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NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
Tacit Knowledge Capture Project
Edited Oral History Transcript

Rita G. Willcoxon
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Kennedy Space Center, Florida – 10 June 2008

Wright: Today is June 10, 2008. We're at the Kennedy Space Center [KSC] in Florida to talk with Rita Willcoxon, who is the Director for Launch Vehicle Processing. This interview is for the JSC Tacit Knowledge Capture Project for the Space Shuttle Program. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. Thanks for fitting us into your schedule. We know how busy you are, especially right now. Can you share with us, to begin with, how you first became part of the Space Shuttle Program and how you are into your position now?

Willcoxon: I've served in numerous positions since I began working for NASA back in 1988. I was associated with the Shuttle Program because years ago there was a little piece of the payload operations funding that came out of the Shuttle Program. And that ended up, over time, working its way out of the Shuttle Program budget and going into a separate budget. But during that time, we had a small piece of it, and it was really the payloads that were integrated into the Orbiter and that used that launch vehicle system, if you will, for transportation.

During that time, most of the stuff we did was offline with the payload system, and I worked the Space Lab Program. We built up experiments, and those were built up either in a lab or on pallets. Those were tested, and we had what we called a Shuttle Simulator. So we always tested those payloads with the Shuttle Simulator before they went over to get installed in the Orbiter. The purpose of that was, of course, schedule's always a big thing. When you get into the integrated flow, doing everything you can offline to make sure that when it does get into the Orbiter, it's going to work, and you're not going to have a lot of downtime troubleshooting a problem.

So we worked a lot with the Shuttle Program in setting up those tests, and the Shuttle Program funded those things, and we worked a lot with the Shuttle Program in terms of budget presentations and setting up a budget from year to year. And then eventually, that funding became a part of just a Payload Carriers Program, and it was severed off of the Shuttle Program. A lot of that had to do with when they didn't use Shuttle anymore for transportation for a lot of the satellites and planetary missions. They decided after [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS-51L accident] that they would go to more of an expendable launch vehicle transportation system, for as many payloads as you could do that didn't need crew interaction.

Early on I worked with the Shuttle Program in that sense and did a lot of payload processing. We had a lot of customers that were either international or from university systems, and the biggest lesson learned there was coming into the Shuttle Program—it was this big huge thing, and then you have these organizations that were much smaller, these customer communities, that it was a struggle for them to figure out this big huge system and how they fit in. So what we emphasized a lot in the payload organization is to make them feel like a customer.

When we would take the payloads over into the Orbiter community and into the integrated flow, we had struggles. There's a lot of scheduling going on in the Orbiter Processing Facility, so payload customers would go show up for a task, and then they'd be delayed for 24 hours, and they couldn't understand why they were put aside, because they were the customer; they were a guest here. We had a lot of issues that we would try to work out to try to get priority for these customers that were launching their payloads inside the Orbiter. Of course, now being in the job I'm in, I understand how hard it is to fit all the things you have to do to an Orbiter into a big schedule, and you've got several Orbiters that you're trying to get ready to launch multiple times. They've got a lot of scheduling, top things they have to do. There were some lessons learned there.

I even led an Agency team later on in my career called Station and Shuttle Utilization Reinvention, and that was a point in time where we were going to try to come up with a better end-to-end process of how you get a payload from its inception on to orbit through the Shuttle and [International Space] Station system in a more timely fashion. Because you had a lot of researchers that would like to have used the Station platform, but it took so many years, and the manifest would change, and they would get remanifested and bumped a year. So our team was focused on how can you best utilize those two capabilities—Shuttle as a transportation system and Station as a research platform—to get customers in the science community that wanted to use it could use it quickly, et cetera. A lot of it was trying to get the Agency focused more on the research side and less on getting structure and capabilities built. Because the tendency for the Agency is to be more focused on that stuff than they were on the science part.

We did a complete study, and I have a report and everything, where we looked at that. So there was a lot of lessons in there about how we could have done business differently to have brought them more into it. And believe it or not, that subject was studied multiple times, but no improvements were ever made. So as smart as we are in NASA, it would have been nice to have done—it's complex, and I understand that—but it was a problem for years, and it's always been a problem. We never really solved it. That's surprising, that we couldn't solve it, based on the fact that we're NASA. We seem to be able to solve anything, but that part was a little more difficult.

Then, as I went to JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California] and did my assignment there, what I found out is that customer community really had moved on to the expendable vehicle launch arena, but they had me do some trade studies on a set of missions called Outer Planet/Solar Probe, which was Europa [Orbiter], Pluto [-Kuiper Express], and Solar Probe. There was an opportunity for them to be able to use the Shuttle again, because an Inertial Upper Stage was available that was going to be given to JPL, and all they had to pay for was the integration cost.

So I got back into the arena, again, of trading off an expendable versus a Shuttle, and the kind of sentiments out at JPL, now that they had flown on both, was it cost so much more, and it was so much easier to fly on an expendable. They really didn't want to go the Shuttle route, and it's for those same reasons. The safety processes, all the different organizations that you have to muddle your way through to get a spacecraft to actually interface with the Orbiter and then actually be used. We really didn't have a user-friendly system in Shuttle available to those people. So given a choice, they would rather fly on an expendable—easier, cheaper, et cetera. A lot of that came out in that utilization study that I did. So that's one of lessons learned—I wish we could have found a way early on in the Shuttle Program to have focused on that more, and found a way to deal with that better, and had a better perception out there about people who were using the Shuttle and the satisfaction of getting to fly on it and how that went. I would think if you looked at the data, none of them would have been that happy with it.

