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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Janet Karika, who retired recently from NASA after 43 years in the aerospace industry, shares career highlights and her approach to leading the Artemis I Lessons Learned process.

A career that began with a passion for high-performance materials and microstructural analysis culminates with a high-profile capstone assignment to gather the best practices and lessons learned from Artemis I. Karika took a novel approach to the project, compiling information not only from NASA sources, but also from internal and external stakeholders, creating a 360-degree view of the mission. To NASA’s technical workforce, she leaves this advice: “Establish your priorities as you decide what work path you want to take. If you know what’s important to you, then all your decisions become more straightforward.”

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • A novel approach to Lessons Learned that produced fascinating findings.
  • The crucial role NASA’s Knowledge Community played in the Artemis I Lessons Learned process.
  • The importance of developing leadership and presentation skills early in a career.

 

Related Resources:

Artemis I

Artemis II

Knowledge Capture and Transfer

Lessons Learned

Chief Program Management Officer (NASA Only)

Knowledge Community Corner: Zudayyah Taylor-Dunn

APPEL Courses:

Pay It Forward: Capturing, Sharing and Learning NASA Lessons (APPEL-vPIF)

Creativity and Innovation (APPEL-vC&I)

Foundations of Aerospace at NASA (APPEL-vFOU)

 

Janet Karika Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Janet Karika
Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Janet Karika retired recently following more than 40 years in the aerospace industry, including several positions at NASA, including Principal Advisor for Space Transportation. In that role, she was responsible for resolving cross-Agency challenges and issues working with NASA’s technical authorities, Center Directors, and the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate program managers. She monitored and advised NASA’s space transportation programs to include the Artemis Moon to Mars Program, the Commercial Crew Program, the Launch Services Program, and Cargo Resupply Services. Karika led the Lessons Learned process for Artemis I as the capstone to 43 years in the space and missile field.

Karika holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering with emphasis in ultra-high temperature composites used in space propulsion and thermal protection systems. She is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She served on the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and chaired its Operations Working Group. She is a member of Women in Aerospace (WIA) and served as their Board of Directors Vice Chair.


Transcript

Andres Almeida (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast. I’m your host for today’s episode, Andres Almeida. In each episode, we focus on the role NASA’s technical workforce plays in advancing aeronautics, space exploration, and innovations here on Earth. Knowledge capture and transfer are integral to achieving NASA’s goals, and agency teams do well when they establish a culture that supports continually sharing and advancing knowledge.

Today we’re going to speak with Janet Karika. Janet is NASA’s principal advisor for space transportation. She’s retiring from NASA following a 40-year career in the aerospace industry that began with an interest in high performance materials for space propulsion and thermal protection systems. Our Appel Knowledge Services team had the privilege of catching up with her during her final week at the agency. Welcome, Janet. Thanks for joining us today.

Janet Karika: Thank you so much.

Host: You began your aerospace career with an interest in ultrahigh performance composites used in propulsion and thermal protection systems. What drew you to that specialization?

Karika: So as an undergrad student studying mechanical engineering, we got to take courses in a lot of different things. I really enjoyed materials engineering. It wasn’t a major offered at the University of Central Florida, but I really loved the materials engineering courses. I loved failure analysis, trying to figure out why something failed, looking at microstructural analysis. So that became one of my passions.

And as I joined the Air Force, first out of college, I wound up working on upper stage motors, the Star 48 motor in fact. It’s carbon-carbon exit cone was shattering quite a bit as we tried to develop this upper stage motor. And so I was able to do an entire failure investigation that got into all the way down to the basics of the material and how it was produced. When I was done with that assignment, the Air Force sent me to Arizona State University for my master’s degree in mechanical engineering. And I was able to take that work and create a master’s thesis on graphitization of cold tar composites used in these types of applications.

And so from there it actually turned out that that helped in some ways get me an assignment later on at NASA Ames as one of the first women in the NASA Exchange Scientists Program where I got to work with silicon carbides which were very similar. So it all sort of built together, and that has continued through my career. Thermal protection systems are quite a passion of mine. So that’s how it happened.

