Is Baldrige a Part of NASA Rocket Launches?

Using the language and implementing the core values of the Baldrige Criteria is a way of doing business for Robert Ellison from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, FL.  As Chief of the Technical Management Division, Safety & Mission Assurance Directorate, he has been using terms like integration, partnerships, stakeholders, and strategic planning both as a Baldrige Examiner and a NASA civil servant.

NASA Kennedy Space Center with VAB and mobile launcher

NASA Kennedy Space Center with Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and mobile launcher in view

Rob has been involved with quality and safety in multiple capacities at KSC.  He was a Baldrige Examiner for three years (1999-2001), challenged by then-Center Director Roy Bridges to go above and beyond ISO 9000 by becoming a Baldrige Examiner.  Three and one half years ago Rob became a Division Chief of the Integration Division, Safety & Mission Assurance Directorate (S & MA) after serving as the KSC Quality Discipline lead for four years. Rob reports to Russell Romanella (S & MA Director) who reports to Robert Cabana, KSC Director. According to Russell, Rob has significantly helped influence the leadership and strategic structure that is in place today.

It turns out that both Baldrige and NASA / KSC have experienced several major changes since FY 2011.  First, there was a huge drop in funding level.  Second, a decrease in workforce and staffing levels.  Third, there is an ongoing need for shifts in business strategic planning.  Fourth, tasks that were government-only have changed to partial, if not complete, cost recovery. Fifth, use of the Baldrige Criteria concepts to drive success despite the first four.

Leadership: Vision, Values and Mission
While I was at the 2013 CQSDI Conference, S & MA Director Russell Romanella talked about the changes in NASA; “A new way of doing business for a new generation of explorers”. This “new way of doing business” sounded familiar to me with the recent changes in Baldrige, so I thought I would explore this topic more thoroughly by interviewing Rob who is another annual CQSDI attendee.

Rob sees this “new way of doing business” at his level as a partnering with commercial companies to enable commercial space exploration and help maintain Center infrastructure. NASA leadership wants to get out of the business of low-Earth orbit and explore the farther reaches of solar system via Rover-type vehicles and satellites around Mars and Pluto and eventually human exploration. The President has challenged NASA to visit an asteroid past Mars or capture a small asteroid and put it in a cislunar (space between the earth and the moon) orbit and send a crew to visit it within the next 10 years and KSC will be a key part of these efforts.

Mars Science Lab launch with Curiosity Rover 11/26/2011

Mars Science Lab launch with Curiosity Rover ; November 26, 2011

Strategic Planning: Strategy Considerations
Kennedy Space Center is a part of the “Similar—Smaller Agency” NASA strategy.   What are the program changes that are driving strategic planning and action plan deployment?
Perhaps the most dramatic change to a program for KSC was ending of the Shuttle missions.  As Rob explains, now the challenge is to find new purposes for entities and take advantage of one of their organizational environment assets to enable commercial space enterprises.  For example, the Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC is no longer needed by KSC but offers unique features such as an extra-wide runway and extra length, and its location at Cape Canaveral does not interfere with major air traffic.  So through a Request For Proposal (RFP), KSC selected Space Florida in a partnership agreement to maintain and operate the Shuttle Landing Facility.  This agreement will continue to expand Kennedy’s viability as a multi-user spaceport and strengthen the economic opportunities for Florida and the nation.

Another challenge is the major funding uncertainty.  NASA’s budget is decided by Congress every fiscal year.  How do you plan and manage major projects in that dynamic environment?  Rob answers that this is a part of the space business and projects must have a base level of support or the program will be cancelled.  KSC always has to build in contingencies and alternatives based on the different levels of funding that may occur, and any project is subject to cancellation.  He stated as an example that the James Webb Space Telescope was almost cancelled a year ago, but the Maryland Congressional delegation interceded because it is being built at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD and Congress desires to continue astronomical science after the Hubble Telescope.

Is there a challenge of other sites that are in the launch business?  Do you plan to compete for launches (such as Wallops, Vandenberg, Kazakhstan)? It goes back to knowing your mission. Rob reports that we are developing our own capability to launch our US crews to the International Space Station vs. using and paying for Russian launch vehicles but we don’t see it as a competition. Science and research are NASA’s mission not launches of commercial satellites, but KSC does help US commercial companies compete in the world market.

Workforce Environment
The ending of the Shuttle Program has had major impacts not only at Kennedy Space Center but also in the Brevard County, Florida area. Unemployment has approached 18%; restaurants and schools have closed and many people have left to pursue job opportunities.  However, he said that NASA “had done a phenomenal job to handle it “.  With a 3-year notice it was going to happen the fear was that too many people would begin to leave, and there would be insufficient support for the final Shuttle missions.  The problem was recognized by Congress and financial incentives were provided so that aerospace workers would stay with the United Space Alliance (contractor for Shuttle Support).  In Rob’s words, NASA KSC “not only were able to retain critical skills to the end of the Program but we also really helped and promoted their workforce” by bringing in companies and sponsoring job fairs for “this amazing workforce.”

Workers in front of Shuttle Endeavor before being placed on 747 to Los Angeles

Workers in front of Shuttle Endeavor before being placed on 747 to Los Angeles; September 14, 2012

Safety for KSC personnel is integrated into design considerations from the beginning.  It has to be, as Rob reports.  With 10 NASA centers; (Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Center, Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, Langley Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Stennis Space Center), payloads can come from many sources such as deep space probes from Goddard Space Flight Center and JPL.  By partnering with other NASA centers, KSC can learn the specifications (fuel type, for example) and can therefore ensure that any vehicle being sent to launch from their facility is safe for KSC employees to handle and prepare.

GOES-P for NOAA launching on a Delta IV from KSC 03/04/2010

GOES-P for NOAA launching on a Delta IV from KSC; March 4, 2010

Customer-Focused Results: Customer Engagement
Rob sees that NASA’s customers are the American taxpayer and Congress.  Rob reports that outreach and Congressional reporting are the function of NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC; nevertheless KSC can claim its share of customer engagement with the recent retirement of the shuttles and each one traveling to its permanent home causing major sensations in the public and the media.  Photos of the shuttles passing by major landmarks (the Capitol, the Statue of Liberty) and videos of Endeavour’s travel through Los Angeles generated half a million views on YouTube alone.

Thanks to Robert Ellison for his service as a Baldrige Examiner and for taking the time to answer questions for this interview.

NASA Kennedy Space Center’s focus on the future, agility, and visionary leadership take advantage of its unique capabilities to continue its mission for many generations to come.

Children waving flags as Shuttle Atlantis passes by on trip to KSC exhibit 11/02/2012

Children waving flags as Shuttle Atlantis passes by on trip to KSC exhibit; November 2, 2012

Perhaps you are not in the rocket launch business, but have you used your Baldrige experience to manage major change in your organization?


About Mary Eastman

NIST Baldrige
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