Along with the values of hard work and perseverance that my parents instilled in me, the three very big words of “Duty, Honor, Country” have influenced and shaped my character. These are the words I strive to live by. I don’t limit the word “Duty” to the military connotation — to me it represents giving my very best in all that I do, and doing what I said I would do for my team and co-workers. It means not giving up. Being dependable and trustworthy is very important to me. “Honor” is integral to developing and maintaining trust and it goes hand-in-hand with integrity. Without the trust of your team, it is impossible to build a team and to lead it. And “Country” is more to me than just the United States of America; it means being loyal to your family, community, church, teammate
As a part of my series about “Women Leading the Space Industry,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Petro, Deputy Director, John F. Kennedy Space Center.
Janet E. Petro has been the deputy director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) since 2007 and shares responsibility with the center director for managing civil service and contractor workforce, establishing and implementing center policy, and managing and executing KSC missions and agency program responsibilities. To transition the Center into a multiuser spaceport, she led several cross-agency initiatives to streamline government processes, support commercial space operations and to increase government efficiency. Petro began her professional career as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army after graduating in 1981 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, and later earned a Master of Science in Business Administration from Boston University’s Metropolitan College. Before joining NASA, Petro served in various engineering and management positions including Science Applications International Corporation and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace Corporation.
Petro is the recipient of numerous service and performance awards including the Presidential Distinguished and Meritorious Executive Rank Awards and the prestigious astronaut-selected Silver Snoopy for her contributions to flight safety and mission success. She was also part of the KSC senior management team receiving the coveted 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Management Excellence Medal. In 2018, Florida Governor Rick Scott inducted Petro into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Janet! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
In1962, the same year that NASA established the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), my family moved from Michigan to Florida because my dad began working for the space program as part of the Chrysler Corporation. We moved to a quaint beach town along the Space Coast with real small-town community values. I was the middle child with two older brothers and two younger sisters. My mom managed the home and kept everything together while my father worked as an engineer and later as a manager building a career during the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. I was fortunate to have a good, solid family and there were shared goals every member of the family had, whether we knew it or not at the time. My parents set expectations: children were to be home for dinner, we had to go to school and church on Sundays, and we were expected to do our best and bring home good grades. Our mission as children was to attend and do our best at school, including Sunday school, and to participate in school activities whether they were sports or clubs. Every child had to learn to play a musical instrument; I wasn’t sure why back then, but I ended up playing the clarinet all through junior and high school in concert and marching bands. The expectations were to behave, stay out of trouble and graduate from high school. My parents’ mission was to provide a stable home, instill core values and be our support system. I can’t tell you how many baseball, football or softball games my mom and dad attended, nor can I imagine how many miles they put on their cars to taxi all five of us children to our events.
But I do remember the excitement of my siblings and me watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rockets lift off from the coast — at that time the beach was very pristine with no trash and plenty of dunes, and we had to make own our path down to the beach through the palmettos. In July 1969, we stared at our TV, along with most of America, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The realization that my father was a part of that national program had a significant and profound impact on my life.
When I was in high school, the military academies began to allow women into their classes, marking a significant change in the career fields now available to women. As a young woman and athlete possessing the ignorance and presumed immortality of youth, and despite any rational fear, I applied and was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point where, at the ripe age of 17, I began my leadership training at the finest educational institution in this country. I was in the second class of women accepted at West Point and graduated in 1981 with 62 other women and 917 classmates. Even today, I remind myself about how much has really changed when I realize that as a freshman in college I used a slide rule to perform my math calculations. What a changed environment we live in today and what a wealth of resources we have at hand with personal computers and calculators in nearly every home.
Officially, I began my career in the United States Army by attending basic course at Ft. Eustis in Virginia and then helicopter training at Ft. Rucker in Alabama. I flew helicopters during my time in the military, spending most of my service over in Germany. This was the Cold War era; there was an East and West Europe divided by a wall, and the Soviet Union basically controlled the entire Eastern Bloc.