Host: Wonderful. What do you know today that you wish you knew when you graduated with your master’s degree in mechanical engineering?

Karika: Oh my gosh, the first thing I would tell anyone is if you can get your degrees back to back, you can afford it, you have the time, do it. I will tell you that my study skills atrophied quite a bit for the year, two and a half years I guess I was at what was called Space Division in L.A. as a lieutenant. When I got back to start getting my master’s degree in mechanical engineering, it was hard to get back those study skills. I was blessed to have a lot of colleagues at Arizona State that pitched in and helped me, but that was really tough.

I’ll also say that there was an importance of my technical background. That was really important as I worked towards my master’s in mechanical engineering. But I would also say if you can work on your presentation skills while you’re getting your master’s degree, if you can lead a team, all those things are things that are going to help you in your soft skills when you graduate with your master’s degree. So I would suggest using all those kinds of skills, really stretch yourself to get them before you leave because no matter how much you stay technical, you still need to know how to lead and you need to know how to run programs. It’s very important.

And if you can craft your master’s, I recommend it. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to do that; but if you can suggest to your advisor that you have a particular passion for something that you would like to work on, sometimes they can be very open to it. So I highly recommend looking at crafting whatever your master’s project is, try to craft it towards the things that you love because if you love it, you’re going to be really good at it.

Host: Now you mentioned this before, but how did your career bring you to NASA ultimately?

Karika: So I’ll warn you, this is a little bit of a convoluted and long story; but I’ll try to keep it short. As I said, so when I was a young person in high school, I wanted to work for NASA. I was very passionate about the space program. Apollo-Soyuz really meant a lot to me. Watching the United States and the USSR shake hands across an airlock at the height of the Cold War really taught me that space was unifying. So that’s what I wanted to do. As a Florida girl, I wanted to work for NASA. But they weren’t really hiring when I was getting ready to graduate.

When I was a freshman in orientation, the Air Force saw me over in the College of Engineering and back then, as usual, I was one of the only young women; and they came over and offered me a scholarship. That they would pay for my college, and I would owe them four years. And that seemed to me, while not what I had wanted to do, that seemed to be another path. You’ll see through my career, staying very flexible has been very helpful to me. So I chose that path. As I said, I wound up going to L.A. as a lieutenant but getting to work on upper stage motors, which as far as I was concerned, I had made it. I mean I was touching space stuff.

Throughout my career, I tried to find ways and I found ways to work with NASA. So by the time I was ready to retire from the Air Force, I had done a tremendous amount of work with the interagency, reaching out to NASA, collaborating with NASA. After a brief stint as the assistant for launch vehicles in the Secretary of Defense’s Office, you’ll see that through my whole career I’m a rocket guy. I love it. I love rockets. I wound up with an opportunity to work and support NASA as the Director of Interagency Launch Programs. My job was to coordinate all the rocket fleet issues between the Air Force, NASA, and the NRO. So I supported the NASA Launch Services Program in that job. Part of that led me to support the FAA and their advisory council.

That’s how I met a guy named Jim Bridenstine. He used to come and speak to us about technical issues. I was quite impressed with him as a member of the House, how deeply technical he was and able to master these very complex concepts. It came to pass that out of the blue, he called me one day and asked me to be his chief; and I was able to say yes. That really began my journey as an official part of the NASA family which led me to here. It’s a long story I tried to make short, but if you took anything from that, I would say have your goals but be flexible in how you reach them because that’s served me well.

Host: And it’s a good story. As NASA’s principal advisor for Space Transportation, it’s a big job but what does that entail?

Karika: So that started while I was chief of staff for Jim Bridenstine. We started having an awful lot of challenges with all our launch vehicles, not challenges in a bad way. These were just huge events, huge missions. We had DM-2, right? We had the first launch as Jim would say of American astronauts on American rockets on American soil. Say it with me, everyone. And we were leading up to that. LSP had Solar Orbiter we were launching. Hugely important mission. And we were trying to get the core stage for Artemis up to Stennis to do our hot fire, our green run, if you will. And there were so many things going on; and I will admit, it was very hard for me to stay away from these things ’cause I am a rocket guy and I would always be in the meetings very engaged.

Jim finally said to me – it was in February, I believe – “Look, I think you need to move to being, you know, our space transportation person. Just please ride over all of these things and make sure that whatever they need, they have it so that we can make sure that all of these amazing teams are successful. So that’s how I started, and I worked with all these different groups that are part of our launching community at NASA and made sure that whatever they needed or whatever they wanted to know, I could run and get that for them and support them and advise them. So that’s how I started.

And then as we got closer to the launch of Artemis I, I dedicated myself to working what is now the Moon to Mars Program office so that I could throw my shoulder near this end of my career because I knew I was going to retire, throw my shoulder to what I think is the most audacious and impressive launch mission we have to date which is Artemis. So that’s how I wound up in this final role.

Host: So your career had lots of lessons learned. Can you reiterate some of the key lessons learned that you’d like to share with younger members of NASA technical workforce?

Karika: So looking back on my career, what I would say to our workforce is establish your priorities as you decide what career path you want to take. Those priorities can evolve as you do. But if you know what your priorities are, what’s important to you, then all your decisions become more straightforward. I’m not going to say easier, but more straightforward. When I was young, my career was my whole life and I dedicated myself to that. But as my life evolved into getting married and then having children, my desire to stay with my family over a specific job became very important to me.

That was my choice. But you all have your own choices as well. But what’s really important is to let your priorities evolve as your life does but stick to them, and then the opportunities you’re offered will fall into place. Many of the things I did in my career – my husband was an Air Force pilot. And so, because we were in the Air Force together – we met in ROTC, so we’ve been together over 40 years as well – I tended to follow him to his assignments because he was the pilot and this was the Air Force.

But I wound up doing amazing things that I never would’ve done if I’d followed some standard promotion path in the Air Force. For example, going to NASA Ames. He was at Kassel Air Force base. Going and working arms control at Patrick Air Force base because he was going to be going there as well. Things that I never would’ve done; and yet at the end of the day, when you look at my career and how my career has become all about the interagency and getting different groups working together, it’s all come together to give me a skillset that was very important for chief of staff but also in being the principal advisor for Space Transportation and working with all our other agencies and industry partners to make sure that our space transportation systems are collaborative and as successful as possible.

Host: That’s impressive. Speaking of lessons learned, how did you come to lead the Lessons Learned Program for Artemis I? Like what were your thoughts going into that big project?

Karika: After the launch of Artemis I, there are standard Lessons Learned procedures that kick in. All our organizations capture lessons learned through the entire life of the program which for Artemis I was a decade. We had everything from the development to the green run to everything. Captured those lessons learned. But I had about a year left before I wanted to retire. There was a discussion about could my capstone be, my last big huge project be gathering the Artemis I Lessons Learned and just sort of – we say birddogging – just sort of watching over the process and gathering them while everyone was also marching towards Artemis II.

I decided to do it in a novel way where the procedures that were already well in place and very robust for the programs and the centers to gather their lessons learned. There were a number of groups that already had these established procedures. But I wanted to also look at the stakeholders and look at internal and external stakeholders and create a 360 look at the entire program and look at like comms and export control and talk to the science mission directorate and talk to external groups like the Air Force, the Space Force, Space Command, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Navy who helped us gather data. Talk to all of them almost as customers. How did we do? Do you have any things that you can offer us? We got some fascinating things back. So I really think that this novel way of doing it was really – really bore great fruit. Now that we have out-briefed it, our leadership agrees.

