NASA at 50 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Hampton, Virginia – 1 November 2007
Today is November 1st, 2007. We are at the Langley Research Center
in Hampton, Virginia, to speak with Center Director Lesa B. Roe for
the NASA at 50 Oral History Project. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright,
assisted by Sandra Johnson. In preparation for the space agency’s
50th anniversary, the NASA Headquarters History Office commissioned
this oral history project to gather the thoughts, experiences, and
reflections from NASA’s top managers. The information recorded
today will be transcribed and sent to the History Archives in Washington,
D.C., where it can be accessed for future projects.
Thanks again for providing us some time in your very busy schedule.
We’d like to begin by asking you to briefly describe your background
and how you came into the current position.
Roe: I came into this
current position after a journey through NASA. I started as a co-op
[cooperative education] student, and it’s something that I highly
recommend to kids along the way. But then I went to industry right
out of college, so I had a little bit of industry experience starting
off as a NASA employee.
I started at [NASA] Kennedy Space Center [Florida] as an engineer
in Shuttle communication systems. I checked out the orbiter communication
systems and made sure they were ready to go for flight. I worked all
the flights and sat in the firing room, so that was very exciting
I moved into payload project engineering. I was fortunate to work
numerous payloads involving the test and checkout of all systems on
a payload for flight. This work was also exciting with payloads like
Space Radar Laboratory and Hubble Space Telescope. Other payloads
included ATLAS I and the Russian docking module that went to [Russian
Space Station] Mir for the Shuttle to dock to Mir.
So all of that just was very, very exciting, including my work on
the International Space Station and the Canadian arm that is on the
International Space Station today. Working with the Canadians, working
with the Russians, and working with the Italians on the logistics
modules, really is a one of a kind experience.
I then moved to Houston [Texas], spending four years at [NASA] Johnson
Space Center. There my work was focused on managing large programs
from an agency perspective, and that was very exciting. I managed
the International Space Station Research Program. I was able to be
a part of the very first experiments going up to the International
Space Station, the very first research facilities going there.
Then I moved to a research center, Langley, so that was quite different
as well. At the same time I switched to center management rather than
program management. So, as I said, I have been on a journey across
multiple centers, and moving from shuttle systems to projects and
programmatic management to center management.
Wright: Give us the
scope of your responsibilities here at Langley and what all that you’re
At Langley I’m the Center Director, so I manage all aspects
of the institution that we call the Center of Langley, so that means
everything from making sure that the facilities are up and running
and maintained to making sure that we have the right workforce balance
that we’ll need to support the missions. It’s truly making
sure that we implement the agency’s missions, so we’re
the folks that make sure it happens. It takes facilities, skilled
people, researchers, engineers, scientists, business functions--procurement,
legal, human resources, financial--all those things come together
in Center Management.
Wright: Your center has a very long tradition. In
fact, we know that you just celebrated an anniversary celebration
this past weekend.
Roe: That’s right..90
Wright: How does your
strategic vision for the next years tie in with traditionally what
has been done here, and then how is it different?
Roe: Well, our history
has been very exciting. We were able to revisit some of that this
weekend, as you mentioned. We started off as primarily an aeronautical
center. We were the first civil aeronautical facility, starting with
around eleven folks working here, and the focus was solving the problems
of flight. That was our challenge, and quite frankly, as you think
about that today, that is still our challenge, to solve the problems
of flight, whether it’s through and in our atmosphere or in
other planetary atmospheres. So it’s interesting how that thread
has been there through all these years.
But the center itself has had many missions over time, and that aeronautical
base actually led to us into being the center where the Space Task
Group started; so our space program actually started here. That strong
base, and I actually heard a quote from Jack Schmitt, Harrison [H.]
Schmitt, when he was down here, where he said he really feels like
our ability to get to the Moon in such a short time frame came out
of that base of knowledge of that forty years of experience in aeronautics
here at Langley.
So that was really positive and that also led to the first Orbiter
and lander on Mars, with Langley leading the Viking Project here.
So we’ve had kind of a broad experience where aeronautics has
been the base all the way through those 90 years that we’ve
How does that play into today? I see that aeronautics will always
be the core that leads us forward as we move forward. But once again,
we’ve diversified into space development, while maintaining
our fundamental aeronautical research. The research actually takes
us further out. We look at more revolutionary approaches, and then
those play into the space development. We bring that knowledge into
development of space flight including scientific missions and instruments,
so it’s a nice marriage that works very well together.
Wright: Budget is always
on the minds of Center Directors in those projects. Do you feel in
the future that your budget will allow you to expand into new areas
Roe: Yes, budget is
always a challenge. The balance that we have at Langley will allow
us to expand into new areas. Our fundamental research in aeronautics
provides new knowledge in those far-reaching technologies that we’re
going to need for the next-generation air transportation system that
the nation must have.