Of course, now for years we've been doing Station, and it's NASA servicing NASA. So we're taking a transportation system, and we're building a new engineering capability in orbit. Most of it's been along that line, so there's not many issues there, because everybody's had the same priorities, which is taking that structure up and building an engineering marvel. Of course there's a science side of that, and again, that's been what's been put on the back burner, the science part of utilization of Station. But you had to build it first. Now that we've built it, because we're now going to spend our dollars on now building transportation to go back to Moon and Mars, we're still not really focusing on the science community and the research. There is a thing called the [Department of Energy] National Lab [Laboratories] that's trying to utilize Station more, and there's some concepts out there where they're trying to beef it up. They're thinking if they can have commercial systems, transportations systems, the thing called COTS [Commercial Off-the-Shelf]—it's a contract that's going on. If they can get that going, maybe there's a way to get more science up there commercially, since NASA's going to really invest most of their resources on moving on, going back to the Moon and then to Mars.

That would be in the category of lessons learned of what would have been nice to maybe have been a little bit better at in the Shuttle Program. But on the reverse side, a lot of things have gone into orbit on the Shuttle. In the payload community, we had what we called horizontal and vertical payloads. Horizontal were the Space Lab ones that were in the laboratory, and there were racks. We worked with a lot of university systems, and those were the scientists behind a lot of the research. They launched a lot of Space Lab missions—I don't know the exact number—but got a lot of really good science on laboratories that went up for 14, 15-day missions and came back. Researchers across the United States got their data back and had findings and science reports from many different areas, from human life sciences areas as well as physical science.

We put DoD [Department of Defense] payloads in orbit using the Shuttle until the Challenger happened, and that's when they went to the expendables more so and stopped flying on Shuttle. We had a really good relationship with the Department of Defense when we were doing satellites on the Shuttle. I worked Magellan and Galileo and Ulysses—all of those were planetary missions that launched on the Shuttle before we started moving those spacecraft off of the Shuttle and onto expendable launch vehicles. All very good experience, high-profile missions that have gained a lot of science. It was really just the process of getting them there and getting the transportation off.

The transportation system itself—how the manifest is, it's continuously moved from one to the other because of either technical issues or weather or whatever, so the whole reliability of it going off when they originally plan—like if a spacecraft started their development and they thought they were going to launch it in seven years, because of the manifest perturbations they might have launched it three years later. That's my experience early on with the Shuttle, was really more from the payload perspective. Then throughout my career, some of those studies, and even my stint at JPL, really followed along the lines of being involved with the payload-to-Shuttle interface. I worked a lot of different, interesting things, though.

On some of those spacecraft, we had what they called RTGs [Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator]. They were things that required special attention from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] because they were radioactive sources. But that's what produced the power on some of these spacecraft. So that had to go through a lot of EPA processes and a thing called NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]. We had to work a lot of that kind of stuff, and how we handled the RTGs when they came to Kennedy Space Center, those radioactive sources, around the workforce. We had to have the building. All that was very interesting and required a lot of special safety panels. We worked a lot of interesting challenges and got through a lot of that. It's been a very good, productive career.

After my trip to JPL, where I spent a year—by then, most of the JPL spacecraft were on expendable launch vehicles, with the exception of the potential to use the Shuttle for that one couple set of missions. So most of my interactions out there with them were from an expendable launch vehicle standpoint, helping them to figure out what are their best transportation methods, what suite of the ELV [Expendable Launch Vehicle] vehicles might they use for their different spacecraft. But again, we did do trade studies, and we compared what it would cost them and what it would take to launch those three spacecrafts—Europa, Solar Probe, and Pluto—on the Space Shuttle with the Inertial Upper Stage being provided by the Air Force versus the new expendable launch vehicles, Atlas V and Delta Force, that were getting ready to come onto the market. I spent a lot of time doing performance and cost tradeoffs for them to help them with what was their best transportation solution.

But once I came back from Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I went into the development organization. The main reason I did that is because when I left JPL, they actually gave me a project to bring to KSC to manage for them, and it was called the Mars Ascent Vehicle. It was going to be a little five-foot rocket that was going to launch from the surface of Mars and take samples of rock and dirt, rock dust samples, to bring to Earth to analyze, and again, looking for potential life that might have been on Mars at some point.

I came back, and I left that payload community and went into the development organization. That project didn't pan out because they had the two Mars failures, and they decided to redo the whole Mars architecture. But that landed me in the development organization, and we did some work for Shuttle Program in the development organization. We were a group that did ground systems development projects. We might develop a new tool. We've got a problem on the Orbiter like with the tiles having too much water in them, and we might develop a little tool to help pull the moisture and water out of the tiles. That sort of thing, real time problems. Or if they needed a new system for—the thing called MSBLS [Microwave Scanning Beam Landing System] that was a landing system for Orbiter. We went out, and we would come up with a solution and build a piece of GSE [Ground Support Equipment]. We did a lot of that in that group that I managed.

I had an interaction with the Shuttle Program through that. That was really local here at KSC, and it was really working mainly through the engineering organizations that were part of this launch vehicle processing directorate. So I had an entree into this organization, to understand a little bit about their needs, but I really wasn't involved in the day-to-day processing of the Orbiter. Then in 2005 I came here as the Deputy, and that was in the grind of the day-to-day organization. This project is the largest dollar value amount project element of the Shuttle Program. We're about 4,000 United Space Alliance [USA] contractor workforce and about 500 civil servants. That has been as high as 5,000 contractors and 600 civil servants, but it's starting to get smaller because the Shuttle Program is near its end. So it's a very large project. And there's a lot of aspects of this project element that is different than a lot of the other ones because it's a whole big infrastructure. You've got all the pads, you've got the MLPs [Mobile Launch Platform], you've got a lot of IT [information technology] systems that have special requirements.

The one thing I notice about my job that's a little different than some of the other project elements is theirs is one specific, small piece, and it doesn’t have all these tentacles that touch every other element. This project element is more comprehensive because it has all that infrastructure. We interface with every other piece of flat hardware, so we're the place where it all comes together and gets tied together. What I've learned here is that you've got to be very customer-oriented in terms of a lot of people are giving you requirements. A lot of people are throwing things your way, so you've really got to be able to have a lot of patience, and you've got to be able to work really well with other people. You've got to work hard to understand what it is they need you to do with their hardware that they're bringing here, and that now you're responsible for integrating it all together and getting it ready for launch. So there's a lot of communication, a lot of forums.

One thing that I think is a good practice is that we have extensive upper communication. Federal Government Survey-wide we're considered a model organization across all federal agencies for upward communication. I think it really is a best practice because when you are the ones that are pulling all the hardware together and integrating it and getting ready to launch, and you've got Marshall [Spaceflight Center, Huntsville, Alabama] and Johnson [Space Center, Houston, Texas] and Stennis [Stennis Space Center, Mississippi], and all the contractors from Utah and California, et cetera—they're all playing into the process of getting the vehicles ready for flight. You have to have a really strong communication system.

We start every morning—it is a regimen. Every morning you start quarter till seven, and you're talking about the status of the vehicles. “What issues are we working? What is it going to take to get the issue resolved?” Then that rolls up to a 7:10 meeting where we go over it again. We talk about more long-term issues. Then there's another meeting that ties in the payload guys that are going to be bringing the Station hardware over. There's Shuttle stand-ups every Monday and Thursday. There's engineering tag-ups that talk about just the technical issues, and what other Centers do we have to get involved to help resolve these things. So a best practice is really talking about these things over and over again to really get everybody on the same page, because it is so massive. Like I said, we have the 4,000 contractors here, plus the 600 NASA people, plus all the other Centers play a role in how we do work, how we disposition problems, and that sort of thing.

So it's really important that there's a ton of communication. It's interesting because years ago, I was an intern for the Center Director, and at the time it was Bob [Robert L.] Crippen. So I got to, for six months, kind of see how management worked at the Center. I remember following Bob [Robert B.] Sieck around for a day, and he got me involved in all that upward communication. I remember thinking, "A lot of overkill. Why in the world do you have to start and over and over again keep talking about?" Now that I'm in the job, and I realize the complexity and the multiple interfaces that have to get this thing all pulled together, I see how necessary it is, and how really, truly it is a good practice. But it's interesting having a perspective from the outside looking in, and then now being involved in it, understanding and realizing why that is such a good practice, and why it's so important to do that.

Wright: Those meetings that you were just talking about, are they with people, as in you sit down together, or is it telecons [teleconferences]? How do you get folks together to do those?

Willcoxon: There are pockets of people that group together in their locations, and then it's teleconned around the Center and then around the Agency to get everybody tied in. The meeting I was just in—which is an Engineering Review Board—that's where we talk about and resolve technical issues. People will telecon in from Boeing [The Boeing Company] in California, and from Houston, and from Huntsville, and from Utah, depending on what element of the Shuttle that we're working a particular problem on. In this one, there's a lot of people interested in making sure that when the pad repairs are done, that we don't have debris that can lift up and hit the Orbiter, which would be an issue. Just about everything we do touches some other piece of the Program, and so we have to be extremely good at making sure all the people are pulled in that have a say in how things are resolved and how we can get to flight rationale for the next flight if we have a problem.

Wright: Do you have a process in place, or what is the process to make sure that all those people are identified? How do you approach that?

Willcoxon: The Certificate of Flight Readiness really is the formal process that ensures that everything we do to the vehicle, how problems are dispositioned, is close-looped, verified completion. Then it's a continuous process throughout the whole flow of how you get the vehicle ready, how you integrate the vehicle with the SRBs [Solid Rocket Booster] and the ET [External Tank], how you test it out, how you get ready for launch. All of that rolls up into checking balances on all the requirements, how all the problems are resolved. Then at each different milestone that we have—there are multiple milestones throughout the course of that flow—you are ensuring that everything's closed out by that milestone, and then everything's closed out by the next milestone. Eventually you get to the Certificate of Flight Readiness. My review is called the Launch Readiness Review. That's when my team certifies that all the systems are ready to go and that we don't have any issues. Or if we do have an issue, and there's a COFR exception—Certificate of Flight Readiness exception—it's been fully briefed and everybody understands why we have an exception to that particular requirement.

Wright: Tell us about a time that—when you are getting all these facts and you're sharing all this information—that you've had contradictory opinions, and how those are resolved. What process is in place to move that further where you can resolve an issue?

Willcoxon: There's different levels of review. The first level of review is really at the discipline engineering area. They work their issue, let's say it's a particular system, a ground system that interacts with the Orbiter. So they work it within their community of discipline experts. Then the next step that's integrated brings it to the Engineering Review Board, which is what I was just at on the pad. That's where everybody comes together, and the other elements of the Shuttle Program are involved, and they listen to how we might be going about solving a particular problem. Then let's say that in that, the technical community comes up with a position.

If it's an integrated-type thing that involves multiple elements that's eventually got to go to the Program, it'll go to a Risk Review Board, and they'll assess the risk tradeoffs associated with that particular thing. Maybe they looked at a couple different options, and they'll assess the risk associated with that. Once it goes to the Risk Review Board, then the decision may be made there that they've done enough, and this is a clear-cut decision. But if it involves a tradeoff between cost or schedule and technical, then it comes to my Level Three Configuration Control Board. That's where we decide and we look at the balance between the technical solution, what it might cost, or what schedule impact that that might hold, and there might be some tradeoffs that need to be made.

