Michael F. O’Brien, a former naval aviator who later served as a top NASA liaison to foreign space agencies and led the team that secured agreements for the establishment of the International Space Station, died Feb. 19 at his home in Springfield, Va. He was 72.
The cause was cancer, said a daughter, Beth O’Brien-Shepard.
Capt. O’Brien — known to colleagues as “Obie” — joined NASA in 1994 after a nearly three-decade military career. In Navy roles that prepared him for his diplomatic duties at the space agency, he served as an international political and military adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his duties included travel to Persian Gulf countries for bilateral discussions in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991.
At the time of his NASA retirement in 2015, he was associate administrator for international and interagency relations, with a portfolio that included communicating with other countries about aeronautics research, human space exploration and space technology. He also worked with executive branch offices and agencies such as the State and Defense departments.
“We’re not in charge of anything,” Capt. O’Brien said in 2007 for a NASA oral history, but he noted that his office “touches just about everything that NASA does.”
Among the most visible fruits of his labor, Capt. O’Brien worked with European, Japanese, Canadian and Russian space agencies on the International Space Station, the first component of which launched into orbit in 1998 and makes it possible for humans to live and conduct research while orbiting the Earth.
He also negotiated with foreign partners on other projects, including the Mars rover Curiosity, a mobile laboratory that landed on the Red Planet in 2012 and is part of NASA’s effort to study the landscape for clues to whether the planet ever was habitable and whether it has conditions that could sustain life.
Charles Bolden, who served as NASA administrator during President Barack Obama’s administration, called Capt. O’Brien “the driving force in getting us to where we are today” with international partnerships.
Michael Francis O’Brien, whose father was a Navy captain, was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 12, 1946, and grew up in Norfolk. The younger O’Brien received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia in 1967, a master’s degree in physics from Cornell University in 1969 and a master’s degree in aeronautical systems from the University of West Florida in 1970.
As a Navy combat pilot, he participated in the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the airstrikes on Lebanon in response to the Beirut barrack bombings, both in 1983, according to his daughter.
He was also the deputy director for research at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, a physicist for the Navy Department and the commanding officer of a naval station in Puerto Rico, overseeing its repair after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He was also on the staff of the chief of naval operations.
Capt. O’Brien’s decorations included the Defense Superior Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit and two awards of the Air Medal as well as the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, the former Patricia Howard of Springfield; four children, Beth O’Brien-Shepard of Brooklyn, Kathleen O’Brien of Charlottesville, Karen Gross of Carlisle, Pa., and Timothy O’Brien of Frederick, Md.; two brothers; and five grandchildren.
After retiring from the military, Capt. O’Brien went searching for a second career in government.
Befitting a Navy flier, he quipped that he would not be content sitting behind a desk at the Internal Revenue Service. Instead, he started at NASA, where he said he palpably felt the impact and grandeur of the work.
“You go down and watch a shuttle launch once,” Capt. O’Brien said in 2007 for a NASA oral history, “and then realize that even if it’s only a small piece, that you have had a piece of the action, you’ve had a part of that incredible achievement.”