This artist’s concept shows OSIRIS-REx contacting asteroid Bennu with its sample return instrument. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

By Elizabeth Frank, Ph.D.

Spacecraft missions drive step-change advances in the Earth and space sciences, leading to some of the most surprising discoveries of the past 50 years. First Mode’s contributions to NASA missions such as Psyche, Mars 2020, and Europa Clipper are complemented by the work of as many as hundreds of other people. All but the largest NASA science missions are led by a principal investigator (PI), a scientist who is supported by other key leaders such as the deputy PI and instrument PIs.

I’ve been in the planetary science community for over a decade and have worked in engineer-dominated companies for four years. When it comes to missions, scientists love to talk about the science driving them (why are we going?) and engineers love to talk about spacecraft engineering (what tools are we using?).

Less often discussed is how PIs and other mission leaders weave together the efforts of their team in pursuit of mission success. How do those in leadership roles on NASA missions manage their teams? How did they prepare for the role they’re in? How did they build teams that work together well? How do they foster a healthy team culture? There is no PI how-to manual.

To find answers to those questions, on March 24, 2020, I moderated a panel of individuals in leadership positions on NASA missions to share their experiences and advice. The discussion was originally going to be held at the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), but after LPSC was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone kindly agreed to participate in a virtual panel instead. The panelists included:

  • Prof. Bethany Ehlmann (California Institute of Technology & NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Lab) – Principal Investigator, Lunar Trailblazer
  • Prof. Craig Kletzing (University of Iowa) – PI, TRACERS
  • Dr. David Lawrence (Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory) – Gamma Ray & Neutron Spectrometer Instrument PI, Psyche
  • Dr. Hal Levison (Southwest Research Institute) – Principal Investigator, Lucy
  • Heather Enos (University of Arizona) – Deputy PI, OSIRIS-REx
  • Dr. Jim Hecht (The Aerospace Corporation) – PI, DAILI

The discussion was broad, touching on topics such as formative experiences, building a team, team culture, personnel management, and interfacing with NASA management and engineers. Watch the conversation here:

Here are my 5 key takeaways from the discussion:

1. There is no one single path to becoming a leader on a NASA mission.

The panelists’ professional journeys varied widely, suggesting that there is no “right” career path to becoming a leader on a NASA mission. Prof. Ehlmann first became involved in Mars missions as a college student; Dr. Levison’s mission Lucy is the first he’s ever been involved with after a career as a theorist. Not all leaders even have scientific backgrounds: Enos holds degrees in accounting and business, which provided valuable transferable skills for her role as a deputy PI. The panelists’ breadth of experiences shows that while an academic or research-dominated career may be common trajectories, they are not the only ones that can provide solid training for a NASA mission leadership role.

2. The PI and Deputy PI set team tone, culture, and direction.

Much of leading a mission is ensuring that the team’s efforts are pointed in the same direction and adjudicating conflict as needed. Leaders must work hard at communication, especially when team members can come from different institutions across academia, industry, and government, each with their own cultures and priorities. Practice is key: Prof. Kletzing appreciating having experience managing four collaborating institutions before managing nine for his current mission. Dr. Levison noted the importance of messaging, as anything he says can have cascading impacts throughout his team in ways both good and bad, regardless of his intention. Maintaining a balance between optimism and realism in the face of obstacles is another fine but important line to walk. Additionally, fostering a positive team culture is a continuous endeavor; Enos said that small gestures such as awards to individuals for outstanding achievements can have a positive impact on morale.

3.  Take any opportunity to gain exposure to the mission development process, including instrument development. 

An interest in instrumentation was a common theme across all six panelists. Many stated that hands-on experience in developing hardware will benefit a future PI who has to regularly communicate with engineers. Similarly, any exposure to the various phases of a NASA mission—proposal-writing, data analysis, operations—will prove invaluable down the road when one is leading a team through those processes. No opportunity is too small, either: small roles such as Prof. Ehlmann’s college role as a mission operations documentarian can be a stepping-stone into a role with larger responsibilities.

4. Building a team should be done with thought and intentionality. 

Dr. Hecht, Dr. Lawrence, and Dr. Levison benefited from strong pre-existing teams at their institutions, while others had to start from scratch. Prof. Ehlmann and Enos had similar approaches to creating a new team. They recommended identifying subject matter experts who are capable of fulfilling the technical and/or scientific tasks required. The next step of “down-selection” is to consider how those individuals would align with the team culture you aspire to cultivate. For example, Enos noted that it may be better to pick a junior team member who is an excellent collaborator over a world expert who has a reputation for being challenging to work with. It is easier for someone to gain technical expertise than to change their personality, and expertise is only one of many factors to consider when building a team.

5. Learn to enjoy the mundane.

Because NASA foots the bill for these missions, PIs and other mission leaders are held accountable for the use and management of those funds. That results in a hefty amount of reporting and interfacing with NASA contracting and project management offices. The excitement of a successful launch or downlinking the mission’s first image is balanced by decidedly less thrilling tasks such as budgeting, report writing, and telecon participation. Each panelist noted that these tasks take up much of their time on a day-to-day basis. While not glamorous, these responsibilities are a necessary part of the process of developing and operating a NASA mission, and the amount of a leader’s time they take should not be underestimated.

Strikingly, none of these takeaways are unique to NASA missions. They are universal lessons that can be applied to any career path that leads to a key leadership role. Furthermore, the panelists’ stories underscore the fact that both personal and professional life experiences can provide growth opportunities that can feed forward into leadership opportunities down the road. Just like there is no one “right” career path, there is no one “right” way to be a leader.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Dr. Michael New, the Deputy Associate Administrator for Research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, for his support with organizing the panel. 

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