June 21, 2010

Q&A with APL’s Rich Roca

Outgoing director talks about his 10-year tenure and future of Lab’s work

Rich Roca

After a decade in charge of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Rich Roca steps down from his position as director on June 30.

It’s been quite a ride.

During his tenure, APL has continued to make enormous scientific advances while engaged in its research and development work on behalf of the Department of Defense, primarily the U.S. Navy; NASA; and other government sponsors.

APL requires executives in a policymaking position to leave their posts when they reach a certain age, and that time had come for him. In the announcement of his departure, Roca lauded the work of the Lab’s nearly 5,000 employees. He said that APL’s fingerprints are on critical contributions to missile defense, space defense and exploration, undersea warfare, strategic and conventional strike, cyber warfare, homeland protection and soldier protection.

Many projects embarked on during his tenure will continue for many years, such as space missions to Mercury, Pluto and the sun. For example, the New Horizons spacecraft—designed, built and operated by APL—lifted off from Cape Canaveral in January 2006. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, it will fly past Pluto and its moons in July 2015 before heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

With the United States engaged in multiple wars overseas and on terrorism, APL scientists and engineers have worked diligently and with great success to help protect the United States, its military men and women, and its citizens against threats from sea, land, air, outer space and cyberspace.

Roca joined Johns Hopkins from AT&T, where he had spent his entire professional life, most recently as the AT&T Labs vice president responsible for technical development of Internet-based services. Previously, he had been with AT&T Business Communications Service, where he was general manager of the company’s communications business supporting civilian agencies of the federal government, such as cabinet departments, NASA and the Social Security Administration.

Just weeks from his final day as director of APL, Roca sat down with The Gazette to discuss his tenure, his legacy and what the future has in store. We found a man proud of the Lab’s accomplishments and well at ease with himself, even playfully dropping into third person at one point.

Q: What are your immediate plans after you step down?

A: All that is to be determined. My sole focus of late has been leading APL until the end of June, and making sure the Lab is in the shape it’s supposed to be in. That hasn’t left much time to be thinking of what is to happen to me moving forward.

I do know I’m going to be director emeritus, and I will support the new director in any manner he wishes me to support him. [Editor’s note: See story, page one.]

[University] President [Ronald J.] Daniels has asked me to help him with some opportunities that are in the process of being defined. I am also on several federal advisory boards and will maintain those responsibilities.

I would like to have my workweek be less than it is now, to have more time for family and personal interests. But that will all unfold in the coming year. Right now I’m not worried about what exactly I’m going to do.

Q: That sounds like an enviable position.

A: It’s funny. I was thinking that since I’ve been about 15, I’ve been preprogrammed, like everybody else, to address something on the immediate horizon. One chooses the high school curriculum that one is going to take. Then come the PSATs and the SATs. And then you get into college, and then there are graduate exams. Next up you go to the placement office and get a job. The thought that I can let things unfold is really exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.

Q: In a few words, what has it been like to be director of APL, one of the nation’s leading scientific facilities?

A: Thrilling. I’ve been honored in doing this and in many ways humbled.

Q: Not so long after you became director, the events of 9/11 occurred. How much of an impact was that day on the work that we do here?

A: It was very significant. First of all, our sponsors, who are largely the military, changed their path. What wound up being the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not on their horizon. We found that we had to change markedly the work that we were doing, mostly by adding. We added an area we call homeland protection—the government would call it a combination of homeland defense and homeland security. That was a direct response to 9/11. We changed everything from how we support people in the field with regard to the IED [improvised explosive device] threat, as one example, to how we help TSA [Transportation Security Administration] be more effective in screening at airports. It runs the gamut. We would not have been engaged in projects like that if not for 9/11, at least not to the depth we have been.

Another thing that happened, and you can argue it was not 9/11-specific, was the emergence of the cyber challenge that the world, not just the country, faces. We knew that was coming down the pike and would be important to our sponsor base, and we made a concerted effort to have the competencies that would be required in order to make fundamental contributions there.

Q: When you became director, what were your top priorities—things you knew we needed to do or do better?

A: When [former university President] Bill Brody brought me in, he handed me several charges that were fairly unambiguous. One was to continue to support our sponsors and meet their expectations—to keep the railroad running, if you will. Another was to ensure that APL would be flexible enough to meet any challenges that the future might hold.

The other charge was to develop the staff in general but, in specific, that when it came time to replace me, that there would be a number of strong internal candidates that would be well-positioned for the job. That is what I set about doing.

Q: There’s been a good deal of expansion to this campus during your tenure. What’s been driving that?

A: It’s interesting. Most of the expansion was to replace facilities that have in essence worn out. APL moved to Howard County in the mid-1950s, and we didn’t only build new buildings but also took over a lot of structures lent to us by the federal government, so-called Butler buildings. They were prefab, corrugated steel buildings that were used at the time. By the 21st century, they were getting pretty long in the tooth. I would say $300 million of our capital-projects budget was just in replacing the antiquated structures that we had.

Q: For the uninitiated, what is the sense of community here?

A: People at APL share a collective mission to make the nation safe. We also share the curiosity commonly found in engineers and scientists as to how things work. An example is understanding the fundamental questions with regard to outer space.

We are a meritocracy. We believe people should be good at what they do regardless of their profession or specialty. I think in that we share a great deal in common with other parts of the university.

We share a bias to focusing on the end mission and how we might affect it. We find that the problems we face cannot be segmented in one neat little area. You can’t say that if I just solve that problem, I’m done. We are usually operating within a system. For example, think about what it takes to defend a ship from an attack from the air. The captain of the ship is also trying to defend the ship from attacks from the sea. The captain is also trying to communicate. The ship is there for a reason: It’s collecting information or engaged in offensive operations. A solution that says I’m just going to solve this one problem—defend against an air attack—and ignore all the other problems isn’t really very useful to the people we are trying to support. We have to be aware of what each other is doing.

Besides shared values and perspectives, there is also a social community at APL. For example, there are many special-interest clubs, whether it be tennis, photography, softball, bowling or the like. These activities are part of the social glue that holds everything together.

Q: In regard to the Lab’s work with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, the threats we face in 2010 must differ from what we faced in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

A: They are different in degree but not in kind. We still have to worry about ballistic missiles. We still have to worry about cruise missiles and high-performance planes and submarines. But they are of a different nature and different performance level.

The United States Navy does not currently face what one would call a “peer competitor,” the way we had to worry about the Soviet navy in the days of the Cold War, but we have different challenges in different domains such as the littoral waters.

The exact details change over time, but from an engineering perspective, you are still worried about being able to engage a threat and make it irrelevant for you, whether it be a missile, electronic warfare or whatever.

The technical challenges have gotten more sophisticated as computers have become more powerful, and we have become more sophisticated in terms of the materials we have access to. But the overall business is the same.

Q: I’m sure you have had many exciting/memorable days here. Do one or two quickly come to mind?

A: The most sobering was 9/11. We lost an employee, Ron Vauk, who was in the Naval Control Center in the Pentagon. That was the most sobering day by far, with nothing in second place.

On a positive note, there is nothing like a launch of a spacecraft. Just the physical manifestation of it is remarkable. The launch of the Messenger and New Horizons spacecraft were very dramatic and a privilege to be associated with.

Q: Will our endeavors in space continue to be a big part of APL’s mission?

A: Yes. Our space mission came out of the military work. APL staff needed to better geolocate submarines. That need gave birth to the concept of satellite navigation, invented at APL, and the genesis of our space efforts.

As people did more with space, they realized they knew less and less about it. It became obvious that if space was to become an area humankind was to use as it uses the air, land and water, we had to understand it more. That began APL’s love affair with engaging in space-based activities.

It’s not a low-cost activity, and you have to pick your points. But what we’ve done over time is develop a small initiative, in terms of places like [NASA’s] Goddard [Space Flight Center], but one that is capable of doing fundamental work and is intellectually competitive with any institution in the world.

NASA is our largest sponsor in this realm. Our efforts in space are perhaps the easiest part of our work to talk about, and in many ways are the face of APL to outsiders, although they might be in the range of 20 percent of the work we do.

Q: Is there a space mission that typifies the work APL is engaged in?

A: Where we seem to be best is to take a mission that requires somebody to think differently and be innovative. There are other organizations with scale and capacity to do things that we can just not do. If you look at New Horizons’ going to Pluto, that is a devil of a program. The timeline was very strict. The planetary mechanics dictated that we had to launch at a given time. That was it, or wait another 200 years for your next opportunity. And we also had a total power budget of 250 watts. That is less than the light bulb in this lamp here to run this scientific ensemble of instruments and the spacecraft itself. When you roll up all these challenges together, it took a very clever and innovative team to do it, and they pulled it off.

The Messenger program had its own demands. The one that is currently on the drawing board, and we hope will come to reality soon, is Solar Probe. We are going to have a spacecraft fly within 10 to 11 radii of the sun. This has been a dream of decades, and the innovative people at APL just may be able to pull this little puppy off [laughs].

Q: Quite a feat indeed.

