NASA’s Johnny Nguyen discusses insight gained through closeout of the Space Shuttle Program.
It’s been 40 years since the space shuttle began its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981. Known as the Space Transportation System, the shuttle – humankind’s first reusable spacecraft – launched like a rocket and landed like a plane. The Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011 after 30 years of human spaceflight.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Complexities of closing out the Space Shuttle Program
- Importance of program and project closeout activities
- How closeout activities and legacy knowledge influence future mission success
Johnny Nguyen is the NASA Gateway Program Associate Manager for Integration and Analysis for Deep Space Logistics at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Nguyen previously served as KSC’s Senior Strategic Advisor. He has worked for the space shuttle and engineering directorates at KSC and was Chief of the Fluids Test and Technology Development Branch. He helped lead the Shuttle Transition Team responsible for planning the safe, efficient shutdown of space shuttle hardware and assets. Nguyen, a graduate of the Asian-American Government Executives Network Leadership Program, began his NASA career in 1998 as a co-op student from the University of Central Florida (UCF). He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and an MBA from UCF.
Johnny Nguyen: The act of closeout is hugely important because there are impacts to what comes after that too. So, it’s kind of that legacy with shuttle, it’s just paying that forward continually to make sure you do things correctly upfront and at the end, in order to set up the next thing after that.
That meant the closeout of, or addressing of, at least over 400 facilities, hundreds and thousands of line items of personal property, and how to do that as efficient as possible.
That’s a massive undertaking in itself that hasn’t been done on that scale, probably ever.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to 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.
When John Young and Bob Crippen flew the first Space Shuttle mission 40 years ago this month, it’s safe to say Space Shuttle Program closeout activities were probably not top of mind for anyone. But 30 years after that historic first flight, the space shuttle was retired, and NASA executed closeout of one of the agency’s largest and longest-duration programs.
The closeout phase of a program or project life cycle doesn’t receive the same attention as other phases. Project managers are asked to start closeout planning early in the project life cycle, but often lack the knowledge or resources to do it.
Today on the podcast, Gateway Deep Space Logistics Associate Manager Johnny Nguyen from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will share his experiences helping to lead Space Shuttle Program closeout activities and discuss how insight gained through the complexity of closing a program of such magnitude can be applied to current programs.
Johnny, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Nguyen: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Host: As we reflect on the first flight of the space shuttle era, what stand out to you as the greatest achievements of the shuttle?
Nguyen: Wow, great question. So, first of all, I wasn’t around for the first flight, so I’m not that old yet at least. I’m getting there. So yeah, of the shuttle 30-year program lifespan, I’ve been around with it for the last 10-plus years of it. I think what I reflect most on looking back on the timeframe is how the shuttle program kind of made low-Earth orbit, low-Earth spaceflight kind of boring. And that in itself is kind of impressive. Thinking about it became such a part of society that, ‘Oh, hey, look, another shuttle going up. Doing something cool I’m sure.’ And it just became kind of normal. And I think that’s a testament to what the shuttle program did over its lifespan.
And I think when we look at some of the other commercial providers these days too, whether it’s the Blue Origin or SpaceX with their new Starship launches. It’s a lot of testing. It’s a lot of explosions sometimes as they’re learning their way through this. And that may look exciting, but then again, drawing that contrast to what the shuttle program did, at least towards the end of it at least, it was just an everyday kind of thing. Shuttle landed, we processed it around for three to four months and up it went again. And it became kind of that normal. Not quite the vision of an airport where flights were taking off every day, but still that feel of it was there for sure.
Host: Um-hmm (affirmative). And what was your involvement with the Space Shuttle Program?
Nguyen: I actually hired into NASA working on shuttle program. I had bounced around quite a bit to different internships before hiring in full-time, but when I did get in, I worked on the Orbital Maneuvering System and the Reaction Control System for the shuttle, basically all the thrusters. And so for five years almost, working on that system, I was in charge of just the processing, turning around the vehicles. So, shuttle would land, and from that moment it landed on the shuttle landing facility to the point it took off again on launch day, that turnaround effort to make sure the systems were checked out, all the components were working correctly, any maintenance, any replacements that had to happen, loading the propellants, all that good stuff was part of my day job back then. That job was obviously super exciting.
