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International Space Station Program
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript

Randy H. Brinkley
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Mountain City, Tennessee – 23 February 2016

Wright: Today is February, 23, 2016. This interview is being conducted with Randy Brinkley as part of the International Space Station [ISS] Program Oral History Project. Mr. Brinkley is speaking with us via telephone from Mountain City, Tennessee. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Thanks again, Randy, for taking time to talk with us today.

Brinkley: My pleasure, Rebecca.

Wright: After a 25-year career with the U.S. Marine Corps and a couple years with McDonnell Douglas [Aerospace Company], you joined NASA in 1992 as a special assistant for the Agency’s Office of Space Flight. You began by leading a major effort for NASA as the mission director for the first servicing mission for Hubble Space Telescope, a very historic and successful endeavor completed in 1993. Then in January 1994 you became the Program Manager for the ISS. Would you please describe that transition and the state of the ISS Program at that time?

Brinkley: First of all, it was a complete shock to me being asked to lead the International Space Station team. In fact we had just completed the last EVA [extravehicular activity] for the repair of the Hubble [Space] Telescope and it was 4:30 in the morning at Johnson Space Center [JSC] [Houston, Texas]. I left mission ops [Mission Operations] and went to the astronaut gym and was working out. I got a call at the gym; I was the only person there. It was from [NASA Administrator Daniel S.] Dan Goldin.

Dan Goldin said, “Congratulations,” and went on with very complimentary things regarding the team, the success of the mission, how important it was to NASA. Then he said, “And I have something equally important that I’d like to talk to you about. Would you be able to come up to Washington [DC] and come to my office to discuss it?”

I of course said, “My pleasure, sir.” I was totally surprised because I really thought that over Christmas, I was going to end up writing my resume and using the success of the Hubble repair mission to perhaps go back into industry. I was completely surprised when I was asked to visit with Mr. Goldin and then when I got there, he asked me to be the Program Manager of the International Space Station.

The Space Station was in the midst of a transition from the Freedom Space Station to the International Space Station, which included the incorporation of Russian participation. For I guess several months, there had been a great deal of activity in Crystal City [Virginia] looking at various designs and how would we incorporate the Russians into the design, and specifically what could we do with the elements of the Mir-2 that had originally been planned for a Russian follow-on to Mir-1 into a Space Station that would include their participation as well as the other international partners.

That effort was being led by a number of really great individuals—[Chester A.] Chet Vaughan, [William M.] Bill Shepherd, [James D.] Jim Wetherbee, John [W.] Young——a number of really really bright people, very knowledgeable, that had come up with several different options. This also had great political impetus at the White House because it was viewed strategically as a way that we could incorporate the Russians into the Space Station and reduce their interest in other activities in aerospace that were not necessarily in our national interest, and that included dissemination of rocket technology, space technology to other countries, Iran, North Korea, etc.

That transition was in full exchange when I was asked to take over the Program.

Wright: You had been so busy with the Hubble Space Telescope [HST] repair. That was a tremendous feat by itself. How much had you been able to keep up with what was going on with the Station program during your role as the mission director for HST?

Brinkley: I was somewhat aware because Mr. [George W.S.] Abbey took two of my key members of my team away from me and put them on the transition team, Brenda [L.] Ward being one of them. I was pretty much aware of what was going on through Brenda’s efforts. Then I was also very close with [Douglas R.] Doug Cooke and Bill Shepherd on a personal basis. I was aware at a top level but not a real detail level.

Wright: Can you share some of the details of what Mr. Goldin talked to you about once you got there? Was it giving you direction on what he wanted? Or was it more of a conversation about where the Program needed to go?

Brinkley: It was a combination of both. In his view the Freedom Program was fundamentally flawed from a structural and organizational perspective in that each Center did its own thing and had its own parochialism in regard of the element. He was going to implement a program office that oversaw and had authority over center directors. That new organization would report to an associate administrator in Washington, DC, rather than to a center director. A lot of that emphasis was coming at the recommendations of George Abbey. That was one big change.

The other was I think, Mr. Goldin whether rightly or wrongly perceived me to have been successful in terms of building a team and taking the people from Goddard [Space Flight Center] who were responsible for the Hubble mission, as well as those at JSC, and bringing them together as an integrated team with one set of objectives, priorities, etc., with clear lines of communication, authority, responsibility, and accountability. That was important to him going forward—having someone that wasn’t necessarily locked into, “This is the way NASA has always done things.”

The other element was how critically important it was to the success of the Space Station to be able to successfully integrate the Russians into the participation of the Space Station going forward, and how to overcome the cultural differences, as well as the engineering and operational issues that existed to begin with, not to mention the language difference.

Wright: Let me ask you if we can talk for a few minutes about the internal part of the Program. Although you’d been very successful in your [HST] mission, were people still perceiving you as an outsider? Plus, Dan Goldin had just stepped into his role as Administrator as well, so you were working with a true outsider.

Brinkley: Clearly, coming into NASA, I was perceived as an outsider. I remember a conversation with Leonard [S.] Nicholson who at the time was the Space Shuttle Program Manager. When I came to JSC, I was given an office in the Shuttle Program Office. Leonard was very kind to me, but he called me in one day and said, “You coming here to assume a leadership position is not very different from if I were to go to the Marine Corps and be put in charge of a Marine F-18 squadron.” He said, “And so in that context, if that were the case, what would you do if I showed up on your doorstep and you were the group commander and you were told that I was going to be the commander of one of your squadrons?”

“Well,” I said, “the first decision I’d have to make is whether I could accept that or not. If I couldn’t accept it, I would have to offer my letter of resignation. Because in the Marine Corps, you’re given your opportunity to state your opinion, but after that you either have to snap your heels together, salute, and move forward with execution of those directives or you resign.” I said, “That would be my first decision, to decide whether I believed that I should resign or do everything in my power to make this decision successful. If that were the case, I would do everything in my power to ensure that you were given the best people I had and the organizational structure and the support to optimize your success.” I said, “You asked me a question and that’s the answer. I would hope to see you succeed and not fail, because failure would jeopardize the lives of my pilots and my marines and I would never do that.”

After that, over time I think slowly there was an increase of acceptance and during the mission, I ended up going head to head with Mr. Goldin and Mr. Abbey, who was working as his special assistant in Washington at the time, over several issues—one of which was about [F.] Story Musgrave as to whether he should or should not be removed from a crew, because an accident during a training session had caused him to have frostbite.

I think over time the rest of the team felt that I was doing a good job on the up and out and defending them while I let them do their job, which is true, because certainly I knew I wasn’t more knowledgeable than them. I really had the view—and it entailed my whole time in NASA—that all I knew was what I didn’t know, and that I needed to surround myself with good people and listen to them and provide a leadership and the environment for them to succeed.

In a sense, knowing how much you don’t know can be an asset rather than a liability. If I have any credit of self-satisfaction of both the Hubble and the Space Station, it was I was fortunate in that I had wonderful people who worked with me and for me. Maybe I had a little bit of success in choosing those people, but in terms of their performance, I don’t take credit there. NASA is a wonderful organization and we had wonderful people in both the repair of the Hubble, and gosh, that certainly is the case on the International Space Station.

It’s because of their dedication, their capabilities, and determination to never give up that we were successful in building the International Space Station. Our slogan was, “We will find a way,” and we did.

Wright: And still are. It’s amazing at the foundation you helped to set.

Brinkley: [Michael T.] Suffredini was there and running payloads, establishing the leadership that’s there. They all without exception have continued to grow and excel in the roles and responsibilities that have been assigned to them over the many years since then, and that includes today and the Space Station Program Manager [Kirk Shireman], who I was fortunate to be a mentor to and we spent many many trips to Russia together.

Wright: Let’s try to take a piece at a time. There are so many and I know we won’t be able to cover them all, but some of these pieces in a way were much larger than others. Or were they? For instance, when you walked in the door, Station was behind schedule, over budget. You had serious technical problems with the Node. Fluctuating support from Congress; it was just six months before that that they had voted by one vote to continue funding of the Station.

Brinkley: I remember it well because I spent the night in Dan Goldin’s office the night before counting votes. There’s a funny aspect of that actually. Maybe I digress, but as far as the vote is concerned, minorities were a big issue in terms of Space Station and that vote.

