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.
The other piece that was kind of interesting was, the folks at Headquarters are just like the folks in the other centers. They're great people, and they're just trying very hard to get their jobs done on a daily basis. Having always thought of Headquarters as kind of this faraway land, it was good to see that there are such good folks there that were trying to do their best every day. But it was a different environment. I didn't do a lot of engineering there, I can tell you that right now. But it was a very rewarding time to finally see us fly again.
NTB: What would you say are the biggest challenges facing you as Marshall Space Flight Center's new Director, and what are some of your top priorities and goals in this position?
Lightfoot: Well, I guess the challenges and goals kind of go together from that perspective. We have a number of shuttle flights left. Keeping the team focused to get those flights done safely is probably the biggest challenge because it can be distracting knowing we're going to retire the shuttle. I don't doubt that the team is focused at all, but I also don't doubt that there is some opportunity for distraction there. So that's really important, I think, from the Agency's perspective. I want us to be hitting our stride at the end; I don't want us to be kind of winding down. That's not the way we want to do this. That's the biggest thing.
Then, frankly, the impacts from whatever the Augustine Commission turns out and whatever the administration chooses to do with that. How we manage through that transition, if one comes, will be something that will be kind of tough, because we've got a lot of our workforce working on the current program, the Constellation Program, so how we manage through that is going to be tough.
My number one priority is really to make sure I'm including folks and communicating with folks as much as I can to let them know where we're headed. Even if I don't know, I think it's important for me to tell them I don't know, because people will create their own futures in their minds when they're not being told what's happening. So that's probably the biggest thing for us.
But I think in the near-term, it's finishing out the shuttle, and in the longer term it's how do we position ourselves, how will we be positioned in the next transportation architecture and what do we do from that perspective?
NTB: Have recent budgetary constraints had a significant impact on Marshall's operations and do you see that situation improving or getting worse over the next few years?
Lightfoot: I think that we've been able to do pretty well in the current environment. We've been pretty consistent with the amount of dollars that have come to Marshall to do the parts of the mission that we're responsible for. I don't ever remember walking in and saying, during any budget cycle, "I've got everything I need." That's the reality of the situation; I think we'll always have that.
I think a lot of the future is going to depend on where we go and where we're headed. I mean, you've seen what the Augustine Commission said - we don't have enough money to do what we've been asked to do. So the question will become, what are we going to be asked to do and how much money is going to come with that? Until we see that, I'm not going to be able to really tell what the future is. I am confident of one thing, though. If we're building space transportation systems, Marshall Space Flight Center will be very involved in that.
NTB: We've kind of intimated that there's been considerable debate recently regarding the pros and cons of future manned missions, particularly versus robotic missions, in terms of their respective costs, benefits, risks, etc. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Lightfoot: Well, I have a statement I use all the time ― "the power of and versus the tyranny of or." It's not original, by any means, but I find that to be applicable in this case. I think the robotic missions can enable the human missions, in big ways, helping us understand where we are going and what we are doing. So I think you need them both. I don't see this being a debate. I see it as being an "and;" it's not one or the other. It's both. That's what I think; they're both important for us.
NTB: Being an engineer, do you think you'll miss working with the technology on a day-to-day basis in your new position as Marshall's Director?
Lightfoot: Absolutely! I didn't go to school to do what I'm doing today.
NTB: I got that impression from your previous answer about when you went to Washington.
Lightfoot: Yeah. But I will tell you that you learn to celebrate it differently. It's fun to see some of our workforce get to...I call it "playing." They get to play. They get to design things, and to see the excitement in their faces reminds me of the excitement I had early on. So I get to live vicariously through them.
I had a friend who gave me an analogy, and I'll just use a little football analogy with you. At one point you're the quarterback, then you kind of become the coach, and then you're kind of the owner in the box, and you have to learn how to celebrate the success of your team and let them be the ones who get to play. But do I miss it? Oh, absolutely!
NTB: You've received a number of prestigious awards throughout your career including a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2007 and the highest honor given for federal government work, The Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives in 2006. Looking back over the last 20 years, what would you say has given you the most personal satisfaction in your career?
Lightfoot: Spaceflight is very much a team sport, and being part of these teams, whether it was running engine tests, whether it was return to flight, whether it's working through the problems associated with anything we're working on, if I can do that, that's what an engineer does. But you rarely do it by yourself. I have been very fortunate to be part of some tremendous teams, and the higher up I've moved, there are still teams there...they're just different.
The most satisfaction I get is, at the end of the day you can look around and you can shake a number of peoples' hands and say, "good job," and you know that that team pulled together and pulled off...it's kind of trite to say, but in a lot of ways these teams make the impossible possible. It's exciting to see that and to be part of one of those teams.
The things you mentioned are individual recognition, but they're recognition for an individual who was part of a really good team. That's the way it usually works. That, to me, gives me more satisfaction than anything individually around here.
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