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Brigadier General Michael C. Wholley (retired) has a pretty lofty goal for himself and the space program: “I want to bounce my grandchildren on my knee when we’re stepping on Mars and say, ‘Grampy had something to do with that.’ “ Wholley, 61, has had “something to do with” the goings-on at NASA since he became general counsel of the agency in June 2004. He oversees some 130 attorneys who handle virtually all of NASA’s legal work, from government contracts to international space ventures. Wholley served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring in 1996 as a staff judge advocate, where he supervised 500 lawyers. Before taking the NASA job, he headed the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, a fund for the children of veterans. Some lawyers say what they do isn’t rocket science. [Laughs.] While we don’t practice rocket science, we’d better know rocket science. I like to practice law that is proactive and that requires getting out with your clients [and] understanding their programs. What does “proactive law” look like at NASA? We’ve started putting lawyers right in the mission directorates: space operations, exploration systems, science, aeronautics. I have embedded lawyers that are part of the general counsel’s office on a one-year development program [in these areas] where they learn the clients’ businesses. They are with the client, they are part of the client’s staff. So, it’s both a professional development opportunity and a way to give the client lawyer-at-the-elbow coverage. How are the lawyers and the scientists reacting to working side-by-side? It’s a paradigm that I was accustomed to in the military, and it seemed a pretty natural fit here. Everybody learns lawyers aren’t just “abominable no-men.” How does working at NASA compare to your service in the Marines? I had advice from my father. He said, “Find something that you really like to do. Make sure it’s worth doing, and find good people to do it with, and you’ll be happy.” And I found that in the Marine Corps. I went in for four years and stayed for 30. I found that here at NASA as well. I tell people, if you don’t come to work every day pumped up, you need to look for another job. And if you think about what we’re doing and the hair on your neck doesn’t stand up a little bit, and you don’t feel proud about what you’re doing, then you probably can’t fog a mirror either. What sorts of international work do your lawyers handle? We deal with everything from space debris to helping us ensure we’re in conformance with all the existing space treaties. Right now, with the International Space Station, we work with the European Space Agency as well as with Canada, Japan, and Russia. We have bilateral agreements with all of them and then we have an overarching partners’ agreement. That’s just on the space station. How are international legal decisions about space being made? There are multilateral working groups. It’s an area that takes on extraordinary significance as we get closer to truly commercializing outer space. On the home front, what were the legal challenges to getting the space shuttle back in orbit? [They're mainly] engineering challenges. Of course, the legal issues always involve contracts and keeping the workforce occupied while parts of the entity are on stand-down. As a young fighter pilot, did you ever want to be an astronaut? I honestly never considered it. I was having too much fun.

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