NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy discusses NASA’s positive impact on humanity—and the people who make it happen.
From the groundbreaking images of the James Webb Space Telescope to the launch and splashdown of the Artemis I mission to the successful DART mission, 2022 is considered one of NASA’s most accomplished years. NASA’s technical workforce achieved historic discoveries and mission success and is poised to extend the excitement in 2023 with the first flight of the X-57 and X-59 experimental aircraft, more amazing discoveries from the Webb telescope, and continued science on the International Space Station.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- NASA’s impact on humanity
- How NASA leadership ensures a continuous emphasis on safety
- The importance of sharing lessons learned
Pam Melroy was sworn in as NASA Deputy Administrator in June 2021, after she was nominated for the role by President Joe Biden. As Deputy Administrator, Col. (USAF, ret) Melroy helps establish NASA’s vision and represents NASA to the Executive Office of the President, Congress, and other organizations. Earlier in her career, Melroy was one of only two women to command a space shuttle and logged more than 38 days in space on missions to build the International Space Station. As a co-pilot, aircraft commander, instructor pilot, and test pilot, Melroy logged more than 6,000 flight hours in more than 50 different aircraft before retiring from the Air Force in 2007. She is a veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause, with more than 200 combat and combat support hours. After serving more than two decades in the Air Force and as a NASA astronaut, Melroy took on leadership roles at Lockheed Martin, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and as an advisor to the Australian Space Agency. Melroy holds a bachelor’s in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College and a master’s in Earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pam Melroy: This is an extraordinary workforce. Their technical capability is unparalleled.
The capabilities that we develop to do incredibly hard things like going to space actually bleed over into other industries. So, as you create capabilities that are at the cutting edge, you develop capabilities that can proliferate into other industries and throughout the society.
Science is like the seed corn of the science and technology capabilities of the future. It’s how we understand the world around us. It leads to breakthroughs in physics and in biology that eventually become standard and make everyone’s lives better.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to the 100th episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
As we celebrate this milestone episode, we’re grateful to you for listening and engaging with the podcast to help make it a success. Thank you!
Our special guest for Episode 100 is NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. It’s such an honor to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.
Milroy: Oh, thank you, Deana. I’m excited to be here.
Host: 2022 was such an amazing year for NASA with so many history-making achievements. What are some of the key moments that stand out to you?
Melroy: Well, there really were so many. I think what’s exciting is just to see the successes across the whole portfolio. The breadth of what NASA does is incredible. It is focused on science and technology and exploration in space and aeronautics. But clearly the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and the incredible science that we are getting from it. Obviously, the Artemis launch starting us on a path to humans doing science and exploration throughout the solar system. But in addition to that, the progress that we made in aeronautics towards our X-planes, and then some of the technology experiments like LOFTID, which will be critical for also for getting humans to Mars. Some of those things really stand out to me.
Host: What are you looking forward to in 2023?
Melroy: Well, it will be great to see our aeronautics portfolio get back into the X-plane business with the first flight of two X-planes. As a test pilot I find that very exciting. I think that’s absolutely essential to fly things at scale in aeronautics so that you can make a giant leap forward in the technology capability. So that’s definitely a big one.
I’m very excited also about several other things coming up in 2023. One of them that I’ll mention is the annular eclipse in October. Now, it’s not a total eclipse because of the distance of the, the Moon won’t completely cover the Sun. We will have a total eclipse in April of 2024, and it’s going to be the last time that we’ll be able to see that from North America for a couple of decades. So, we’re going to go all in on ensuring that an entire generation of students and just citizen scientists and regular people get the opportunity to learn about our Sun, learn about heliophysics. It’s going to be extraordinary, and I am super excited about that. Witnessing the eclipse, both eclipses, but also educating people about it. I think it’s going to be very, very exciting.
Also, I’m really looking forward to adding a new capability to our Human Spaceflight Program. We hope that Boeing will send the first crew on their Starliner to the International Space Station. And when I think back to my time when essentially there was a space shuttle and a Soyuz, and those were the only ways for humans to get to space. I am thrilled every time we add a new spacecraft — and we have a lot of them now — but this is really very exciting.
Host: What is it about the people of NASA that makes it possible to keep on reaching beyond what previously could only be imagined?
Melroy: Well, I think there’s a very important cultural aspect to this. It goes back to our formation and our roots and the history in the 60s. I mean, it was really unfathomable. I mean, people had absolutely no idea, no basis for making an assertion that we were going to send a man to the Moon and bring him home safely. But I think it really created a culture inside NASA of, once we decide there’s a goal that we’re going to do, we just go do it. And so to me that is, that’s very central to our culture.
Host: How does your experience in space inform how you approach leadership at NASA?
