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Rocket Booster

Growing up in Satellite Beach, Janet Petro enjoyed a front row seat to the U.S. space program. Her father, who worked for Chrysler, moved the family from Michigan to the Space Coast in the early 1960s to help the automaker build spacecraft consoles that astronauts could operate. He ended up working on the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo and space shuttle programs. Petro recalls her family navigating their way through dunes strewn with sea oats — “there were no condos at the time,” she says — to witness rocket launches from the beach.

One of her most vivid memories of that era is of watching a black-and-white television broadcast of Neil Armstrong taking a first step on the moon in 1969. Petro was awestruck by the achievement and by her father’s role in it. She says the moment had a “profound” impact on her life.

More than five decades later, Petro is leaving her own mark on the space program. During her 14 years as deputy director of Kennedy Space Center from 2007- 21, she played a key role under then-director Robert “Bob” Cabana in transforming KSC from a singleprogram center into a thriving launch center for both government and commercial space exploration following the retirement of the space shuttle program. When Cabana was tapped by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to become associate administrator of NASA in 2021, Petro took the reins of KSC, becoming the center’s director just as NASA was embarking on a new era of space exploration known as Artemis, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface and eventually take them on to Mars. She is the first woman to serve as director.

Those who’ve worked with Petro say she was made for the mission. “We’re especially proud of Janet because she’s kind of homegrown. She’s not only from Florida, but she returned to Florida, played a key role in a number of NASA positions and has become the first female director of the Kennedy Space Center and has provided very good leadership through this transition as we bring Artemis on board and NASA returns to its moon operations,” says Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency. “I think she’s the right person at the right time.”

The right stuff

Petro was a junior at Satellite High School in the fall of 1975 when President Gerald Ford signed into law a bill opening the nation’s military academies to women. Money was tight, says Petro, who was the middle of five children, and the prospect of a free college education prompted her to apply to West Point. “Also, they were big on sports … the whole person,” says Petro, who played softball in high school and at West Point.

In those days, all cadets earned engineering degrees. Petro chose aerospace as her area of concentration. Some of her instructors were helicopter pilots, and their teaching methods sparked her interest in flying. “We would go fly in helicopters for our labs, and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “That’s what really inspired me to be a helicopter pilot.”

After graduating from West Point in 1981, Petro went to flight school and ended up stationed in Germany, where she was a maintenance test pilot for helicopters.

Petro decided to leave the military after five years to pursue an engineering career in the states. Career options for women in the military were still limited at that time, and Petro, who’d already started a family, didn’t relish the idea of moving every couple of years as military officers often do.

Following a brief stint as a mechanical engineer for the Strategic Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala., she returned to the Space Coast to work for McDonnell Douglas, where she rose from mechanical engineer to a payload manager to a program manager for an Air Force contract.

She proved to be a hands-on leader with an appreciation for details. She read every word in the contract she oversaw until she knew it inside out, solicited input from the team about what was working and what wasn’t — and when something needed changing, she took action.

Doing her homework and collaborating gave her confidence in her decisions, as did her observation that actions are rarely irrevocable. “Most things that you do are reversible. That is, you can stop. You can change course. You can tweak things. You can change it,” she said in a recent NASA profile. “So doing something is better than doing nothing, is what I like to say.”

Strategic shifts

Petro stayed in the private sector for several more years, working for a time at a small, family-owned business before joining Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), where she served in a variety of management positions overseeing sensitive government projects.

A turning point came in 2007, when Bill Parsons, a former McDonnell Douglas colleague who had become director of KSC, encouraged Petro to apply to be his deputy director. Petro didn’t hesitate. “I think one of the reasons I was brought in was kind of to look at things in a different way. The shuttle program — that really great, iconic, 30-year program that had really dominated the entire landscape of the Kennedy Space Center — was already in its end game,” Petro says. “We had to start thinking about what’s next.”

What followed was the mammoth task of converting KSC from a federal launch site on the brink of extinction into a 21st century launch hub that could accommodate both the commercial space industry and future government programs. “That was a big, big mountain to climb. The culture was all around the space shuttle program and the assets,” says Petro, who oversaw the center’s master plan steering group, which created the roadmap for KSC’s future.

To build traction right out of the gate, Petro says, KSC leaders decided to streamline the processes of engaging with the private sector.

Up to that point, public-private partnerships were typically formed “point-to-point” between companies with pre-existing contacts they had at KSC. In 2010, KSC created a Center Planning and Development office staffed by “big-sky thinkers,” lawyers and other experts to serve as an entry point, or “front door,” to work with potential industry partners and match them with facilities and resources. The office looked at assets and facilities it would no longer need. “We put out a notice of availability. We put it on FedBizOpps (a platform through which the federal government solicits business proposals) and said, ‘Hey, companies, is anybody interested in using these facilities?’ ” Petro says.

Among the first takers was Boeing. The aerospace giant struck an agreement with Space Florida (a key partner in KSC’s private-sector deal-making) to sublease a former shuttle hangar as a manufacturing and test site for its CST-100 Starliner, the space vehicle Boeing is building to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Other commercial tenants followed.

KSC’s strategic shift also required a different way of thinking internally, Petro says. “When we were the single government program, we could just tell everybody what do to and how to do it,” she says. “Now (the commercial operators) are our customers, so it’s a fundamental mind shift where we want those launch providers, those commercial operators to be successful. We weren’t the big government; we were now a customer service organization.”

To give their customers the autonomy they needed, for example, KSC worked to reduce red tape and regulations. “We used to have volumes and volumes of safety requirements, and those had been collected and evolved over 30 years of the shuttle program,” Petro says. “We took those and said, ‘do we really need all of these requirements? If we already have an OSHA regulation in there as a mandate, do we really need to put another KSC requirement on top of that?’ ”

Petro says the mind shift also necessitated a certain level of trust and understanding that the commercial sector was just as vested in safety as NASA was. “Their business model is not going to be advanced if they have an accident,” she says.

