As Director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr. controls an annual budget of approximately $650 million and manages a labor force comprised of roughly 1,619 civil service employees who are supported by 1754 contractors working in more than 500 specialized research facilities.
NASA Tech Briefs: What is the Glenn Research Center’s primary mission, and what role does it currently play in America’s space program?
Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr.: Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr.: I’m going to change that question a little bit. Our primary competencies are aerospace power, aeropropulsion, in-space propulsion, communications, and human systems. We have roles in aeronautics and space. We conduct aeronautics research for subsonic fixed wing and subsonic rotary wing aircraft, supersonic aircraft, and hypersonic aircraft. We work on things such as noise and emissions technologies, and aviation safety technologies.
In terms of space, we conduct research and that includes human development technologies to ensure human health, which, of course, impacts astronauts; advanced space propulsion systems, such as ion-propulsion systems for spacecraft; and advanced power systems. In terms of the mission for space exploration, we are leading development of the service module for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and we will be testing the Orion Vehicle – the full-scale vehicle – in our Space Power Facility, which is located at Plum Brook Station.
We designed and we’re testing subsystems for the upper stage of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle, and we’re actually – right here on Center – manufacturing the simulated upper stage for the Ares 1 test vehicle that’s scheduled to launch in late spring of next year.
For the Ares 5 heavy lift vehicle, we’re developing the thrust vector control systems; we’re providing electrical power systems; and we’re developing the payload shroud, which will be the world’s largest payload shroud. We’re also providing propulsion, power and testing for the lunar lander, and we will provide power and communications for the other surface systems – the rovers and the spacesuits that are lunar based. So we have a pretty wide array of activities going on here.
NTB: You control an annual budget of approximately $650 million and you manage a workforce of roughly 1619 civil service employees (who are supported by 1754 contractors) What would you say are some of the more challenging aspects of your position as Director?
Dr. Whitlow: The center directors are responsible for providing the infrastructure to implement the programmatic goals, so I’m really concerned with making sure our facilities and infrastructure are available, operating, and able to be used to conduct tests, all while being challenged to make sure that we’re within the bounds of our human resource limits. I have to make sure that we have enough of the available skills to be able to implement the mission and deliver on our commitments.
NTB: With such a wide array of programs and such a diverse array of projects, that must get complicated at times.
Dr. Whitlow: Yes, workforce management is a very complicated process that we deal with here. I know that’s the case in all of our facilities and, in some cases, across the agencies. How we make sure we have all the people with the right skills, and make sure that we minimize the number of people whose skills are no longer relevant, is a very big challenge. And, of course, dealing with the demand for time and extensive travel schedules…that can be difficult at times.
NTB: When you took over the Glenn Research Center in late 2005, times were kind of tough. There were budget cuts, downsizing, morale problems. How did you turn that around?
Dr. Whitlow: Well, the biggest thing is that the administrator was – and still is – committed to using all of the resources within the Agency, and using them effectively. You’re probably aware of his concept of making sure that every center is healthy. So, working with headquarters PA&E – which is Program Analysis and Evaluation – organization that had done a study of Glenn, looking at our ability to take on major new roles, I was able to identify some specific actions that needed to be taken. One of the things they found was that we had tremendous capabilities in our workforce. We just needed some changes in leadership. So I was able to recruit some key leaders from space flight centers, a former commander of the Arnold Engineering Development Center from the Air Force, one who had been program manager for Space Station Freedom. These people provided experience running large space flight programs and put together some strategies for how we could implement large spaceflight programs. And so, working with the Administrator and knowing his commitment, working with other headquarters offices, and really partnering with the other centers and working with program managers to identify work that we could do, we were able to secure some pretty major roles.
The Administrator has put together a great team that works well together as a team. When we meet, we’re not there as directors of our individual centers; we’re there as the board of directors for the Agency, so it’s really looking out for the health of the entire Agency.
NTB: Do you think having worked at the other centers, like Langley and headquarters and the Kennedy Space Center, gave you an edge in this respect?
Dr. Whitlow: It certainly did, because one of the key things is having a relationship with people who know you and are comfortable with you and are confident that you can deliver on those things that you say you can deliver on. That provided a real big advantage because when people know you and you call them, it’s not just some person calling, it’s somebody they actually know.
NTB: It’s a personal connection.
Dr. Whitlow: Yes.
NTB: You graduated from MIT with degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, you spent much of your career at NASA working on science and technology, and you became an expert in the areas of unsteady transonic flow and aeroelasticity. Do you miss being directly involved with science and technology on a daily basis?
Dr. Whitlow: When I first became a supervisor I did. The biggest adjustment was, when you’re a researcher and you’re an expert in an area and you go out to a technical meeting, the people want to talk to you and ask you questions about your work. But when you become a manager, pretty soon you’re not that expert and they don’t ask you those kinds of questions, so you’ve got to seek your fulfillment from other things. When I first became a supervisor, it was a major adjustment. But it’s been long enough removed that I really enjoy it; I really enjoy what I’m doing in this job and in other jobs that I’ve had in the Agency.
NTB: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing America’s space program in the near future?
Dr. Whitlow: With the space program we’re going to have this gap between when the Space Shuttle stops flying and the CEV comes onboard, and right now it’s getting to be about five years. I would like to see that gap get smaller. Just making sure we’re able to continue to access space with American astronauts as we see fit will be one challenge.
Then there’s the workforce. Exciting the American public to get enough people to go into science, technology, engineering and the mathematics disciplines so we’ll have the workforce to carry this long-term vision that we have to fruition will be another challenge. The people have to be there to do the work.
When you look at our competitors, like China and India, who are graduating many more engineers than we are – and they are competitors – being able to provide enough workforce to compete in a global market is going to be a huge challenge. Exciting the public, making the public aware of what it is we do, what it is we’ve done, and all the good that has been done…we have to educate the public and let them know why America needs a strong and robust space program, as well as an aeronautics research program and a strong aerospace industry.
NTB: Next year will mark your 30th year with NASA. In that time have you seen any significant changes in the Agency’s focus or direction?
Dr. Whitlow: When I came to NASA in 1979, we were trying to bring the Space Shuttle online; the first flight was in April 1981. So we built that system, got it flying, and then we started assembling the Space Station. But our goals were, as far as initial space flight was concerned, low Earth orbit. Now we have a vision and a focus to take us beyond low Earth orbit, to send humans to the Moon and then on to other places in the solar system. That is a change in focus; that’s a huge change! And it’s a great change! I think this is an exciting time to be working with NASA, and it’s a very exciting time to be a young person, to think that all of this is out there in front of you and you have an opportunity to do it.
NTB: Of all of your professional accomplishments throughout the years, what has given you the most personal satisfaction?
Dr. Whitlow: Well, I could look at it from my research days to my current days. When I started in research at Langley 29 years ago, we were really starting to mature the area of computational fluid dynamics. It was a budding industry, or a budding field, so the contributions I made in the field of computational fluid dynamics, which I think really helped push the Agency forward in the application of aeroelasticity, [were satisfying]. Then, when I worked at headquarters as Division Director for Critical Technologies, even though I was there for a little less than a year, some of the decisions that were made for long-term research… in particular there was this concept that I did not conceive of but I did provide early support of – the blended wing body. It’s still around and it’s still being considered as a possible concept for future air transportation.
I really enjoyed my experience at Glenn and other places, but I really enjoy developing the workforce. One of the key things a leader can do is help his people to advance and help his people to achieve their career goals. I really enjoy that.
My time at Kennedy, I mean, it was a really special time in history. It was a great place to work, an exciting place to work. You get to do things there that you can’t do anywhere else in this Agency, and just being able to provide some leadership there when we were trying to return the Shuttle to flight, that was very rewarding.
NTB: You mentioned it being an exciting time for young people. What advice would you give young engineers coming out of college today who might be interested in a career with NASA?
Dr. Whitlow: I would tell them that coming to work for NASA – I mentioned it about Kennedy, but it does apply everywhere – there’s only one organization that can say they’ve landed people on the moon and brought them back. You can come and work for this organization and you can do things that you can’t do anywhere else. The opportunities are endless. I would tell them to be sure to love what they do, and I would tell them that NASA is not looking for just anybody. We’re looking for those people excited about their work; they’re committed to their work; they’re dedicated to it. We want people who do their work because they have a passion for it and because they love it.
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