Melroy: That’s a wonderful question. I think I take leadership very seriously. As a former military officer, I was put into leadership roles at a very, very early age. So I think I have a servant leadership mentality where you’re there to support the mission, you’re there to support the people and the crew, and I think that that’s an important aspect. But there’s another interesting thing about being an astronaut. You sort of are where it all comes together. There are people who know how to launch rockets and to build spacecraft and to integrate payloads and so forth, and you get a strong expertise in those areas, but the astronaut gets to see how it all comes together at the end. So I feel a little bit that way in a leadership position of the agency, I get to see how it all comes together, and that’s what’s really fascinating.
Host: Based on your experience with space flight, what advice will you give to the astronauts of Artemis II?
Melroy: Oh, my. Well, I’m sure that they will be very well prepared by the time they fly. That’s something that we really know how to do is to prepare our astronauts for that. But I will say, I have no question that they will be ready technically for whatever comes to them. But I found it very important as I flew in space to recognize the emotional impact on the crew and on yourself of what you’re doing, and to make sure that you take the time to honor that as well and recognize this. It’ll be a life-changing moment for them.
Host: We talk a lot on this podcast about knowledge sharing and lessons learned. What are your thoughts on the importance of sharing lessons learned?
Melroy: It’s absolutely critical. Again, go back a little bit to my ops heritage, but the recognition that something that you learned could actually save someone’s life. Maybe it turned out fine for you, but it might not turn out fine for someone else. And so we should take that very seriously that we share those lessons learned, because you never know when it might be the difference between the success of a mission.
Host: As NASA’s technical workforce focuses on overcoming difficult challenges, how do you ensure that a continuous emphasis on safety stays at the forefront?
Melroy: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. I think it’s something that the Administrator and Bob Cabana and I talk about a lot, is how to make sure that we protect that culture of safety. There’s key aspects of it, and one of them is just making sure that you talk about it and remind everybody to have it in the front of mind. But it’s also in how you conduct meetings and how you conduct business.
So, one of the things we have to make sure that we prevent is a culture of silence where people don’t feel empowered to speak up. And so it’s even in small things like how you run a meeting, making sure that every single person in the meeting got called on and is encouraged to share their perspective and their point of view. Those small cultural things lead up to the larger culture of safety.
Host: Back in October when NASA’s FY 21 Economic Impact Report was released, NASA leadership noted that with an investment less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget, NASA generated more than $71.2 billion in total economic output. How would you summarize NASA’s impact?
Melroy: Well, I think the economic impact is incredibly important. Just to put it in context, 80 percent of NASA’s budget roughly goes out in acquisitions, in procurement. In other words, we go out and develop relationships and with small businesses, with large businesses, with communities. And so that impact is felt right here on Earth, and that’s very important. But it’s not just the economic impact on our communities, it’s the fact that these are high tech, good paying jobs, which actually floats a lot of boats, right? So, when I talk about NASA’s value proposition, I’ve talked to a lot of people about this through the years, and there are essentially three reasons ‘Why NASA.’ Why? What is the benefit to our citizens? What is the benefit to humanity?
The first one is science, and that’s very, very important. Science is like the seed corn of the science and technology capabilities of the future. It’s how we understand the world around us. It leads to breakthroughs in physics and in biology that eventually become standard and make everyone’s lives better. So that foundational science piece is very important. And so much of what we do, you can only do in space. The James Webb Space Telescope being a great example. You can’t look in those frequencies at the universe to see back in time except from outside the Earth’s atmosphere. And that’s just one example.
The second reason gets back to this economic impact. It’s national posture, it’s national capabilities in science and technology, and that’s really important because the capabilities that we develop to do incredibly hard things like going to space actually bleed over into other industries. One of my favorite examples is that software engineering as a discipline essentially didn’t exist before Apollo. So as you create capabilities that are at the cutting edge, you develop capabilities that can proliferate into other industries and throughout the society.
And finally, the last piece which I think we all get, is inspiration. It’s the way you feel when you look at the pictures of the early universe from the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s the excitement in a child’s eyes when they see an astronaut floating in space or operate a robotic arm on their own. That inspiration is so important, not just to the human spirit, but also to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals who will then keep that virtuous cycle of science, technology, and economic benefit going.
Host: This has been so interesting. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today.
Melroy: It’s been my pleasure.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Melroy: I guess I’d just like to say how incredibly proud I am of the NASA workforce. I have worked inside NASA and at a lot of other places in industry and government, I’ve worked around the world, and this is an extraordinary workforce. Their technical capability is unparalleled. If you have a problem anywhere in the world, eventually somebody will say, ‘Hey, let’s call NASA.’ And amazingly, we will have someone who can help and does help and will help. And it just makes me so proud to be part of the organization.
Host: You’ll find Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy’s bio, links to topics we discussed during our conversation, and a show transcript on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
If you’d like to hear more about what’s happening at NASA, we encourage you to check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.