Janet E. Petro began her professional career as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army after graduating in 1981 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, with a Bachelor of Science in engineering. She served in the U.S. Army's aviation branch with various assignments overseas in Germany. She also holds a Master of Science in business administration from Boston University's Metropolitan College.
She was appointed to the deputy director position in April 2007 and shares responsibility with the center director in managing the Kennedy team of approximately 8,600 civil service and contractor employees, determining and implementing center policy and managing and executing Kennedy missions, such as Journey to Mars and the Mars Rover, and agency program responsibilities.
She recently served a 12-month appointment at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as the deputy associate administrator and acting director for the Office of Evaluation.
Becky Sauerbrun: Okay, so I read that you studied at West Point, it was only the second class that they had allowed women. How was that? I mean...
Janet Petro: So, that was pretty challenging. I got to say, that was probably the best experience of my life. I made a lot of friends, learned a lot of how to cooperate, and collaborate, and become a team with the folks. It was tough. The Army was still trying to figure out, "How do we integrate women into all of these things." But I got to say; I think they did a really great job.
BS: Oh, that's great.
JP: A really great job. I enjoyed my experience. It was probably the best thing I ever did. The best decision I ever made to go, get out of my comfort zone, and go do something that was different. By the way, one of the reasons that I was really attracted to West Point was because you had to play sports there. There wasn't like other colleges really weren't supporting a whole lot of scholarships in women's sports at that time, but at West Point, everybody had to play sports whether you were an athlete or not.
BS: Yeah, then you flew helicopters, right?
JP: Yep, so when I was there, you had to pick what field that you were sort of interested in and I had grown up on this base post here. My father worked at Kennedy Space Center, so I was always kind of like, "Space is really cool.” So, I had some instructors that would become or were astronauts at the time. We had to go fly in helicopters and do our labs in real time and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. I was like, "If I got to be in the Army, I'm going to do the coolest thing and I'm flying." I had decent enough grades where I could pick my plans and so forth.
BS: Well, that's good.
JP: Yeah. How they do it is priority order. Number one person gets to choose their branch and where they're going and then the last person- Well probably about the last hundred really don't have a choice. I was in the top, so I was able to pick aviation. I loved it.
BS: That's great.
JP: I went and did my helicopter training and then went to Germany. I spent four years there. Loved it. Flew all around and then I came back and decided I wanted to be an engineer like my dad. Got out and did some processing and pay loads with McDonald Douglas and then I eventually joined NASA at Kennedy Space Center. I have the coolest job in the world there.
BS: Now, you're the Deputy Director.
JP: Deputy Director, yep.
BS: That's crazy. That's unbelievable. So, you have- I thought I read somewhere about 8,600 people that work- that you kind of have to manage.
JP: Yep, manage. We have a number of cool programs. On our Journey to Mars, we have the folks developing the ground systems, we have commercial crew program that are working with Elon Musk, and SpaceX, and Boeing, building their Star Liner Capsule to bring astronauts to and from the Space Station; that program's at Kennedy. Then, we have our Launch Services program, which is all the un-manned explorers. So, the deep space explorers. Mars Curiosity. Those folks there sort of match the pay load with the vehicle and we launch them. Our team’s responsible. It's so cool. What I do everyday, the people there. It's just such a cool mission.
BS: Have you found that the movie The Martian is kind of re-inspired this like interest in NASA and space exploration and all that stuff.
JP: So, I think a lot of people thought that when the space shuttle program ended that NASA was gone, or dead, or dying. We are in this transformational phase, so The Martian has helped the world. It has been a view into what could be on our Journey to Mars, because the journey to get to Mars is going to be a lot of hard work. We've got to develop technologies, we got to get the budgets, we got to build the systems, and so The Martian was sort of a flash point. So, people like you, or your kids, or your friend's kids will be the ones walking on Mars. It's kind of cool.
BS: Very cool. You're at like the forefront of all of that.
JP: Yeah, so we're getting everything in place to make that happen and so, like I said, that's one of the coolest things I think about my job is we're right there at the middle of doing it. How about you after winning? How does that feel? Top of the world?
BS: Oh absolutely. I actually haven't been able to really wrap my arms around it yet because we've just been so busy since then. We went back to our pro teams, touring and everything. It's fun to come out here and celebrate the win with everybody, but it's just been busy.
JP: You guys are such an inspiration to girls and women all over the world.
BS: It's one of the best parts of the job you know, with the #SheBelieves campaign; we are trying to get the word out. The power of belief, and self-belief, and the belief in one another.
JP: Did you ever feel whenever you were little; I assume you played soccer from when you were real little, that you would ever be standing on the World Stage?
BS: I mean, I had dreamed, and I had hoped, and then when I saw the 1999 team win the World Cup I knew from that point that was my goal. Like I was going to make it to this level at some point hopefully and kind of experience what they experienced. That was kind of the turning point for me. That's when I was like all right, I am all in. I will do whatever it takes. My parents were like, "We will do whatever it takes."
JP: That's so awesome. It's great and you say that you believe.
"If I were to say one message to girls, you got to believe in something and you can. Don't let somebody tell you no. You can do anything you want to do. You just have to have the passion and do the hard work behind it, but you can do anything." - Janet Petro
BS: Right. Absolutely. So, you said you're father was kind of the inspiration for you getting into this.
JP: Yeah, so he was working - Kennedy Space Center was just made a center in 1958. President Kennedy said, "We're going to go to the moon and return them safely back before the end of the decade." That was in 1961, I believe. That was like nine years to get that job done. Phenomenal. We probably couldn't have done it today because they had a tremendous amount of federal budget, but it was a very focused goal. The whole country was behind it. Everybody remembers where they were when Neil Armstrong – I remember sitting in my family room looking at this small black and white TV with my family around going, "Oh my goodness."
BS: Was your dad just so proud?
JP: He was. Oh yeah. He was obviously working, but we had watched all the rockets fail along the way and then trying to learn everything from it. Just that success of them coming back was - I always remember that in my heart. Seeing him work. Studying in high school, math, science. I was interested, I wouldn't say I was like totally passionate, but I knew that you had to get the good grades in order to have opportunities open up to you. He was an inspiration and I remember my mom telling me, "You can do anything." That was back in the sixties and seventies, there were hardly any women role models. There were so many fields closed to women. I look at today, sports, we already talked about what was, and what did and did not exist in terms of sports for women back then versus today. It was good for them going, "You can do it, you can if you want to," and I wanted to. Kind of like chip away and breaking ground. All of these other young kids look up and go, "Well, if they can do it than maybe I can too."
BS: Yeah. A positive cycle. I was reading your bio and I was just like, kind of getting intimidated because I was like, "This chick is like legit."
JP: Well thank you.
BS: Yeah. You're a badass.
JP: Like I said, it's the coolest job ever, where I am now. So, I can't complain about anything. My boss, he's an astronaut. He's a four-time flown shuttle astronaut, so that's like so cool. I get to deal with the icons, the astronauts, but also the hard working people whether it's lawyers, or public affairs people, or engineers, or procurement folks. It takes a whole village. It takes a whole team to make all great things happen. I'm sure right, just like players on a team. One person couldn't do it all. It's not just the goalie. That teamwork, we started talking about that, I think that's the most important thing to pass onto kids too. Learn to work together as a team and I think sports really help that a lot.