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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (EA)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
July 29, 2019

Building a Team for the Future

Engineering may be the largest directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, but it feels like a small team. Fostering this tight-knit atmosphere is a skill that the director of the Engineering Directorate, Kevin Window, developed while growing up in a small Louisiana town and refined while serving in the United States Army.

“The way I do things is based on a military upbringing,” Window said. “From a leadership perspective, you have to learn how to take care of your troops. What I have earned a reputation for is taking care of my people—they’re my troops.”

Window is so adamant about fostering relationships with his team that he personally delivers a candy cane to each member of his directorate during the holiday season. This tradition started while managing a small team in the International Space Station Program Office, and has grown to include more than 2,000 deliveries as he leads a diverse engineering team that supports a broad range of spaceflight activities.

“JSC Engineering is all about the development, testing and certification of human spaceflight systems,” Window said. “From hardware to software, we have the skillset to accomplish anything necessary to make our programs successful.”

Because Engineering covers such a broad scope, the directorate is divided into seven divisions, each with independent leadership teams and management structures that focus on different technical areas of spaceflight. The seven divisions are Avionics, Crew and Thermal Systems, Aeroscience and Flight Mechanics, Propulsion and Power, Software, Robotics and Simulation, Structural Engineering and Project Management and Systems Engineering.

By pushing management decisions down to the division level, Window is able to lead the directorate strategically and spend more time finding ways to unite with other Johnson directorates, NASA centers and commercial partners.

This approach has resulted in a more agile organization that accomplishes projects quickly and affordably by reducing requirements in testing and making faster decisions.

A success story resulting from this new business model is the Seeker project, which Engineering and the International Space Station program developed to challenge early career employees to enhance their technical and leadership skills. Comprised of newer engineers led by a senior-level program manager, the Seeker team was tasked with developing a satellite capable of deployment and fly out from a space vehicle to prove capabilities for future free-flying inspection tools.

The team was challenged to build, test and fly the project in a one year timeframe—a daring mission that they accepted and accomplished.

“Doing projects this way is a risk-based decision; you accept that it may not work,” Window said. “This project wasn’t something that we had to critically rely on. Instead, we were building and flying so that we could learn. Even if the project doesn’t always work, you learn from the process itself.”

While innovative projects like Seeker provide early career engineers an opportunity to test their skills with unique challenges, the directorate is also leveraging decades of experience to improve systems developed for the space station to innovate new strategies that will enable NASA to establish a sustainable human presence at the Moon with NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon.

“When we compare station and Gateway, there are similarities that allow us to lean on our expertise,” Window said. “I’m strategically aligning the workforce so that we can take the lessons we have learned from station and apply that to the lunar campaign.”

The directorate is extensively involved in NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to Gateway and around the Moon. Among many elements of work Engineering has done for Orion, the directorate designed, developed, and tested the parachute system, developed software, and played a key role in the Ascent Abort test.  The team is also preparing for lunar surface operations by developing new spacesuits for astronauts to use on the surface and improving the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), which trains astronauts to work in environments with different levels of gravity, such as the Moon and Mars.

In addition to NASA’s own developments, Engineering has been building on relationships developed through the Commercial Crew Program to prepare NASA’s partners for commercial lunar missions.

“We are not only building our own systems, but also designing the story boards to show the unique capabilities of Johnson engineering and how partners can buy down risk by leveraging Johnson’s expertise for lunar development work,” Window said.

While Window knows that he has the team in place to accomplish these daring missions to the Moon and Mars, he also understands that to explore new destinations, he must ensure that his team has access to the newest skills and information.

“I’m only as good as the team I have working for me,” Window said.

An example of his determination to develop his team is the fellowship program within Engineering, which Window established as a means to make sure that his team has the skillset necessary to support all facets of human exploration.

“I’m not going to be here forever,” Window said. “Employees that are earlier in their career today are going to be the ones who take us to Mars, so we have to prepare those folks to develop programs that will enable those next giant leaps.”

Whether those future leaps are on Mars or another planet across the solar system, the foundation of those missions starts right here at Johnson, ensuring there is a skillset of the future … and a candy cane at every desk.

Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center

Kevin Window is the director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center.This story is part nine of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find  previous stories on the directors website.

Kevin Window, Director of Engineering for NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Kevin Window, Director of Engineering for NASA's Johnson Space Center.