Passion breaks all barriers that keep us from pursuing what we love. Our guest, Sandy Coleman, did just that. Despite being a male-dominated industry, Sandy threw herself into the middle of NASA to pursue her passion and vision for space travel. After 40 years, she has received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Women in Aerospace. In this episode, she tells us all about her journey – from her Girl Scout days to eventually being in charge of the external tank project on the shuttle managing the Lockheed Martin NASA contract. Sandy takes us through the things she did to set herself up for advancement, inspiring us to move around the glass ceilings that seem hard to penetrate and take control of our career.
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Breaking Glass Ceilings: A Woman Leader In NASA with Sandy Coleman
Sandy Coleman is with us. She has an amazing career to share with us as a woman in the NASA space agency here in America. I’m sure many of you have seen the movie Hidden Figures that dramatize the plight of women of color at NASA in the ‘60s. NASA was definitely a male-dominated industry and Sandy threw herself into the middle of it due to her passion and vision for space travel that she developed at a young age. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Women in Aerospace and was celebrated by many of the astronauts that she knows personally. They knew that Sandy was instrumental in getting them to and from space safely. Her 40-year career at NASA culminated in her managing the Space Shuttle external tank after the Columbia accident. Sandy was responsible for over 100 civil servants, 2,000 contractor employees and oversight of a 43-acre that’s under one roof assembling facility. As you know, I’m totally gung-ho Boy Scout, having been an Eagle Scout with three Palms I couldn’t stop and many years later being awarded the Distinguished Eagle Award for Adult Service. Would you take a moment and tell us how the Girl Scouts got you started on your career at NASA?
Thanks for having me on your show. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my culture and team-building experiences with you. This is how my career started. My dad worked in the same building at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama as Dr. Wernher von Braun. He arranged for my Girl Scout troop to meet Dr. von Braun. Dr. von Braun showed us a model of a rocket and he told us that someday, we would go to the moon in that rocket. I was mesmerized by this man and I followed him and NASA’s moon program through high school. My dream was fulfilled when I was hired as a GS3 secretary in the Saturn V program office after graduation.
You followed the greatest rocket scientist of all time in Dr. Wernher von Braun. How did you find it working in a male-dominated industrial giant like NASA?
There were very few women in any leadership positions at NASA in the ‘60s. There was only one in the Senior Executive Service and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville in the late ‘80s and she was a lawyer. An SES is equivalent to a general in the military. All of my mentors were men, but they were wonderful role models. I came to NASA in the ‘60s in the heat of going to the moon. The culture was one of dedication to the goal. We were extremely busy and rock-solid teamwork. Even though it was a male-dominated field, my experience was always that of being pulled in to problem-solving positions. Even though I was one of the very few women in leadership meetings, I really never felt like the men in the room saw a woman, but rather a team player who was working hard and making major contributions.
When you have a goal like going to the moon, it’s going to break down a lot of barriers, bust down a lot of silos, walls that pull everybody together as a team.
All that other stuff goes away. Everybody’s focused and you don’t think about, “Is this a man or a woman who’s doing the job?” You just want somebody to get the job done.Take control of your own career and be willing to change jobs. Click To Tweet
You were trying to do it before 1970 hit because of JFK and we’re going to land on the moon this decade. It was what you’d call a smart goal. It was time-dependent. You had a constraint on it. One of the things that you did, you started right out of high school is you needed to improve yourself academically in order to really pursue a career long-term at NASA. What did you do in order to set yourself up for advancement?
I certainly didn’t want to stay as a secretary after I saw the opportunities at NASA. I started night school. I was in the accelerated math class in high school and my counselor recommended that I get an accounting degree. In the ‘60s, there weren’t too many counselors recommending that women go to engineering school. I started at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and graduated with high honors with an accounting degree. I rose through the ranks at NASA to a GS12 and then I realized that I needed an engineering degree to achieve my potential. I returned to UAH, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, to get the prerequisites for a Master’s degree in engineering. Rather than doing a second degree, I decided it would be almost as quick to do the Master’s degree if I could get all the prerequisites.
After I was accepted in the Master’s program, I was nominated by my boss and selected for full-time graduate study at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was the first woman NASA Marshall to be selected for this honor and probably within NASA totally, but I can’t confirm that. I was given full salary and full tuition books and the whole bit. After I graduated with that engineering degree, my career soared. I went from a GS12 to a GS15 in a few years. Every time I was qualified after a year, I would get the next grade or at one point I was offered a job in another office and my boss found a point and promoted me. I was given an SES appointment a few years after that.
