Welcoming Dan Dumbacher
A message from Sandy Magnus
I will leave AIAA in a few short weeks knowing that you will be in the capable hands of Daniel L. Dumbacher. Dan has extensive experience at NASA, where he was an integral part of the human space flight program. In addition, Dan spent some time as a professor of practice at Purdue University working to inspire and educate the next generation of aerospace professionals. To welcome Dan, we invited him to sit down for an interview with Ben Iannotta, editor-in-chief of Aerospace America. — Sandra H. Magnus
Read a compressed version here or see the transcript.
Ben Iannotta: You’ve been involved with cutting-edge NASA projects. Why did you choose that line of work?
Dan Dumbacher: I couldn’t be an astronaut. I was too tall: 6-foot-4. I always wanted to work at NASA, so I was lucky enough to end up there.
Iannotta: What’s satisfying about being in management?
Dumbacher: Being able to help facilitate and get the roadblocks out of the way so that the whole team can achieve the mission.
Iannotta: People sometimes poke fun at us here in or near the Beltway in Washington, D.C.
Dumbacher: It’s a 17-mile-wide logic-free zone, I’ve been quoted as saying.
[Laughs] Why come back here?
At Purdue, I was working with students in the next generation, and that was very rewarding, but a smaller subset. The AIAA allows influence on a broader scale. Item number two was: In our system of government, the decisions for funding are made by the 536 investors in Washington, D.C., that’s the Congress and the White House. You have to be in the game to affect it.
In terms of AIAA membership, how do we retain members and maybe even grow? How big a priority should that be?
It should be a really big priority. Over the last few years, the AIAA membership has been on a small decline. Whether that’s retirements or what not, I’m not smart enough to know yet. I do think growing the membership for the future is important to allow people to build their networks, and also to facilitate the learning and the competition, frankly, as technologies move forward.
What do you see as some of AIAA’s recent successes?
The big one is getting the governance structure simplified, and we’re going to have to learn what that means and how we implement that, and get our behaviors set up so that we make the best use of that governance improvement. I know Sandy [Magnus] and the team have been working hard on getting more involvement at the section and regional level, and I think we’ll continue to work on that and improve that. The Forum 360s and the plenary sessions help provide the context in which those technical discussions need to occur, which provides a more holistic view, a more connected view, so that the technical is connected to the context, and the context is informed by the technical.
Being a 31-year member, what have you gained, either career-wise or just personally?
The personal part was the contacts and the networking that was facilitated through the different conferences and now the forums, along with the ability and the opportunity to go see what other people were doing in other fields. Aerospace America gives more depth that I normally wouldn’t go look at, but it puts it in front of me and makes it easier for me to learn. The Daily Launch has been standard reading every morning. I spent all of my career, basically, at NASA, but it gave me the opportunity to look at what’s going on in the aviation world.
What do you see as some of the interesting work or trends underway in the aviation area?
Electric propulsion, hypersonics. I’m somewhat motivated for flying cars because one of these days, my kids are going to take my driver’s license away ’cause I’m too old, and I need to be able to punch a button and just have it take me wherever I want to go.
How would you describe your management style?
I tend to work in a very collaborative style, very team-oriented. The biggest thing that’s important to me is the trust and the integrity among the team. You can’t have good teamwork unless you have trust among the team members, and that’s built on integrity. So, those are my important points. I’m very open-door, very collaborative, as transparent as I can possibly be, is the way I like to approach things.
How do you deal with the need to move at the speed of the market and the need to work as a team?
You have to have the environment such that the teams are trusted to go work on issues and to be innovative and to try new things. Some will work, some won’t. We’ll have some failures. But you have to allow the teams to innovate. For example, Google and Apple work in teams, and they are very successful at keeping up and even driving the market. Fundamentally, they allow the teams to innovate with leadership in terms of the direction and the constraints.
So, a team can actually work quickly.
A team can work much more quickly than a highly constrained decision authority chain up and down an org chart.
Are there unique things about working with engineers?
Certainly. We all have our biases and we’re subjective to some degree, but engineers in particular want to see the data. So, when you are trying to work through changes and innovation, one of the best things to do with engineers is to run a couple of examples, see what the data tells you. Because I’m an engineer, I’m open to the new ideas. The fail-fast kind of mentality that you hear out of Silicon Valley is somewhat applicable. I don’t want to fail too fast on some things, but you also don’t want to have analysis paralysis, where you can sit back and make very little progress because you’re trying to answer all the questions before you do anything.
How do you see AIAA’s relationship evolving with the space startups, the urban mobility people, Silicon Valley?
Our heart and soul is aerospace, and we have to evolve with that industry. Commercial aviation has evolved through key technology enhancements in terms of the turbofan engine and other things that have led us to where we are today. That’s a continuing effort to get more efficient, to get safer, to provide more and better services, and quicker services. The space world today is comparable in maturity to commercial aviation in the 1930s and ’40s. We are learning how to come out of all government, all the time. How can we accelerate and enhance private enterprise development just like we helped facilitate commercial aviation? One of the reasons we got commercial aviation off and running was because the government funded the initial airmail contracts. Well, that’s not a whole lot different than private enterprise delivering cargo and crew to space station.
Do relatively new players like SpaceX or Blue Origin benefit from research that NASA and others have funded?
They have benefited from research in the past, and even recently. For example, the Orion parachute data was provided to private industry for the parachutes that they need to bring their capsules back to Earth. Propulsion investments gave SpaceX the ability to put the Merlin engine together. Vertical-landing capability that was invested in by the government back in the mid-’90s provides some of the heritage for Blue Origin and SpaceX to do vertical landing.
That’s one of the things that AIAA can help do: Make everyone aware of that linkage.
Right. So, footsteps on the moon or Mars?
We still have the far side of the moon and the poles to deeply explore. The moon will provide us the learning that we need to be able to go out to Mars.
Would that be done robotically or by people?
Both. I don’t buy into this “us versus them” between robots and humans or government and private industry. It is a continuum, and all the capabilities are needed for the complexities of space exploration.
Well, I’ve enjoyed this. Is there any message you want to get through that maybe you haven’t gotten to do?
I really should have said right up front that it’s an honor and a privilege to be part of this team. I am thrilled to be here. I look forward to being a part of the future.
PAST POSITIONS: Professor of engineering practice, specializing in systems and systems of systems, at Purdue University in Indiana, August 2014 to December 2017; NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, October 2010 to July 2014; director of engineering, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama, May 2007 to October 2011
NOTABLE: NASA program manager (2003-04) for the X-37, a precursor to the Boeing X-37B design flown today by the U.S. Air Force; assigned by Marshall as deputy program manager in Palmdale, California (1996-99) for the X-33 experimental single-stage spacecraft; assistant manager for the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project (1993-95); program manager (1994-96) for the DC-XA, an experimental vertical takeoff and landing rocket inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 2013; began his NASA career in 1979 and 1980 as a summer engineering aide at Marshall while an undergraduate student at Purdue. Hired by Marshall in 1981.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University (1981); Master’s in business administration from University of Alabama in Huntsville (1984); completed Senior Managers in Government program at Harvard University (2001).
RESIDES: In process of relocating to Washington, D.C., area from Indianapolis.
FAVORITE QUOTE: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt