An interview with Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, Center Director, Goddard Space Flight Center

I speak with Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, Center Director, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

Today we’ll be airing two separate interviews I did with two directors of two of the NASA’s largest space centers. Did I mention I did two of them? That’s right, first up is Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, Director of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland. Having only assumed the role back in back April of this year, I got the chance to speak with her right around the end of her first 90 days, to discuss how she’s getting along and her plans for the center.

Interview Transcript: 

Makenzie Lystrup So far there have been a lot of things coming at me that kind of need direct attention. And so what do you do in a job like this? You just kind of dive in and start deciding where you’re needed, and where you need to pay attention, and the things that you hear that you say, Ok, I know that’s going to be an issue, but I’m going to put that off for now because it’s not right in front of my face. But also really have been spending a lot of time thinking about the strategy and the vision for the center, thinking about what we’re calling Goddard 2040, and really listening to the workforce. Having a lot of forums to listen to the workforce in various levels, and then also hear from our external stakeholders as well. Again, thinking really about what does the future of Goddard look like?

Eric White And we can get into some of those things that you mentioned. But yeah, on that vision and strategic direction that you were discussing, can you tell me some of the major projects that are in the front of your head right now? You were just on a call it pertain to anything that is ongoing here at Goddard that you can talk about?

Makenzie Lystrup Yes. So my goal of being here is to certainly ensure that we are executing on all of the amazing NASA’s mission that we have here at Goddard right now. But I am very much focused on the future and where we’re going. And taking into account where all of our partners are going, where the whole sector is going globally, and also the needs of NASA and the needs of the government really taking that into account. Thinking a lot about Goddard’s future in Earth science, and how we can be even more impactful in the science that NASA is producing in Earth system science, and thinking about how we bring in more external partners into that endeavor. And that goes to one of my initiatives, which is really kind of opening up Goddard more. We’ve been relatively insular, and I’m very interested in broadening our partnerships and deepening our partnerships. So when I think about the Earth science endeavor, and how we want to kind of be the center of mass for that here at NASA, here at Goddard, really thinking about, hey, there are people in the private sector, whether they’re building hardware, whether they’re launching missions and instruments or whether they need the information to make good decisions, a lot of people out there working on this area. And I want it to be easier to work with Goddard and to collaborate with Goddard. So that’s one major thrust of looking at the future. Another is Habitable Worlds Observatory. So this is the next sort of giant segmented telescope in space after James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. And that’s a long term process of a telescope that is in an observatory that’s designed to be able to find evidence of life on planets outside of our solar system. So it continues on with Goddard’s really strong history in astrophysics, and also takes a lot of the technology we’re developing right now to really make sure that we are answering some of the most exciting questions in astronomy and astrophysics in the future.

Eric White And before going on to the next part, I just want to try to explore. You said opening up Goddard, working with more private sector entities and things of that nature. How do you do that? And is it hard to do? What did you see coming in here that maybe wasn’t being done that you think can move you towards that direction?

Makenzie Lystrup Well, I think where it has been done is at Wallops Flight Facility. So Wallops is part of Goddard. It’s NASA’s only range that it actually owns. And Wallops has really gone under a transformation in the last few years. They’ve been a really strong facility, in terms of supporting government launches, both on the sort of small and medium rocket scale. And they’ve been the heart of our suborbital and balloon programs, which are really important for scientific discoveries and scientific measurements. But in the last few years, they have been working with Virginia Spaceport to really enhance the commercial nature of what they do. So they’ve brought in rocket labs. And Rocket Labs has really formed this partnership with Wallops, where they’re using wallops as one of their fundamental range sites and launch sites. And this follows on with our great relationship with Northrop Grumman. So Northrop Grumman, for their commercial cargo resupply program, they’ve been launching from Wallops for a number of years. And so we had this great commercial customer, and now we’re bringing on even more with Rocket Lab and looking at how to expand that. So if we look here at the Greenbelt campus, where we do our science missions, where we look at our operational missions in land imaging and in weather and climate, really looking at what is industry? And what is the private sector doing? And what is Goddard uniquely positioned to do, What is NASA’s uniquely position to do? And lets really focus on those areas, and then bring in partnerships where others have strengths and have capacity. So I want Goddard to be working on the most important science questions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. I want us to be at the forefront of developing the technology for those science missions, future science missions. But we have a very mature industrial base, and we have a growing private sector base in space. And we need to use really everybody’s expertise. And that’s going to allow us to do more in the future. We all have limited resources, and the needs on the science front are great. And so I want to make sure that we are really leveraging everything going on in the private sector, in the university sphere, in the nonprofit sphere, and figure out how we really augment that.

Eric White It’s calling all hands on deck, so to speak. So let’s talk about the facility itself. You want Goddard to be the front and center of a lot of the science projects that NASA has ongoing. What makes Goddard unique in that it’s able to fill that role? I know you all have some plans on expansion. There’s a lot of land out here on this campus. So what aspects are you trying to grow the campus itself, maybe or utilize special parts of it to fulfill that goal that you have?