I happened to say to Mr. Goldin, “Would it make any difference if one of the senior officials in the Space Station Program was a minority?” He said, “Absolutely.” [Daniel C.] Dan Tam, who was our Business Manager, was a minority. I said, “Well, if it’ll help, I’m part Cherokee Indian.” I became the senior Native American in all of NASA in a matter of minutes.

I spent a lot of time visiting all the Native American representatives and going out to Oklahoma to visit some of our minority suppliers that were Indian. That was a funny experience, because I’d never paid any attention to my Native American heritage before, and I just said, “Would it help if.” In retrospect it was humorous.

Wright: Never know what that tipping point is going to be, do you?

Brinkley: We won by one vote, so it may have made a big difference.

Wright: After your talk with Dan Goldin, you came back to Houston. What were some of the first things that you started doing? Did you start assembling a team? Or did you take a team that was already here? Tell us about how you actually started working on the operation aspects and getting things in order.

Brinkley: I was very fortunate in that the people that worked on the transition team were people I had strong personal relations with and great respect for. Bill Shepherd who led the effort agreed to become my Deputy. Brenda Ward, Doug Cooke. I had a good relationship with those people that Mr. Goldin and Mr. Abbey wanted to play crucial roles going forward. If there was any question, it was why in the world they needed me, because these were the people that had been working for months in Crystal City on the transition and certainly had the wealth of knowledge and initially had had the interface with the Russians. I looked to them as critical to our success going forward as I became more knowledgeable with the Program.

Without exception every one of them were just incredibly great in working with me and for me. We worked together very closely in an informal environment and it worked out great. It was again because of the initial selection of those individuals and their inherent dedication and capability to NASA and what they were doing. They made my job much easier.

Wright: So much was having to be integrated. You had the Space Station Program. NASA also of course had the Shuttle Program going on. You had day-to-day JSC operations along with all the different entities underneath that. You had the astronaut corps, mission operations, safety and mission assurance.

How did those discussions come about where you knew that you would be able to work through issues with all of these? Everyone under every one of those entities has specific priorities and goals and ideas on how to make things work. How did your leadership skills bring those efforts and those different programs together that made the Station successful and for the foundation to work through budget and schedule problems, and move Station forward?

Brinkley: At the basis of all that, you had to get people on the same sheet of music. People had to believe that what you were doing was the right thing and that it was going to be successful. They also had to be of a mindset that their loyalty needed to be to the Program, and that was above other loyalties to the Center or to whatever. Over time we were able to do that. That was very difficult. It was difficult within Johnson Space Center itself.

You know very well that you’ve got an MOD [Mission Operations Directorate] perspective on things; you’ve got an FCOD [Flight Control Operations Directorate] perspective on things. Everybody comes from a certain bias and perspective that you have to ultimately find common ground to overcome. You have the same thing among the other centers, and then you have the same thing with the international partners.

Most difficult were the Russians who had really gone through a difficult transition. Most of the people I knew in the Russians had put a pen-and-ink change to their business cards, to cover up the CCCP, being a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They weren’t real happy, they were skeptical about all of this, and losing their economy and their history in space.

But over time I think we were able to build a team that coalesced over the same set of objectives to be successful. I would give Viktor Legostaev probably as much credit as anyone; he was my counterpart from Russia. One day when I said to Viktor, “Viktor, if we’re successful.” He stopped me and he said, “No, Randy, it’s not if. We must be successful.”

That was the genesis of our motto, “We will find a way.” We will find a way to be successful. We will not allow anything or anyone to preclude us from finding a way to be successful.

Over time as we got closer to actual flight we reached a tilting point where people actually started to believe we were going to build the Space Station and we were going to fly. By some miracle it worked then and continues to work all these many years later.

Wright: It’s still making amazing advancements. Again, when I researched and pulled the parallel pieces together, it wasn’t as if you could walk into this Program and just start it fresh. You inherited a fluctuating history of what it should be, what it was, what it could be. Then, you’re adding a partner—and from what I understand in reading and from other folks we have talked to—Russia pretty much knew what they were doing with space stations, and now find themselves having to work with the new kid on the block who wants to know what they know.

Talk about those discussions on bringing forth the new ways that United States wanted to handle the Space Station and how Russians wanted to incorporate their pieces? And talk about how one of the modules was being built by Russia even though it was American-purchased. How did you handle those?

