SMA Leadership Profile: Richard Barney

Richard Barney

Typically, employees look to their leaders for guidance, but Goddard Space Flight Center’s Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Director Richard Barney wants his employees to know he’s looking at those around him for inspiration.

“My leadership philosophy is you’re only as good as the people around you,” said Barney. “It really takes the focus off your leadership, away from you, and onto the people that you’re leading. And the reason I remind people of this is because I am reminding myself. It’s not about my leadership or my being director of or my experience, but the safety and success of our missions.”

Furthermore, Barney believes relationships are key to building a successful organization and he makes a concerted effort to build a strong and personally connected community both inside and outside of his directorate.

“Just like anything, our jobs are a lot about relationships with each other,” he said. “We like to reinforce the relationships by getting to know something about the people we work with. Having each other’s back is critical to keeping everyone safe.”

He feels knowing each other’s interests, challenges and even family situations, the good and the bad, makes everyone better able to support and care for each other. His directorate established a “Peeps Team” which plans group breakfasts, ice cream socials and group outings to baseball games as bonding experiences to help build these strong relationships.

“We do things together as a workforce — that drives me,” Barney added.

A Life-Long Career at NASA

Barney has only ever worked at NASA, save for a brief stint at Dairy Queen growing up he recalls, and his program and project experience has been nothing short of spectacular, with not one but two notable experiences that he sites as great educational preparation for his new role as SMA director.

The first project Barney ever worked upon arriving at NASA was the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission, designed to measure and map the oldest light in the universe — the cosmic microwave background.

“It was a terrific collaboration with the principal investigator and science teams here,” said Barney.

COBE originally was scheduled to launch on Space Shuttle Challenger, but the tragic loss of the shuttle prior to the COBE mission resulted in it launching on a rocket into Low-Earth Orbit instead. Barney shares that the first 9 minutes of data alone earned the mission scientists a Nobel Prize in physics.

The second influential experience was the Cassini mission, a robotic spacecraft sent to study Saturn and set to come to an end this September by descending into the planet after launching nearly 20 years ago.

“Sadly and happily it burns up,” said Barney. “It’s at the end of its mission.”

Barney’s bittersweet perspective on the mission comes from being a part of it since its inception in the early 90s. In fact, Barney worked on the project during the proposal phase in a role he considers to be his first taste of leadership (he was the instrument manager on a spectrometer). Cassini has been an international effort between NASA, the European Space Agency and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (the Italian space agency), another aspect Barney found truly valuable.

Cassini, which has been described by NASA as “one of the most ambitious efforts in planetary space exploration ever mounted,” certainly came with challenges over the course of the mission, and both NASA and international communities had to work together to ensure mission success.

“We really had each other’s backs,” he noted and sited as the beginning of his strong belief in the benefits of building personal relationships with your coworkers.

Goddard’s Mission and the Future

Risk —assessing it, accounting for it and mitigating it — has become a large focus for Goddard in recent years. According to Barney, his directorate’s overall vision is to safely reduce the risk of exploring earth and space.

“Where did we come from, where are we going, is there other life out there? These are the really big science questions, and in order to answer them, we need to understand risk,” said Barney.

Goddard is a science- and robotic-based center, not human spaceflight, which means that it looks at risk differently because there are no human lives to account for during missions. Instead, the focus is on the risk to science, to programmatic resources and to the workforce on the ground.

Barney explained that about three years ago, Goddard realized it was a very requirements-driven organization, focused on ensuring that requirements were met, and that a shift was needed to put more emphasis on risk — understanding it and making decisions based on that understanding. Goddard uses the term “risk-balanced approach” to describe the new guiding principle because it’s not all about cost, not all about schedule and not all about performance.

“It’s about all three and the risk inherent in developing challenging scientific missions within resource constraints,” explained Barney.

This shift will grow in coming years from being a philosophy to a reality that creates new capabilities for the center. New capabilities will mean new positions opening at the center, something Barney sees as a potential challenge. He explains that hiring technical experts in SMA discipline areas can be difficult for a few reasons, including that SMA disciplines (such as Reliability and Maintainability, Software Assurance, and Institutional Safety) aren’t the same as the engineering disciplines typically taught at universities, making it difficult to recruit and improve the center’s competency in SMA technical disciplines. But Barney doesn’t think the challenge is insurmountable.

“We need to do a couple things,” said Barney. “One is the pipeline development. We need to be more productive with academia to work together, partner together, to pipeline those SMA engineers.”

Barney sites NASA’s internship program as one great method for bringing in new recruits and preparing them for a career in SMA.

“I think that we need to do a better job out with industry, with other government agencies, on focusing on the technical discipline development,” he continued. “We often get very focused on the problem of the day rather than thinking long term.”

Barney’s beliefs about recruiting and educating the next generation of NASA and Goddard employees ultimately ties back to his leadership philosophy about those around him.

“The goal is to make those around you better,” said Barney. “The responsibility of making those around me better is paramount and why I like this job so much.”