I got to sit in on launch days. I got to participate in landing recoveries if, in the rare occurrence, it landed over in Dryden, due to weather or whatever was preventing it from landing at Kennedy. And then later on towards, was it 2003 when the Columbia accident happened, I was also part of the team that helped comb through the massive amounts of data and the massive amounts of documents as part of our research into what fed into the CAIB report for that as well. And then from there I did some management intern jobs, and then ultimately I ended my career with the space shuttle side doing transition retirement, which is the entire closeout of the whole program for Kennedy Space Center.
Host: What are some of the key takeaways from your support of shuttle program closeout?
Nguyen: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting when I reflect back on that time. You get hired in, you get engrossed into the system, the specific discipline that you’re working on. And like I said before, my thing was the shuttle thrusters for a specific vehicle. So, doing that for so many years, and then finally changing the position, the job duties to do the shuttle retirement and closeout, it really opened my eyes for the first time, kind of. It was like, ‘Wow, so this is what the rest of the center does. This is what the rest of the agency does.’ It was just such an eye-opening experience, because in terms of transition retirement closeout of a massive program like this that’s spread at multiple centers, it’s just a huge undertaking. From a Kennedy Space Center perspective, that meant the closeout of, or addressing of, at least over 400 facilities, hundreds and thousands of line items of personal property, and how to do that as efficient as possible. So, that’s a massive undertaking in itself that hasn’t been done on that scale, probably ever.
So, for me, it was just such a huge learning opportunity, and honestly, a chance to fail. I mean, when I look back on what I did back then, my first time fumbling through budgets and resources, experiencing what the institutional side of the house does in terms of environmental remediation, personal property, artifacts, mementos, historical preservation, records retention, all this stuff that, as a typical engineer, you don’t really think about too much. But now in terms of closeout, how do you address all these things for that massive amount of data and equipment out there? And then it’s not just you doing it, obviously, it’s a whole huge team in order to make this happen. So how do you communicate what needs to happen to the folks who are doing it in a way that is efficient, basically?
And again, at that point in the 2010 timeframe, 2011 timeframe, the next big NASA program is the Constellation Program. So, at that point, a bit of our mantra was basically, the more efficient we can do shuttle closeout, the more money the agency will have for our follow-up program. So that was a lot of stuff to take in as a middle-grade engineer stepping into project management for the first time. So it was a lot of learning. When I reflect back upon that, I for sure thank my boss for giving me the leeway to go explore, to go fail and ultimately learn and create those relationships with those key people to make things happen.
One of our phrases that stands out for sure is the ‘yes if’ phrase. You may have heard of that too, Deana. It’s the idea of like, don’t just tell me why we can’t do it, tell me how we can do it and what it would take. No matter how crazy it is, no matter how much money it might take, or how many people or how much time it takes, just tell me that yes if answer, and then from there, we can at least have data to work with to develop a solution for this.
Host: Do you think that helped people to be more accepting of what you were doing in terms of closing out such a large program?
Nguyen: I think so. It probably depends on each particular person and where that individual’s future lies. But from a 10,000-foot level, a little bit, like the idea that the more efficiently we do our job, the more we would have devoted resource-wise to the next program, I think it helped. I think it gave people, it gave me at least a direction to aim for and a reason for why, because most of the time working shuttle closeout, what it really meant was the faster you closeout, the faster folks would be laid off. Right? And that’s not a happy thing, obviously, especially for a tight-knit community as Kennedy Space Center is. Those were people’s jobs there. And the shuttle program paid for a lot of that stuff. So the faster I did my job, the faster somebody else would be out of a job pretty much. And that’s not a happy way of thinking about it, not motivating at all, and not conducive to where we were trying to go towards.