Brinkley: You had two different cultures, very proud, and with a history in space. The Russians really didn’t respect anybody in space except NASA, the only ones that had been to space other than them. But there was also some jealousy and competition. It was a great deal on both sides of this is how we do things.

The other great sensitivity that the Russians had was to being in a true partnership and not being dictated to by NASA. That was a real challenge to overcome that in terms of our attitude towards the Russians: “It’s our Space Station, this is the way we’re going to do things.”

The way that we were able to overcome that was to take a step back. I would say, “It doesn’t matter how NASA has done things, and it doesn’t matter how the Russian Space Agency has done things. What matters is among us what is the best way for us to do things going forward.” To separate both sides from their position that “it’s my way, because of our heritage we’re right,” I would say, “As an engineer, forget that you’re a Russian engineer, forget you’re a NASA engineer or from the European Space Agency [ESA]. Forget all that. Ask yourself. We’re getting ready to go fly. We’re building the Space Station. What is the right engineering decision? What’s the right operational decision?”

That I think is not fully appreciated today, just how much of a challenge it was to overcome those backgrounds, to get people to think go forward and not backwards. For Americans, we had to really treat the Russians as genuine partners. Either we were all going to be successful or none of us were going to be successful.

Going into that there was—naturally so, and I’m sure the Russians, the situation reversed—we’re going to do it our way. The Program over time was able to break through those cultural biases and to build a team that more and more looked at what’s the right thing to do, and we’re going to be successful, this is our Space Station, ours as a partner not NASA’s, not the Russian Space Agency, but ours.

Wright: How much do you think it impacted your plan, having [Shuttle-Mir] Phase 1 ongoing as you were building the first ISS components—you were working on the construction of the Station, not the assembly part but actually building the hardware while you were developing the relationships through the Phase 1 and doing those missions as well?

Brinkley: It was critical because every mission we flew we had an integrated crew of Russian astronauts and NASA astronauts, mission ops was integrated. That really had so much critical importance in terms of working together, building an understanding, overcoming language differences, cultural differences, forcing the astronauts to learn Russian, the Russians to learn English, having everything placard both in Russian and in English.

All of those things that you had to do to be able to succeed in space we were learning in Phase 1 and we were applying in Phase 2. Bill Shepherd flying on Shuttle, coming to be my Deputy. Frank [L.] Culbertson, Deputy for Operations, having led Phase 1. I give George Abbey the credit for the vision for seeing the importance of all of that. All of those had really dynamic positive impacts.

Wright: In 1994 when Phase 1 was just starting to kick off, it was with a very small office. Tommy [W.] Holloway had been named as its chair and it was actually out of the Shuttle [Program] Office. Then it became its own entity. Did you have a lot of influence on making it more of its own entity because of what all that it was doing? How were you involved?

Brinkley: We funded it out of the Program Office and then Phase 1 was actually integrated into the Space Station Program Office and led by Frank Culbertson. So the closer that we got to flying, the more integrated we had become. That gave us tremendous leverage and advantage as we transitioned into flight operations for Phase 2 and Phase 3 with the same players. These players had been to space together or had been in mission ops.

We had Brenda Ward, who headed up the Program Office in Moscow. We had people who lived in Star City [Russia]. There was a big investment, and people spent years in Russia providing the infrastructure and the presence to make it successful.

Wright: One of the folks that we talked to that was there was Kevin [P.] Chilton, who made the comment that when he came in to become your Deputy, somewhere around that time Jay [H.] Greene came in as your Deputy for Engineering, and you began configuration control boards. Was that a pivotal point? Was there something going on that you decided to make these changes and add that component to your operations at that time?

Brinkley: There were two components. Both of them I think come from the vision of George Abbey. George Abbey had as an Air Force captain been integrally knowledgeable on the Apollo Program. What we did with George as the Center Director of Johnson Space Center, the lead Center, we went back to the way things were done in Apollo, with Friday afternoon reviews, Saturday reviews, monthly space development and operation meetings with all our contractors at various sites.

Jay Greene was brought in because of his experience during Apollo in terms of making sure that the hardware was ready to fly and the running of the daily boards, because a lot of us didn’t know what we didn’t know. Jay played a critical role in that regard.

