NASA People

Center Snapshot: Steve Sandford
Steve Sandford. Image above: Steve Sandford, who heads of the CLARREO project, has spent much of his career working with both engineers and scientists. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The head of the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, who is also head of the Engineering Directorate at NASA Langley, was once turned down for a job by the center because he didn't have an engineering degree.

"I interviewed with the helicopter guys here at TDT (Transonic Dynamics Tunnel)," said Steve Sandford. "They liked my physics degree but found out they couldn't actually hire me without an engineering degree."

Hearing that a few more times from a few more places persuaded him to add a masters in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia to his Randolph-Macon bachelors in physics and math. The graduate degree made getting a job at Langley much easier. Having both science and engineering backgrounds has helped mightily in doing that job.

"A lot of my career has been working that interface between engineers and scientists," Sandford said. "I was a physicist at first, so I've never been intimidated to talk to the scientists. They do discovery. I love discovery. That's one of the reasons I'm still here. I get to do all of these great things."

His lot in life now is "project manager," which involves a fair amount of that interface. A project manager often walks a tightrope between discovery, engineering and finances, which means that he or she sometimes has to say "no."

With CLARREO, though, Sandford has found project nirvana, at least as far as interaction between scientists and engineers goes.

"I've got an incredible set of science people who do care about costs and schedule," Sandford said. "They get it, and they're respectful of the engineering folks. They knew that there are limits to what you can do from a reliability point of view and the technology available.

"And I've got a great engineering team that understands that science is the purpose for this and we're trying to meet needs."

The mission is designed to measure radiation from the sun as it bounces off the Earth, and to provide records that will form the basis of future decisions about the climate. It's an important task – Sandford calls it an "important long-term investment in Langley by headquarters Science Mission Directorate." A recent $1.2 billion budget proposal would put CLARREO on a 10-year timetable, with the first of two satellites being launched in 2017, the second in 2020. That is requiring the mission team to speed up some things.

At some point, called "Phase A" by NASA, Sandford will leave CLARREO and return upstairs in Building 1202 to run the Engineering Directorate.

The jobs are different, with different rewards, which Sandford learned in working with his first project, the Lidar-In-space Technology Experiment (LITE).

"There were some great technicians teaching me to build circuits, put things together and learn to use the instrumentation," he said. "Senior engineers took me to Kennedy, Johnson and Marshall. I got to see the whole agency and I was hooked."

Early into his career, he advanced into project management, then into running a branch and a directorate. They are vastly different tasks, with different rewards.

"When I go back to the engineering directorate, I have to completely reconfigure my brain to take on lots of things at the same time at a high level," Sandford said. "That's as opposed to taking on one thing at a time at a deeper level."

In that deeper level, he never quite gets to the bottom of a project. Instead, he works the project to a certain point, then hands it off to somebody else who manages it to fruition. As head of a directorate, "your job is to build an environment for people to be successful. You don't really come to the end of it and say, 'I did it. Good. I'm done. Look what I did.' You don't get to the end where it flies, but all of the people who are working for you do, so that's the return, seeing other people be successful."

Away from Langley, he camps with his family and spends time watching son Corin play baseball and daughter Macey play softball for Tabb High School. In her work for the Fresh Air Fund, wife Amy Witcover-Sandford adds a young Queens, N.Y., girl, Stephanie Bassaragh, to the family each summer in an effort to show her what life is like outside the inner city.

"When these kids come down, just being able to play in the back yard is a major thing for them," Sandford said. "Just to have grass."

He also competes in road races up to a half-marathon.

"I know if I can get to a race, I'm in some kind of shape," he said. "But I can't train hard because I don't have the time."

And he rides a bicycle. That's something of a throwback, because he rode the bike on a nearly two-year hiatus after college, while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He found out at Langley.