SMA Leadership Profile: Russ DeLoach

5-minute read

Russ DeLoach, Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) director at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), has more than 27 years of experience in SMA. As director, he ensures KSC’s programs, including Ground Systems Development and Operations, Commercial Crew, Launch Services, Orion, and the International Space Station, have the necessary SMA support to succeed.

“It’s my job to provide the SMA expertise to make sure those programs are safe and successful, as well as to make sure our institution and people that live and work at KSC are safe,” said DeLoach.

DeLoach is responsible for reviewing mishap data to see where incidents are occurring so that resources can be allocated appropriately. He also maintains and enhances core capabilities within the SMA discipline and provides that expertise to programs. He takes a very customer-focused approach and wants to ensure that SMA tailors its offerings to the needs of the center’s programs.

“We want to see ourselves as experts in our disciplines and understand how they are applied at KSC,” said DeLoach. “We want people to come to safety because we help them succeed.”

He credits former Chief of SMA Brian O’Connor’s “yes, if” approach to safety for changing how programs interact with SMA. Programs see the difference in SMA personnel’s behavior and appreciate the technical value they add to projects.

“They want to hear someone who understands the physics of the situation and can talk to them in terms of what the risks are and how those risks can be controlled,” DeLoach said. “When we communicate something, we want to communicate the why not just the what.”

DeLoach believes that empowering his team to perform and then holding them accountable for the results is important for success. His approach involves challenging his people and making sure they are tough on themselves during reviews so that their work holds up under a critical eye.

“I want people to know that we are going to challenge them internally, [but] then when we go external, they have my full support and backing,” he said.

Beyond the Shuttle Program — Looking Towards the Future

DeLoach admits that following the end of shuttle, it was tough to move on, but slowly everyone has started to embrace the future. He points to NASA’s Safety Culture Model as guidance on how to adapt to changing times: you must have a flexible culture. Inflexibility, he notes, often stems from fear —“Am I going to have a meaningful role in this new environment?”

“As a manager, that’s what I have to do — show people that they will have a meaningful future too,” said DeLoach. “The past is going away, that’s real, but it’s going to be replaced by something even better. It’s really up to us to make the future what it’s going to be, and that can be an exciting challenge.”

DeLoach is quick to point out that moving on does not mean forgetting. NASA has learned some hard lessons with manned space flight, and those lessons need to be honored and taken into account as the agency moves into a new era with commercial space flight.

Taking the flexible approach, KSC has evolved from a shuttle-centric site to an environment with NASA programs and commercial partners blended together.

“We’re essentially commercializing low-Earth orbit while we go off and look at how we safely get our crew beyond low-Earth orbit to Mars,” said DeLoach. “We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but the future we’re creating is just amazing, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

With Boeing, SpaceX and Space Florida all occupying facilities at KSC, one of DeLoach’s main responsibilities is ensuring that both NASA programs and commercial partners are able to operate safely and successfully at KSC. He points out that this is the first time in history two commercial companies are going through the process of launching NASA astronauts, and it’s essential that everything is done right.

“We are in a fascinating arc of NASA’s story,” said DeLoach. “If you look back at the last 50 years and all the things we’ve accomplished, we’re at a nexus where we’re doing all those things and doing things to make the next 50 years even greater.”

Right now, KSC is focused on preparing the center to launch the Space Launch System and Orion. The SMA team is making sure that all the proper hazard analyses are done, the right controls are in place for each of the identified hazards, and that everyone knows what needs to happen for a safe launch.

A Career Spent in SMA

DeLoach has spent his entire career in NASA SMA. Immediately after graduating from the University of Florida, DeLoach was offered two positions at NASA during the post-Challenger hiring boom. Option one was to be a systems engineer working on cryogenics for the shuttle, option two was to learn about Reliability and Quality engineering in SMA. Although being a part of the Space Shuttle Program seemed interesting, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn something new.

“I consider myself an SMA-lifer,” said DeLoach. “It’s the road less taken, but I’m so happy that’s the choice I made back then.”

Now a member of the Senior Executive Service, DeLoach admits he followed an unusual path to leadership, but says his years in SMA prepared him well for his current role. DeLoach sites working with design engineers, completing Fault Tree Analyses and Failure Modes and Effects Analyses, overseeing operation planning and execution, learning to identify risks, and learning how program management works as a sturdy foundation for overseeing KSC SMA. He also has experience with space propulsion, science, payloads and institutional management portfolios.

“To me, this is the ultimate job,” he said. “You get to play in all the things an engineer could possibly work in.”

This June, DeLoach welcomed a new deputy, Johnny Nguyen, to his team. DeLoach notes that SMA work at KSC is picking up as many of the programs reach critical reviews, and is excited to have someone new on board to help carry the load. He also sees Nguyen’s diverse background as an asset.

“He’s a guy with a broad range of experience at KSC,” said DeLoach. “He worked in engineering, he worked in a lab — he brings a very different, new perspective, which I think is really good. I’m kind of an insider, so it’s good to have someone with a different perspective.”

In recent years, DeLoach has noticed an increase in networking between SMA directors at NASA centers. With more programs and projects spanning multiple centers, he feels that this collaboration and increased communication is essential.

“Honestly, what I see across the agency is a tighter network and better relationships across the SMA managers, across the centers, and with Headquarters and the NSC [NASA Safety Center],” said DeLoach. “It’s more than I’ve ever seen before and I am truly thrilled to see that. There are so many bright people across this agency. There’s hardly a problem that we don’t have the capability to solve, we just have to know where it is.”