NASA People

Center Snapshot: George Finelli
George Finelli. Image above: George Finelli, head of Center Operations, was a Division III All-American swimmer in the 100-meter butterfly in college while at the University of Buffalo. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Jim Hodges

George Finelli is looking for something to do with his time away from NASA Langley.

"My wife and I almost jokingly said that when my youngest son went away to college last fall, we needed to find hobbies," said Finelli, head of Center Operations.

Susan Finelli knows sign language, so her husband suggested she pursue that. And she has talked about pottery.

George is still looking. "I know I'm not good at golf," he said. "I'm not good at anything in which you have to hit a ball with a stick or a club or a racquet."

Swimming is a possibility, but when you have swum at a Division III All-American level, which Finelli did in the 100-meter butterfly at the University of Buffalo, just paddling up and down a pool isn't likely to spur your interest.

Finelli has been at NASA Langley since finishing a masters degree in statistics at Virginia Tech in 1980. His career since entering college from suburban New York has been a series of good fortune and mentoring.

"In high school, everyone said 'you ought to go into engineering' because I was good in science and math," Finelli said. "I didn't particularly like engineering, but in one class, they taught us how to program a computer."

From that, a statistical science major developed, but what to do with the degree? "I went to an advisor and was told I was going to go to grad school," Finelli remembered. "I said I didn't think so, because I didn't think I had done well enough or was smart enough."

On the advice of his advisor, he applied to "about eight grad schools," and one was Virginia Tech. "It fit three criteria," Finelli said, laughing. "It was within a day's driving distance; it was south of Buffalo; and it gave me the best assistantship."

Almost two years later, on the cusp of a masters degree in statistics, he was pondering his future. A letter to Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Another to a defense contractor. And there was a notice on a Blacksburg, Va., bulletin board that said NASA's Langley Research Center was looking to fill a specific job.

So Finelli trotted out the generic "I'm applying for a job" letter, added that he had always been interested in space and sent it to Langley. "I got a phone call from a guy in Hampton," he said. "The guy said 'are you still interested?' I said yeah. I didn't know.

" 'We have an opening and there's going to be a hiring freeze in a couple of months, so if you're interested, we'd like you to go ahead and apply.' "

"The next day he called back, and over the phone he fills out my federal application form. That's how quickly they wanted to hire somebody."

Finelli was hired in April of 1980 and has been at Langley ever since.

"The other day, I was sitting in the Pearl Young Theater, and they have pictures of center directors there," he said. "There have been 10 center directors since the beginning of Langley. Since I've been here, there have been seven."

He worked as a researcher, using his statistical education in things like simulation studies; and as a program manager when the system and organization at Langley changed. Among those programs was the Commercial Aviation Safety Team that won the 2008 Collier Trophy.

Finelli has borrowed from research and program manager backgrounds in directing Center Operations, which puts him in overall charge of things as widely disparate as maintenance and security, logistics and environmental sustainability and, recently, new construction.

"One of the guys who used to work here said you need to look at this as if everything is a program," Finelli said. "What are the objectives of the program?"

New Town construction is going to demand Finelli's time for years to come, particularly when coupled with day-to-day center operations. Still, he has his own demands.

"I don't talk about it a lot, but I once heard someone articulate it," Finelli said. "Family is important, and at a certain point, I put the cell phone and laptop down for the evening. There's work time, and there's family time, and I try to encourage other folks to do that, too."

Once that family time included son Kevin, but he's in graduate school at Duke, pursuing a desire to work at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. And it included son Brian, but he's a freshman at the University of Virginia, studying linguistics.

Now it's just George and Susan Finelli, and they're looking for hobbies.