So, the rallying cry of, every dollar saved would be a dollar for the next program, helped in the sense that there is a future. There is something coming after shuttle. This is not just the simple end of it. There’s something coming after that. And with that next program came more missions, more focus, more exploration, different types of jobs. I think it just helped people see that there is a next thing after that, something to aim for at least.
Host: Based on your experience with shuttle closeout activities, what are your thoughts on the people aspect of planning and implementing these types of activities?
Nguyen: I think that people is everything. It’s like they teach us as leaders and as project managers that it’s about the people. You have to take care of the people. But having gone through shuttle closeout and my subsequent experiences in my career, it’s just huge. It really is about the mental shift as a leader to shift it from, yes, there’s a mission. Yes, there’s a goal for this project to accomplish. But still paramount throughout it all, is the people. How are we treating the folks? How are we treating our teammates? How are we helping them along the way? How are we setting them up for success in the future?
And during that timeframe, it was extremely hard because with the shuttle program closing, it had a huge ripple effect in the community, in the cities nearby and the towns nearby, local businesses. For every impact on Kennedy Space Center, it impacted almost three-fold or four-fold in the local community. So, taking care of the people in the best way possible, is always at the forefront. And that’s what I learned during shuttle closeout. And that’s what I still learn and develop until today. Like even in the Gateway Program, I think one of the best things about it is how we treat each other and the transparency and just the focus on the culture of the people.
Host: In your view, what makes closeout activities important?
Nguyen: It’s interesting. I’m actually able to see the other end of the spectrum today in my current job in the Gateway. So right now, I’m working in a project called Deep Space Logistics, where we’re working to develop the commercial service capability to deliver cargo and supplies to the lunar vicinity for the future missions for astronauts to get back on the Moon. So, it’s in a very formulation and development stage right now, building up the brand new budgets, building up the brand new capabilities, planning for that future.
And then having come from the shuttle closeout side of the spectrum of a program’s life cycle, it’s rarely thought of in the upfront part to think about the closeout piece at the end. Most people don’t think they’ll be around, maybe, by the time their project or program gets closed out. So no need to think about that. At the very beginning of a project or program, you’re thinking about budget and selling the capability to try and make sure, hey, come fund this project of mine because it’s needed for the future, so you’ve got to kind of undersell it a little bit perhaps. It’s a cheap program. We can make this happen for this low, low cost of blah, blah, blah. But once you get funded, once you’re into it, then you’re like, ‘Oh man, and we have to close this thing out one day,’ and that’s going to be a lot of effort sometimes.
So, for me, I kind of relate it to, it’s almost like a relationship. You’ve got to have the closure in a relationship in order to move on to the next thing. If you don’t close out correctly, there could be baggage to deal with later on. Baggage in this case would be stuff like, did I leave behind hazardous material that should have been treated? Did I leave behind a bunch of documents that should have been archived? It could be anything. So, the act of closeout is hugely important because there are impacts to what comes after that too. So, it’s kind of that legacy with shuttle, it’s just paying that forward continually to make sure you do things correctly upfront and at the end, in order to set up the next thing after that.
Host: How would you characterize the impact of the shuttle program’s legacy knowledge?
Nguyen: I think shuttle legacy is with us, even if some people don’t realize it. At Kennedy Space Center we have a really good onboarding program. It’s the new employee orientation. So, folks who get hired in, they get immersed in a few days of everything Kennedy Space Center. Here’s who all the orgs are, here’s what they do. Here’s all of the employee resource groups, all that good stuff. So, it’s a great crash course into onboarding at Kennedy. And I’m lucky enough to be part of that agenda.
I get to talk about a topic called governance and culture, and in it I do highlight, here’s why the agency and the center is organized the way we are. And some elements of that is because of shuttle, whether it’s the Challenger accident, the Columbia accident, how it gave birth to things like the independent tech authorities, formalizing dissenting opinions. All that stuff is who we are and why we’re organized the way we are and why we make the decisions in the way we do. So, new employees coming in, they may not realize it unless they do the history research on it, but it’s there. The legacy of shuttle is embedded into the DNA of NASA as we continue to add on more lessons and more accomplishments along the way.
