NASA People

Center Snapshot: Rich Antcliff
04.06.09
Rich Antcliff, SRO director. Image above: Rich Antcliff traveled through the Disney Imagineers on his way to head of the new Strategic Relationships Office. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

Like the theme-park ride he worked on in another incarnation, research at NASA seemed a dead end for Rich Antcliff.

"I enjoyed it, loved it, but I knew I would never win a Nobel Prize," said Antcliff, who brought a physical chemistry background in laser spectroscopy to Langley as a contractor in 1981. "But I found out that I was pretty good at helping other people be successful."

Antcliff made the career choice to opt out of research and sign on to management, and that choice has led him to lead the center's newest organization: the Strategic Relationships Office.

Between time doing research and today, Antcliff became head of the former Measurement, Science and Technology Branch and deputy head of the Aeronautics Directorate, along the way earning a reputation as a manager who could repair organizations and solve problems. He also went through the Senior Executive Selection Candidate Development process, which gave him a chance to go to Disneyland.

Well, actually to Disney Imagineers, about 40 miles, 400,000 cars and a county line from Anaheim's Disneyland.

The opportunity came through the SESCD program, which included time spent in NASA's budget office in Washington and urged work outside the agency as part of the executive maturation process.

None of the standard outside opportunities appealed.

"Then I got this idea about going to Disney and I wrote them a 'cold-call' letter," Antcliff said. " I wrote, 'I'm a NASA guy, and I'd like to come out and work with you guys. I will be free. All you have to do is give me a room. And I'd like to learn how you work.' "

From that experience sprang a commitment to innovation that drives him to this day. Antcliff found himself in Burbank, Calif., at a table with artists and engineers, working on "Expedition Everest," which has since become Disney World's newest E-ticket extravaganza. It's a thrill ride up a mountain to a peak where the tracks end abruptly, courtesy of the Abominable Snowman. Then it's an 80-foot, 50-mph drop to safety.

"I got a chance to understand their culture and how they got things done, how they innovated," Antcliff said of working at Disney. "One of the things I've repeated over and over from that experience is that they respected each other, even though they were diverse in their skills. They had engineers. They had artists, and they were as different from each other as any people could be."

From that recognition of what each brought to the process evolved a finished product.

"They came around a table and absolutely respected each other," said Antcliff. " 'You are the best artist in the country. I respect that. I will listen to you to influence what I do in engineering.' 'You are the best engineer in the country, and it's up to me to listen to you to influence what I do.'

"That's something I found very healthy, and it's something we could improve on here at Langley. It's something I've tried to illuminate with senior management here."

It's a key to innovation, Antcliff maintained. If he's about anything, it's innovation, something he seeks to foster in SRO … and everywhere else.

"The whole point is to influence the whole center," Antcliff said. "Part of the job I have is to be a catalyst for the whole center and the whole agency. I'm on a mission to help the center and then the agency become more innovative."

It's a message he is trying to impart to his new organization, SRO, which is the product of a merger of Advanced Planning and Partnerships Office and the Office of Strategic Communications and Education.

Again, it's the message of innovation. "Oh my gosh, what an opportunity," Antcliff said. "It will blow your mind, the opportunity that I have and that we have as an organization. The influence that we can have is mind-boggling."

Antcliff sounds almost evangelical. It's a natural thing, perhaps stemming from his work as chairman of the Board of Deacons of his church and leader of its ambitious building program. His faith is important to him, and he carries it to work as head of Langley's Prayer Group.

He still finds time for his granddaughter, 3-year-old Emily, and for a new avocation, beekeeping. "It's something I have wanted to do for years," he said. "It's always been an interest of mine, and last year I finally bit the bullet."

Antcliff went to Gale Harvey, who works with the Science Directorate and has kept bees for years. "I connected with him and found out the tricks of the trade," Antcliff said. "I got bees from him to get started."

He has four hives, which produced 4 ½ gallons of honey in their first year from about 300,000 bees. Those bees stung their novice keeper a few times.

"It hurts like heck for about 30 seconds and then you're over it," Antcliff said. "I'm sure people think I'm nuts when I get stung and dance around the yard."

Back at Langley, Antcliff doesn't shy away from the word "salesman."

"Absoluely I'm a salesman," he said. "I'm a salesman for innovation. I'm a salesman for risk. That's not a bad thing. I'm an encourager. I'm a catalyst. I'm a Sherpa. I'm an advocate."

With a new organization for which to advocate.