SMA Leadership Profile: Eric Isaac

SMA Leadership Profile: Eric Isaac

6-minute read
Eric Isaac

What does it mean to be the Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) director at Goddard Space Flight Center? According to the man himself, Eric Isaac, it’s as the title implies: it’s about being a leader that promotes keeping people safe and assuring the mission. 

“At the most basics level, for the Institutional Safety aspect of our mission, we want to make sure people are able to go home as well as they came in the door — we don’t want people to get hurt,” said Isaac. “And the other aspect, assuring the mission, is to make sure that the right processes, people and activities are in place so we build our spacecraft, instruments and ground systems in a way that leads to the highest likelihood of mission success. In order to be successful, we need to partner with industry and across the center to enable that activity to happen. I believe that the starting point of what we do begins with bringing our SMA technical expertise to the table and ‘empowering our partnerships to ensure safety and mission success.’”

Isaac shares that to be an SMA director also means working to maintain and expand a culture of respect and healthy communication. He believes that this creates an environment where the workforce can most effectively do their work. 

“It’s really creating respect among people and teams, so we’re really listening to people and engaging with people at multiple levels,” he said. “This allows all team members to play ‘full out’ so that the various voices and different perspectives that contribute to our mission, whether dealing with the Institutional Safety or mission assurance aspect, are adequately heard.”

Isaac also knows the importance of bringing value-added information to the table when working with programs and projects.

“We very much promote a risk-based approach,” he said. “We want to look at the risk, understand the risk and bring, as appropriate, the data to the table and the analysis to the table — not just another opinion — to enable effective decision-making. We want to have the courage to be able to say what needs to be said, in the appropriate manner, in the appropriate time. We want to imitate and promote healthy communication to empower the teams we work on, leading to a safe working environment and an environment where we strive for 100% mission success — as aligned with the agreed to mission risk posture.”

In addition to strong support for the NASA mission, Isaac also fully supports a work-life balance and encourages his team to invest in personal interests as well. For Isaac, this means bicycling, enjoying the outdoors and spending time with his wife and family, including his new grandchild. In addition to time off being important for individual well-being, he believes it makes for a stronger team.

“I’m very supportive of taking time to refresh,” he said. “I think it’s really essential to take time to refresh because that brings new energy and a fresh perspective to the work that we do.”

As a recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Leadership Medal, his leadership philosophies are respect, healthy communication and partnerships, but for Isaac, the personal development work does not stop there.

“In terms of preparing oneself, I believe in continual learning in all aspects, including my faith,” said Isaac. “I believe in taking training and really embracing the things that speak to you. I definitely believe that we can grow. I feel like I’ve grown as a leader and continue to grow through training and good leadership principles and I strive to be an even more effective leader as time goes on.”

Isaac also knows the value of looking for less-traditional learning opportunities, sometimes beyond one’s current job scope. 

“In terms of developmental experience, I took an opportunity to step away from NASA for six months for a position with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration,” explained Isaac. “It allowed me to use my leadership skills that I had developed in a totally unknown environment, and that gave me a greater confidence that my leadership skills would transfer to another realm. It also allowed me to fulfil a childhood dream of working with railroads in a way.”

While Isaac found his time with the Federal Transit Administration extremely valuable, he also learned lessons that influenced his leadership beliefs on communication right here at NASA. Specifically, he recalls the influence of working on the first and second servicing missions for the Hubble Space Telescope as a great learning opportunity. 

“One of the highlights was the real-time operations and systems engineering that was deployed for on-orbit servicing and integrating in all the different disciplines, leading to a successful outcome,” said Isaac. “Also, listening to every voice — every voice matters. I learned to use my leadership skills to help other voices articulate their perspective to allow them to contribute to the overall success of the mission.” 

Now, as SMA director, Isaac is still looking at how to best help Goddard’s, and the agency’s, missions succeed. Short-term, he’s looking at the center’s current missions, like James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which just successfully completed its Preliminary Design Review. 

“I want to bring all the necessary resources in our SMA community to help independently assure our missions from an SMA perspective,” he said. “And I want to be able to build a healthy team across all of our missions to make sure that we have strong and appropriate SMA services across the flight projects and ground system projects that we support.”

“Long-term,” he continued, “I want to leave SMA stronger than I found it. What that entails is building the next generation. Laying the pathway for the next generation of SMA professionals and leaders, so in the long-term aspect, SMA provides the strong and essential technical and professional leadership in our community to make sure we keep our people, facilities and institutional assets safe, as well as assure the missions we support now and into the future.”

The challenge Isaac sees in achieving this long-term goal is one facing many NASA centers and the larger space community as many long-term employees choose to retire. He realizes that the work goes beyond just bringing new employees to NASA, it’s important to attract and develop the talent in SMA as well. 

“One of the largest challenges [I’ll face] is that next generation of workforce,” said Isaac. “Where will it come from? Will people look to make SMA a long-term career and see the viability in doing so? SMA is not a career you’re going to get good at in two to three years, then jumping out. It’s an entity where people need to invest in themselves and the institution, and the center needs to invest in them.”

As for how to attract new employees to a career — not just a stint — in SMA, Isaac sees the importance in making a good pitch. 

“We have got to tell our story — we have to tell what we do and why we do it, and here at Goddard, the story from the science that we enable and the new learning that comes from the science that we do. [We have to] tell why SMA is so critical to enabling that science. We have to speak to a broader community to attract that workforce at elementary schools and universities and help people understand what SMA is and why it really matters.”

According to Isaac, the reason SMA matters is because it’s the repository for learning and communicating how to implement missions so that they are successful — a recipe that can be easily lost. SMA is important at all phases of development of the mission — from the concept phase through implementation and also through launch and operations. The broad range involvement extends beyond the life cycle to the type of support provided as well:

“The SMA contribution is integral to the success of our missions because we look at things both from the detail level and the systems level,” said Isaac. “We’re basically the voice that project manager, our center directors and scientists rely upon to provide the highest assurance that our missions will deliver on the expectations of our stakeholders.”