In the exploration arena there is a technology program that’s
actually managed here at NASA Langley, and that budget is focused
on the technologies that we’ll need for the future in space.
So I think it will take a few years as we’re working through
Shuttle retirement to actually get to where we’re able to have
more funding in some of those far-reaching technologies, but I do
see that as something that will happen over the next few years.
Wright: You have a
center here that has experts that deal with the structures and materials
as part as the NASA Engineering and Safety Center. How does that bridge
kind of the past and the future of what you’re doing here at
Roe: The structures
and materials competency really has been a core of Langley since the
beginning. It is a base of our aeronautical expertise as well, so
a part of our expertise in aerosciences truly stems out of our knowledge
of structures and materials. The NASA Engineering and Safety Center
utilizes that expertise in structures and materials, and also the
agency utilizes that knowledge in structures and materials.
The recent roles that the Agency just rolled out this week show Langley
as the lead for the lunar lander from a structures and mechanisms
standpoint. We’re also leading structures and mechanisms for
surface systems in exploration, so again that base is being called
to help the agency move forward as we head on back to the Moon.
been involved with NASA since the early eighties, and as we’ve
mentioned, the tradition here at Langley is far beyond that. What
do you believe that NASA’s impact on society has been through
these years, as you’ve experienced it in your own personal experiences
and then as you’ve seen other people tell you the experiences
that they’ve had, the impact that it’s had on society
as a whole? And what do you believe it will be in the future?
Roe: Well, there’s
the more simple answer of, of course we have had economic impact.
The impact of a center like Langley is 2.3 billion across the nation.
Those are the simple answers.
But more importantly, the impact of technology is the largest societal
impact. As we advance our mission, and continue to explore, challenges
arise. Technology solutions to these challenges help the nation as
a whole in the end. They change the nation into something greater.
It’s something you can’t promise or know exactly but as
you’re going through that development, some of those things,
we call spin-offs, will occur. This advances our nation and helps
to make our nation the leader in the world of these kinds of technologies.
There’s something in NASA that goes beyond that. I feel like
it is truly the spirit of exploration. What our nation looks to NASA
for is to make dreams a reality. We actually live the dreams of our
nation. If our nation can dream it, if we can dream going out beyond
the stars, NASA actually makes that happen, makes that a reality.
So we inspire. We inspire the nation, and I think that’s an
important role, the most important role. It’s something that’s
difficult to measure; for example, how many children, how many engineers
working all across the nation, were actually first inspired because
they watched the first footprints on the Moon being made. You can’t
measure that, but there is a national spirit, and there is something
that comes out of that that just truly raises us to the next level.
Wright: Speaking of
inspiring, you are in a very unique position in the NASA management
level as one of the few female Center Directors in the history of
NASA, as well as the only female Center Director at the moment. Can
you share with us what the challenges and, of course, some of your
successes have been, and just tell us about the experiences of being
in this very unique position?
Roe: Well, it’s
quite an honor to be in this position and to be able to be in the
key leadership role of such a wonderful center like Langley Research
Center which is the mother center and goes back ninety years. So it’s
an honor to be in that role.
Now, to be in that role as a woman, as the first woman Center Director
of Langley in its ninety-year history, and quite frankly, I think
the second woman Center Director ever across all ten centers, is something—it’s
kind of interesting. I don’t think about that on a daily basis,
because I’m just one of the ten center directors that are trying
to make our mission happen. I’m working together with my peers,
and so the fact that I’m a woman doesn’t really come into
play, or it doesn’t even come into the thought process. I’m
one of the folks that’s in there working hard to make a difference,
and I’m not treated any differently.
But when I do think about it, I am proud that young women out there,
or women across the Agency see that they can do it. So in a sense
I’ve become a role model that folks can say, “Hey, she
did that, and that means I can do that.” So in the future I
fully expect that we’ll have many more women that will be Center
Directors, and we’re already seeing many women now as Mission
Directors. So I think that it’s breaking some glass ceiling
that many feel exist and breaking those myths. It is proving there
really isn’t a glass ceiling anymore, and anybody can do it.
If you want to do it, don’t think that you can’t.
Wright: What are some
of the lessons learned that you would share with not just the women
that are coming up hoping to seek higher management positions in the
agency, but just overall, some of the lessons that you’ve learned
that you’ve been able to apply in your leadership position and
management principles as well?
Roe: I’ve learned
too many lessons to mention! What I have learned along the way is
that all of the NASA centers have a unique capability to offer for
our missions, and it truly is a remarkable capability. What you don’t
really see if you are in an individual center all of your career,
you don’t always see that capability. What I’ve learned
as I’ve worked at each center is we are stronger when we utilize
all of these talents, so much farther than we would by focusing on
one individual center alone.
