Robert M. Lightfoot Jr.
To the Moon, Mars and Beyond
Inducted in 2010
More than 20 years ago, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. stood on a test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, looked in the distance at Marshall Space Flight Center headquarters and wondered, “What are ‘they’ doing up there? What are ‘they’ thinking?” Today, the view is from the opposite direction. The University of Alabama Distinguished Engineering Fellow is now part of “they.” As Marshall’s eleventh Center Director, he is responsible for leading a workforce of more than 7,000 with an annual budget of $2.5 billion tasked to execute Marshall’s assigned roles for NASA: operation, development and launch vehicle propulsion systems; development of systems that allow humans to live and work in space; and increase understanding of our universe and planet through scientific discovery.
A recurring theme in Lightfoot’s career is rocket propulsion testing. From space shuttle main engine testing to the Russian RD180 engine to numerous developmental propulsion systems, Lightfoot was responsible for NASA’s propulsion testing at Marshall and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Soon, his dedication and leadership skills took him to Washington, D.C., where, in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy, he led the NASA headquarters space shuttle return to flight efforts, and, in the words of former astronaut Jim Halsell, “went calmly about setting in motion the actions and processes by which NASA could regain its footing and return to safely flying missions.”
In 2005, Lightfoot returned to Marshall as the manager of the Shuttle Propulsion Office and deputy program manager for the Space Shuttle Program, where he oversaw several successful space shuttle flights, ensuring the painful lessons learned from the Columbia tragedy were ingrained into the engineering culture.
In recognition, NASA awarded him the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives, the highest tribute given for federal government employees. He added this to his NASA Outstanding Leadership and Exceptional Achievement medals and Silver Snoopy Award.
Today at Marshall, his most important mission is ensuring safely flying the remaining space shuttle flights to complete assembly of the International Space Station before the shuttle’s retirement next year, while working on a new family of launch vehicles to take NASA to destinations far beyond our own Earth’s orbit. Part of that mission is to recruit a diverse and enthusiastic workforce, because, Lightfoot says, “These are the people who will get us to Mars and beyond.” The inducement he continued is “the mixture of exploration and science—they go together.” It is the range of challenges that appeals to the next generation: not only designing, testing and flying the spacecraft, but also deciding what we will do when we get there.
Yet no exploration of space is possible without a safe and reliable rocket propulsion system. As he has done in the past, there can be no doubt that Lightfoot will continue to fulfill that bond of trust between the engineers who build the space vehicles and the astronauts who fly them to the moon, Mars, and beyond.