Let's say that I decide that I think we can defer that particular technical fix for one flight, and that we have flight rationale for that, and the reason I'm doing that is because it protects the manifest. It's too much of a schedule hit, and I feel like the risk of doing it is not that high of a risk. Then we go forward to the Program, and we recommend a solution, and maybe we recommend that we defer the fix for a flight. If the technical community doesn't like that answer because they really want to fix it this flight, we prepare a dissenting opinion, and that goes forward with the package. So I go and present at the PRCB [Program Requirements Control Board], which is with John [P.] Shannon and/or LeRoy [E. Cain], our position on a particular topic, and then we'll say that there's a dissenting opinion. If there's one strong person or spokesperson, they can actually present that dissenting opinion, or we present it and they're there to answer questions.

But we have had zero of those here at KSC. We tend to be able to, through the different processes, always come to the same recommendation. We've had a couple of things that we disagreed with the Orbiter Project on, that our SMA [Simulation Model Adaptor] community brought forth as a dissenting opinion up to the program, but it wasn't really something at KSC that there was a big gap between two positions. We tend to work it out here for the most part. That doesn't mean there never will be, and we have a process for it if it ever comes about. But we usually talk. We spend a lot of time talking it out, and the pros and cons, and understanding why we, in the end, recommend a certain position. And most of the time—or all the time so far—people have been able to understand that and can concur with it, even though they might rather do a technical fix that time. They can understand the bigger implications and why maybe for this time it's okay to defer it one flight.

Wright: You have so many aspects, as you said, that you're responsible for, and of course so many people that feed information up to you. What are some of the elements that you like to instill with your management system that helps people know that they can come to you and share this information? What are those types of practices or just things that you tell people—“please do this” so that we have this kind of communication effort that you need to have to make your decisions?

Willcoxon: I try really hard to make sure people know that I'm approachable. I have little, bitty techniques, if you will. Every time a new employee comes in, I send them a welcome letter, and I talk to them about my expectations, about the organization, and open communication, and open door policy. I have a job-shadowing program where every new employee comes and spends a day with me. They get to know me, I get to know their first name. They can then leave knowing that if they ever have an issue, they can call me or e-mail me. It's how do you express to people and prove to them that you are approachable and that you're not just somebody that's sitting in another building that they barely know who you are.

I have somebody that I put in place called my Communication Lead. It's an extra duty for her, but she makes sure that I go out in the field once a month, and I have small group meetings with people to talk one-on-one about what their issues are. Again, it's just another way to make sure that they know that I'm always there for them, and that my focus is on the people. Then of course all those other processes. I think they see that I'm a manager that listens to everybody's point of view. I try to make sure that I go around the room and check people to see. You look at their body language and see—you think they might have something to say, but they're hesitant. So I try to do stuff like that.

In the contractor workforce, they're huge, so it's a little bit harder for me. I try to do a lot of getting out in the field and just shaking people's hands, seeing how things are going, but it's really hard because there's so many of them. USA's management, my counterpart, I think he and his deputy are excellent at getting out and doing the same thing with their workforce that I'm doing with the civil servants, so I ask them about that. How are they getting out? Especially now, with the Program ending, they're doing all these all-manager sessions, and I'm going to start going with them.

Just today, I've asked throughout my organization, and they've asked throughout theirs, "What are some things we can do to celebrate the ten launches we have left? What are some employee morale-building things that we can do? What are things that we can do for communication?" So we’ve both come up with a list, and now we're honing down on a set of about a dozen things that we can go do with the workforce that treats them special, makes them know we appreciate them, more of us out there communicating. Things like, we're going to come up with a database that we can all input into about what are the above-and-beyond things that people did on a daily basis or once a week. Then we're going to do a campaign where we write personal notes or drop by their desk and say, "Hey, we really appreciate what you did on that particular topic." We've come up with a list of those kinds of things.

We're going to try to figure out how we can work with the Center to see if they'll let us do some more open houses so people can bring their family out and see the hardware and stuff. So we're going to really put a push on to focus on the people and show our appreciation towards what they do everyday. Those are some things that I do as a leader to make sure that people know that we're all about them and we're here for them, and if they have an opinion that's different from the group, they should be comfortable expressing it, and that there won't be any retribution for any of that. It's an open communication environment.

Wright: When you were sharing with us the areas that you've worked, I heard a lot of what you've been encountering through these years is that you'll be given a task, and then you just have to approach it full force and come up with a resolution, whether it was coming up with trade studies or if it was coming up with development. When you've got that type of an open-ended answer to a question that's not really quite defined, what is your approach for tackling those types of situations? How have you been able to move through all these different types of projects, and what goes through your mind of, "I've got to do this and do this?" What's your planning or your process that seems to have worked in all those different types of areas that you've done successfully?

Willcoxon: Again, it's all about the people. Most everything I've done—you tackle it. You've got a tough problem, but you've got to make sure that you've got the right people with the right knowledge involved in solving it on your team. So if you have that from the get-go—and that's number one, is to make sure you've got the right expertise—you sit down and you provide a vision for that group about where you're trying to go. The different things I've done have been a little bit different. I led a group of 14 teams—and each of the teams had industry, academia, other government agencies, and NASA on it—to try to figure out what are the different technologies we need to go back to Moon and Mars and to lay out a 30-year plan in each of those different areas. That was the biggest thing I ever did.

So the first thing was get the right experts on it. Here are the most knowledgeable people. Then you've got to lay out a vision of where is it you're trying to go. What's the end state that you're trying to accomplish, so that everybody can see it and help you figure out how do you get from where you are today, which is zero, white piece of paper, to what that end state looks like? It really shouldn't be make it up as you go. You've got to spend a lot of time as a leader envisioning where that end state is, and then you've got to lay out a plan, help them help you lay out a plan of how do you get from a zero piece of paper to a solution set? Then once you've done that, then you're going to move a little bit, and you've got to be flexible. You can't just formulate this plan, and then when new ideas come up along the way, you can't say, "Well, that's not on our plan so you can't do it." So you've got to be flexible and let the team move a little bit, but you can't get them off on a rabbit trail so that you never get back to the end state that you're trying to accomplish.

So I think it is the right people, laying out a vision, really thinking through what it is you're trying to achieve, laying out a really good plan to get you there, and then delegating to team members and empowering them for different pieces of it to help lay it out. So just about every team I've led has broken into, "You give the person with this expertise the lead to go do this little piece of it, and another person the lead for another piece," and then everybody knows what the path is to get back to the main goal. Then they go off and do their piece, and then it all starts coming together. All of a sudden, you have this beautiful product or right solution. That's how most large things get worked off and seem to be quite successful.

In everything you do, the people are key. That's why my number one priority is the people. Because I feel like if I take care of them, they take care of everything else, and so I really emphasize that more than anything. I was the first female that's ever had this job. It's always been a line of men. A lot of the things they didn't focus on were the people part of things. What kept the organization going was the mission's so exciting and the work's so important, so everybody focused on it. But they didn't really do a lot of succession planning, and they didn't really do a lot of caring and feeding for the individuals' careers and laying out a map where they could actually develop themselves. I took over as the Director a year and four or five months ago. I was the Deputy for that for a year and a half, and I started working on some of that human capital stuff as the Deputy, and then now I've really done things I wanted to do that the Director wasn't necessarily as passionate about as I was.

We have formalized succession planning now. All the positions from GS-14s [General Schedule, pay grade scale] up to SES [Senior Executive Service], we have several candidates we have identified as the high potentials. We've had formal sessions where we've talked about each of those individuals and talked about what their improvement areas need to be. We then provide that feedback to those individuals. In addition to that, I've developed a leadership expectation model for every grade level in my organization, for [GS-] 13, 14, 15, and for the different jobs. I have 13, 14, and 15 team leads, and then 15, Branch and Division Chief. It's a set of expectations that includes diverse experiences, behavioral characteristics that we're looking for in people, training, discipline, knowledge. It works your way all the way up. So if an individual is a GS-13 and they aspire to be a 15, they can get that 15 level plan, and they can see everything that my management team expects of them to get to that grade level. So they can work on themselves. They can work on, at some point in their career, doing a diverse assignment somewhere else.

If they have behavioral issues, which a lot of people do and they do not realize it. That's a lesson I've learned in every job I've had, not just Shuttle Program. I've seen people who can go only so far. They're good, they've got great work ethic, they're smart technically, but they've got a lot of people issues. Their leadership is limited because they can't get people to follow them, and they absolutely do not see it about themselves. They do not see it. Management avoids it because it's a very difficult thing to talk about. So that individual finally hits the brick wall, and then they start believing that people are getting promoted because it's the "good ol' boy" system or they're the favorites, because they don't see that they have these issues.

I'm hoping in this model that I've developed, it's got a lot of those personal attributes, as we call them, expectations in it. I'm hoping that it will be a good tool for the supervisors to actually have a constructive conversation. I'm doing a lot with coaching and mentoring. So if we have an individual that's a really high potential, but they're really struggling with those behavioral things, and we know that that's going to hold them back—if it's not already, it's going to—I've got on this model ways to get coaching and mentoring to help them. Also, some classes that might help them with some of that stuff, to help them to realize it. We're even working on a specific, one of those 360s [degree] or 180 [degree] evaluations. Most everything that we have that's out there that you can just buy is for leaders at my level, or people who are supervisors. There's very little that are just team leads, people who are growing up to be good leaders. Those tools really don't apply to them too much. A lot of the questions are not applicable, so we're looking at developing our own, using some of that to try to better give them feedback about some of those personal attributes that maybe is really affecting their ability to be the best that they can be.

I'm spending a lot of time on that. We just rolled the plan out. We've been working on it a year. We put something together, we got our set of employees, managers, different levels of the organization—we've peer-reviewed it. Now we've perfected it to the point where it's our product, and we're going to use it starting this performance appraisal, which is right now. Doing a lot of that, and just taking an interest in individuals and making sure that we do have a very good plan for who replaces me, who replaces all the key positions in the organization. I think that's important, too, that people know that even though the Program is ending, their management has a very strong, vested interest in their development, where they're going to go, even though you've got a Program ending.

We are called Launch Vehicle Processing because we are doing Constellation as well as Shuttle. We changed our name because of that, and we have that role. So we have that going for us, also. We've worked really hard here at the Center to make sure that the people working in Shuttle, their job didn’t end after Shuttle. That's why we've done it that way, and it's been very effective. So most of my civil servants don't really worry about what their job's going to be after Shuttle is over because they already see that we're doing this other Constellation work.

Wright: That was one of the topics that we had for discussion, was how would you suggest to better equip and train the next group of Agency leaders? It sounds like you've got those pieces already in place to do that.

Willcoxon: Yes, we're working really hard on it. It's very important. In fact, our biggest challenge right now, from a civil service standpoint, is getting both jobs done. Because now an organization that's really only had to do Shuttle for years is now having to juggle between two things, and set more priorities, and make decisions about what they do each day. It's a good problem to have; it's certainly a better problem to have than worrying about what you're going to do in two years, or if you're going to have a job in two years. And they don't, my group really doesn’t worry about that too much.

Wright: It sounds like the things that you've done in the past have all come together. Studying, development, leadership—it's all of those pieces that you've done. Now you're needing all that experience because you've got all this new avenue in front of you.

Willcoxon: Yes. One of the things that probably would be worth mentioning—and I don't really know the background of all the Project Managers—but what I've typically found is that people are put into some of these Project Management jobs and they really had very little background in the business side, with budget and contract experience. It works okay if you're a real quick study and you pick it up and you can put somebody in your organization that does that stuff for you. When I did that Center Director thing with Crippen, that six-month internship, what I realized when I was up there—and I was a GS-13 at the time—I realized that everything they talked about up there was budget and contract and business-related. I was all technical, and I did not have any of that background. So I said, "If I ever want to be in senior management later on in my career, this is missing out of my toolbox."