I have also learned that great leaders are viewed as great from above
their position and from below their position. I have learned a lot
about the character of individuals by talking to people they supervise.
Wright: Do you believe
that this new governance model where the centers are reminded that
they’re there to provide for the programs and not the other
way around—we’ve heard Mike [Michael D.] Griffin mention
that a number of times—and the management communication levels
that you have now, do you believe that these are things that will
help people understand that the centers are all working together to
accomplish the vision?
Roe: I think it will
help people understand that we’re working together. I think
it’s important that there’s a check and balance, and so
there shouldn’t be an Agency where centers have the overall
power and, quite frankly, developing capabilities that the missions
may not need. We just don’t have that kind of money within the
agency where a single center should go off and just develop something
just based on their own desires.
But in the same way, the missions need the institutional capabilities
to be able to get the missions done. The missions typically are more
near-term focused. A lot of times programs are focused on the here
and now, and they don’t want to pay for anything above and beyond
what their individual project or program needs. So sometimes they
may be willing, inadvertently, to sacrifice a capability that would
be needed in the future.
So you have to have that—some call it “healthy tension”—to
really, truly be able to have all the capabilities you need, and getting
rid of capabilities that you really don’t need, but carefully
assessing those along the way so that we always have the right capabilities
that we’ll need, not just now but for future programs and projects.
Wright: We talked briefly
just a moment about budgets. In the past in the NASA Agency budget
when it got a little tight here, and there was some talk on different
levels of possibly not doing as much in aeronautics as has been done
in the past. Being the Center Director of the leading center for the
Agency, how do you feel, or how would you emphasize to someone what
the importance is to keep our hands involved in that field as an Agency?
Roe: Aeronautics has
been dramatically reduced over the years. However, it is very important
for our future. We must continue to study the problems of flight for
our nation; it is crucial for space exploration. We’re going
to need that as we go to other planets and need to get large masses
for human exploration to the surface. We also need that knowledge
as we develop new space vehicles which must fly through our atmosphere.
So all of that, the base knowledge that we have in aeronautics, is
fundamental to all of our missions, and it’s also fundamental
to the nation, because we have key challenges in the air transportation
system for the future. The challenges we face today in air transportation
are as large as any we have faced in history. We’re going to
need to revolutionize our air transportation system to be able to
deal with those challenges and that includes revolutionizing our air
vehicles with dramatic reductions in noise, emissions, and dramatically
improved fuel efficiency.
So these advancements must occur and that is why NASA was created.
Wright: How will there
be changes in the partnerships with private and public sector, and
how those will affect Langley even more in the future?
always been strong partnership at Langley with other agencies and
with academia; that’s how we have been successful. We’re
even more focused on that as budgets are more flatlined in aeronautics,
we must pull on the capabilities of our partners. They bring something
to the table, and we bring something to the table, and together we’ll
have a greater outcome in aeronautics, so I see more partnerships
as we move forward. We’re already starting to see that increase
and moving back to that.
That was a key part of NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics]
before Langley was NASA. We’ll continue to stress the importance
as we move forward. It will be key.
Wright: How has NASA
changed over the time that you’ve been here, in general, because
you have had such an opportunity to be able to move from one place
to the other, but then also I your own area of expertise, how have
you seen things change in NASA?
Roe: From a Center
perspective, we have seen a dramatic change from a research focus
to a balanced research and development focus. We’re close to
being equal between space and aeronautics. So I’ve seen a broad
change with regard to our work.
As I look at my own career, though, and what has happened in my own
career, the greatest change that I’ve seen, and more recently,
is really in human space flight. As I came in, Shuttle was just starting
to fly, and the focus was very much on low-Earth orbit and flying
Shuttles and building an International Space Station. I feel that
the consistent thing is the people and the excitement of the people
that work in NASA. However, I think our workforce and the nation needed
the vision to take humans further---to continue to explore outward.
Where was the next step? So the greatest change has truly been having
this Vision for Space Exploration.
We haven’t lacked that in the science arena. Science has continued
to expand and reach out and go farther and farther, and that has always
been the vision in the science mission.
Now we’re taking humans there as well, and so I think that’s
really reinvigorated and reinspired all of our engineers as we continue
to reach, and I think that’s made a huge difference. That’s
been the biggest change that I’ve seen during my career--moving
from near space to truly expanding our reaches to the Moon and beyond,
with humans, with human exploration.
Wright: Following that
trail of thought for one more step, give us your thoughts on the relative
importance of human and robotic space flight together, and how that
might affect what you’re doing here at the center.
