Retiring Center Director Kelly Ponders Mile Markers on the Road to EROS

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A framed letter sits on a small table in the corner of Dr. Frank Kelly’s office, signed by the director of the National Weather Service (NWS), thanking his mother for stepping up during World War II and filling the weather-observing duties left behind by men who had gone off to Europe and the South Pacific.

Image: Frank Kelly, EROS Director

Dr. Frank P. Kelly served as the Center Director and USGS Space Policy Advisor for the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Public domain.)

More than just a matter of pride, the words in the frame represent a mile marker of sorts on the road map of Dr. Kelly’s life. For until he heard about his mother’s weather observation experiences, the young high school junior in Butte, MT, had always believed his future lay in geology and Earth science.

Suddenly, meteorology seemed a whole lot more interesting.

The story of his mother’s war-time experience would influence the trajectory of Kelly’s career path so much that he eventually wound up in senior leadership positions at the NWS Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, and as the NWS Regional Director in Alaska, before he landed at EROS as its director on Dec. 5, 2011. Before that, he worked in weather for the U.S. Air Force, eventually in a post at the Pentagon.

As his May 31st retirement date looms, the Center director sat down recently to share some fascinating nuggets and insights into his career and time here at EROS.

As a child living in Butte, MT, what did you want to be when you grew up?

“First of all, I wanted to be a geologist. I knew that probably all the way back in grade school. Butte’s a mining town. My dad taught at the Montana School of Mines. A lot of the people I knew from the School of Mines were geologists. They did cool things. They dealt with rocks, minerals, and mining.”

But you ended up in several National Weather Service positions and working with satellites. How did that happen?

“My plan had been to go to the Montana School of Mines because my dad taught there, which made things affordable and convenient. Then one day, my mom started telling me about her experience during World War II and how she was a weather observer for the Weather Bureau in Helena, MT. When the men left to fight in the war, about 800 women around the country were recruited as weather observers and trained by the Weather Bureau. They took on the job of putting up the balloons, and taking the observations, and briefing the pilots. So, all of a sudden, I got fascinated with the idea of doing meteorology. As another Earth science, weather became a big thing for me.”

What did you do at the Pentagon?

“When I was in Los Angeles, I was in the program office for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, or DMSP. I was a weather guy there on staff. The job for the weather guy was to make sure the requirements the weather people had were taken into account in putting together the mission system. That’s how the Air Force did it. So, toward the end of my time there, I transitioned over into acquisition. Not having had any formal training, I was made the chief system engineer for DMSP there in Los Angeles. I was first tasked to put together an organization to do overall system engineering. Then a job was opening up in the Pentagon for the acquisition manager, which was called the Program Element Monitor (PEM). Being a PEM was a big deal. That job would get me to the Pentagon.”

Did you know much about Landsat when you were in that role?

“Landsat became part of the Department of Defense (DoD) mission. You notice when you look at some of the Landsat timelines, we have this little sliver that says DoD. I was the program manager for Landsat for about six months. It never really went anywhere within the DoD, but I did have a real light touch of Landsat, and so I kind of kept Landsat in my peripheral vision, ever since that point.”

How did all this experience in the military prepare you for what you do here at EROS?

“I think probably the biggest thing the Air Force instills in you is the importance of mission. Of course, doing the job with the people you need to work with to accomplish the mission. But the priority is accomplishing the mission. The mission here of course is the receipt of data. It’s with our partners, NASA, and others, and of course, the science. So, the Air Force did helped me to understand certain patterns and structures … within which you can work as an entrepreneur to get things done. Since I’ve never spent a day as a researcher, I’ve called myself a ‘valet for science.’”

How was the transition for the National Weather Service guy into the world of the USGS and EROS?

“A couple of things pop up. I remember sitting in my office one time in Silver Spring, speaking to another person there, saying to her, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to be able to go into an organization and not really know anything about it? Just take it on with what you have in your suite, and doing something with it.’ So, some years later, when I got here, yeah, I have the Weather Service (experience), but I didn’t really try to sell my capabilities from the viewpoint of the Weather Service. I came in with my satellite background, my business background, my having been a senior executive. Up in Alaska, I had learned a lot about what it takes to do data, too, and what data means, the applications of data, how important that is, and how it fits within the overall structure. So, the data side fit as well.”

In your 6½ years as the Center director, what are you most proud of?

“I take a lot of pride in this place in a lot of respects. I remember vividly when we were doing two things. One was the launch of L8. The other was the LP DAAC anniversary. I remember walking in, seeing people just doing work to make the place shine. Taking great pride in the facility, knowing it was important for us to have our best foot forward. I had not sat down with somebody and said, ‘We need to do this.’ It happened because people here take a lot of pride, not just in what they do, but in the face they put forward to the world. So, that’s something I was very proud to see.”

What were the most satisfying things for you as Director at EROS?

“I’ve taken a lot of pride in doing EROS overviews in hundreds of meetings. Being able to talk about the story of EROS and getting people relaxed, and willing to listen, and ready for their meetings or their tour, and taking pride in being able to do that.”

You missed the transition within USGS to free and open Landsat data?

“I did. But I came from the world of meteorological satellites. Except for DMSP transmission, the data was free and open once it hit the ground. It was EFTO  - Encrypted For Transmission Only. My mentality had always been, it should be free and open. Why is this an issue?”

Do you think Land Change Monitoring, Assessment and Projection (LCMAP) is a good initiative for this Center?

“I really think LCMAP steps up and puts things in a view of ‘why.’ People say, ‘Who cares? Well, this is why you should care, because of these issues.’ LCMAP helps put those things in a context. We’re just starting it, but I think it is going to be very instrumental. There’s going to be a lot of important activities related to that type of science and application.”

What will you miss about working and being part of EROS?

“I’ll start by saying I’ve left a lot of jobs, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have left all of those jobs on a positive note. I feel the same way here. I’ll miss the hallway drive-bys, the opportunity to just start talking to folks. Being the director is fun. You get to make the final call. I’ll miss the pride people take. I’ll miss the opportunities that come in chatting with the guards in the morning and then again when you’re leaving. Talking to the folks who are taking care of the facility. Just letting people know you’re interested in what they’re doing, or talking to them about what’s going on in their lives. Discussing important topics like who will quarterback the Broncos or what will the weather do today—the small, personal things.”