Mission Possible

For three decades, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program (SSP) has been a source of pride for the United States. From 1981 when Columbia became the first reusable space shuttle to more recent trips that delivered the final U.S. segments to the International Space Station, Americans have marveled at the scientific genius at the core of each flight. And even though as a nation, we mourned the losses of the Challenger and Columbia crews, we kept faith that NASA would learn from these tragedies and move forward.

During the SSP’s storied history, civil engineering graduate Dorothy Rasco ’81 has participated in its triumphs and challenges. A 25-year NASA employee, Rasco joined the agency as an engineer, designing facilities such as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory used to train astronauts in a weightless environment and upgrading Mission Control Center’s flight control rooms, where flight controllers simulate future missions.

Throughout her tenure, Rasco has accepted positions of increasing responsibility: “As my career progressed, I looked at opportunities that challenged me and not glamorous roles, necessarily.” Each new assignment was critical to safe and successful flights. As a contracting officer technical representative, she served as technical liaison between the contractor and the government’s contract organization, monitoring contractor performance and ensuring that products and services were delivered according to terms. In her role as manager of the Flight Crew Equipment Management Office, she was responsible for designing, building, or purchasing all of the hardware like laptop computers, cameras, clothing, and food that is flown in the space shuttle’s middeck.

Rasco’s achievements in these varied positions caught the attention of executive management, and her career gained added momentum when she was chosen to participate in the Johnson Space Center’s Leadership Development Program. She was also awarded NASA fellowships to the Smith College Management Program and the Harvard Business School Leadership for Senior Executives—both designed to support the agency’s succession strategy: “NASA invests a lot in its employees. Like URI, we ‘Think Big’ and always try to make the program and the employees better.”

Her drive, coupled with these professional development opportunities, propelled Rasco to a senior management position within SSP. In 2006, she was named business office manager, overseeing an annual budget of more than $3.2 billion and a multidisciplinary workforce of more than 11,000 civil servants and contractors across the country. She referred to her team and her business partners in other support functions as “unsung heroes.”

While the astronauts are the program’s public face, the administrative staff keeps the shuttle program flying, securing funding from headquarters, managing budgets, and assessing contracts: “We analyze contracts to determine if they’ll deliver the necessary technical content, and every six months, a Performance Evaluation Board measures contract performance, makes recommendations for improvements, and determines the value of the award fee the contractor will receive.”

Interestingly, Rasco and her team that has been keeping the shuttles airborne are also responsible for managing the SSP retirement that President Bush announced in 2004. The last launch is scheduled for February 26, 2011, when the space shuttle Endeavor will deliver spare parts to the International Space Station. Although the National Aeronautics and Space Authorization Act of 2010 allows for one extra shuttle flight in 2011, Congress will have to approve the $450 million price tag, so there is no guarantee that a shuttle will launch again after February 26.

The responsibilities of managing the transition are similar to those involved in administering an active program. Chief among them are budget processes and assessments. Rasco’s analyses are now focused on redeploying the nationwide workforce. Human capital planning activities include mapping SSP government employee and contractor skills to future programs. In addition, the SSP Business Office is working with economic development agencies in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas—home states of major SSP contractors and NASA Human Space Flight Centers.

Adding to the complexity of the SSP retirement is the task of disposing of all property and assets—1.2 million equipment line items—valued at $18 billion: “There’s immense pressure to make the right decision regarding each of these pieces. All property must be demilitarized so that it cannot be used against us, and we have to be environmentally sensitive. Donating assets comes with its own set of challenges. To transport an orbiter to a museum, an airport close to the venue must have a runway with a concrete apron long enough and strong enough to withstand the landing.”

As SSP winds down, Rasco is looking ahead and upward. A member of the Human Exploration Framework Team, she is committed to maintaining sustainable and affordable human space flight: “We can send robots into space, but the human presence adds the fireworks. The human side touches the younger generation.”

For her extraordinary efforts in support of the SSP transition and retirement planning, NASA recognized Rasco with a 2010 Stellar Award, the latest in a long list of awards that includes the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Though proud of these accomplishments, Rasco cited receiving URI’s Distinguished Achievement Award as a highlight of her career (see page 14).

Rasco was thrilled to be lauded by the University that allowed her “to be able to become what I am” and to have her parents, Pei Wen Chang, M.S. ‘60, professor emeritus of fisheries, animal and veterinary science, and Lucy Chang, M.S. ’68, who taught business statistics, in attendance at the ceremony: “URI gave me the opportunity to learn through experience. Whether I was in a soil lab or an environmental engineering lab, I enjoyed hands-on practice that has been so instrumental in my career. I also developed leadership skills by serving as vice president of Alpha Xi Delta sorority. Sixty girls lived in the house, and it was great fun.”

Whereas Rasco is working to ground the space shuttles and prepare for future stages of human space exploration, it is clear that the College of Engineering launched an extraordinarily accomplished professional. All systems are go for her continued success.

By Maria V. Caliri ’86, M.B.A. ’92