Roe: You have to have
both. You cannot just suddenly decide, “I’m going to send
humans to Mars,” and think you don’t need precursor robotic-type
missions. The robotic missions must go first to study. We must learn
more about the atmosphere, radiation protection, and learn more about
getting large masses down to the surface of Mars, and we’re
playing a role in that at Langley.
We’re working on the Mars Science Laboratory to make sure that
we are instrumenting that flight so that we can expand the knowledge
base of getting large masses down to the surface of Mars. We are working
on radiation protection.
There is much to understand, many challenges to solve, before we can
just suddenly embark on sending a human crew to Mars.
Wright: Over the past
few years there’s been a lot of talk about NASA’s culture.
Of course, a lot of it came out after the [Space Shuttle] Columbia
[STS-107] accident. Because you have worked at so many of the different
centers and so many of the different projects, can you give us your
perception of NASA’s culture and how it has changed over the
years that you have worked in the agency, or maybe how it hasn’t
changed over the years sine you’ve worked?
always a can-do spirit; that has not changed. I think if you can dream
it, our folks feel we can do it, and that’s always been a part
I have seen change, especially dramatically after Columbia. What I
see with that is the way that we get ready for our missions, get ready
for our launches, where there is more of an openness to bring forward
technical problems, to challenge. I’ve seen that in the last
couple of Flight Readiness Reviews, where there is clear ability of
engineers to bring forward concerns, get those presented, and talk
through those. Then certainly there always has to be a decision made,
but a more careful weighing of those risks, where I think it was more
difficult to stop the momentum. “We’re going to fly no
Though I think within NASA we’ve always looked at all the problems,
but I think with the NASA Engineering and Safety Center there is a
more careful independent look along the way at all of those technical
problems and make sure we’re studying them. There is a place
for someone to ask for another look from experts, making sure that
there’s more of a check and balance than I’ve ever seen
in the past.
Wright: Well, we are
moving through this pretty quickly, and before we get to the end of
our time with you, I wanted to ask you to share with us why you would
encourage someone to enter or begin a career with NASA. You started
out as a co-op and have a promising future. Why would you tell someone
who is looking for an opportunity, why would they want to come in
nothing like what we do in NASA anywhere. It is exciting work. When
you talk about your work with other people, your eyes light up and
so do the people that you talk to. I’ve had the privilege of
going to training where I’m at universities and other people
are there, and I have shown videos of some of our work, and everybody
in the room was just, “Wow, you have a cool job.” So it’s
an exciting job, and it’s an exciting job every day.
Again, reflecting on everything for our 90th anniversary here and
hearing many, many stories, people don’t come here for the money.
It’s truly the personal satisfaction of doing something that
we thought was impossible, and expanding our knowledge, the human
knowledge, of what is out there in our universe and beyond and other
galaxies. So it’s a dream job, and it’s something that
I’ve been very, very fortunate to have spent an entire career
doing what others dream. I would just highly recommend it to anyone,
and I do. I talk to kids about it all the time. I try to share that
excitement with them.
Plus the team work and the camaraderie and the accomplishment when
you do that, when you land that vehicle on Mars, when you make a discovery
that we didn’t know about before. There’s nothing like
it. So that’s why I would tell them to come to NASA.
Wright: Now, you have
additional programs for educational opportunities as well for students.
Roe: We do. We have
a number of programs here, from K [kindergarten] through 12 and then
on into graduate school. We have pre-service teacher programs which
help teachers to learn to teach STEM. We started the distance learning
program which reaches schools in the most remote locations and lets
them interact with our engineers. This helps them see themselves as
engineers or scientists.
Some of our folks go out to Explorer Schools and utilize technology
to bring NASA into the classrooms and help them grasp, “Well,
what is a wind tunnel test?” or “Why do you do that?”
So by actually talking to the folks that are doing that work here,
they can have a conversation and ask questions.
We’ve seen schools turn around, schools that were in the bottom
of the pack. I’ve heard principals tell me these stories and
how getting involved with NASA moved the school to the top in the
state, because kids realize that that’s not something just somebody
else does. “That’s something I can do, and here’s
how I do that.” So that’s another thing that’s just
a huge point of satisfaction.
Wright: Yes, very rewarding.
Roe: Very rewarding
Wright: Before we close,
is there anything else that you would like to reflect on as NASA enters
its next 50 years of discovery and exploration?
Roe: No. I look forward
to being part of a leadership team that’s going to make the
next dreams a reality and inspire the next generation in making history.
It is pretty cool to realize “I’m making history –
we are making history.” Not many can say that as they go to
work each day.
Wright: Well, thank
you. That’s a good place to stop. We appreciate it.
[End of interview]