA contemplates commercial rockets.

“As an industry, it’s really important to have that commitment to space – whether it’s a program that’s internal to NASA or a program that NASA manages and utilizes a more commercial approach,” said Gass, who last month took his message to Washington, D.C., where he made the rounds pitching his industry’s case. “We all need a constancy of purpose and to stay with a program and let it work for generations to come, because starting and stopping is not only wasteful, but it basically inhibits the innovation and the investment to move the nation forward.”
For Gass, the rocket industry is not only a technical challenge but an “adrenaline rush.”

“I get just as nervous having done launches for 23 years and still get the emotional side of things, plus a sense of pride,” said Gass, who admits if the opportunity had presented itself, he would have wanted to explore space. “We support an incredible set of missions both from a national security standpoint and NASA science missions.”

The 26th National Space Symposium will be April 12-15 at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs centering on all aspects of space – civil, commercial, national security, entrepreneurship, finance, education and work-force issues. Speakers include Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. C. Robert Kehler; National Reconnaissance Office Director Gen. Bruce Carlson, USAF (retired); famed video game developer and private space explorer Richard Garriott; Boeing Executive Vice President/Integrated Defense Systems CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg; and actor Leonard Nimoy. A separate conference, Cyber 1.0, will be held April 12 featuring top-level Air Force Space Command and industry speakers plus interactive demonstrations of cyberspace technologies.
For information, visit

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