On a personal note, I realized after five years in the Army that what I really wanted to do was be an engineer, so I spent the first part of my post-military career in various engineering and management positions for several commercial companies. I have had a very broad background and experience working both in large and small businesses, with customers including the Department of Defense (Air Force, Navy, Strategic Defense Command and NASA), so I have a very diverse perspective. Each one of the environments I worked in, whether the defense industry or large and small commercial companies, provided valuable lessons, and I learned to be adaptable and to welcome — not fear — change.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I am an avid reader or, as my children would say, “listener” because I mostly listen to audio books now as I find being on a computer all day really tires out my eyes. So, whenever I’m walking my dogs, tackling projects around the house or working out, I am always listening to a book. I mix it up by listening to mysteries, thrillers, historical novels and leadership/self-help books. It is hard for me to pick a favorite, but if pressed, a few that come to mind are Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time and Small, Great Things, Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini and Lords of Discipline, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing series, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, all of Jeffrey Archer’s series and Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite such quotes comes from West Point’s motto. In his 1962 farewell speech to West Point, General MacArthur said,
“Duty, Honor, Country” — those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn…”
– Douglas MacArthur
Along with the values of hard work and perseverance that my parents instilled in me, the three very big words of “Duty, Honor, Country” have influenced and shaped my character. These are the words I strive to live by. I don’t limit the word “Duty” to the military connotation — to me it represents giving my very best in all that I do, and doing what I said I would do for my team and co-workers. It means not giving up. Being dependable and trustworthy is very important to me. “Honor” is integral to developing and maintaining trust and it goes hand-in-hand with integrity. Without the trust of your team, it is impossible to build a team and to lead it. And “Country” is more to me than just the United States of America; it means being loyal to your family, community, church, teammates, etc. Having a set of core values that guide decisions even with imperfect data will ensure and maintain the confidence of the team.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
Growing up on the Space Coast of Florida was the biggest inspiration for pursuing a career in the space industry. I was surrounded by launches and events in the early days of the space program and many of my friends’ parents worked at the space center. I recall spring break during my senior year at West Point in 1981. I had come home for spring vacation and my father took me out to Kennedy Space Center to watch the first space shuttle roll out from the Vertical Assembly Building on its way to the launch pad. It was an incredible sight to see that huge vehicle with its boosters, core stage and vehicle atop the massive crawler rolling out at less than 1 mile per hour on its historic journey. There was a tremendous crowd to witness it, among them John Young and Robert Crippen, who would be the test pilots on this maiden voyage. That made an incredible impression on me; the excitement and historic nature of that event was indelible in my memory.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
I have had so many interesting stories since I began my career, and especially here at NASA. I got to meet many interesting people including President Obama and watching President Trump address a crowd after the launch of crew on SpaceX Demonstration Mission 2. The most recent accomplishment of bringing our astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken successfully home from that mission to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle was quite memorable and exciting. I had the privilege of meeting them prior to the launch and watching their historic walkout from the Operations and Checkout Building in their SpaceX suits. They boarded their Tesla, said goodbye to their families and then drove out to the historic LC-39A for the first launch of astronauts on a commercial vehicle. Two months later, I was riveted to the TV watching the entire undocking and splashdown in the Gulf. There have been so many, many historic moments like these and I have been honored to be a part of them all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest stories I remember from my early career was an interview after having left the Army. Although living in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time, I had been invited down to Cape Canaveral to interview with McDonnell Douglas for a mechanical engineer position processing spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force. I flew down and showed up at the Human Resources office at KSC as instructed. They gave me a map and told me to drive over to the Cape Canaveral side for the interview with the manager of the mechanical department. I successfully made my way over to the trailer they had indicated on the map and made my way inside, where I was warmly greeted by a woman seated at a desk by the entry who asked me to take a seat by her desk. She began to ask me a bunch of questions about my typing skills and ability to answer phones, and described the secretary duties she currently performed. I sat there, rather conflicted about how to answer the questions without offending anyone and wondered what I should do in this situation. Instinct told me I did not want to anger this woman or diminish her role or the work she was describing, but I knew I needed to tactfully interject my purpose for being there. I finally got up my courage and told her I was here to interview for the engineering position, not the administrative one. She was so gracious and apologized profusely for her mistake, explaining that she was expecting a temporary secretary to train since she was going on vacation. She indicated she would get the manager with whom I would be interviewing, and, as it turned out, I got the job! She and I became very good friends and allies during my career with McDonnell Douglas. The lesson I learned from this was to treat everyone with respect because you never know whether you are meeting someone for just a moment or for a lifetime. You don’t know their story or background, or where their mind is so try not to judge until you find out where a person is coming from or what they are going through.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am standing on the shoulders of many, many giants who have helped me along the way. My father really instilled in me the values of hard work and determination, and always stressed that not everything worth doing would be easy. When I was very young, one of my favorite softball coaches, Hubb Hedgecock, encouraged early leadership skills that were beneficial to me as team captain; these lessons taught me the power of inspiring the rest of the team even in the face of a certain loss. One of my earliest bosses at McDonnell Douglas encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and accept a position of increased responsibility as a program manager despite me being very comfortable as just a mechanical engineer. Another boss in business development, Pete Kremer, taught me the value of thinking strategically and not dwelling on the trials of the moment, and that trust was one of the most significant factors in winning contracts. If the customer did not trust the contractor or the management team it was proposing, it was hard to win. As a colleague during my early career at McDonnell Douglas, Bill Parsons stayed in touch with me throughout the years even when he left to go to work for NASA while I was still in private industry. He encouraged me to apply at Kennedy Space Center for the deputy director’s job at a time when the space shuttle program was ending, and a new and different vision for the future of the Center was needed. He helped me understand the culture at NASA and the value of building trusting relationships and continually questioning the status quo. And, of course, our current Center director, Bob Cabana, has been a steady supporter over the years I’ve been at KSC.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
It seems like I am always working on something new and KSC is always at the forefront of the space community. We have been very successful at transforming from a solely government-focused Center to the robust multiuser spaceport we are today in less than seven years. And that wasn’t easy to do as many people working on the Center simply could not envision a time when we would be supporting commercial space companies or even that commercial space companies could succeed at all. So that effort still continues and the Center will continue to transform for the future. The outstanding partnerships we have built with commercial companies, other federal agencies and economic development organizations like the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, have really contributed to the transformation.
This year so far, we have witnessed the historic launch of American astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, and, in August 2020, the splashdown of the capsule to bring them back. We launched the historic Mars2020 mission with the most advanced robotic rover ever built to explore Mars and eventually leave a cache of samples for future retrieval. We have 39 launches scheduled this year on the spaceport — and KSC supports every one of those. This is an incredible cadence of launches from America not seen in a very long time. And we are building the ground systems and infrastructure to launch Artemis I next year, the first in a series of launches that will lead to landing the first woman and next man on the surface of the moon in a sustainable way, and lead to the human exploration of Mars. This work will benefit all humans and furthers the human condition. So, focusing on the agency’s significant programs and making them successful in the next few years will be my top priority.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
Seeing the partnerships that have developed between NASA and the commercial industry and the success of these partnerships to achieve our national goals is, for me, the most exciting aspect. It has only been in the last 10 years that we have seen these commercial partnerships really come to fruition. Thirty-six long years ago, in 1984, the Commercial Space Launch Act was passed, but it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that money was actually authorized. NASA’s successful Launch Services Program was consolidated at the Kennedy Space Center in 1998 when the purchase of commercial launch services for NASA’s science payloads was solidified. Commercial cargo contracts to transport supplies and resources to the International Space Station was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation in 2008, and then commercial crew contracts followed in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing. NASA’s Artemis Program, which includes the return of astronauts to the moon and to Mars, depends on both commercial and international partnerships to succeed. Seeing and building on the successes of our space partners is truly energizing for our nation’s goals.
Secondly, these commercial companies bring their own innovations and advanced technologies and this infusion of ideas continues to push the entire industry forward. For example, I can vividly remember standing on the roof of our old headquarters building on KSC and watching the two boosters return from SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch from Launch Complex 39A. We could see the ballet of both boosters land upright on their target across the river on Landing Complex 1. It was an incredible feat — who would have imagined that we would not only be reusing booster segments, but that they would have such sophisticated guidance and navigation systems that they could land upright on a pinpoint target, whether on land or on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Another example of the advances fostered by these commercial companies is the entire Blue Origin complex that has been built at KSC’s Exploration Park outside the gates of the Center. This 750,000-square-foot complex will be where Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket is built for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36. The amazing new technologies from these commercial companies, and support from various economic development entities like the Florida High Tech Corridor Council and others, have not only helped elevate the Space Coast’s economy and position among high tech communities, they will continue to keep America at the forefront of space exploration and cement our country’s leadership in space.
And finally, with all of the commercial investments and innovations, the prospect of living and working in space will be available to more people. To-date, only about 560 people have been to space. With continued investments, innovations and creativity there could be a day when countless more people will have access. The possibilities for the average person to work in and explore space, perhaps even live in space, make for a very appealing and exciting future.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
NASA’s past is littered with abrupt changes in direction and is full of unfinished initiatives. Having personally lived through the cancellation of the Constellation Program, and the subsequent disorder and fear it created in the workforce and industry until a new vision was brought to life and settled upon, I don’t want to see this repeated. Most of NASA’s spaceflight programs are strategic and require investments over the long term. I’d really like to see continued long-term commitment to the current vision of returning to the moon sustainably and then to Mars for human exploration. Since NASA receives its direction from the White House and is appropriated from Congress, we need to continue to educate, maintain strong relationships and receive bipartisan support for our programs. Having both commercial advocates and investors, as well as international partnerships is the key to continuing our programs and reaching our goals.
With the pandemic and its impacts on the global economy, I am a little worried about the potential for investments in space to decline. It takes both government and commercial investments to continue the progress of space exploration. With continued emphasis on and the success of exploration programs like Mars 2020 and SpaceX’s commercial crew return from the International Space Station, I believe we can keep the excitement of space alive and well in the hearts and minds of the public.
And we must never let our guard down when it comes to safety. Space is hard and challenging all of the time. The environment is extremely harsh and the tolerance for any failure extremely small. Despite the phenomenal efforts made to ensure safety throughout all aspects of design, test, flight and return, there could be another accident like Columbia or Challenger. While we continue to learn a lot from those accidents, having one occur will be devastating. We need to remain ever vigilant and curious about all vehicles — all systems, subsystems and technologies — and any anomalies, and we must ferret out and resolve root causes. We will continuously improve what we do. NASA has a robust culture around safety; it is shared with and by our customers and partners, and we need to continue this going forward.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
While there has been some improvement in increasing the number of women in STEM, I don’t think we can be completely satisfied until there is real parity among all minorities in STEM fields. I think that we need to continue to encourage women and all minorities to explore and think about STEM from kindergarten through graduation. There have been a lot of efforts to expose women to STEM fields such as coding camps for girls, in- and out-of-school programs, national clubs like Girl Scouts of the USA, providing strong mentors for girls, and professional women-in-STEM organizations to name a few, and these need to continue. I’d like to see some financial incentives for women and minorities to obtain degrees in STEM fields. I think it would be cool to go beyond the grants and scholarships that are offered — mostly as needs-based or merit-based — and move to financial incentives for all levels. This could be done a number of different ways — corporate sponsorships, reduced tuition at schools for STEM, tax credits, etc. By targeting all income levels and merit levels, we could really move the needle on women and minorities seeking STEM degrees. They would have an incentive to get a more valuable degree.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think that women often are not initially taken as serious as their male counterparts. This isn’t really limited to the space industry; in fact, women will typically have to “prove” themselves to be competent, while their male counterparts are often automatically assumed to be credible. I remember one incident that happened not too long ago in a room full of senior military officials being briefed by senior aerospace CEOs, all of whom were male. The meeting lasted all day, and when each official got up to brief, they started right in on their respective pitches. When a woman from another federal agency began her briefing later in the day, the senior DoD official interrupted her to ask that she first describe her education and background, and how long she had been in her current position. Clearly, this was a not-so-subtle request for her to prove her credibility to be in that room and briefing him. He did not ask a single one of the other males all day that same question.
Another related story I witnessed recently happened when a woman was selected to a very senior position within the agency. One of the top senior leaders was speaking to the rest of agency leadership in a forum about inclusion, openly stating that the newly promoted woman was not what a “program manager” would typically look or act like, i.e., gruff voice, big presence. His honesty in openly admitting his bias was refreshing in one sense, but in another made me realize that the view of women may not have come as far as I had thought.
Obviously, this unconscious bias will continue as everyone has their own biases. If we can learn to address these biases directly when they happen, more people will become aware and recognize their individual biases, and only then can their behavior change. It does take courage to talk to others about these situations, but I think that only by raising awareness can we combat it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
I’d say that one myth is that women aren’t serious about their careers or fully competent in their career field. Again, I think that many times men are automatically granted competence while women and other minorities often have to establish their competency and prove their value.
The other myth I’d speak to is that in order to be in a STEM field you have to be a genius or absolutely love math. I would encourage all women and minorities to seek out a STEM degree in a field that interests them (and there are many related fields in sciences, math, technology and engineering), and work to graduate in that field, one course at a time. It seems like I often hear young women say, “I’m no good at math” and then give up on any sort of technical degree. You don’t need to be at the top of your class in math or have the highest scores on SAT or ACT tests to get a science or technology degree. And, what you learn in any of the STEM fields can result in good paying jobs and can lead to a solid, satisfying career.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Build trust first. This trust has to be with your boss, with your team, with your colleagues. Everything becomes so much easier after you have trust as a basis in your relationships. It can be something little like reaching out to a colleague you don’t know well and asking for advice or something more extensive like always doing what you say you are going to do — being dependable. Once you have relationships established, and there exists a level of trust, you are better able to lead.
