Merriam Webster defines a leader simply as a “person who leads.” For Kennedy Space Center Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Director Ronnie Rodriguez, a leader is better defined by why people follow him or her.
“When I do leadership discussions with high school and college students, I tell them if people follow you because they have to, you have authority,” he explained. “If they follow you because they want to, you’re a leader. I want people to follow me because they want to.”
Rodriguez sees his role at NASA as a civil servant, and as a leader, as part of his duty. Born in Cuba, he came to the United States at about 1.5 years old. He remembers they were on welfare at first, but within a month, his dad was working, and they were independent.
“He was taking care of us and he told us once, ‘This nation gave us a great opportunity allowing us to come here, and we will not take advantage of its generosity,’” Rodriguez shared.
He says this greatly influenced him from a young age and created a sense of need to pay it forward.
“That’s where I’ve gotten in my career; it’s why I’m a civil servant,” he said. “It’s important to me to be leaving a better organization when I leave here, when I retire — that’s part of that payment. We’re very lucky to be in this country and we owe this country a lot.”
While Rodriguez feels driven to leave an even better organization than the one he started with, his focus on people will certainly be at the heart of his legacy.
“I think the thing that keeps me up the most at night is I feel a huge sense of responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the workforce,” he said. “Really, it’s more than that — it’s the workforce, the flight crews, the public that comes on site, it’s all of that. It’s the people’s safety part that really keeps me up at night, in a place like this where you have so many hazardous operations.”
His emphasis on and care toward his people defines his leadership style, which he describes as “very relational.”
“It’s very, very important for me to walk around and talk to people and build the relationships that involve the ‘How was your weekend?’ and ‘How’s the family?’ and [generally] getting to know people,” said Rodriguez. “The last two years [working from home] cramped that and made it harder because there are a lot of meetings but you’re not running into people in the halls.”
Luckily, even without these daily face-to-face interactions, the team was able to lean on its established relationships to stay connected.
“When I came to SMA in 2019, I came over as deputy, and I was really amazed at the culture of the SMA agencywide team,” he said. “We like each other. We talk to each other. It’s just a really neat environment, where in my experience, it’s unique. In the other programs and organizations I’ve worked in, I haven’t seen that much comradery at the agency level, and I think that’s something everyone should take pride in. The SMA culture is one of caring for one another across centers and across the agency.”
Rodriguez knows that these relationships will help Kennedy, and NASA, achieve long-term success. With the ever-growing commercial sector of spaceflight, knowing and understanding all the players, even outside NASA’s gates, will be vital. He sees a need to better define roles and responsibilities between NASA, the Space Force and the Federal Aviation Administration and considers this one of his short-term goals as SMA director.
“It’s working, but there’s still some confusion, and we need to clear it up soon because as the commercial market increases, we’re finding that we’re stepping on each other a little,” he explained of currently overlapping duties.
He points to other big-picture questions like, “How many vehicles can you bring onto Kennedy Space Center before you just can’t fit anymore?” as pending considerations that need addressed.
“We know the NASA programs, and it’s clicking with the commercial stuff we’ve been doing for a while, but it’s getting more and more complex [as the number of vehicles grows],” he explained. “Continuing to develop that and how we work together is critical.”
Looking further into the future, Rodriguez’s goals still center around people.
“When we talk about long-term goals, that’s where I start talking about the legacy I want to leave,” he said. “The long-term things I want to work on is I want to establish an SMA team with all the technical skills to move forward. A team that’s looked at for their expertise. People know they can turn to them.”
For the center as a whole, he sees further movement toward a commercial model, with commercial and non-commercial flight well blended into daily operations. He hopes to see a model for how to work with the various partners, because they all have different SMA needs.
“Ideally, I would love for a commercial space center to run like an airport,” he said. “Come in, book a flight, and so on. It just needs to click better. From what I can influence, that’s the long-term vision.”
This vision doesn’t come without its challenges.
“Getting to understand the impacts and the potential impacts to neighboring programs and paths, there’s a lot there,” Rodriguez explained. “How do we ensure we get these people [partners] on site but still maintain safety, especially when they start impacting each other, not just from a schedule perspective but potential damage to each other [should something go wrong].”
He also points to the importance of ensuring the safety of NASA’s flight crews with these new vehicles.
“It’s always a very big challenge when you’re going to put people on a new vehicle and you need to ensure you’re going to get them back safely,” he said. “The more stressful part is the people; these people have families. Even if the person is willing to accept the risk, they have family, and you have to worry about that.”
To overcome these challenges, for Rodriguez, it again comes down to the people.
“You need a team that can think creatively, a team that can think outside the box, to use an overused term,” he said. “A team that’s willing to really sit down and think, ‘Why am I being conservative on this one?’ A team that’s always willing to challenge themselves. Sometimes, we get into a mode of ‘This is what I’m comfortable with; I’m not comfortable relaxing this requirement,’ but why are you not comfortable? We need to ask the whys constantly and if we do that, we’re going to end up with the right set of requirements and technical skills. A team that’s not willing to question themselves won’t move forward.”
And for Rodriguez, helping humanity move forward is both why he works for NASA and what he hopes inspires his colleagues.
“The other thing that got me here [NASA], and a lot of people resonate with, is Star Trek,” he shared.
He thinks back to when he and his family first moved to the United Sates and had a little black and white 13-inch television. He and his sister turned it on and found Star Trek. As he grew up, Star Trek continued to leave its impact on Rodriguez and inspire his career.
“A big driver for me is this idea that humanity has a future,” he said. “And it’s when I saw Star Trek 4 at the theater when I was in college that I realized I wanted to help make that future for humanity. And that’s our job at NASA. So much sci fi now is apocalyptic. That’s something I love about Star Trek — it’s a positive story, it’s our story, we’ll get past this. As an agency, we need to recognize what we do is ensuring humanity’s future — that’s our job.”
Rodriguez’s email signature is a nod to this belief. “NASA … Enabling the Fulfillment of Human Destiny.”
“We need to buy into what we’re doing; it’s not just checking requirements and making sure safety practices are going on,” he said. “Even if you’re just doing reviews or sitting in meetings, you’re not just reviewing or sitting in meetings, you are enabling humanity’s future. Looking at the big picture can get you through. I say often that because of the work we do every day, in the not-too-distant future, humanity is going to stop being a one-planet species. No matter where you are, NASA is humanity’s future, and we need to take that to heart and we need to step back and say what we do is important, very important.”