A: It’s going to be a tad warm there. I don’t know what your reaction is to discoveries. Have you seen the Hubble 3-D movie? Go to it. I’m just stunned by what is being revealed and the universe that we’re in. We are such a small portion of it. There is so much that is out there, and so glorious and so unknown. To have touched that has been such a privilege in my life.

Q: You must have soaked in a lot here in the past decade.

A: The job does not lack for a breadth of opportunities [laughs].

Q: What are your thoughts on the NEAR [Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous] Shoemaker mission?

A: NEAR was an interesting activity, particularly since the spacecraft was not designed to land on the asteroid. The mission was essentially accomplished, and the decision was [then made] to get this additional surge of knowledge and insight [by landing it]. That was really fun and remarkable, a big success for us.

Q: Talk about Burnt Frost, the 2008 operation to shoot down a wayward and potentially dangerous nonfunctioning U.S. spy satellite.

A: The Burnt Frost initiative was interesting in a couple of dimensions. One was how a program that was highly classified went from that state to common public knowledge within a matter of weeks—which is very different for us—but also the intensity in which we had to make the contribution.

The Burnt Frost activity compressed a year or two of work into six to eight weeks, and how that was done in that time frame and how many disparate organizations came together seamlessly with no turf battles was remarkable. It was America at its best.

Q: Anything else you want to talk about in terms of the work we do?

A: One thing that I have to mention is the collaboration with the Whiting School of Engineering on the Engineering for Professionals program [that includes classes held on APL’s Laurel, Md., campus]. That has been a huge win-win for everybody. People in the area get a first-class opportunity for a master’s program in a relevant area. The university gets to extend its influence and reach to a broader audience. And we at APL get to interact with the students, and I’ll tell you, you get as much coming in as you get going out.

We find we attract a lot of employees not just with the opportunity to engage in the work we do but also with this opportunity to teach. Anything we can do to help the country improve the country’s technical and scientific cadre is an investment well worth it.

Q: What will the Lab be like 10 years from now? Where do you see us heading?

A: Nobody would have predicted 9/11, so you never know what’s going to happen. But national defense is not going to go away. This nation’s commitment to space is not going to go away, and the need for APL to contribute is not going to go away. In some ways, that is all going to stay the same. But there are going to be new challenges. Clearly the nation is going through an economic stress that it hasn’t experienced in a while, and it’s going to have to sort that out. That will touch everyone, and the Lab and our sponsors will be no exception. How will we all respond to that? I have every confidence that at the end of the day, if we are as good as we are at what we do, that APL will still be making contributions.

The other area is the globalization of technology. If you go back several decades, you will find that most of the technologies that were of greatest interest to our sponsors were owned by people within the United States, contributions made by them, manufacturing done by them. The academic investigation went on here in the United States. It was all very U.S.-centric.

We are moving into a different environment. The world is wealthier, thank goodness. We are not the anomaly anymore. There are countries that are very competent in various areas of technology, whether you pick Japan, China or France, whoever. They are developing technologies, some of which will be very relevant to the needs of our sponsors.

There are some industries, like consumer electronics, that if you’re going to play in them, you are in the international game immediately. You can’t make a cell phone just for the United States; you make it for the world. Once you get into the type of work that we do, which is advising the U.S. government on how to apply technology to operational challenges, you are not necessarily in the global domain. How does an APL identify that a technology that is being built for consumer video, for example, has significant implications for a national defense issue? That, I think, is going to be a challenge that APL is going to have to address, and the university needs to address as well.

Q: How do you decompress during your most stressful days here?

A: I find that engaging my family and changing the context of what I’m thinking about is the most stress-relieving activity that I can do. Just talking with my wife, for instance.

I have also sung in a chorus since fourth grade. It is a great relief to be one of a number of tenors knowing that I’m singing the second line from the bottom, and that nobody else sings that but the tenors. You engage in a series of rehearsals, you give a production, and it’s done. There is a finality to it. There is an orderly structure that isn’t always present in my professional life, but yet glorious.

I have also reignited my interest in photography the past decade, and again, that pulls a completely different part of my brain, the more interpretative, synthetic part. It’s hard but quite rewarding.

Q: You’re about to enter your final days as director. What are you thinking about right now?

A: This organization was a fine organization when I came in and a fine organization as I leave. The people here are remarkable, and frankly it’s not just the people at APL. The people at Johns Hopkins are remarkable, from a professional sense and a human-to-human sense. Both my wife and I treasure the opportunity that we have been privileged to have by being associated with APL in specific and Johns Hopkins in general. We feel honored and blessed. We treasure it, and we look forward to seeing if we can contribute in some way going forward.