The other thing I did with it was I established something called focus area leads where internal to the Artemis program, I assigned various people to lead the internal Artemis teams, someone to do comms, someone to do export control, you know someone to do secondaries, all that sort of thing. Those people were my leaders to gather their top issues. So it also helped mentor lead a team of people. For example, I would go to the centers, the center directors and I would say, “Who do you want to lead informing us on how your lessons learned process is going?” So it was a really great way also to mentor and lead a new generation of people to gather these lessons learned and be even more subject matter experts in their field.

Host: Excellent. And you were able to consult experts and knowledge capture, correct?

Karika: Yes.

Host: What advice did you get to make that even more effective?

Karika: So this is a great point. One of the other things that we did with this was the first thing I did was reach out to Zudayyah Taylor-Dunn who was our chief knowledge officer and asked her, “Help me learn the best way to do this knowledge capture of our lessons learned.” That community has amazing training and resources and tools. So once I formed an executive team, they helped me pick my and structure my focus area leads. Then once we had that team up, we had Zudayyah bring in her experts and they came and trained us.

They trained us on how to create safe spaces so people could bring lessons learned forward. They taught us the best way to ask questions. They helped us craft surveys for our external stakeholders; and it was a fabulous, fabulous partnership. They’re helping us capture all the data, all the charts, all the inputs. I honestly could not have done this without Zudayyah shoulder to shoulder with me through this whole thing and teaching and helping facilitate all these meetings. It was outstanding, and I think that moving forward we will also make sure that we work closely with the knowledge capture community for our lessons learned for Artemis II and beyond.

Host: Wonderful. And you were right, communication is so vital on learning how to ask the right questions. Based on those answers you got and what you’ve learned, what were some of the key findings that you can share on this podcast?

Karika: So while we had a lot of technical findings and lessons learned – and not just lessons learned, but best practices as well. What I will share with you are some of the more interesting 360 things that we got out of our surveys and we got from our focus area leads that didn’t necessarily have a standard lessons learned process. We learned things like we needed to anticipate surge staffing for guest ops. We needed to look at sparing and make sure that we preloaded spares when we got closer to launch campaign. We needed to look at the clauses in our contracts. We got that from procurement and contracting. We had a tremendous issue in the beginning on indemnification to make sure that all the contractors that were touching each others’ hardware felt indemnified to a level where they could work in a much more badgeless fashion. So we need to go back and review all our clauses to make sure that there’s provisions for indemnification and data rights and export control.

We looked at ways that we could do scheduling so that we did not have major events bumping into each other. Is there going to be a major infrastructure contract award or upgrade in the middle of when we need that facility, for example? And just be more purposeful looking at the schedules to see as things move, are we moving into each other in a way that would be distracting. We also talked about minimizing distractions during the launch campaign to the maximum amount possible and feasible to make sure that if you’ve got audits or you’ve got major reviews that are happening, are there ways that we can move those so that they are less distracting when we get into the launch campaign? Also, have we looked at when we’re deferring maintenance and is that going to cause a problem? Or are there ways that we could accelerate maintenance to make sure that during major events we don’t have disruptions?

So these are just some of the 360 things that came out of it. Things like attrition and retention programs and ways to do succession planning and all sorts of things that can happen during a launch campaign that we can be vigilant on. So it was really fascinating. And we had some great best practices also that we made sure that we codified after the launch, so it was a very interesting process.

Host: So looking back at the lessons learned process, is there anything you would have done differently?

Karika: When I look back on the lessons learned process, and Zudayyah always asks me what are my lessons learned from my lessons learned, I would say I wish we had all met in person more. We were spread all across NASA, all of my focus area leads; and we met every Thursday. We either met with my executive team or the lessons learned team every Thursday. I wish that I had maybe thought about going to each major center and having a meeting there. Not making everyone travel, but at least tagging up with the different groups in their home center. I wish I had done that because I think that would have been even better to have more of that in-person contact.