Host: So how do closeout activities and legacy knowledge influence future mission success?
Nguyen: Again, I think I’d go back to the culture of what shuttle did. It suffered two major accidents during the span of 30 years, which in itself is a bit of a testament. But that culture of rigorous program, project management, having thorough conversation at every level in the governance structure of acclimating people to the idea that spaceflight could be normal, I think those are some of the lessons that all programs subsequent to that still carry on into them. And I think part of the legacy of knowledge that comes into future missions is knowing what you have to plan for later on. Like for me specifically, knowing what it took to close out such a huge undertaking, I can keep that in my mind as I plan for this new project.
It’s kind of like, what’s that analogy, maybe sort of like moving out of a house into and designing your new house. The act of moving out of your house, you start realizing, ‘Oh my God, I have so much stuff in this house. Why do I have so much stuff? How did I accumulate all these things?’ And in the act of closing that out and moving out of the house, you get rid of things probably, and then you make more of an intentional thought process that, OK, for this new house I’m going to be more structured into what I get for it, that I don’t need these other things, I never used these things from my old house, I won’t need it for my new house. So basically, it’s just that lesson, about taking that into the next follow-on program and project and trying to embed it into the DNA of that new thing, whether it’s in the governance structure of it, the program plan, project plan, how decisions are made, all of that stuff, I think factors into it.
Host: Johnny, what do you see as some of the key advancements that have occurred during these 40 years since the first flight of shuttle that help pave the way for Artemis success?
Nguyen: It’s probably no surprise to anybody here, but to me, the big, huge deal has been the commercial partners and providers that we have these days. Back in shuttle days with the International Space Station, we were used to getting, or got used to getting international participation, international partnerships, working across borders for a common goal. There’s something called the Global Exploration Roadmap that kind of lays out all the space agencies around the world, what their efforts are in the next future plans and how it all kind of fits together. Not that we’re ever seeking approval from each other, but it kind of just shows how it all maps together so that we’re not duplicating each other’s missions, for example. So I think some of those lessons are now embedded into Artemis as well. You see that with the Artemis Accords. ISS laid the groundwork for international partnerships, participation, and that’s carried on now into Artemis Accords as well.
And then on top of that is the commercial partnerships, that was paved the way by Commercial Crew Program, the International Space Station’s cargo resupply missions. They’ve just become such a component into how we make things happen. Maybe the more traditional days of the government going it alone and building the whole thing by itself, that may be in the past these days, where I can only see in the future moving more and more towards closer and closer commercial partnerships and providers to making things happen. And I think that’s the whole one, that’s the whole goal of the government to a degree, to enable the commercial industry to build and then to be self-sustaining. As we see now, that’s coming with the low-Earth orbit side. So I think that the same will happen eventually once we get out into deeper space as well.
Host: Great insights. Thank you so much for taking time to share all of this with us today, Johnny. It’s really been a pleasure having you on the podcast.
Nguyen: Of course. Thank you so much for having me, Deana.
Host: Any closing thoughts?
Nguyen: Here we are in the work-from-home pandemic situation. It’s hard, I think, as a project manager to stay in touch with their team, with each member, but I think it also allows for different opportunities as well. What might’ve been, what is harder perhaps to reach out to local teammates, might be way easier to reach out to folks that are at other centers or at other geographical locations. So I think my only thought going forward would be that there’s an opportunity in every situation. There’s an opportunity today in how we do project management to leverage the current environment, the current tools we have, and to explore that.
Host: You’ll find Johnny’s bio along with links to Shuttle Era Resources and a detailed account of STS-1 at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast. A transcript of today’s episode is also posted on the website.
For more information and interviews about what’s happening at NASA, we encourage you to check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
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As always, thanks for listening.