by Ingrid Matta
What a flight it’s been for Janet Petro.
The daughter of a Kennedy Space Center manager who worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, she was brought up in Satellite Beach, where her mother still lives, and entered the U.S. Military Academy with a career ahead, not surprisingly, in aviation. The former captain later became a much-lauded manager at various aerospace companies until 2007, when her life came full-circle: she became deputy director of Kennedy Space Center and one of the highest-ranking women at NASA.
She remains the quintessential Space Coast woman, down to marveling that her daughter attends the same elementary school (Surfside, in Satellite Beach) that she did, with helpings of idealism and sound common sense.
“I always try to do the right thing. After I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, I served in the Army as a helicopter pilot. I learned seven principles that are important to success: integrity, loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and personal courage. These are principles or values that are needed in all aspects of life and especially the business environment. They helped prepare me for a life of federal service and NASA incorporates these same types of core values,” she says.
The story of the space program is that of the people who make it happen. “Without our employees, we can’t succeed,” says Petro. “We have the most dedicated and passionate workforce anywhere. It takes the entire Kennedy team to process payloads; launch space shuttles and rockets; design, operate and maintain all of our ground systems. Integrity in everything we do is the cornerstone of all success. This principle is extremely important to me, it is important to NASA and Kennedy Space Center and I believe it should be important to everyone in all life endeavors.”
Petro holds a Master of Business Administration from Boston University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree from USMA. She calls being part of a government agency during the economic downturn “a unique experience,” and notes the flexibility of program veterans.
“The policies set by the president of the United States can have a very real and direct effect on NASA, and its 10 centers throughout the country. My experience as a contractor, prior to working for the government, was that changes were much more of an expected part of life and business. You had to learn to adapt and be flexible on different contracts, customers and environments in order to have continued success in your business and market,” she explains.
“Nothing really stays the same for very long, whether it is the end of a contract, a technological innovation, a change in the business environment, or a new administration policy. You adapt by reorganizing, restructuring and refocusing your efforts. At Kennedy Space Center we’ve focused very hard on working with the state of Florida and our economic development partners to bring new initiatives to the Space Coast with the idea that our workforce will benefit from this diversity.”
She adds that she takes inspiration from those around her, including KSC director and former astronaut Bob Cabana, and not least of all, members of her family.
“To this day, my father inspires me. I hear all the time from people out at the Kennedy Space Center about him, his work ethic and people skills, and how well he dealt with situations. He passed away in 1986 after a tough fight with cancer. My sister and my daughter also inspire me. They each face difficult challenges that they accept and meet head on and overcome each and every day of their lives,” she says.
Petro is convinced that NASA, with its glorious past, will continue to help facilitate the move toward a bright future, economically and otherwise. “Over the past 30 years, NASA has accounted for 8 percent of the world’s scientific discoveries, including cell phone technology, home water purification systems, prosthetic arms and solar power. Everyone, from grandparents to students, know the United States through NASA put the first man on the moon and takes a national pride in that accomplishment,” she says.
“If we give up this leadership by not continuing what’s in our human DNA – that is, to explore – I believe that will have very negative long-term consequences for this nation.”