So of all the things, that’s one that I would share with you is that I do wish that we had done more in-person meetings, not making everyone come. Although maybe we could have done one big summit where everybody had come. I’m still thinking about that as a recommendation. But I do wish that I had gone out, taken some of my team out to each center. I miss that human touch of my team because they were so amazing. I would’ve loved an opportunity to interact with them more in person.

Host: And it’s also a good way to improve knowledge capture, correct, in person?

Karika: Absolutely.

Host: So people, such as yourself, with this rich experience retire from NASA, how do you think the agency can best capture the specialized knowledge you have and really transfer it to new generation of the technical workforce?

Karika: So this alone is really great. Doing the podcasts Zudayyah has talked to me about. I’m going to speak at their event next week and talk to them about how we did this process. I’ve also briefed now Dave Mitchell’s group, his program management group to talk to him about the potential for some training on our Artemis I lessons learned. And we are also talking about seeing if some of these lessons learned can be reviewed prior to – as we build up to launch to make sure that they’re lessons learned, not just lessons recorded. So this is very important to us is to make sure that these lessons learned kind of live with our teams.

The other thing we’re doing that’s very important is we’re making sure that we pass these lessons learned along to our other three – as I call them, our other three family members and make sure we have Gateway, HLS, and what I still call Suits, but it’s way more than that and talk to them and make sure that they know some of our key lessons learned so that they don’t have to go through this when they start coming online for their show, right? So we’re trying to make sure that we pass these lessons learned along to our other family members and that we make sure that we brief it as much as we can to the other groups and go back to the stakeholders and talk to them as well.

Host: As you retire from NASA after an accomplished career, what is on the top of your mind?

Karika: So I have worked nonstop for 43 years now. Not even being able to take a break when I first retired from the Air Force because the Secretary of Defense’s Office needed me to start right away. So this is my first time really being able to not work fulltime. My goal is to continue to advise and make my colleagues successful. But the thing that’s top of mind most for me is looking forward to really being present. By that I mean being able to spend time with my friends and family and ask them, “How are you? How are you doing?” and really being present for that answer. Not, “Hey, this was great, but I gotta run but we’ll catch up.” I want to be present. I want to be completely focused on that answer. It may sound crazy, but this is very important to me is to be able to really be present with my friends and family. So that’s the main thing is finally having that family time. Finally. It’s going to be great.

Host: Invaluable. Mm-hmm. Do you have any final thoughts that you might want to share with NASA’s technical workforce that might be helpful in the future?

Karika: So I’ve talked to a number of people about this; but as technical people, I would like to suggest that you consider learning industry, however you can do that. Really being able to see things through industry’s eyes as well so that we can be the best leaders of our technical fields and managers as possible. Train to be a program manager even if you just want to stay technical because no matter how technical you are, you’re still leading something. You’re still running something. And I think there are tremendous skills that you can gain. As a retired Air Force officer, we had deep program management training that we went through. I think there are courses and there’s ways to gain those skills.

And I will also leave you with this: after 43 years, I realized that there really are few new ideas. There are just ideas whose time has come. Look at reusability. We always talked about it, but we just couldn’t make it work, and now we can. Now it’s a thing, and it’s a great thing. But you had to wait, I believe, for technology to catch up in order to make this work. So don’t discard the ideas. They may not have their moment yet, but I would really stay open to the possibility that some of these ideas’ time has come and if not, put a pin in it because their day still may come. If they’re great ideas, they’ll come back. So I would say keep an open mind, learn about our stakeholders and our industry partners, and really train to be a good leader and manager no matter what technical level you’re at.

Host: Great advice. Janet, thank you for sharing your expertise, your time and congratulations on your retirement.

Karika: Thank you. It really is a dream come true.

Host: Thank you for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps. For a transcript of the show, more information on Janet Karika and the topics we discussed today, visit our resources page at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast. And don’t forget to check out our other podcasts like Houston, We Have a Podcast or Curious Universe. You can also subscribe to our weekly NASA newsletter by visiting NASA.gov/subscribe. And for the NASA in Espanol version visit NASA.gov/suscríbete. As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.