- Hold people accountable. Failing to have a difficult conversation with a non-performer will not make the situation better or go away. This is not to mean that you should publicly shame or criticize someone, but privately having a conversation to describe why or how your expectations are not being met can be the best leadership action you can take. I remember early in my career I saw a sign that read “It’s not the ones you fire that are the problem, it’s the ones you don’t.” That sign was harsh, but I remember it because it is so true in the sense that the problems don’t just go away on their own. If someone is not performing or is behaving destructively, it really is best to address it right away and to do it directly with the person. The time to have this conversation is not during the annual performance review — don’t surprise someone by waiting until then to tell them they haven’t been meeting your expectations all year long. Delaying or avoiding the hard conversations is not like wine, they don’t get better with time.
- Getting results matters. I’ve worked with a number of people in my career who are all talk. I’ve found that even if you are the nicest person or most popular or give the best speeches, if you cannot deliver on your commitments or get results, you are not going to be selected for the most exciting and career-advancing jobs. If assigned a significant project, you need to focus on building a team that can deliver results. No matter what, in the end, your management will remember whether your project was successful, so make sure you pay attention to the important things. I remember as a plebe at West Point we were all taught the only four responses you could give to any question an upperclassman asked were: “Yes, Sir/Ma’am,” “No, Sir/Ma’am,” “No excuse, Sir/Ma’am” and “Sir/Ma’am, I do not understand.” What those responses drilled into me was that people are not so interested in excuses or reasons why something didn’t get done, regardless of whether the “excuse” was valid or not. Just get the results.
- Build a great team. I like to surround myself with the very best and most capable people; ones who are smarter and better than I am. Some insecure leaders are afraid to have people around them who might challenge or outshine them. I’m convinced that building a solid and diverse team where everyone knows the strengths of its members and capitalizes on these strengths results in the highest performing teams. I’ve been privileged to lead many teams and the highest performing were always the ones where the leadership qualities of every member were tapped to achieve the team goals.
- Align your goals. One of the most important leadership lessons I learned was to take time to define and align goals. It is very important that everyone is on the same page and rowing in the same direction, or time and effort will be wasted, and the team’s enthusiasm will fade. Sometimes a goal is obvious — meet a schedule milestone, for example — but the “how” to get there and the “who” is doing what is not clear. There can be assumptions made about how a team needs to proceed on a task or project (that’s the way we did it last time) when the goal might be to innovate a new process to reduce cost, schedule or other attribute. Although it might seem needlessly time-consuming, I’ve found again and again that taking the time up front to get to know the team, establish goals and objectives, and ensure alignment is a critical path to success.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I already mentioned the one idea I had about sponsoring more women and minorities in STEM fields by creating financial incentives for them to pursue these degrees. If corporations, universities, nonprofits or even the federal or state governments could somehow invest today in the STEM education of young women and minorities, I think we could change the world. Scholarships and grants today are targeted at needs-based or merit-based students and that’s a relatively small number of eligible people. I’d like to find a way to target STEM-based degrees for all young women and minorities. Imagine young women who aren’t sure what degree they want to pursue when they enter into college, but the STEM degrees are maybe half the cost of other degrees; I think that might incentivize many to consider and choose STEM fields, instead of only a select few. They can pursue a career in these fields and bring their innovative and diverse ideas.
The other movement that would bring the most good to the most people today would be to somehow re-educate everyone on the need to have respect for each other, to have tolerance for differing perspectives. I say re-educate because there is that famous line, “All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten,” where rules like “play fair” and “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody” and “don’t take things that aren’t yours” form the foundation for having respect for others. We have a saying here in our workplace: “Be kind and remind” when asking someone to do something they may have forgotten or not be aware of (putting on a mask during the current pandemic, for example), and responding with “Show gratitude, not attitude.” A little more of this in today’s world might make it a better place.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would dearly love to have a private chat with my father. He worked in the space industry in the very early days of the test programs of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. He died when I was just beginning my career, so I feel like I never got to tap into his knowledge and experience in the professional world in the way I would love to now. I would love to see through his eyes what the early days of the space program was really like and learn of the experiences he had firsthand. I’d love to hear all of his stories.