Robert Lightfoot Jr. began his career with NASA in 1989 as a test engineer and program manager for the space shuttle engine technology testbed program and the Russian RD-180 engine testing program. In 2002 he was named director of the Propulsion Test Directorate at Stennis Space Center, and from 2003 to 2005 he played a key role in the space shuttle's return to flight effort as assistant administrator for the Space Shuttle Program in the Office of Space Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. In August 2009 he was named director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
NASA Tech Briefs: 2009 marked your 20th anniversary with NASA. Tell us a little bit about your career and some of the projects you've worked on.
Robert Lightfoot: Well, let's see. I started as a test engineer, and pretty much the main thrust of my testing was the space shuttle main engine. We had a program called Technology Testbed here at Marshall where we were using the engine not to test it for flight but to use it as a platform to test a lot of other things - the technologies people were developing like sensors and new ways of measuring stuff.
I followed that with testing the RD180, which was the Russian engine that flies on the Atlas 5 currently. Then we moved to Stennis Space Center because the testing was kind of going away here, at Marshall, and I spent some time down there because my passion is really testing. So I spent about five years down there, running all the tests that they had, and I ended up moving into a position of management there to run their Propulsion Test Directorate.
Then we lost Columbia, and I think that kind of changed the world for a lot of people. I was asked to go to headquarters to lead the Return to Flight effort from a Headquarters perspective as the Assistant Associate Administrator for the space shuttle. About two-and-a-half years later, after the return to flight, I got to come back to Marshall to run the Shuttle Propulsion Office, responsible for the engines, the boosters, and the tank. Then, a couple of years ago, I was brought over to be the Deputy Center Director, and in August 2009 I was named the Director of Marshall.
NTB: Most of your career at NASA has been spent designing and testing propulsion systems. What was it about propulsion systems that attracted your interest as an engineer?
Lightfoot: Oh, that's an easy one. Back when I was in college, I grew up in a very small town and had no role models for engineering. I was just pretty good in math and science, so I was pointed in the direction of engineering. I still wasn't quite sure what an engineer did, and I actually came to Huntsville one time to go to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and they had a Saturn V lying back there in the backyard, and I saw these huge F1 engines on the backend of that, and I had just taken a propulsion systems class in college and it was somewhat interesting. Then I saw an engine and I went "Wow! I'd like to see one of those things fire, run, whatever...you know, test it." I was just blown away watching the videos of these things, so that kind of spurred me on and that was how I got onto the test stand where they ran the space shuttle main engine, which was the largest liquid engine we had at the time to be tested. That was the inspiration.
NTB: As you noted earlier, from July 2003 through November 2005, you served as Assistant Associate Administrator for the Space Shuttle Program in the Office of Space Operations at NASA's Headquarters in Washington, DC, working on the Return to Flight activities. That's a very different environment than you were accustomed to at Marshall and Stennis. Tell us about that period in your career and some of the challenges you faced.
Lightfoot: If I look back, I would say it was probably the hardest period of my career. Recovering from an accident, from a tragedy like Columbia, that's hard in general.
NTB: It was hard on the entire space program, I would think.
Lightfoot: Yes. And when you're in DC, it's even a little more different because you're away from the people that you work with on a daily basis. It's a different environment, and kind of away from that central point.
It was probably a little more difficult for me because it was my first tour at Headquarters. A lot of people do rotations to Headquarters, but that was the first time I'd been there, so I had to learn that part as well. Headquarters is an interesting place because you're right there in the middle of the political part of all this and as an engineer, that can be an interesting adjustment having to suddenly deal with the politics associated with certain things you're doing. So it was very educational for me.
I would say the majority of the challenges I faced there were just simply educating folks on what we were doing, folks that normally don't pay that much attention to us. You know, congressional staffers and people like that. Some of them were very knowledgeable about what we do, but a lot of times you were talking to folks that just weren't familiar enough, and as a technical person, you have to be able to get yourself out of that level of detail and answer the question they really want to hear, and it could be as simple as "How much is it going to cost?" In our world, we caveat everything - "Well, it will cost this much if..." When you go down that path, it can be very hard.