Makenzie Lystrup Yes. Part of what makes Goddard really special is our ability to be able to implement complex science missions end to end. We have expertise, everything from the early stage ideation, all the way through to launching missions and producing data products and sharing that out with the science community. And that means that we have facilities that support all of those aspects of the process. So it’s important for us to maintain that core capability. And some of our facilities are aging, and some of our facilities are less relevant than they have been. So as we look at our master plan moving forward for the facilities and the infrastructure, we’re looking at, not necessarily how do we grow the campus, but how do we evolve the campus to meet the current science needs. So I see that as some modernization, and that’s a challenge across the government for infrastructure and facilities dollars. So there you know, there are real challenges there. But also how do we again leverage our relationships with the private sector to be able to use some of their capacity as well? I would love for Goddard to be a more walkable campus because it is a large campus with a lot of buildings, but it’s beautiful. We’ve got trees, we’ve got grasses, we’ve got Meadowlands. It’s actually a really beautiful campus. So finding out more ways that we can help people move around the campus more easily. So, for example, our master plan, one of the things that we’ve moved out recently is we moved our main gate, so our main security gate from one location to another, this was part of the master plan. But part of that effort is making our access to the campus easier for pedestrians and easy for cyclists. That’s a really big component of the commuters who come here. So we’re trying to make this a more accessible campus.

Eric White And the taxicab service, of course, I saw the signs for. So once again, you’re reiterating on private sector partnerships to build and grow the campus itself, and do more on the facility. I am just curious of someone from your perspective, how that relationship is going. Obviously, it is going, but I always ask folks, could more be done? And nobody really has any complaints or anything like that. But it always feels as if there’s just so much room for growth that maybe things could move faster. Just want to get your thoughts on that.

Makenzie Lystrup Yeah. Coming from, having been in the private sector working in the aerospace industry, I have a pretty good handle on what’s out there in industry and in the private sector, including on some of the data analytics side and people who are really looking at how to use Earth system information either to sell as a product or to use for important decision making. So I think that, yes, there is a lot out there. I think that Goddard does a really good job of partnering. Every mission we do has partners, whether that’s a university partner, an international partner or a private sector entity, say an industrial partner that’s building a spacecraft for us. So we’re very good at creating those, what I call bagless environments, where people are working side by side together from a number of different organizations, but all working toward the same effort. So I think that we’re good at that. I think where we can expand is thinking more creatively about,  how again, how do we use our facilities? How can the private sector help us to use our facilities to greater impact? How might we use their facilities? And then also, where are there places that really don’t know much about NASA, and don’t know much about Goddard, but can benefit from the science that we produce? So sharing that more out with the Earth Information Center that was newly opened at NASA’s headquarters. Reaching more people, reaching more sectors of the economy so that people can use that information for human health and life and prosperity. That I think is a real growth area, and it’s an area that the private sector has kind of tentacles into. But no one’s really coordinating some of that yet. And I think there’s a lot to grow there.

Eric White Do you think the private sector ready or do they have the capabilities to fulfill all the needs that, not just your center has, but NASA as a whole, do you think that they’re in a good spot to innovate, to get to that point where NASA’s can always turn to somebody in the private sector if they have a problem that they need solved?

Makenzie Lystrup What we need is a private sector that is very strong in what they do. And so that NASA can focus on the things that only NASA can do, should do, would do. And so when we look at the capabilities that are out there in industry, yeah, I think they’re very robust. Everything from instrumentation to spacecraft builds to ground systems, launch vehicles.There’s a lot of capacity out there and a lot of capability. So I do think that we have a very strong sector, but we don’t expect them to do everything themselves. Goddard, NASA we are going to maintain being a science exploration technology and engineering organization. And so it’s really to me about what are they doing out there that we can use, so that we can use our resources for things that are really critical priorities for the agency.

Eric White Something that often gets overlooked of the private sector’s role in mass operations is just the formation of talent. STEM talent is the golden nugget that everybody is searching for. Can you just talk a little bit about that, about how NASA is utilizing the growth of the STEM talent that comes from maybe like yourself, up and comer in the private sector and then finds herself working at NASA?

Makenzie Lystrup Yes, the workforce issue is on everyone’s mind, because everyone seems to need more workforce. The contractors that we have on site here at NASA provide really a critical function for us, because they do bring in a lot of new talent and they can kind of ebb and flow a little bit as the the work needs change. But they’re also able to bring on folks with maybe key skills that we don’t have civil servants yet, being able to work. So, yes, they are a really important piece. I think that we could do more kind of interaction between Goddard and other organizations to understand, Hey, where might we exchange people just for the experience of understanding what’s done in another type of organization back to ours? And we’re also looking at how we grow our workforce in the communities in which we operate. So Greenbelt here in Prince George’s County, we’ve got a lot of schools, we’ve got a lot of talent here. How do we bring those folks in? Similarly, at Wallops, which is in quite a rural area and the independent Verification Validation center in West Virginia, how do we build some of the workforce locally so that we’ve got a good center of workforce pipeline, but also that people can get good jobs in their communities that might be more rural than out here in Greenbelt.

