March 13th, 2018
After a 31-year career at NASA, Robert Lightfoot is retiring effective April 30, 2018. For 14 months, he has been serving as the U.S. space agency’s acting administrator and promises to work with the Trump administration to ensure a smooth transition to the next administrator.
Since Jan. 20, 2017, Lightfoot has been serving as the interim administrator for NASA, nearly doubling the record for the longest time the agency has been helmed by an acting administrator. He announced his departure before the Trump administration’s nominee for a permanent administrator, former congressman James Bridenstein, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
If Bridenstein is not confirmed before Lightfoot steps down, his acting administrator duties will turn over to acting Deputy Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk.
Lightfoot’s announcement was first revealed to the NASA staff via an internal email Monday, March 12, 1018. Without stating the reasons for his departure, he was effusive in his praise of the agency workforce.
“I cannot express enough my gratitude to the entire NASA team for the support during my career and especially the last 14 months as your acting administrator,” Lightfoot said. “The grit and determination you all demonstrate every day in achieving our missions of discovery and exploration are simply awe inspiring. I leave NASA blessed with a career full of memories of stunning missions, cherished friendships, and an incredible hope for what is yet to come.”
An active career with the agency
Lightfoot began his NASA career at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1989 as a test engineer and program manager for the Space Shuttle main engine technology test bed program and the Russian RD-180 engine testing program for the Atlas launch vehicle, according the his agency bio.
He was deputy director of the Propulsion Test Directorate at NASA’s Stennis Space Center starting in 2001. A year later, he was appointed as its director. From 2003 to 2005, he served as the associate administrator fo the Space Shuttle program in the Office of Space Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he was responsible for the Space Shuttle program’s return to flight activities following the Columbia accident, technical and budgetary oversight of the program’s $3 billion annual budget, and initial transition and retirement efforts of the Shuttle infrastructure.
Then, from 2007 to 2009, Lightfoot served as the deputy director of Marshall after previously managing the Space Shuttle Propulsion Office at the center. In this role, he was responsible for overseeing the manufacture, assembly, and operation of the primary Shuttle propulsion elements, including the main engines, external tank, solid rocket boosters, and reusable solid rocket motors.
In August 2009, he was named to be the director of the Marshall Space Center where he shepherded the center through a series of overlapping challenges, including the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the ending of the Constellation program, and the start of the Space Launch System (SLS) program.
Finally, between Sept. 25, 2012, and the beginning of his tenure as acting administrator, he served as the space agency’s associate administrator, NASA’s highest-ranking civil servant position.
‘It’s been an unbelievable ride’
Over his time at NASA, Lightfoot has garnered many awards and honors, both from within and from outside the space agency.
In 2010, he was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. A graduate of the University of Alabama’s class of 1986, he was selected as a University of Alabama College of Engineering fellow in 2009. In October 2007, he was named Distinguished Departmental Fellow for the University of Alabama’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. He also serves on the University of Alabama’s Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board.
Within the agency, Lightfoot received several awards as well, including a NASA Outstanding Leadership medal in 2007 for exemplary leadership of the Shuttle Propulsion Office for his work with the Space Shuttle’s return to flight.
In 2006, Lightfoot was awarded the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives, and in 2010 and 2016 he received the Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Executives, which is the highest honors attainable for federal government work, according to NASA.
Lightfoot received a Spaceflight Leadership Recognition Award in 2000, which recognizes successful leaders. In 1999, NASA’s astronaut corps presented him with a Silver Snoopy Award, which honors individuals who have made key contributions to the success of human spaceflight missions. He also received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal in 1996 for significant contributions to NASA’s mission.
“NASA’s history has many chapters with each of us having a part,” Lightfoot said at the end of his retirement announcement email. “I’ve written my part and now the pen is in your hands—each one of you. I know you will make this nation proud as you accomplish the many missions you have in front of you.”
Lightfoot said he looks forward to more time with family and close friends, and cheering the NASA team on from the outside.
“God speed to all of you and thanks for the opportunity to be part of something truly bigger than each of us individually!” Lightfoot said. “It’s been an unbelievable ride!”
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy’s diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.