Eric Clemons bid farewell to his wife and two young sons in late January to drive 1,600
kilometers to South Dakota to take up his new post as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Data Center.
It appears he will have his work cut out for him.
The EROS Data Center archives, analyzes and distributes mapping and environmental data collected by aircraft and by NASA’s fleet of Earth observing satellites.
Starting around 2011, the 700-person operation located in the prairie some 25 kilometers northeast of Sioux Falls will take on another important role: that of satellite operator.
Primary control of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), currently under development at NASA, will be handed off to EROS post launch. It’s a fitting role for a center that has had close ties to the Landsat land imaging program since both were established some 35 years ago.
But Clemons’ challenges at EROS go beyond managing
a number of ground system and support contracts the center has in procurement in preparation for its expanded Landsat role. He also faces the challenge of returning EROS to normalcy following recent upheavals at the center, where contractors outnumber civil servants by 7 to 1.
EROS has been without a permanent director since R.J. Thompson –
who joined EROS in 1971 during its startup – stepped aside last spring following a scathing review of the center’s work-force management by
the Geological Survey,
Clemons said he has read the thick report
documenting what it described as inappropriate working and social relationships between the center’s federal and contractor staff and its failure to comply with various
policies and regulations.
redacted copy of the report obtained by Space News through a Freedom of Information Act request paints a picture of a geographically isolated government facility where a close-knit work force mixed freely at golf tournaments,
off-campus holiday parties and all-hands meetings
where bawdy, politically incorrect humor was commonplace
During one meeting, for example, there was a skit in which an employee administered to another “a simulated colonoscopy while singing the Lou Rawls
song, ‘You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,’” the report said.
Clemons said many of the management issues identified in the report
already have been addressed. His job, he said, is not to dwell on what happened in the past, but to prepare EROS for an exciting future.
“It’s time to move forward, spread my wings and try my shot at being the director of a facility,” said Clemons, who spent
18 years at Lockheed Martin working on various defense and civil space programs before joining NASA in 2002 as a program executive in the agency’s Earth Science division.
His most recent job was deputy director of system development at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Environment Satellite and Information Service. When his boss, Gary Davis,
took over as program executive officer of the troubled, tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program last summer, Clemmons moved up into the acting director’s role.
Clemons spoke with staff writer Brian Berger in Reston two weeks before reporting for duty.
EROS will be the primary operations center for LDCM. What is the center doing to get ready?
It’s a huge list – everything from making sure the procurements go right to getting the right people in place. We also have a considerable integration and test program ahead of us and we’re going to be taking a look at what NASA does, and then work with them to get the right people and procedures in place, and then it’s simulate, simulate, simulate.
We also have to put a back-up control center in place.
Will either of the two Maryland facilities involved in flying the Landsat 5 and 7 satellites be used as the backup?
I’m not sure it’s been decided yet. Goddard Space Flight Center and the facility in Columbia, Md., are candidates, but we also are looking at some other options, including universities in the Sioux Falls area.
Are Landsat 5 and 7 expected to remain in service until LDCM is launched in 2011?
That’s a good, strong question. We expect that they will. We’re planning. We’re hoping. We’ve gone and taken a look at the fuel budgets and everything.
You’re taking the helm of a center with a lot of history. The last director had been with the center since its creation more than 30 years ago. Does that present any special challenges for you coming in as an outsider?
In my career, I’ve worked in a number of locations, including a couple of remote field centers very much like EROS. I spent a few years in Turkey in the 1980s tracking launches from an operations center that had been up and running for decades. I was an outsider going in there, not as a manager but as a person. I also spent a number of years at Schriever Air Force Base, which is about 25 miles (42 kilometers) outside of Colorado Springs. So I am familiar with those types of environments. So, yes, I’m an outsider. But I’m bringing lots of expertise that the center can use, particularly my experience as a contractor and my experience at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How will you reform EROS’s management practices without damaging the civil servant-contractor cohesion the center is known for?
That’s a good question. Anytime you need to make changes in an organization, the
No. 1 thing you don’t want to do is introduce
risk. The people out there are doing a great job at providing fantastic data products.
There have been some big changes out there in the last several months. I believe the big changes are over. But corporate change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow process. You’ve got to get the people to buy in. That’s going to be my approach – to show them how the changes will make for a stronger future for the organization in terms of more business, better science and stronger support for the agency.
What changes do you intend to make in terms of contractor-civil servant relations at EROS?
A lot of the needed changes took place under the interim director last year. There’s already been some movement of staff to better separate contractors from government personnel and a clarification of roles and responsibilities. A lot of those things
already have taken place. Some of the changes have left some critical vacancies, including the deputy director position. When I arrive I will make sure they’re filled.
U.S. Geological Survey headquarters last year faulted EROS management for not maintaining clear lines between contractor and civil-servant responsibilities and for violating federal standards of decorum. Do you see the report as an overview of the management challenges you face?
In my book everyone is starting at square one. I’m not going to hold any prejudices against what happened. I consider the problems that occurred to be previous administration management problems, not problems with the people out there. It’s not necessarily the people’s fault those problems occurred. People were being managed and led. I believe that they’re good people.
Are off-campus holiday parties and rowdy awards ceremonies out under Eric Clemons?
If someone gives me a proposal for something that’s legal by the government book, there’s no reason we can’t do it. Every organization has holiday parties and award ceremonies. The [Geological Survey]
said the problem with the annual spring awards ceremony is that it featured humor some found crude or offensive.
Henceforth will such ceremonies be entertainment-free?
As long as something is in good taste and it’s legal I’d be glad to
Does that mean no more skits depicting simulated colonoscopies?
I don’t think you’ll see that.