Eric White That’s Makenzie Lystrup, director of the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Hear the second part of my interview with her after this break. I’m Eric White.

Eric White Back on the space our on Federal News Network, I’m Eric White. We now continue my interview with Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, director of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. So let’s bring that focus to you, if you know your mind a little bit. You were in senior level positions  with different companies, and now you find yourself here running a NASA center, one of the major ones on the East Coast. Can you just tell me about that adjustment for you? And what the some of the differences were? And was there a lot more paperwork? I don’t know.

Makenzie Lystrup It’s funny that there are many similarities. People go into the space business, whether it’s on the government side or in the private sector, because they love space, they love the mission. And so you find a similar culture, right, where people are really excited and really passionate about what they do. And they know that it really has an impact on the science on people’s lives. So that part of it not too dissimilar, I would say. There are certainly differences in the kind of end stakeholders. So if you’re in a private company, you’ve got investors, you have shareholders that you know you are responsible to, and that changes the calculus some. But I have found that, again, in this business, we’re kind of all in it together for the right reasons. And the fact that we do have some private sector pressure means that they can drive their prices down. They can drive their costs down, and that benefits us. And so we can focus again on like, we are just mission focused, what is good for the nation, what’s good for NASA writ large. And I think that having people with different stakeholders is a kind of diversity in our ecosystem that I think is important and can help us produce better outcomes.

Eric White So it sounds like you’re enjoying yourself. You’re almost getting the best of both worlds kind of thing. Can you just expand a little bit on what you meant by that?

Makenzie Lystrup Yeah, what I mean is that, because it’s not just government working on these projects, we have to worry about cost. And we have companies that have to worry about costs. They have to worry about their financial security. So they’re going to make decisions that take that into account where we wouldn’t. And those kinds of tradeoffs, in terms of who are the stakeholders you have to satisfy? Again, I think it’s a diversity that helps us think differently about our different pieces. And then when they come together, those puts and takes help us be creative. My career, I’ve been very focused on how do I enable really great science, engineering and technology outcomes, that’s what I get a lot of energy from. And so having worked as a research scientist, having worked on the Hill and an industry and now here at NASA and leading Goddard, I see it as again, a diversity of experience. And we talk about diversity and inclusion a lot, but it’s so important to what we do. And again, it’s those diversity of stakeholders, diversity of approaches, diversity of experience, diversity of thought and all of the other kind of aspects we think of when we say diversity, that helps us think better, that helps us get to better outcomes. So I think bringing in people who do have a variety of experience is really useful and I’m eager to help our folks inside of NASA also get some external experiences?

Eric White I know you touched on it a little bit already, but Wallops, I have to ask you about just because it is almost one of the more unique space facilities on the whole East Coast. For those who don’t know, it’s on the eastern coast of Virginia, right by Chincoteague Island, which is very pleasant as well. So do you have a favorite between the two stations?

Makenzie Lystrup Oh, I couldn’t say. I wouldn’t say. Wallops is a really special place, and it’s such an important piece of what we do and important piece of NASA. And so some people aren’t that familiar with it, because it is a little bit tucked away and it’s a little bit smaller. But I look forward to raising its profile because it is a special place. It’s beautiful out there and it’s a great place to do innovative things. You asked about innovation, and I do see a lot of innovation really across all of the sectors. And that includes here in government, there’s a lot of innovative work going on. And I think that at Wallops kind of encapsulates a lot of that innovation. It’s where we do our CubeSat work, it’s where we do those suborbital programs. So these are like sounding rockets. So these are projects that from beginning to end are not very long in duration. And so we can have our scientists and our engineers go and get hands on experience leading a mission from beginning to end. And they can get that experience before they come and do it at for a large program, say at Greenbelt. And that is a really critical piece of our training of the workforce. And again, being out where they are, they have the opportunity to do some innovation without necessarily being part of the entire apparatus.

Eric White All right. And wrapping up here, I know you talked a lot about the some of the projects already. But I always like to get a gauge on what folks are thinking. People major players in the industry, in the space business like yourself, what is still exciting to you and what is on the horizon that you see coming soon that it may be, 40 or 50 years from now, but what do you see that excites you and for the next generation of space workers?

Makenzie Lystrup Yeah. I think one thing is the future of space astronomy, I’m an astronomer myself, so I have a little bit of a bias there. But I’m really looking forward to the future of adaptive optics in space and our ability to be able to do on space or on orbit assembly. Being able to take up and build, help build our large aperture space telescopes in space. So we’re not confined by the launch fairing size. We got to we had to fold up JWST to get it to fit inside of the rocket. And so, well, what could we do with three of those launches? And really try to assemble things in space. That’s something Goddard’s working on, and I think is really exciting. And then I just want to close with we are in a very rapidly changing world, and it’s really a privilege to be able to be a part of Goddard that really does produce a lot of very important Earth system science. And it’s a hopeful thing that we do. We are producing the kinds of measurements that will help us make better decisions around the world. And being able to have that connection to the impacts is really powerful.

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