2023 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Ralph Roe Jr. 

Played an instrumental role during a four-decade NASA career in dramatically reshaping the agency’s safety culture to help ensure the successful exploration of the universe.

When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart while returning to Earth in early 2003, taking the lives of all seven astronauts and halting America’s space flights, NASA employees quickly realized the agency needed fundamental changes to its safety culture to prevent future tragedies. 

However, it was hard to predict the vast safety culture transformation that followed under the helm of Ralph Roe, whose four-decade career took him from a test engineer to NASA’s top engineering post. 

“Few people have done more in the last 20 years to ensure safe, successful and increasingly accessible human space flight than Ralph Roe,” said Dawn Schaible, deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “His leadership, technical prowess and unwavering commitment to safety have been instrumental in enabling the success of commercial space exploration, as well as NASA’s return to the moon.” 

NASA’s safety culture shift 

Roe’s approach—which focused on identifying and communicating technical risk and assuring a fuller, data-driven understanding of safety—changed the way NASA and the aerospace industry operate. 

Roe became “the conscience of NASA,” said Robert Lightfoot, vice president of space operations at Lockheed Martin and former acting NASA administrator. 

“After we lost the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, Ralph took on the role of leading, creating and developing the NASA Engineering and Safety Center,” Lightfoot said. “It specifically served to provide technical oversight for all our human spaceflight activity. The intent was to never have an accident again.” 

The results have been long-lasting. Roe was integral to the shuttle program’s return to flight and, after the shuttle era ended in 2011, helped in the transition to new exploratory and joint NASA-private sector ventures. 

Helped curb risks beyond human spaceflight 

Roe made it his personal mission to communicate the lessons learned from Columbia to NASA’s and the aerospace industry’s next generation of engineers.  

NASA sought Roe’s expertise for many NASA functions. He helped with critical gyroscopes and guidance sensors used in both the Hubble Space Telescope and the immensely complex James Webb Space Telescope programs. The safety center also worked on design modifications to the lithium-ion batteries used to power equipment on many NASA programs, preemptively cutting the risk of battery fires. 

As NASA focused on returning to the moon and going to Mars, Roe had teams evaluate the Orion exploratory crew’s vehicle landing options and lead tests to mitigate impact damage. He also worked with SpaceX, a private company helping to resupply the International Space Station, to evaluate its technical risks before the company’s first flight. 

Roe started his NASA career as a propulsion systems test engineer and then moved up the ranks to positions that included the title of launch director, overseeing four missions that included John Glenn’s return to space and the first International Space Station flight, before managing the Space Shuttle Vehicle Engineering Office. 

Roe was directing more than 2,500 personnel at facilities across the country on the day the Columbia crew did not come home. The day shook him to the core, just as the public’s faith in our nation’s ability to safely explore space was also shaken. But he used the lessons learned, not only from Columbia, but also the 1985 Challenger explosion, to instill a new approach. 

“There was a lot of resistance at the beginning, but our safety changes have become ingrained in the culture of NASA,” Roe said. “The NASA Engineering and Safety Center has done over a thousand safety assessments on every program and every mission that NASA does.” 

Roe retired recently as chief engineer, but his ideas—rooted in communication, cooperation, data and engineering—permeate the space industry.  

“His favorite saying is ‘In God we trust—all others bring data,’” noted Charles Bolden Jr., a former NASA administrator.  

Sean O’Keefe, also a former NASA administrator, said few people have done more than Roe in the past 20 years to ensure safe, successful and increasingly accessible human space flight. 

“He envisioned and implemented a transformational approach to addressing the most complicated technical issues,” O’Keefe said. “His tireless dedication has fundamentally changed the safety culture across the entire NASA portfolio and beyond for the better.”