Orlando Figueroa began his NASA career twenty-seven years
ago at Goddard Space Flight Center, not knowing he would eventually
become the Center’s Director of Applied Engineering and Technology
and Federal Employee of the Year. Dr. Ed Weiler, who
nominated him for the award, describes Figueroa's unusual
ability to "cut through the tape and get the job done."
"Figueroa has a fierce determination to do a job well
and isn't afraid to speak his mind," said Weiler . "Those
qualities explain why he is Employee of the Year and made
him the ideal Mars Program Director ."
Technicians maneuver the aeroshell for
Mars Exploration Rover 2 onto a workstand in the Payload Hazardous
Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.
Figueroa was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and obtained
a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from
the University of Puerto Rico in 1978. He moved to Maryland
and took his first steps with NASA at Goddard, where he joined
the Heat Capacity Mapping mission, which mapped the land over
the United States, during its integration and test phase.
"Imagine coming out of school as an engineer all gung- ho
about applying whatever I learned and being part of the team
that took this mission to the launch pad and launched it successfully,"
Figueroa said. His first mission became one of his most memorable,
not just for witnessing his first launch but for the lessons
he learned from the team.
"This group of people embraced me as part of the team," said
Figueroa, "and two of my supervisors took very seriously the
role of mentorship. John Webb and Joe Dezio met with me often
to talk about the job, my progress, and to provide guidance."
It was during this mission that Figueroa also learned to keep
his eyes on the goal, and he took that lesson to heart during
future missions that posed difficult challenges.
Those missions were not long in coming. After applying his
determination and skill to missions that included free fliers
and the shuttle and to line management positions, Figueroa
was approached by Tom Huber and Alan Sherman Director
and Deputy Director of the Goddard Engineering Directorate
to manage the Small Explorers program in 1990. This
program represented a move from huge "Battlestar Galactica"
vehicles, which might launch once per decade, to vehicles
that provided more frequent flight opportunities to the science
community. But engineering these smaller vehicles was not
the only measure of success. "We knew we had a responsibility
not only to build extremely capable scientific spacecraft
with relatively small resources but also to help build a capability
in the commercial sector so they could also do this on their
own," Figueroa recalled.
To put this program on the path to success, he first set
about establishing an environment of teamwork and mentorship
like the one he had encountered when he first joined NASA.
First he had to get to know the team. That required a lot
of walking around and face-to-face interactions. This also
allowed him to get a sense of what was going on and what was
getting in the way. "One of the things that I learned as I
was growing up in the system was to be able to very quickly
identify areas that needed attention, that were not working
as they should to fulfill the end goal of mission success,"
He identified key areas that needed attention before the
goal could be achieved and went after them with zeal. This
quickly led to several small wins, which helped people feel
successful early and remain motivated. "I am very open and
honest in communicating what I see. It was very direct, not
behind anyone's back. It was observing what we need to do
and making corrections along the way," Figueroa said. "We
engaged the contractors and other organizations in frequent
meetings to discuss progress and deal with issues promptly.
We dealt with whatever was getting in the way of completing
the deliverables swiftly."
After three successful missions in the Small Explorers program
and getting two more on their way, Figueroa moved on to the
Large Explorers program, where the X-Ray Timing Explorer and
the Advanced Composition Explorer were in development, and
a new mission demanding a new approach was looming on the
horizon. Headquarters posed the challenge of completing the
Far Ultraviolet Spectrometer Explorer mission for half the
cost of what was initially envisioned.
Johns Hopkins University put together a strong proposal for
the mission. A strong proposal, however, was not enough to
ensure mission success. "I knew many of the players at Johns
Hopkins," Figueroa said, "so I started to build a relationship
with these individuals." This allowed NASA and Johns Hopkins
to quickly create a collaborative team. "The way you build
that [collaboration] is setting up the channels for frequent
communication daily, if needed, or weekly. This gives
them the sense that not only am I soliciting for them to open
the door, but that I am willing to open the door as well,"
Foreign contributions, batteries, guidance and navigation
sensors, and detectors represented challenges that threatened
the cost and schedule commitments and required careful and
frequent coordination. After the mission launched successfully,
Figueroa attributed a large part of that success to good teamwork
and the communication his team and the Johns Hopkins team
established. "We could talk frankly about anything that was
going on at any time, and we dealt with issues promptly before
they could grow or, worse, be forgotten," he said.
The skills and knowledge developed through these experiences
were critical when Figueroa eventually moved to the Mars program.
Prior to becoming the Mars Program Director, Figueroa was
the Deputy Chief for Systems Engineering for NASA when the
Agency was dealing with the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars
Polar Lander mission failures. In that position, he focused
on how to strengthen systems engineering and software capabilities
throughout the Agency. When he was approached to take over
as director for the Mars program, he knew what to avoid.
"In the late ’90s version of the Mars program, we were moving
very aggressively not only to do orbiter and rover missions
but also to bring samples back to Earth as quickly as we possibly
could. We were trying to do this with an extremely frugal
budget, so we were always operating very close to and, unknowingly,
beyond the edge. The failures demonstrated that we were violating
some of the most fundamental principles of engineering and
management. We were trying to focus our attention on the bigger,
more visible issues, while the system of checks and balances
diminished to the point that many small, yet important, things
were being overlooked the accumulation of which was
building undue risk in the system," Figueroa said.
Following the restructuring of the Mars program and upon
taking over its leadership, Figueroa focused on these issues
and others that the individual review teams had uncovered.
He again applied his earlier lesson of quickly identifying
what prevents success then communicating these observations
in an open and honest forum and dealing with them swiftly.
He also focused on building a relationship with the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL) to support their success, "because ultimately
their success would mean our success," he said. As Dr. Weiler
noted, "Orlando would go around [JPL] and just talk to the
engineers on the floor."
Keeping the program geared toward success required paying
attention to the details, which can be hard to do at the director
level. "Orlando worked Mars twenty-four hours a day," said
Dr. Weiler. Figueroa relied on building trust and open communication
to keep him abreast of the details and any problems that might
arise. "Jim Garvin [program scientist], Ed Weiler [Associate
Administrator for Science], and I worked hard on opening that
communication channel," he said. They constantly spoke about
progress and issues and agreed on ways to address issues.
Eventually, the program manager felt comfortable enough to
call Figueroa at home if a critical issue came up. "I would
commit myself to not overreacting to anything and allow the
team to do their work, recognizing that they would do well
in their promise to come back and give me the details," Figueroa
His thorough involvement demonstrated an in-depth interest
in the technical integrity of the mission and supported an
ability to anticipate and act upon programmatic issues as
they arose. The Mars Program Manager at JPL and the rest of
the JPL team appreciated his genuine interest in their work
and the support he provided during the inevitable challenges
of the mission.
The Mars Explorer Rover mission launched Spirit and Opportunity
in 2004. "At any given time in the last year before launch,
if you would have told us we would have two successful launches,
two successful cruise modes, two successful landings, and
two successful missions in total, Orlando and I would not
have bet one-tenth of a penny on that. We would have been
very, very pleased landing one of them that was mission
success. We couldn't have hoped for two," said Dr. Weiler.
Launching two rovers within days of each other had never been
done before, and it was accomplished in three years, from
conception to launch, in the wake of mission failures from
"He excited a nation. He excited a world. How many federal
employees get that opportunity?" said Dr. Weiler.
Now Figueroa has come full circle, returning to the center
where he began his education in leadership. As Director of
Applied Engineering and Technology at Goddard, he continues
to apply what he learned throughout his career to his current
job. He is now responsible for 1,300 employees and provides
guidance on engineering and system technology. "It is a large
organization with exceptional people, and it has a record
of success that is hard to match. I want to build from that
success to better serve the center and the Agency," Figueroa
"There are certain principles that I have found in common
[on my missions] that make things successful," he said. "There
is a sense of respect and integrity that opens the door for
open and honest communication. People feel free to say whatever
they feel may be getting in the way of the end goal.
"I talked about maintaining focus on the end game and recognizing
that there are going to be very difficult challenges along
To pretend that this is going to be an easy
task along the way is foolish and unreal.
"Acknowledging the people who are actually doing the work
is another very important part of leadership. I know the individuals
I mentioned [as mentors] always took that very seriously,
and I'm grateful for them taking the time. I hope I can do
as good a job at being the mentor, the example, the leader,
the focus that the people who embraced me when I started were.
I am certainly committed to it."