At the end of the day, she says, it constituted a very “purposeful philosophical change” to step back and “allow the commercial companies to be innovative, to operate their own processes without having this onerous KSC oversight on top of them,” she says. “I think that, more than anything else, has been part of our success here.”

Deep impact

Thirteen years into the effort, Kennedy Space Center is bustling. Just west of KSC’s main gate in Exploration Park, OneWeb Satellites is churning out its growing fleet of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private space flight company, operates a 650,000-sq.-ft. rocket factory just across the road. Inside KSC, cranes dot the area where SpaceX is expanding to consolidate its Falcon 9 booster refurbishment operations and support development of its reusable Starship rocket, which will eventually launch from a new launch tower at KSC’s historic Launch Complex 39-A and one day (if all goes as planned) transport astronauts to the surface of the moon.

In fiscal year 2022, KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station hosted 36 launches and were on track to finish the calendar year with nearly four dozen launches. Petro predicts that number will nearly double to about 100 launches annually within a few years. “If you look around today, in terms of where we were at in 2010, I like to say, it’s not my father’s Kennedy Space Center anymore. It’s a very robust industry out here.”

For all the activity, KSC’s crowning achievement over the past year was the successful launch of Artemis 1 in November.

The maiden voyage of the uncrewed test flight is the first step of an ambitious effort by NASA to send the first woman and first person of color to the moon and establish a long-term human presence there, with the aim of eventually heading to Mars. There were unexpected hitches, including technical problems and weather that caused the mission to be pushed back four times between August and November. But on Nov. 16, the rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft lit up the early-morning sky on its first flight around the moon and back. Twenty-five days and nearly 11 hours later, the Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean to end a 1.3-million mile journey. “It’s a great capstone to our 60th diamond anniversary to have a successful splashdown,” a beaming Petro said just minutes after the historic moment.

Petro says the debut of the world’s most powerful rocket was a “major accomplishment” for NASA and the nation as a whole. “This time, we’re going back in a much more sustainable way, and we’re going to get to a place where we have a long-term presence on the surface of the moon” that’s similar to the continuous presence the nation has had on the International Space Station, she says, adding that it’s a crucial step if the nation intends to remain a leader in the space exploration.

Crunch time

Florida’s flourishing space industry faces some challenges, including a talent crunch for technicians, engineers and other skilled workers. “That is one of the No. 1 concerns I hear from all of the contractors that work here — is that now we’re fighting for the same talent,” says Petro. Office space is another commodity in short supply. While KSC encompasses 144,000 acres, the majority of that land (140,000 acres) is within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Most of the companies want to consolidate their operations, and it’s way more efficient and effective to have office space here on site, and there just isn’t a whole lot of office space in this surrounding area — we’ve long run out of office space to give out,” Petro says. “We’re very big into the environment. It’s not like we have 144,000 acres where we could build a huge city. We wouldn’t want to do that.”

There’s also the perennial challenge of federal funding. Historically, NASA’s budget has ebbed and flowed with shifting political winds. While it peaked as a percentage of the entire federal budget during the Apollo program in the mid-1960s — the $5.9 billion the agency spent in 1966 was 4.4% of all government spending — it underwent deep cuts in the 1970s and didn’t break $5 billion again until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

In recent years, there has been mostly strong bipartisan support for NASA and its Artemis campaign. Still, NASA’s annual budget of about $25 billion today amounts to less than half of a percent of the federal budget. From Petro’s vantage point, American taxpayers are getting tremendous bang for their buck. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which has been imaging the cosmos from its low-Earth orbit for 33 years, “rewrote the books” on planetary science and astronomy, she says, and the new James Webb Space Telescope is looking back further in time and providing information about how stars and galaxies are formed. Research conducted aboard the International Space Station, meanwhile, is providing insight into treating an array of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, blindness and osteoporosis. At the same time, KSC is launching weather satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that are providing data on hurricanes, other weather events and how climate change is impacting the planet. “It’s a lot, and I think the investment is small for the amount of data and knowledge that we get back,” says Petro.

“If you’re going to be a leader in the world in space, then those things are the things you have to invest in,” she says. As for human space flight, she says: “There are only a handful of countries that actually have put people in space — only one country that’s put a human on the surface of the moon — and if we are going to remain leaders in space, I think we have to continue to push out further and further.”

Janet Petro, 63

Education: Bachelor’s, engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, 1981; MBA from Boston University’s Metropolitan College, 1988.

Florida Roots: Petro lives in Indian Harbour Beach, not far from where she grew up. “My kids and my grandkids now go to the same elementary, junior high and high school that I went to — Surfside, DeLaura and Satellite High School. I always think that’s interesting to walk into those schools and see that they’re almost the same.”

Honors: In 2018, Petro was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Last year, she received the National Space Club Florida Committee’s Dr. Kurt H. Debus Award for her contributions to the nation’s aerospace efforts. Other awards include the 2019 Partnership of Public Service’s Samuel J. Hetman Service to America Management Excellence Medal; the President’s Distinguished Executive award; and NASA’s astronaut-selected Silver Snoopy Award for outstanding performance contributing to flight safety and mission success.

Joy Riding: A former Army helicopter pilot, Petro sometimes gets to ride on one of the center’s airbus H135 helicopters with the flight ops team and soar above KSC’s launch pads, coastal dunes and beaches. “Just seeing the center from the air is incredible. It’s a super special event. Those are really, really good days for me.”