So when I left that, I went back to the payload organization that I came from, but I asked to go into that area and to learn, and I did that for three years. It has been invaluable. I've been able to move into a lot of different positions at the Center and even some of these studies I've done with the Agency, and because I had that three-year background, and I went and did that kind of work myself, I think it's a big advantage. A lot of people get promoted up to these jobs because they're good technically, and they've never had that piece. My budget was $800 million a year, and now it's $740. That's a lot of money and a lot of contract monitoring and award fee determination that if you've never done that stuff at the lower level—I think it's a missing piece. I would bet if you looked at everybody that's in some of these other jobs, I bet very few of them have actually done that job at a lower level before they had to manage millions of dollars.

Wright: Do you have any thoughts on how best to balance the efficiency on your programs compared to cost elements? Because the cost of everything's going up, or your budget's being reduced—how best have you been able to look at those and balance that out?

Willcoxon: You've just got to look at it in terms of risk. In our case, one of the things that we're reducing as the end of the Program nears is the amount of modifications and upgrades to our ground systems. So the budget for that used to be $40 million a year, it's now down to about $4. Now you've got $4 million dollars versus $40. You've got to look at stretching those amount of dollars for a long way. So you've got to look at what are your risks across all the different ground systems, and where should your investment need to go? It's all a risk assessment, and so you need to put your dollars where things could cost you a launch or cost you weeks in the schedule. As your budgets go down, you have to do more of those risk assessments, and really do those tradeoffs, and make sure you know where your vulnerabilities are.

Wright: You are making so many enhancements to your area here, and I remember when you were talking about the Agency-wide study that you did for the Station and Shuttle, these had been things that had been talked about before but never got resolved. Did you have any thoughts on why those had never been resolved until after that?

Willcoxon: For one thing, the people that were on my team—getting back to the first step is getting all the right people—that team I had all the right people. The first thing we did was we looked at “How many times has this thing been studied, and did they ever implement any of the recommendations out of the studies?” Well, what we found was: no. So our big thing was, and our goal and push was, how do we institutionalize some of the recommendations that we were putting in place? From the onset, that was really our focus. Then sure enough, at the end of that study, a major thing happened. [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107] accident happened. The President [George W. Bush] came out with a new Vision for [Space] Exploration. The purpose of the Station had totally changed. So basically everything in our study didn't matter anymore. We had a new Vision. Everything went 180 degrees.

But it was interesting because we had all the right steps in place. This time, I think it really would have worked, because we had a way to go back to get it approved at the Agency level by the Administrator and to make sure that all the recommendations had to get implemented through the Agency management. In other words, they were going to have to go back and status each of the recommendations and how they were implemented until they all got done. That's how it was going to stick. We had that commitment, all the way up to Fred [Frederick D.] Gregory when he was the Deputy Administrator. Then when all that happened—

We spent nine months and a lot of travel time because we went all around the Agency, we talked to everybody that was involved in the process. We laid the whole process out. Nobody had ever done that before. All the things that they had done wrong in some of the other studies, we talked about them. “Why did this study not work? Why did nothing get changed because of it?” We analyzed all that before we started because basically I went in and said, "Don't study this anymore if you're not going to do something this time." And that's what I told the Agency management. Because we gave them all the background of how many times it'd been looked at and what all had been recommended, and nothing had ever happened.

Wright: So I guess that would be a management process that you'd like to see improvement. If you're not going to implement, don't study?

Willcoxon: Definitely. I mean, when are you going to learn? Either you're going to do something about it, or you're not. Then it just got overcome by events. That happens sometimes in government. Policy changes, presidential change-outs occur, and it's okay. It's interesting now, because now they're talking about the National Lab concept, and if that ever came about—actually there's some people who are looking at utilization right now as a part of that National Lab, and they all wanted copies of my study.

Wright: It's still useful.

Willcoxon: Yes. And it wasn't just my study. It was a team of us, a really good team. We're all really close friends. We still keep up with each other. It was one of the best teams I was ever on.

Wright: Any other thoughts on, as Constellation comes into play or this National Lab, things that you see that really need to take place in order to keep the confusion down and to keep the processes flowing? Any other basic principles that you want to share?

Willcoxon: Yes. I mean, some of the stuff we're doing. We talk about this a lot because history seems to tend to repeat itself, and so one of the big things at Kennedy Space Center is we operate the vehicles, we turn them around, and we launch them. We do that over long periods of time. So when a new program starts up, you try to influence the design of the vehicle so that you can operate it easier with less people on the ground. Each generation that works on a new program like this says, "It's going to be different this time. We're going to fuse operability into the design, and we're not going to have the same situation as Shuttle or as Apollo."

Most of it doesn’t get documented as to why decisions were made the way they were. So what we're finding now on Constellation is—we're trying to do that. We're trying to put requirements in place for operability, and some of our ancestors that did Shuttle tell us that, "You can try that, but every time the tradeoff's going to be flight performance over how you operate it." Traditionally, what we do is—because we don't have enough money at the beginning of a program to invest in new technologies or methods—we use a lot of the same infrastructure as much as we can. We make the tradeoff of the flight design versus the ground, and so we get the same thing. The same thing is happening on Constellation. The majority of things that we're trying to infuse in that would be good reasons from an operability standpoint, they're not getting done. So we're going to have the same situation.

However, the vehicle is going to be less complex, so we probably will have fewer people at Kennedy Space Center processing the vehicle. But it won't be because of lessons learned associated with operability and design. You've got to learn that the reason it was done that way was because—it was done for good reasons. But we keep doing it to ourselves over and over again, and a lot of it is because when you start new programs, you don't have a lot of money. I don't think that that's going to change because you've got to prove to people that the new program's going to pan out before they're going to really give you a lot of money. So it's like a vicious cycle that keeps occurring over and over again.

You try your best, and we've had a few little things we've been able to do. One of the things we're doing is now that you have new technology, a lot of things can be done without paper. So we are developing an architecture to process the Constellation vehicle that will be paperless, where everything's linked together, and you won't need as many people involved in the process and a lot of lag time between when things get signed off. That'll all be done electronically. That's a plus, that's an operability type thing, and that's because technology's here and technology is cheaper. We're doing some of that. We're starting it in Shuttle so that we have two years, and we can actually use it on the Constellation stuff. That's good. We're thinking a little bit different about how we do business on the ground and taking advantage of some technology there. That'll be some savings, so we've learned from that. But a lot of the stuff, like systems on the vehicle that cost a lot of time on the ground—we've tried to make those requirements, to design that stuff out. Most of them have come back into the design space and we've not had a lot of luck there. But we keep trying.

One of the things that we don't do well is to justify the business case for doing that. We don't have a lot of good data that shows if you make the tradeoff of the flight vehicle versus the ground, what will your life cycle cost be? So that they can think more about, "Maybe I do want to take a hit on flight performance if it's going to cost me billions of dollars more over the life of the program." We tend to just tell them why it's a bad choice from an operability standpoint, but we don't do as great a job as we could of backing it up with cost data. Because sometimes it's hard to quantify that stuff. That would be a lesson learned on our part, is to have better breakouts of cost. We roll cost up at a much higher level, then some of these trade studies would be able to help us break the cost down and talk about how much something would cost over the life of the program. But we do that for a reason, too, and that's because the more you break cost down and account for things at lower levels, it costs more administrative time and money to do that. Everything's a trade-off.

Wright: What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to come into the Space Agency at this point in time? Someone that would like to start their career at NASA?

Willcoxon: It's been a great experience for me. There are opportunities everywhere. If you want to do something different, they are there for you to do. The other advice I would give is just get involved and work hard. Always continue to learn. If you're not learning in a spot, then move. Don't get yourself to where you're stagnant and you're just comfortable with what you're doing. I typically move every three to five years because usually by that point in time—I don't know everything about that position, but I know enough about it that I'm not challenged as much as I need to be. That doesn't mean to be somebody that doesn't look stable, either. You can't do it every year or anything. You've got to show your worth.

I would say come in, learn as much as you can, don't box yourself into one area. Look for opportunities outside that. When I was younger, I would do my job, but I would be looking for things that were going on, maybe a team at the Center, so that I could get to know other people and know other areas, get a bigger picture of where my job fit in to the rest of the Center. Found time—even though it might cause me to work 50 hours a week—to get involved in some of that stuff so I could expand my knowledge and expand my contacts.

Some of these teams I got tapped to do at the Agency level, take those opportunities. Don't be scared of them. The technology area was way above my comfort zone. I'm going, "I've never developed technology in my life. Why are they wanting me to do this?" But it really wasn't about technology. It was about, “Can you take a huge number of people and a huge task and actually bring it to a product? Do you have the leadership ability to do that?” I was a little intimidated about it, and thought, "Well, you know, I can give it a shot."

You can't be afraid to ask for help. Don't get yourself in a situation where you think you have to do it yourself or you're going to be a failure. I know I learn quick when I'm in trouble, and I'm not afraid to go ask for help to get me the right person or get me help. I don't try to do everything myself; I try to delegate it out. I've gotten better at that over the years. When you're younger, you think you've got to prove yourself more, and then as you get more mature and you understand that you can accomplish so much more if it's not just yourself. I think you've got to learn that as a leader. How important it is, and how much people want to work with you and for you if they know that it's not about you.

It's about the team, and that they know that you're going to give them opportunities to grow and expand in their knowledge base, and a little visibility in what they can do. I've learned over every year that I'm out here that the more you do, the better leader you are. It seems like the more that you expand out and try to get other people engaged in stuff and develop them, that it develops you naturally so much more than if you're really focusing on yourself. So for years now—I don't focus on myself at all. My number one goal, again, is to take care of the people, make sure they've got everything they need, and then they take care of the mission if you take care of them. So that's what I'm all about.

Wright: Earlier you mentioned that you're the first female that's been in this job, and as I just asked that question about the next group of people coming in, do you feel like the opportunities are different now, or did you always feel like there was opportunities for you as a female to move up?

Willcoxon: Always. I always did. In NASA, managers are just looking for who's willing to step up and lead and get things done. I've really not felt like there's been any holdback at all. Maybe it's just my personality. I’m never going to back off of an opportunity. If somebody thinks I can do something, I'm going to step up and try to do it. I haven't seen that. Of course, this organization for a long time was mostly men. If you look at my direct reports right now, they're almost all women.

Wright: So that's a change?

Willcoxon: It's a big change. In fact, we just did a Standing Review Board that the Shuttle Program is undergoing, and I wanted my org [organization] chart with pictures on it. How many Division Chiefs do I have? I think I have seven or eight, and four of them are women. So 50% or more. I just know there was a lot of female faces on that org chart. I thought, “No, it's not just because I'm a female that I hired a bunch of women,” they were the best for the job. So I think it's just changing. I think KSC in general—even the payload organization I was in—there was a lot of up and coming females as I was growing up, about in my age category, that now are up there. You're seeing more at the top than you did when I first got here. There was very few. There was one, I think there was one female direct line to the Center Director. We've never had a Center Director female here at KSC.

Wright: Yet.

Willcoxon: Yet. We have a deputy now, though. This is the first time we've had a deputy female.

Wright: Do you feel like there's a hardest lesson or the best lesson that you've learned through your experiences, something that you try not to forget on a daily basis or a routine basis?

