Head in the cosmos, feet on the ground

At JPL, there is no shortage of doctorates and intellectual pedigrees among the facility’s 5,000 employees. But what is rare, anyone there can tell you, is a truly good manager.

Enter David Gallagher, a La Cañada resident recently appointed by JPL to head the directorate of Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology, one of five operational divisions.

Gallagher is modest about his high-ranking position, indicating with a chuckle that he’s come all this way on “just” a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Purdue University and his ability to organize diverse groups of people.

“What I’m probably good at is building teams of people and getting teams of people to work together to do something great,” he said Friday during a phone interview from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “I’m more of a people person.”

Gallagher’s recent promotion from the position of deputy director is one of three major personnel shifts announced by JPL late last month.

Jakob van Zyl, his predecessor, will become associate director for Project Formulation and Strategy in charge of overseeing the long-range planning of JPL missions. That position was previously held by Firouz M. Naderi, who will now be the director for Solar System Exploration, and will oversee all JPL’s robotic solar system missions.

Gallagher, who raised three kids in La Cañada with wife Kathy, said he was thrilled to learn of the promotion when offered the job by JPL Director Charles Elachi.

“He asked me if I’d be interested and willing to take on this position and, of course, I said yes,” Gallagher recalled. “I think the answer is always supposed to be yes when you’re talking to your boss.”

His directorship comes after 22 years of employment with JPL. Gallagher, who previously worked at IBM, was a software consultant for the Hubble Telescope mission. He was hired in 1989 to help repair the infamous spherical aberration that altered Hubble’s focal point, thus blurring its vision.

Gallagher remembers receiving the first clear image from a repaired Hubble as one of the finest moments of his career. After that, he would go on to work on other missions, including NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched from Cape Canaveral in 2003 on a mission to capture infrared images of low-heat objects such as failed stars and extrasolar planets.

On that project, Gallagher met Michael Werner, chief project scientist for Astronomy and Physics and project scientist for Spitzer. Werner was impressed by Gallagher’s ability to manage — not with ruthlessness, but with personality and an impressive technical knowledge.

“We live and die on the success of our projects, and the way we do things at JPL, the success of a project relies on the project manager,” Werner said, before joking, “Managers are worth their weight in gold — maybe not this week, but they’re certainly valuable.”

Gallagher admits that when he started at JPL, he couldn’t have imagined staying in any job longer than five years. Today, he counts himself lucky to be where he is.

“What kind of job do you get to be in where you launch rockets into space? It’s like every little kid’s dream,” he said.

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