A Daring Approach to Safety
As a child, Russ DeLoach would climb a chain-link fence in
his backyard to catch a glimpse of the Saturn V disappearing into space. As the
reverberating “boom” of the rocket rattled the fence, he dreamed of a career in
the space program. Little did he know that he would become the director of
Safety and Mission Assurance (S&MA) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of
the very astronauts he watched launch 50 years prior.
The dream that launched on a fence in Titusville, Florida, landed
DeLoach in an engineering program at the University of Florida—but
it was tragedy that led him to a career in S&MA.
“I remember listening to the Challenger launch on the radio,” DeLoach said. “The moment they announced
that there had been an accident, I thought to myself, ‘This is the end of the
space program.’ As it turns out, for me, it was really just the beginning.”
In the aftermath of tragedy, DeLoach joined the S&MA Directorate at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he worked his way from reliability engineer to director. In February 2019, DeLoach transitioned to Johnson as the director of S&MA as NASA prepares to launch the first commercial crew astronauts to the International Space Station.
Launching humans to space using new spacecraft and rockets
presents unique challenges. DeLoach recognizes that these launches will usher
in a new era of space exploration and sees this forward momentum as an
opportunity to analyze NASA’s safety procedures and exemplify Johnson’s quest
to Dare. Unite. Explore.
“We want our employees to critically analyze risk,” DeLoach
said. “We have brilliant people who work here, and we need to make sure that
they are looking beyond requirements to ensure that we are determining what the
risks truly are and how to keep our crew safe.”
This approach is considered risk-based rather than
compliance-oriented. DeLoach notes that as technology improves and the scope of
missions evolves, there has to be room to innovate. NASA cannot rely strictly
on the requirements that have guided past missions.
“The requirements I promise to always abide by are the laws
of physics—everything else was generated by a person,” DeLoach said. “There are
a lot of different ways to do things well, sometimes even better, if we dare to
This mantra of looking for ways to improve does not apply strictly to S&MA, but to the center and agency as a whole. With a focus on so many different programs and missions, it can be easy to become siloed, preventing the full utilization of skills across the agency.
“Uniting means being cognizant of other programs and their expertise,” DeLoach said. “We need to know where new programs can leverage existing skills to be more efficient and use that knowledge base.”
Collaboration also aims to empower employees to explore new
and innovative ways of accomplishing tasks by exposing them to new situations.
“What we do as an agency is explore the universe, but I think
each one of us needs to explore new ways of doing our jobs,” DeLoach said. “Change
is inevitable, and the best way to succeed is to find out how to make the most
Although he sees change coming in the spaceflight industry, the
one thing DeLoach is sure of is that NASA will continue to be a critical player
in the future of space exploration.
“NASA has a vital role to play in leading the world’s
spaceflight endeavors,” DeLoach said. “I think companies want us to stay in the
role, and I think the world wants us to stay in that role. I look out my window
and see mission control. That’s where the world’s human space program is run
from—that’s pretty amazing. No one else is going to do that. We will need
partners on these daring missions, but the future launches here.”
Noah Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Russ DeLoach is director of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Safety and
Mission Assurance Directorate. This story is part one of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate.
Russ DeLoach, JSC Director of Safety and Mission Assurance.