There was a time, not that long ago, when counting down was a key part of Loretta Kelemen’s job.
The retired Air Force colonel once ran the launch range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was a place where she used to, as she would sometimes tell family, “count backwards for a living.”
It was an exciting assignment. “I would work the shuttle launches, the Navy ballistic missile launches and the Titan IV launches,” she said. “That was fascinating, fascinating work to do.”
Kelemen will still be counting in her new role as director of the Center Operations Directorate at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, which she started in December.
Instead of counting down, though, Kelemen comes to NASA Langley at a time when she’ll be counting up, marking the number of new facilities being built as part of the center’s 20-year revitalization effort. That’s in addition to a myriad of other COD activities, including center improvement projects, base security, environmental management, maintenance and engineering, and logistics, with a complete focus on operating and revitalizing the Center to ensure Langley’s success now and in the future.
It’s an exciting career move for Kelemen, who retired from the Air Force in 2012 and spent a couple of years in the private sector before accepting the job at NASA.
“There’s a lot of great, innovative ideas out here. And I guess that’s what NASA’s about anyway … I’m excited to be a part of the NASA family,” she said. “It’s a great time to be here.”
Kelemen spent a significant part of her Air Force career in the Air Force Space Command, which is based entirely in the United States, so unlike many in the military, Kelemen was never stationed overseas. Instead, she and her husband, Vince, ricocheted around the U.S., spending time at bases in Florida, Colorado, California, Ohio and Alabama.
Kelemen was in Montgomery, Alabama — in a classroom at the Air Force Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base — when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened. Like so many Americans, she and her classmates watched events unfold on a television screen.
“It was a bad place to be,” she said. “There were worse places I could’ve been, but you feel pretty helpless in a school environment where you’re not part of a unit that can go and do anything to help.”
In a slight twist of fate, though, Kelemen ended up at the Pentagon just a few months later. When she arrived, the damage to the building was still relatively fresh. “They were still working on it,” she said. “They hadn’t rebuilt that area.”
Kelemen ended her Air Force career as commander of the 45th Mission Support Group at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. It wasn’t her first choice for a commander post; she had hoped to do something on the operations side. “That’s what I’d done most of my career,” she said. “I’d operated. I ran space launch ranges, launched and flew satellites.”
But the mission support gig was the one offered to her. So she took it — and it turned out to be what she considers the best assignment of her military career.
As group commander, she oversaw the 1,750 military, civilian and contractor personnel who provided mission support for launch operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base. That support included civilian engineering, facility maintenance, fire response, environmental services, emergency management, human resources, morale, welfare and recreation, base security, logistics and transportation. She even oversaw the golf course.
“Never a dull moment,” Kelemen said. “It was just a great, great assignment … It was certainly the pinnacle of my career.”
With that pinnacle in the rearview mirror, Kelemen is hoping to reach a new pinnacle at NASA Langley. She and Vince and their sons, Paul, 12, and Cole, 7, are settling into their new home in Poquoson and looking forward to spending some time on the water soon.
“My husband and I like to boat, so we got a house on the water with a dock,” she said. “But we still haven’t dipped our toes in the water yet because of this cold you guys have.”
Kelemen is looking forward to taking some family camping trips, too. She says she’s happy to set up a tent just about anywhere — not surprising coming from someone who seems to put a high value on being self sufficient and paving her own way.
Growing up, no one in Kelemen’s immediate family was in the military, but Kelemen decided to join the Air Force while she was still attending high school in Georgia. She chose to go to Valdosta State University so she could go through their ROTC program and get a commission in the Air Force.
Her parents dropped her off at Valdosta State with minimal belongings — just a few things for her dorm room and a 10-speed bike to get around on. Kelemen worked to pay her way through school, and also earned some grant and scholarship money along the way.
It was a relatively humble beginning for someone who eventually rose to the rank of Air Force colonel. Kelemen wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s good to struggle a little bit,” she said. “Then you can appreciate what you have sometimes.”
Kelemen doesn’t seem to be struggling too much now as she adjusts to her new role at NASA Langley. She just seems eager to settle in and get some work done. She’s counting again, too. This time, though, it’s her blessings.
“I feel very blessed to be here,” she said. “There are so many capable people who could’ve taken this job and I am so thankful that NASA trusted me with this amazing opportunity. I have an incredible team and I am proud to be COD.”