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March 26, 2009

Kevin Petersen in his office. Petersen is photographed in his office. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. Center Director Kevin L. Petersen sees progress, achievement and a bright future for Dryden.

"Dryden has a very bright future and this is a good time for transition," Petersen said of his decision to retire.

For the past 10 years he has served as center director, and has the longest tenure of any current NASA center director. Petersen attributes his longevity - 37 years - at the center to the unique and focused mission of one of NASA's smaller centers.

In a recent survey made to identify key Dryden projects and personnel, survey respondents noted other reasons for his success. Petersen was cited as a Dryden key contributor for his work on the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire program earlier in his career and as center director. Nominators called Petersen "a great center director" and the "friendliest center director at NASA." Nominators also recognized him for his ability to "focus on bringing us the right project activities for Dryden."

Petersen sees the change and diversification of work and skills as one of the center's key achievements during his leadership. The center's skill mix has been changing in response to what's happening in the nation by diversifying the type of work the center does and where the center's dollars come from.

Dryden's key funding was primarily in NASA aeronautics and space shuttle support. Now, while aeronautics research and shuttle support still comprise a portion of Dryden's budget, it is a much smaller portion and balanced with major projects supporting all four of NASA's mission disciplines - environmental and space science, space exploration, human spaceflight and aeronautics, Petersen said.

"My attempt to stabilize the workforce and achieve a healthy workforce level was a key challenge," Petersen said.

Petersen showing NASA Administrator Michael Griffin around the center. Petersen, second from right, shows NASA Administrator Michael Griffin around the center. Also visible are, from left, pilot Jim Smolka and Jerry McKee. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida Partnerships

Another key factor in the center's success is its partnerships, he said. For example, during the past decade work has shifted from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense-supported X-planes. While there are still projects in that arena, new projects feature more science missions with an expanding customer base that includes such partners as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and science organizations.

An example of these new partnerships is seen in the new opportunities that are becoming available for the science community with the acquisitions of a civilian Predator B that the center has called Ikhana, and the Global Hawk autonomous aircraft.

Northrop Grumman's cost sharing with the Global Hawk is an example of future partnerships that are beneficial to NASA and the company, Petersen said. Northrop Grumman officials are looking to test new experiments and components on the Dryden Global Hawks that were transferred from the Air Force. The aircraft are early prototype models of the Global Hawks used for the development program.

The Ikhana and Global Hawk are the only aircraft of their type available to non-military users and therefore there is a demand to test various experiments on the Dryden testbeds, Petersen said.

The first Global Hawk mission scheduled for this summer will spark scientists' interest in things they might not be thinking of today, he said.

"I expect these new platforms to be busy with new science investigations all over the world," he said.

The DAOF and infrastructure

In addition to efforts to stabilize the center's work force and balance and diversify its program portfolio, Petersen developed the business case and successfully advocated for the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, or DAOF.

Located in Palmdale, the facility currently houses the DC-8 and NASA's 747SP Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. It is expected that other Dryden aircraft will be moved to the facility later this year.

Petersen also made the case within NASA for the center to be awarded supplemental infrastructure funding to sustain critical capabilities. His efforts resulted in the center receiving an additional $25 million annually to sustain Dryden's flight operations and test infrastructure.

New administration, new opportunities

The new presidential administration also appears to offer new opportunities for NASA and potentially for Dryden. Additional funding in the stimulus package recently signed into law includes resources for NASA for climate change research, innovation in aviation and aviation safety.

"I expect an increase in work and opportunities in aeronautics and Earth science," Petersen said.

Another possibility Petersen anticipates as a result of emphasis on environmentally responsible aircraft is a new X-plane to demonstrate some of the next-generation technologies that have been developed or identified by the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Dryden has been supporting flights of the subscale X-48B blended wing body aircraft.

"The blended wing body concept hopefully will result in a mid-scale, 100-foot wingspan, piloted X-plane to improve some of these technologies for the nation," Petersen said.

The Orion program also was identified for additional funding in the recently approved stimulus package.

It is unclear how much of the stimulus package funding might make its way to Dryden, but the move signifies support for key NASA initiatives, Petersen said.

Dryden will continue its efforts on the Orion flight test crew module, which is undergoing preparations at the center for the first flight test of the spacecraft's launch abort system later this year. Dryden might have a role in other elements of the effort to return to the moon, possibly including research of a lunar lander and, eventually, support of the larger Constellation program as it moves to operational status in ways similar to how the center provides support to the space shuttle program, Petersen said.

Kevin L. Petersen, center, talks with Griffin P. Corpening, right, X-43A chief engineer, while then Associate Administrator for Aeronautics J. Victor Lebacqz shares the moment. It was a good day when the X-43A had a successful flight March 27, 2004. Kevin L. Petersen, center, talks with Griffin P. "Griff" Corpening, right, X-43A chief engineer, while then Associate Administrator for Aeronautics J. Victor Lebacqz shares the moment. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. Achievement and transformation

During the past decade, Dryden has accomplished many flight-research firsts, including the flight of the Helios Prototype solar-electric aircraft to a world record 96,863-foot altitude, the flight of the X-43A integrated scramjet vehicle to a speed of Mach 10, and the demonstration of fully autonomous in-flight aerial refueling capability.

"I have a lot of good memories. The most exciting times were those when the center supported first flights of new aircraft, the first time new technologies were tried, or the first time a concept was proven out in flight. Those are the things everybody works for. There have been a lot of milestones of flight here," Petersen said.

Petersen said he also is satisfied with the effort of the past six years to improve the center's performance and the Transforming Dryden efforts of the past two to three years. He believes the workshops were a good way to give Dryden employees the tools to meet the challenges that are common with change.

He hopes that Dryden employees, who have traditionally excelled at meeting short-term challenges, will expand their view to see ahead to longer-term planning, an investment that Petersen said should continue to bring returns for years to come.

Petersen and then NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe stand by the Helios Prototype in 2004. Petersen and then NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe stand by the Helios Prototype in 2004. NASA Photo / Tom Tschida. For his successor, Petersen suggests the new center director have an eye on what's going to happen two to three years from now and continue to position the center to have the right mix of people and capabilities to meet the challenges and anticipate needs.

The new center director also should work to "maintain a steady approach. Programs will go up and down, schedules will change, budgets will change and staffing will change. Ride through those ups and downs without acting too quickly. Allow time to balance things out."

Petersen is satisfied with his career and where Dryden is today.

"My goal was to put together a solid team and position the center for success. I'm comfortable with accomplishing that goal and that the team will carry on," he said. "In addition to having the right mix programmatically, we have developed the right people with the right skills. It's the people that make things happen."

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