You really had to be a minimum amount of time in each one of those GS classifications before you’re eligible for promotion?
It was for a year.
That stuff used to bug me. It’s like, “If I’m good enough for that next, I don’t want to wait this extra time.”
I was promoted from a GS3 to a GS4 secretary in six months because my boss said, “She is so good. There’s no way we’re going to lose her.” That was breaking the rules that my boss got me a GS4 in six months.
There are times where you can mess with the system. One of the things I found in the Army, I was a first lieutenant and I wanted to be a company commander, which is a captain’s job. I went to the battalion commander and said, “I think I’m ready to be a company commander.” He said, “Slow down.” He put me in as an executive officer. I was the guy right under a company commander. I had that for six months. I got to see all the decisions that a company commander made and see what was good and bad about them. I still got a company as a first lieutenant, but I had to admit the battalion commander was right. Getting that additional experience and that timing grade, it really doesn’t hurt because you’re better at that job having that time. When you made SES then you were the equivalent of a general in the Army. Would you please lead us through your experience being in charge of the external tank project on the shuttle managing the Lockheed Martin NASA contract?
At the time of the Columbia accident, I was a deputy propulsion manager responsible for the external tank, the solid rocket boosters, the solid rocket motors and the Space Shuttle main engines in conjunction with the propulsion manager. After the accident, the propulsion manager in the external tank project manager was removed. It just has to happen. I was appointed the interim propulsion manager for the next year through the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and thereafter was appointed as the external tank project manager for redesign of the foam that caused the accident.
You were in charge of what makes this thing go.
The whole propulsion system and I get a final go for launch for Columbia. We rotated every other launch. This was my launch, but since the manager was older and they needed somebody to lead, they removed him and kept me to carry on.
I guess some heads have to roll with when things go awry. What happened with the external tank foam failure?Don't let anyone determine your professional destiny because you're a woman. Click To Tweet
Eighty-two seconds after launch, a large piece of foam insulating material on the left bipod foam ramp broke free from the external tank and struck the leading edge of the shuttle’s left-wing, damaging the protective carbon heat shield panels. During re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, this damage allowed super-heated gases to enter and erode the inner wing structure, which led to the destruction of Columbia’s orbiter. I heard Steven say it.
That was a piece of foam that’s manually put in toward the end of construction.
It’s not a spray. You have an automated spray on most of the tank, but then you have a few hand sprays and this was a hand spray.
That’s something that could be anticipated, even though I’m sure you went through thousands and thousands of failure simulations. It was one that somehow couldn’t be thought of.
We did think of it and there was foam loss on every launch, but the models that we had back in the ‘70s showed that foam couldn’t hit the leading edge of the wing. After Columbia, we realized that the foam comes off, it’s like a leaf and it really can hit anywhere on the orbiter. That was the reason we had to redesign the foam and make sure that it didn’t have voids to cause it to pop off. We knew there was a possibility it could come off, but we didn’t think it was a possibility that the trajectory didn’t look like it could ever hit the leading edge of the orbiter and cause damage. It would hit the orbiter, but it was established as a reuse issue rather than an accident that could happen.
What were some of the difficulty then that you had in getting ready for the next launch after an accident like that? It would seem like now you’re going to be under a magnifying glass from all kinds of people when you’re trying to get ready to launch again.
The NASA and Lockheed Martin external tank teams were devastated. The morale was low. There was much guilt. NASA management decided that my management style was needed to lead the return to flight team. The good news is that I had all of NASA’s resources because returning the shuttle to flight was NASA’s top priority. All ten NASA centers were focused on returning the shuttle to flight. If we didn’t get the shuttle flying to get supplies to International Space Station, we would have to take humans off of the space station which could mean deorbiting and the loss of this national asset.
Everybody across the organization had that focus then to help you.
When I say I had 2,000 contractors working for me, I had 15,000 NASA employees and the NASA administrator was calling me. He would pick up the phone or the shuttle man. Everybody visits and it was unbelievable. That was the difficulty, the major oversight and visibility of every step of the redesign of the foam and getting agreement and concurrencies from the many review teams at NASA. The engineering team, the safety mission assurance team and that would be at Marshall or even Lockheed Martin. Lockheed didn’t want to have another accident either as well as other agencies. That it was safe enough to fly. Another thing that we had to consider is we didn’t really have time to start production of the new tank, which would have taken a few years.
We started with a tank that already had the basic foam on it. Basically, we modified eleven foam hand sprays. The way we were able to certify the flight was a three-step process. One was modifying eleven of the foam hand sprays to make sure there were no rollovers in the foam. We had a boom inspection arm on the shuttle once we got in orbit to make sure that there was no damage during liftoff. If they had found some damage, we had a repair mechanism and then we also had launched on need shuttle that was ready to launch. We were really getting two shuttles ready for launch on the pad, a second one that could have launched to go rescue the astronauts.
You had good methods for installing it, but then you had methods to inspect it once it was in space and repaired if you had to. This was not going to be a problem.
That was used through the end of the shuttle program. They weren’t supposed to fly the last shuttle because then you wouldn’t have a launch on need. We flew twelve or so shuttles after Columbia. There was enough history to know that we felt it was pretty safe. They did fly this last shuttle.Make heroes of everyone you touch and help them be successful. Click To Tweet
It’s very interesting to me when we moved into doing deepwater production in the oil patch out in the Gulf of Mexico. We were moving into 5,000, 7,000 foot of water and we were doing essentially floating cities out there. For every one of our projects, there would be 100 science projects that were going from the lab into the steel and into the software in order to put these things out. It felt a little bit like what you’re going through. You’re taking science projects and you’re trying to have triple redundant safeties on them to where they’re not going to have a problem, but eventually you just have to say, “We’ve got to go.”
We would sit here and make no accomplishments. We would never have gone to the moon and the safest thing to do is sit on the ground.
It’s very interesting to talk to you because we had very similar experiences there. One of the things being a woman in NASA and you got up to NASA and to SES. How did you finally move around what became the glass ceiling that was hard to penetrate there?
I really hit that glass ceiling as a GS15. I was a deputy project manager in 1997 as a GS15 and I was told by a mentor that I should just move over to the administrative side of the house to get in SES. He was a mentor and he was honest with me. He said, “They’ll never let a woman lead one of the five projects of shuttle,” because those are the most coveted jobs at NASA. You give the final go for launch. I made a move. I went to the center director and I accepted a reassignment as deputy chief financial officer.
That probably hurt a little bit to do that.
It did. It killed me. It was true. I believed him. I stayed in that job a few months and the center director asked me to go to the National State Science and Technology Center. It was an up and coming thing with the University of Alabama and the seven research centers in those seven research universities in the state of Alabama. I became the implementation manager and then within a year or so they made that job an SES as chief operating officer. I did get the SES there, stayed there a few years and went back then to get a job offer as the deputy propulsion manager at Marshall, basically their boss. Not only one of the five projects, but I was the propulsion manager.
It’s ironic when you look back at your career and see, but as I went back to the Space Shuttle deputy propulsion manager then became the external tank project manager. I know that a woman would not be told that nowadays. No mentor would even dare tell a woman that she needs to move. She’s never going to get an SES as the most coveted job at NASA. That lesson I learned there is to take control of your own career and be willing to change jobs. Sometimes that’s what you have to do to go prove yourself somewhere else and then eventually they need you to come back. They asked me to come back to shuttle. I didn’t even ask for that job. It was like, “We need you back over here because we’ve got some critical things going on.”
You had the experience and everybody can tell that you have the communication skills and the empathy to pull teams together. One of the things that you’ve done especially over the last several years is that you’ve mentored many young women concerning their careers. You had a gold nugget there on coaching women in the taking charge of your own career. What are some things that you like to coach young women in their career?
The first thing is to get mentors and pass it on. You search out those leaders that you admire, you seek their advice and you volunteer to help them in a crisis. I did that from the time I first went to NASA. It was all like, “How can I help? What can I do?” Over-perform and then repay the favor. One of my pride and example of one of my most-prized mentees is Jody Singer. She is the Center Director at Marshall Space Flight Center. She’s leading the whole center, the whole return to the Moon, Mars. She uses me as an example all the time that she rode my coattail and Wanda Sigur of Lockheed Martin. She eventually became the Chief Engineer at Lockheed Martin, not only in space but of all of Lockheed Martin. She uses me as an example as well of being tough but chewing them out with a smile.
You ask other things like taking ownership of your own career. Don’t let anyone determine your professional destiny because you’re a woman or too short or too tall or you don’t fit their role model and always build your professional network. I accomplish mini-goals at NASA for my companies and myself through leadership positions and professional societies. I was the President of the National Space Club, the largest and most prestigious club at NASA. I was Chair of the Board of Women in Aerospace and their foundation, the AIAA. I held leadership positions in all those. You can influence the path that NASA is going in, but also your career. The most important thing is to be passionate about what you’re doing and not be afraid to change jobs. Keep your eye on the prize.