Kevin, one of the most highly respected astronauts, had incredible leadership abilities. Kevin had a way of getting people with very divergent views to come to common ground and work together. He just had a presence about him that would get people aligned and fully supporting. Kevin certainly did that. As we moved into the operational role you had Jay from his MOD experience and getting the hardware ready, and then you had Kevin, a flown Shuttle commander, highly respected from an operational perspective, making sure that we had all of the operational procedures in place and that we’d resolved the issues that would be required to be adequately addressed before we flew. Both of those individuals were critical to the success of the Space Station.

Wright: Talk about the contractor. So much of what you were pulling together not only impacted or involved people that were working on site [JSC], but you were having to also deal with an outside contractor, Boeing. Could you give your experiences about your dealings with those situations? You had only spent a couple years in industry before you came in; and did you bring in lessons from when you were working with Hubble? How did you deal with these outside contractors, bringing them into the same page or as you said a while ago the same sheet of music that you and your colleagues were working on?

Brinkley: There clearly were some major challenges there because on the industrial side they were transitioning from a set of roles and responsibilities and workshare from the Freedom Program to a new program, and there were winners and losers. Boeing was established as the prime [contractor]. There was no prime in the Freedom Program, and that was one of the inherent problems organizationally that affected schedule and cost and a lot of other things.

Getting the industry team aligned with a prime and the fact that the prime was Boeing, initially there was a lot of angst with that, partly resolved because Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas as well as Rockwell, and eventually they were pretty much all one Boeing team. But we had to go through just the same thing we did on the NASA side, where the way things had been done with centers versus a centralized program office, the same kind of challenges existed on the industry team.

I guess I would say that the Boeing program manager, my counterpart, Doug Stone, is a great American and wanted the Space Station to succeed just as much as I did and his team did. We found a way to work through all those cost, schedule, technical challenges and to overcome the relationship and issues that had been prevalent before. I would give, just as you mentioned Jay Greene and Kevin Chilton, accolades to Doug Stone.

Wright: Kevin said a lot probably got done because nobody wanted to meet on those Saturday mornings; that everybody worked really hard trying to make sure things were done so that those Saturday morning meetings could be done as quickly as possible.

Brinkley: I went seven years in a row to Saturday meetings. We’d spend all Friday afternoon getting ready for the Saturday meeting. But what it did, it forced—what had happened in Freedom is issues continued to be kicked down the street and not dealt with. Those weekly and monthly meetings were forcing functions. George Abbey forced the highest vice presidents and presidents and everybody on the industry team to participate, and it didn’t take many Saturdays when some senior executive couldn’t play golf because he was on the west coast and it was 6:00 a.m. and he was explaining why some of his hardware is late to the members on the Saturday team. We had guys in Russia, we had everybody, so it really was a forcing function. Things just didn’t float.

Wright: Seems as if it was a good tactic. Speaking of Mr. Abbey, when you first took on this role, as you mentioned, he was the senior assistant to Dan Goldin. But within a year or so he became Center Director at JSC. Did that have a strong impact on how the flow of progress changed after that because of a different leadership style from him?

Brinkley: Yes, it certainly did. When he was in Washington he wanted the Program Office reporting to Washington. As soon as George became the Center Director, he wanted the Program to report to the lead Center, that being him as the Center Director.

But I will say George played an instrumental role because of his knowledge and experience on Apollo. Those were long Saturdays, but George knew what we needed to do to be successful. It wasn’t easy. I give him all the credit for his experience and his vision. We spent a lot of Saturdays working. But we traveled all over the world. George forced accountability at the highest level.

Wright: Where, during a lot of this movement, was Mr. Goldin? Did you see him a great deal? Was he involved in a lot of this discussion? Or was he off running the rest of the Agency?

Brinkley: He was off running the rest of the Agency. Dan had tremendous confidence in Mr. Abbey. Mr. Goldin was the up and out person, working on the Hill, the President, and he looked to George as the down and in make sure we’re ready to go fly.

Wright: Did you have a lot of dealings with Congress? Did you have to testify or attend meetings with congressional staffers to update them?

Brinkley: On a regular basis. We had Congressman [Frank J.] Jim Sensenbrenner, congressional staff of the Science and Technology Committee down for three days or weeks at a time. I testified on numerous occasions. Yes. Then I would have to go to Washington to help prepare Dan or anybody else who was testifying to support them to get them ready to testify, as well as having to testify myself.

