NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, speaking at the 34th Space Symposium April 17, said NASA needs to do a better job at risk management and making decisions faster. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin has named a former acting administrator of NASA as the new head of its space business unit.

The company announced Nov. 30 that Robert Lightfoot will take over as executive vice president of its space business unit on Jan. 1. He will replace Rick Ambrose, who is retiring from the company March 1. Ambrose will be a strategic adviser during the corporate transition.

Lightfoot is currently vice president of operations at Lockheed Martin Space. He joined the company in 2019 as a vice president for strategy and business development for space after serving a year as president of LSINC, a small engineering company based in Huntsville, Alabama.

He is best known, though, for a 29-year career at NASA that included being director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and, later, associate administrator, the top civil service position at the agency. At the start of the Trump administration Lightfoot became acting administrator, a position he held for more than a year until the Senate confirmed Jim Bridenstine as administrator in April 2018, shortly before his retirement from the agency. Lightfoot holds the record as the longest-serving acting administrator in NASA history.

“Robert is a mission-oriented leader with the right combination of experience to take our space business to its next heights. He is known for exceptional people leadership, and I look forward to what he will bring to not only space, but also the broader aerospace and defense industry,” Frank St. John, chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin, said in the statement announcing Lightfoot’s appointment to the post.

Lightfoot was among the leading candidates rumored to be in contention for the job since Ambrose announced Oct. 7 his plans to retire after eight years as executive vice president for space and more than 20 at the company.

“I am honored to pass the baton to Robert Lightfoot as the next EVP of Lockheed Martin Space. He is the right leader for our team and for our mission,” Ambrose wrote in a LinkedIn post about Lightfoot’s appointment.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...