Michael Donnelly, project manager for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx

Four years ago, NASA aerospace engineer Michael Donnelly took on the coolest assignment of his three-decade career. He manages the mission to send a spacecraft to the asteroid Bennu, where it will pluck 60 to 2,000 grams of material, and send it to Earth. This would be the largest sample brought home from space since the Apollo era. Donnelly is responsible for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, instruments, ground system and launch processing. The spacecraft was set to launch in September, and if all goes as planned,  it will collect the sample in 2020 and journey back toward Earth, ejecting the sample capsule to land in the Utah desert in 2023. Scientists expect to learn about the formation of the solar system and about the composition of the 492-meter-wide Bennu, in case we ever need to deflect or destroy it or other asteroids to protect Earth.

When did you know you wanted to be a NASA project manager?

My father was in the U.S. Air Force and we spent a lot of time moving from location to location. One of those duty stops was in Hawaii, and I spent four years of my life — the prime Apollo years — watching the Apollo astronauts come back from the moon and stop in Hawaii on their way back to the States. That probably planted the seed. In my senior year at the University of Maryland, in addition to being a bartender, I was a part-time employee with Ford Aerospace. Once I graduated, Ford offered me a full-time job flying satellites at Goddard Space Flight Center. It wasn’t long before I joined NASA and started down the management path. It was while I was the Aqua spacecraft manager that I first voiced it out loud that I would like to be a project manager. There’s a huge difference between a spacecraft manager and project manager, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I wouldn’t listen to the Aqua project manager when he told me so. A spacecraft manager ensures that a spacecraft is built to specifications or contract requirements. It is a singular effort. A project manager is responsible for the entire effort. Looking back now, life would’ve been much easier staying as a spacecraft manager, but probably not nearly as rewarding. Being responsible to the agency [NASA] for delivering a project on time, on (or under) budget, and meeting the customer’s requirements is a huge responsibility — and one that you cannot do on your own. Leading and managing a diverse team of people, and accomplishing something that within NASA hasn’t been done before, that is rewarding .

What are the ingredients for success?

Managing people is about relationships. There are untold numbers of books on managing, but in the end, one needs to meet people where they are: Understand what motivates them, what they’re struggling with, where they need help and where they don’t. You can’t sit in an office and issue edicts via email. You need to go where the work is being performed. The other piece is leadership. A project manager needs to adopt a leadership style or strategy that fits his or her personality. I’m not a consensus builder. I fit more into the benevolent dictator model. However, I know where my weak areas are and I make sure that I do not let my own personal style drive me to make foolish or uninformed decisions. I know that I tend to shoot from the hip, making quick decisions based upon my own expertise or value judgments. I need to staff my project with people who are not clones and do not think like me. My two deputy project managers are more along the lines of consensus builders. This works for me, because they slow me down when I need to be slowed down. Since I still retain ultimate decision authority, I can chose to act, or not, on their recommendations. Bottom line — know thyself. Η

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Space Science

"You can’t sit in an office and issue edicts via email. You need to go where the work is being performed."

NASA aerospace engineer Michael Donnelly
Black and white portrait of a middle-aged man with a beard, wearing a dark shirt with an emblem on the chest.
Mike Donnelly. Credit: Courtesy photo

Michael Donnelly, project manager for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx