2011

Steven Schmidt, Director, Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF), Palmdale, CA

NTB: The DAOF facility is located in what was formerly Rockwell’s B-1 bomber final assembly and checkout plant. How difficult was it converting an old aircraft production hangar into a state-of-the-art operational aircraft support facility that satisfies NASA’s requirements?

Schmidt: Modifying this facility to meet NASA’s science missions was a significant challenge. However, I have to say it’s also been one of the most fun and satisfying assignments, next to flying in a military aircraft, of course, that I’ve had in a long time. Prior to our occupancy, this facility was used to film several movies, like Hard Rain, the Terminal, and, I think, the last two sequels of Pirates of the Caribbean. As a result, the facility was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.

When we took occupancy of the facility in October 2007, we were given approximately one year to bring the facility to an operational state before we got the first airplane. But the best laid plans do get interrupted from time to time. We’d only been in here about a month when the first airplane, the DC-8 and its support staff and ground equipment, arrived. To complicate the situation, the DC-8 also needed to prepare for the ARCTAS mission, which included an additional 125 experimenters and testers. A month-and-a-half later the SOFIA aircraft arrived with its support structure. So, we found ourselves making some very significant changes in our priorities that I think were analogous to moving furniture in while you’re building the house.

I attribute our outstanding success to the great team that I chose to stand up this facility. They simultaneously supported science missions, the arrival of aircraft, and having an open house within 18 months of acquiring the facility. There was no cookbook on how to do this, so it made it pretty interesting and challenging, but fun too. 

NTB: The Dryden Aircraft Operation Facility is really an extension of the Dryden Flight Research Center, correct? What does DAOF give the Research Center that it didn’t have before, and how do the two interact with each other on various missions?

Schmidt: To answer your first question, yes, it is an extension of Dryden, and the facility serves as a long-term solution for supporting the various airborne science platform requirements of the Science Mission Directorate. The facility provides a base of operations for SOFIA, as well as the various specially equipped aircraft that support NASA’s Earth science studies. Whereas Dryden is located on Edwards AFB proper, this facility is located in the city of Palmdale, which allows streamlined access to the science platforms by national and international technical communities. The DAOF also consolidates the various science platforms and the other similar operations, and that creates significant operational synergy. 

NTB: In 2004 you served as the Executive Director of President Bush’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy. How did you get that assignment, and what role did you play in the process?

Schmidt: During that time I was the special assistant to the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, and he asked me to take on that task. In January 2004 and we had a discussion, and he told me that President George Bush was going to unveil his new space exploration policy and he was going to form a presidential commission, and at that time he gave me the task to stand up and facilitate the commission and make sure the commissioners had what they needed to perform the task in accordance with the president’s directive. Six months later, the commission delivered a final report to the President.

NTB: Obviously much has changed since then. What impact, if any, do you think NASA’s new focus and direction will have on the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility and the types of projects it undertakes?   

Schmidt: President Obama has indicated a strong interest in restoring science to its rightful place by furthering this country’s efforts in technology, environment, science, and education. That aligns very well with the scientific research and experiments that we perform at Dryden and at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility. The activities and mission operations and the airborne platforms that we have here at the DAOF fulfill a key mission in the Earth science and astrophysics areas, so it’s very positive for us. 

NTB: You also served as the Executive Secretary for Management on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. How difficult was that assignment, and what would you say were the most valuable lessons NASA learned from it?

Schmidt: This was a very hard, difficult, and emotional assignment for me. However, it had a significant purpose and I was proud to be able to serve in this capacity for NASA and the country.

The loss of the Columbia was a very tragic and traumatic time for all of us. It’s a constant solemn reminder that the research and experimentation and discovery this storied agency undertakes is leading edge, high-risk, and very hazardous. This ill-fated event in which we lost seven of our precious family members proved that NASA is a close-knit family. We’ve undergone some organizational and cultural changes. We’ve changed our safety and communications.  And we’ve also learned not to be complacent or take anything for granted. As a result of this, I think we’ve become more of a learning organization. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve changed, and it’s all been for the better.                                

NTB: Looking ahead, what are your top goals and objectives for the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility over the next five years?

Schmidt: The science missions that we have accomplished at the DAOF have been very successful. As a result, we’ve continued to receive support from NASA Headquarters, from the various science communities, and from Dryden. We’re working hard to continue these successes, and we’re continuing to improve the efficiencies and the effectiveness of this great facility, and ensuring that the scientific researchers and experimenters that come here have a leading-edge facility to perform their pioneering work.

We are striving to be one of NASA’s crown jewels in Earth-based scientific research and active experimentation. Continuing the build-up of this facility and giving our customers the opportunity to do pioneering research will allow us to achieve that goal. 

For more information, contact Steven Schmidt at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To download this interview as a podcast, click here.

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