Wright: There’s one other new factor that we haven’t talked about. You had a new Center Director. You had a new Administrator. Of course you were new. Then you also had a new White House administration that apparently was giving you guidance as well on where they wanted you to go with the Russian partnership.

Brinkley: Yes, there was a strategic and a political dimension with the Russians. It was important to [President William J.] Clinton and [Vice President Albert] Gore to keep the Russians involved in something that was positive. The Space Station turned out to be the centerpiece of all of that. Every six months we had the Gore-Chernomyrdin session, where they would meet and pat each other on the back about the successes of our team. It had a very very important political and national security dimension to it.

Wright: Very visible, more ways than one, wasn’t it?

Brinkley: Yes. It was very painful when the Russians were behind schedule for a year because they didn’t have it funded, and having to go testify as to why that was. There were some less than fun days in Washington regarding that. Of course any program of that complexity, we had schedule delays and cost overruns that we had to deal with. We were able to overcome them, but they were real challenges.

Wright: I guess there are no easy answers when it’s all so woven together and dependent. You’ve mentioned a number of people several times that spent many years in Russia working on the preparations. When they came back were you able to sit down and learn a great deal from them that you were able to apply? If so, can you give some examples about what they brought back from their experiences that you knew would be very valuable to making further future decisions?

Brinkley: I’d have to say first of all that I made 26 trips to Russia, to Moscow and Baikonur. I spent a lot of time in Russia myself. My Russian counterpart spent as much time in the U.S. One of the things I learned early from the Russians is everything is done by personal relationship. You don’t just show up with a briefcase and cut a deal and get on a plane. It takes time to establish relationship or credibility with a Russian counterpart, and you can’t delegate that. If I didn’t go and somebody else went, nothing would happen. Russians just don’t do business that way. Personal relationship was critical.

Building those relationships over time wasn’t easy, but it really was one of the linchpins of our success. Having guys like [William F.] Bill Readdy to lead the Office at Star City or Bill Shepherd or a number of the other guys who spent a year there doing that without their family, having people there 24/7 establishing personal relationships, was critical to our success.

What else was critical to our success was that the rest of us, we spent a lot of time together at general design reviews. We got to know one another. That made all the difference in the world.

Wright: It’s interesting from an outsider point of view that some of the folks that you mention, including yourself, were trained for years that the Russians were your adversary. But yet they took on the role of making this work with you. Did you have an opportunity to have discussions with some of your fellow former military colleagues to figure out those feelings and beliefs, and discuss how to transition to a new training level, to retrain yourself to think a different way?

Brinkley: I’ll give you one example. It is true, I laugh often about how I spent my whole life training to figure out how to fight and kill Russians and here I was trying to do everything to get along with them. That’s how I went into that, with my background. My counterparts were unlike that. After a general design review, Boris Ostroumov, who was my counterpart at the Russian Space Agency in charge of human spaceflight, we had had a weeklong series of meetings, discussions that ended up in a Friday afternoon general design review. Then after we had completed that design review, Boris invited me to his office.

Boris didn’t speak English very well. I certainly didn’t speak Russian very well. But, we both could speak French marginally. The interpreter left the office and Boris and I were there. He poured a shot of vodka for both of us and then he asked me to come up to the map that he had behind his desk. There was the world map.

Then he showed me—in his previous life he was an ICBM colonel for the Russian strategic forces, and on the map, showed me the various U.S. citizens that his intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles were targeted for. We had this discussion in French to the point where I could understand what he was saying. He pointed to various cities. Then I showed him as a pilot flying off a carrier the routes in our contingency plans that we would fly and where we would drop our bombs.

Then Boris looked at me and raised his glass and said, “Isn’t it much better for both of us that we’re working together rather than what we were doing in our previous life?” That’s something I’ll never forget. It’s a good example of what you were talking about.

Wright: Maybe that was that nice thread that kept you all on that same page, the fact that nobody wanted to go back to that, because there’s no win on that, is there?

Brinkley: No, there’s not. I’ve come away with the greatest respect for the Russians and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Wright: Thank you. Enjoy your afternoon. Thanks again, Randy.

Brinkley: Thank you, Rebecca. Talk to you tomorrow.

[End of interview]

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