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Prep Magazine: To Ask Why Not? With Michael Interbartolo '91

Prep Magazine: To Ask Why Not? With Michael Interbartolo '91

Michael Interbartolo '91 has spent a lifetime pursuing the answer to one question: Why not? 

Above: A formal portrait of Michael Interbartolo inside Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in 2006, taken a few months before mission STS-121 launched that July.


Next to his fresh-faced senior portrait in the 1991 yearbook, Michael Interbartolo simply and confidently states his life’s ambition: “To be an aerospace engineer who works on the Mission to Mars project.”

“I knew what I wanted much earlier though,” he says today. “First, a little movie called Star Wars came out when I was very young. And then, while my family and I lived in East Boston, Delta had an open house day at the airport, which is where I went on my first plane ride. I was telling people I wanted to work for NASA before I was in kindergarten.”

Interbartolo has genuinely spent his entire life singularly focused on one goal, on one dream—pushing the limits of space exploration as we know it. “Push” may be the wrong word, though. How Interbartolo seems to operate is more than applying blunt-force hard work. It’s something closer to art—a mix of creativity and curiosity, ingenuity and experimentation, where hurdles are intriguing challenges, ideas can come from anywhere, and solutions are thought of in decades-long timelines.

Working on the Human Lunar Lander Crew Systems Engineering and Integration team at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Interbartolo plays an integral role in NASA’s newest mission, Artemis. Named for Apollo’s mythological twin sister, the Artemis mission’s main goals are twofold: to send a woman and person of color to the moon by 2025, with the eventual goal of sending humans to Mars.

Above: Interbartolo attended space camp in the seventh and tenth grade.

But Interbartolo’s story began a little closer to home. A graduate of the University of Michigan, the Melrose native emerged with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a plan to do an internship with Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland before starting his grad program at George Washington University in the fall—until the government shutdown in ’95 scrubbed the internship program. So Interbartolo did the next best thing to get his foot in the NASA door: work as a full-time, unpaid volunteer until they basically couldn’t say no.

“They said, ‘You want to work for free?’ And I just said, ‘Yep, treat me like an intern,’” recalls Interbartolo.

For 15 months, Interbartolo worked as a full-time Guidance, Navigation, and Control Analyst at Goddard, learning the ins and outs of orbital analysis, timelining, and targeting before attending classes at night in pursuit of his bachelor of science in Aerospace, Aeronautical, and Astronautical Engineering. On the weekends, he sold tickets and narrated tours at the Trolley Company.

Ironically, his long-term thinking tendencies turned out to benefit his own career plans. When the Goddard Center Director asked for employee feedback regarding a reorganization, Interbartolo responded honestly, seeing the negative implications such department shifts could have. What did a volunteer have to lose? When he was ready to tender his resignation to take a job in California, the Director connected the dots and realized it was in the organization’s best interest to keep him.

“They only had one civil servant position open, but the Director saw that I was dedicated to working within NASA and really cared about the work. He called HR and told them to find a way to hire me, and they did.” Interbartolo was sworn in as an official NASA employee in June of 1997.

Since then, Interbartolo has worked on 28 Space Shuttle missions in multiple roles, including as a technical assistant for shuttle integration; in the Orion Avionics, Power and Software Office as a senior technical contact for different engineering projects; and as a Moonshot Navigator, helping with strategic planning. While those descriptions fit neatly into 40 words, his day-to-day tasks underscore the idea that space exploration is a million-piece jigsaw puzzle that is still put together by humans.

“Part of what I had to do was to translate between the engineers and the operator,” he says. “Engineers might say ‘come on, it’s just one switch [to flip].’ But what we have to remember is that the shuttle just docked at the [International] space station, there are two people out doing a space walk, another controlling the robotic arm, another helping the crew inside the vehicle, and the rest of the crew is moving cargo, so no one is even on the space shuttle right now. If it’s not something that’s going to break the vehicle right now, we’ll get to it later. You have to temper expectations and translate how one group’s issues fit into the mission timeline and how an issue might impact what’s happening right now.”

In his current role on the Human Lunar Lander Crew team, Interbartolo splits his time between working for the crew compartment office figuring out the systems astronauts will have to operate when they’re inside the shuttle and as a member of the integrated performance team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. handling some of the systems-integration work.

But where the magic seems to happen for Interbartolo is in what he’s not currently doing.

“My dad always quoted Robert F. Kennedy: ‘Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.’ It’s always come naturally to me—seeing things in the long-term instead of short, questioning assumptions, coming up with ideas, and trying something new just to see what will happen.”

In point of fact, Interbartolo is part of a concept formulation team at NASA, a group that looks at mission architecture design questions and develops blue-sky ideas to solve them.

“We’ll look at a question like, ‘How do we help the unpressurized go-kart version of the lunar rover last through a lunar night?’” he says. “It gets really cold on the moon and there’s no sunlight for long stretches of time, so how do you charge the rover and keep it warm? Can you create some type of heated garage for it? What about the hand warmers skiers use—can you use that chemical reaction to create heat of some kind? What are solutions beyond just adding extra batteries?”

Above: Interbartolo snaps a selfie during virtual reality testing at NASA.

If NASA is the tree trunk, Interbartolo’s interests diverge like the branches. He was selected to be a Project Glass Explorer for Google’s two-year pilot program to test their smart glasses. He served as Executive Vice Chairman for the Cross Industry Innovation Summit from 2016 to 2019, a multi-day event that brought together CEOs, the Secretary of the Navy, companies like Google and Reddit, three-star Michelin chefs, artists, high-end supercar designers, Marvel Studios, and more to pool their intellectual capital and brainstorm new ideas and solutions. He also served as project manager for Lunar Loo, a design challenge to find a low-mass, low-volume waste management system for the human lunar landing system. For the past decade, he has worked with The Science and Entertainment Exchange, advising filmmakers who seek to accurately represent space technology or processes (most recently he advised for the film Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt). And, he runs the book club at work.

The ideas seem never-ending. On a recent vacation to Maine, his family caught him doodling a concept on a menu while eating dinner at a local lobster shack.

“If we’re going to have a more permanent presence on the moon, we’ll have to figure out how to get all sorts of high-mass stuff up there. So what if you took one of those SpaceX ships and customized it so it was just four floors of storage? How can we leverage all the activity that’s happening in the commercial sector to help?”

For Interbartolo, it’s mostly about our destiny. “We may have been born here as a species, but does that mean we have to die here?” he asks.

It all comes back to that question. Why not?

P.S. Medical volunteering at 10,000 feet and what these three Prep friends built a business on. Want to view the whole magazine? Check it out here