I remember when I was with you in DC one time and you were getting ready to host a conference for 200 vendors and the whole subject of the conference was how we’re going to get to Mars. You’re pulling them all together and getting them to talk, communicate and work together because it’s a huge team effort to get to Mars. One of the other questions that I have is what advice would you give to someone who’s going to be into a leadership position for the first time? A lot of people are a team player, but all of a sudden they’re being asked, “Would you now lead this team?”
Team player, that’s the first one, but treat everyone with respect and be pleasant to work with. Even if you’re really good, you’re not going to be pulled in to work on a team if you’re not pleasant to work with. Make heroes of everyone you touch and help them be successful. One of the key things is to over-perform. Know your job better than anyone else. Keep learning. Work a pay grade, promote and then push for that promotion. This is a tough business. Space and the next frontier is very hard. There’s a fine line between pushing people to get the job done and influencing them to do what needs to be done. I’ve always found that influencing them is the better model.Even if you're good, you're not going to be pulled in to work on a team if you're not pleasant to work with. Click To Tweet
Know a little bit about their job and what they’re facing so that then you can help them become a hero at what they’re doing. This has been a blast talking with you, Sandy. You’re definitely a champion in my eyes. As you helped to make heroes of those that you interact with, I tend to put you into what we call the Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame for Contribution. What would you want to be known and remembered for from your career?
Thank you so much. Maybe helping the best and brightest achieve their full potential.
NASA does bring in the best and brightest, but it takes somebody to lead them. We’ll definitely enshrine you for that. I think you’ve provided some gold nuggets for our readers here at Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in their Business. I keep pushing people that they need to put champions and develop the habits to create a strong culture. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers as they work on their culture?
One of the most critical lessons that I’ve learned as an external tank project manager about was leading by walking around. Dr. von Braun was famous for this. He would show up in an office. He showed up in my office sometimes. I took that to heart. My expertise was solid rocket motors rather than liquid engines. Appointment as an external type project manager was a daunting assignment. I decided the best way to educate myself was to spend my lunch hour walking the plant floor. This was 43 acres under roof, which was no small task. I would visit a different station each day. I really got to know the people on the floor. If you fast forward a year-and-a-half, I learned in a 6:30 tag up one morning, that was our meeting to touch base, that there was going to be another delay in delivering the tank. We were no longer going to deliver on January the 1st, 2005.
It was potentially tied to some union issues, but the sprayers said they couldn’t get there. The schedule they had laid out wasn’t going to be there. I decided to visit that station where the delay was the next morning. I called the Lockheed Martin station and talked to the lead person. I asked him about the delay and he said, “Who told you that? When do you need the tank delivered? Don’t listen to those folks.” He was this tall guy and he was bigger than life with the sprayers. He was the head sprayer. I went back and told the Lockheed Martin project broker manager, he said, “Sandy, I’ve looked at the schedule. There’s no way.”
I found out a couple of days later in the same 6:30 meeting that the union issues had been resolved and they would deliver on January the 1st. When Lockheed Martin signed over the tank to me and to NASA, the Lockheed Martin production manager told me that they did it for you. I didn’t walk the floor to get to know the production people for that purpose, but I learned a major lesson. They told me I was the first NASA project manager who ever talked to them. You think about going to a production floor with Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman or any of these. The project manager takes the NASA manager out. The lead person there would be the one talking to NASA, not the people on the floor. It’s a lesson learned.
You’re zippered where you talk to the counterparts, but what you were doing was opening up that communication totally up and down the whole chain of command and getting buy-in to that mission.
The managers aren’t going to make the schedule. The people on the floor are the ones that are going to make the schedule.
I was a big believer. I call it management by wandering around. One says walking around, but I used to also drop notes on people’s desks, “You did a great job on such and such or whatever.” Many years later, people will email me a picture of a note that they’ve saved that I dropped on their desk, but you don’t know the effect that it has when top people are talking to everybody up and down that chain of command.
I have one other little story. When we went to launch, the spray guys were able to go to the launch and they were in one of the receptions all over. I walked over to them and one of the sprayers said, “I told you she’d recognize us.” I said, “Of course, I recognize you. You saved my day.”
Did you walk over and say hello to them?
Yes, I hugged their necks, every one of them. They were the six foam spray guys. They saved my bacon.
Thanks for that great demonstration of what I call MBWA and how it worked behind the scenes to get the shuttle back in space and essentially save the International Space Station. It was great fun visiting with you, Sandy. You are a Lifetime Achievement Award winner for Women in Aerospace. It’s pretty fantastic and you figured prominently in that Space Shuttle program. Until our next episode of the show, I want you to get out there and make heroes of everyone you come in contact with. Do it as Sandy did it, get out there and talk to them. Remember you make your culture count.