Willcoxon: I guess the hardest and best are probably about the same, which is you really have got to treat people with respect, and you have to treat people differently in terms of what their needs are. What I've learned in everything I've done is that—first I started out with the mentality that, “I have a certain work ethic, and it's made me successful, so everybody should be like that.” Some people never learn that, they always want that same model for everybody else, so they try to be consistent and try to get people to behave that way, and that doesn't work. You've got to treat every individual that's on your team—you've got to know them well enough, you've got to treat them differently, and you've got to do things that motivate them. You've got to mentor them at different levels. Some need none, some need a lot more. You've got to be able to gauge that, and you've got to be smart enough to lead that team per the needs of what the individuals need. I think that is key.

The behavior of the managers was a lot different when I first started out here. We had some really gruff managers that were very—there was old style leadership, there was X and Y. Type X was tell everybody exactly what to do, and you were a dictator-type thing. We had a lot more of those X types where they cut people down, and screamed and yelled a lot, et cetera. The Y are more “get people engaged.” More of what I was just talking about. Treat people like they need to be treated and that sort of thing. I've seen it evolve since I've been here. You have very few of those X-type leaders in the Kennedy Space Center now, and even in the Agency, and it's because the newer generation of people do not respond to that. Earlier generations of people were used to being told what to do: go to work, earn pay, et cetera. The new generation—they are motivated by many different things, and they won't accept that kind of leadership.

So I've seen it change drastically over the years. You really do have pretty strong leaders now that are really more about the people. I think that's the biggest lesson, since, again, the way you get everything done is through the people. You've got to have good people, and you've got to treat them with respect, and if you don't do that, that's going to be your biggest downfall. I've seen some leaders that treat people poorly, and it'll go for a while, and then eventually you see those people disappearing. They've put them in some other job. The system won't tolerate it for very long anymore. Whereas in the past, the system thrived on that. That's how things got done, and it's just not that way anymore. That's a big change over the past 20 years.

Wright: Sounds like a good one. Well, thank you. Is there anything else you can think of you'd like to add before we close? I don't want to take up too much more of your time. Certainly when you get it and have a chance to look at it, if there's some more things, feel free to add because there was a lot of good points. We appreciate everything.

Willcoxon: Yes. The Shuttle Program is a great organization, and the group in total is so bright. I mean, really, it is. One thing that I will offer is that—since I've been here, it has matured, the team as a group. There was a lot of long meetings and poorly held meetings, and a lot of emotional discussions. We've learned, as a team, over the last two and a half years since I've been associated with it, and we've matured immensely. It's a pretty drastic change, and it's fun to be a part of how it's evolved. Maybe, too, it's the times we're in. We've gone from a really rough time of trying to just get one flight off, to now we're launching four or five times a year, and so we're at a good state now. It's cool to be at a state like this. It's kind of bittersweet. Here you are, you're launching four or five times a year, the team's performing tremendously, the group dynamics is excellent, we've got it down pat, and then it's going to end. So it is a little bittersweet that we're really at the top of our game.

Wright: At least you're going to go out on the top, so that's the good news.

Willcoxon: Yes, going out on the top of our game. Like I said, a lot of us—our organizations have a foot into the future, and so we're not going out of business. But the Shuttle Program was a great program, and there's a lot of camaraderie and a lot of shared success and passion and love for what we do. I get emotional every time we launch. My heart starts pounding when we get into the count and we're getting ready to liftoff. And everybody feels that way. There's these huge smiles, and there's hugs, and congratulations and all that after each launch, as if it were the very first one. Now times are good because we're moving, we've got fewer problems and all that, and it's just really neat to be a part of it. Then we have budget meetings and we see the budgets going to zero—and that's the bitter part.

There is one other thing that I think probably should be captured—when we've gone from Shuttle to Station, and then now Shuttle Station to Constellation—every time a new group starts, the general attitude is, "We don't want to do it anything like we did the Shuttle Program or we did the Station Program." The Station Program said that about the Shuttle. You get people in there, and their goal is to do it all different. Then the attitude towards the people that are working the other program that still exists is, "We don't want them involved because they're going to drag us down to do it the way things have been done in the past." Then you get a little bit of resentment from the people who are doing it today thinking, "Well, we do a lot of good things."

So the lessons learned from my perspective is when you're starting a new program, the way you frame that, as the leaders of the new program, is that, "Hey, we've learned a lot from the thing we've done in the past. The technology has changed, things have changed, and so we're going to take all those lessons that we've learned from the programs that exist today or that we just completed, and we're going to make the next one better." Doesn't that sound a whole lot better than, "We don't want to do anything like they did it on those two programs, and we don't want those people involved." That happens every time we start a new one, and we don't learn that lesson over and over again.

The leadership is what sets that. The leaderships of the new program. It's the tone and the perspective that they lay out there, and they build the culture in from day one. It should be more of, "We've done great." Because we have. We've done great on every program we've ever had, but we've made some mistakes. We should learn from them and make the next one better. But not, “no more of that.” To me, that's a big message that should fall over from one program to the next, is great things have happened in every one. Let's take the good things and embrace it. Let's take the things that we wish we hadn't done it that way, that we couldn't fix because of whatever reason, and let's change that in the next one. Let's appreciate and recognize that the people that are doing it today have all this experience and knowledge, and we'd be crazy not to use them and their lessons in the next one. Versus the other kind of attitude.

Frankly, I don't even think that the leaders that start the new ones mean it that way. They're really just trying to get a message across that, "Hey, we need to do stuff differently." But the way they frame it is so huge, and then it permeates down. It's interesting. I saw it happen from Station to Shuttle. "We're not going to Station like we did Shuttle." Then, funny enough, in both cases they end up doing stuff almost the same anyway, because we do do good. There's little things that you tweak—like I said, the work control, making things paperless—but you don't throw everything out and start all over again. In the end, we don't do it anyway. The next program resembles the first one very closely. If not, they add stuff to it.

Wright: All right. Well, thank you.

[End of interview]

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