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Former NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn on managing risk for space systems.

Learn more about former NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn as she explains her transition from the EPA to NASA and beyond.





Our guest for today’s episode is former NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn on managing risk in space. You can follow Renee on LinkedIn.

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T-Minus Deep Space Guest

Our guest for today’s episode is former NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn on managing risk in space. You can follow Renee on LinkedIn.

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[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space. I'm Maria Varmazis and I'm the host of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast. Now Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content that takes a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program. And you're about to hear my full conversation with former NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn. We talk about her fascinating career. How she translated a long stint at EPA into working at NASA. And we dive into what she learned and advises on managing risk for Space Systems. Here's our full conversation.

>> Renee Wynn: Hey, listeners, great to be here today. Maria, it's wonderful to be with you and see you again. And so, I'm Renee Wynn, and I am the former Chief Information Officer at NASA. And almost exactly to this day, I retired from the United States federal government after a 30-year career and my last stint was NASA. And everyone -- thank you. I know, three years I made it. And we're having a blast in this what I call my performance stage of life. I am doing what I prefer to do. I'm not very good at no, because really fun stuff comes my way. And my focus now is all about helping others be successful. Now, people as the former CIO of NASA, I'm sure a few folks at NASA believed that my job was to make their lives miserable. As we put into place cybersecurity, but honestly, I was really about their success, which included protecting them from cybersecurity attacks. But a common question that I get asked is how does somebody who effectively grew up many, many life's milestones were at EPA. And I was there for 25 years, and I worked in the program. I worked in the Superfund program specifically focused on the cleanup of federal facilities, properties, these are highly toxic properties owned and operated by the United States federal government. And I even worked on aid showing here, five rounds of the base closure. And that was intended to match up clean up or no clean up with economic reuse of those areas impacted by closing bases. And so, I worked very closely on land reuse issues, aligned with clean up. Folks know a few of the these, Fort Ord, out in California, which is now California is coast to coast development. You have the [inaudible], which is now a place where you can go rent kayaks and go on night tours and see glow -- glow worms and all that kind of good stuff there. And those are all former bases that have been used, reused for economic redevelopment. And it was great to be part of that. I learned a ton about by balancing. I would say taxpayer money with clean up purpose. And in fact, you know, I went to NASA rate and they at the Ames. They have the big derivable there. And I worked on that because of a lot of PCB contamination in it. And NASA wanted to put a childcare center in that one. And we said no, then we said no. And on one of my first visits to Ames, the first thing I did was where is your child center. child daycare center? And I saw it over there and the dirigible was way off in the distance. I said, yeah, that's great. I'm happy to see that. So, I was doing a follow up inspection while a NASA employee.

>> Maria Varmazis: From all that EPA experience to being the CIO at NASA. I love a non-traditional journey, because I'm on one myself as well. So, I relate. How did you -- how did you make that happen? How did you get there?

>> Renee Wynn: So, an odd thing, my first answer is usually well, I had really good data on how we're treating this planet. And so, I need to figure a way off. I needed to find wine and chocolate somewhere else. And NASA was an obvious choice. But the other reason, maybe the less fun reason was I shifted into operations when I was at EPA. And I fell in love. I loved the cadence. I loved the chaos. I love trying to figure out how to deliver in complex environments. I could probably say, I don't know that I ever figured that out. But it was fun trying and had some amazing teams in both places. And so, I'd love DOPS. And about at this point, I figured probably five, maybe seven years left in my career because I knew, you know, I've said, well, I'd probably go to about 60, 62 but then, you know, I think a slower pace might be in order. And I said where can I go to be better in the field of IT operations and the blossoming of cybersecurity in the federal government? And at the time, there were two deputy CIO positions open, which excited me having been the acting CIO at EPA for 19 months, I was tired. So, I said, oh, this'll be great, [inaudible] take second chair. Cheer them on, do the dirty work, and get out of the limelight. And so, there were two positions, deputy positions open. One was at NASA, and one was over at FEMA. And, you know, NASA basically got theirs out the door. I applied for it and I went through the interview process. And I was selected as the deputy CIO, before FEMA even got theirs out in the door.

>> Maria Varmazis: There you go. They took the initiative.

>> Renee Wynn: Right. There's nothing magical about the whole thing. And so, I got to NASA, and a few weeks after I gotten there. The CIO, who I knew. He leaned over and he said, hey, would you like to be the NASA CIO? And I'm like, no, I'm good. Right? Right? I just got here. I kind of like to remember where the restroom is all the time. When you move buildings, like all the basics, it's is like, where's -- where do I get my water bottle filled? Where's the restroom? At the time, where's the fax machine, right? What if the copier runs out of paper at midnight and I'm the only one here? What do I do? And so, I'm still working through these little important issues. And I did laugh. I'm like, haha, no, it's okay. I'm good, I like this job. I don't even know this job, but I liked it. And he's like, no, no, we would like you to seriously consider that. Okay, so I -- yeah, yeah. So--

>> Maria Varmazis: He didn't want it, or they didn't want it?

>> Renee Wynn: Well, fair, right? I left out an important part is he, Larry was getting ready to retire. And I had known that he moved up his retirement date. And I was like, oh. I knew that after we had chatted a couple of times. And then during the hiring process, we didn't talk because we didn't want to do anything, to mar the process. And he had mentioned to me that he was, you know, in that range of retiring. So, when I got there, he -- in between times moved up his date. And, you know, I went, and I thought about it. I said, well, why don't I actually meet all the people who were my bosses? At this point, I still hadn't met some of the key folks. And their response was, it's a great idea. If it's NASA, and I'm like, why [inaudible] who could be your boss a great idea. That's a logical idea. So, I laughed about it. And so, I went up and met with some of the team that I hadn't met yet. And, you know, we chatted and all that. And when I walked out, Maria, my thought was, you know what? I figured out how to find a job in the United States federal government. I left one agency that I had been with for 25 years. I suppose if anything goes seriously wrong. I could find myself a final federal job to move on to. As long as I wasn't, like, blacklisted or something like that. Yeah, so I said yes. And so, started a huge, huge learning curve. Like, how do you move environmental policy operations for a domestic agency to global and off the globe operations?

>> Maria Varmazis: What did you know about space before you joined NASA? Were you -- were you a nerd for space at all? Or just an enthusiast?

>> Renee Wynn: Zero. And I -- I even avoided it, right? There's going to be people that hear this, they're going to be like, oh, my gosh, how could she?

>> Maria Varmazis: I love that. I think that's great. Yeah.

>> Renee Wynn: Right? My dad worked for NASA. My dad was a metallurgist, he had his PhD in metal. I was in probably grade school at the time, or maybe middle school at the time when he got that. I like, what the heck is that, right? My mom, on the other hand, had the cool job. She was covert operations for the United States government. Who wouldn't [inaudible], right?

>> Maria Varmazis: [Inaudible] kids, but metallurgy is a little harder.

>> Renee Wynn: But I didn't know this. I didn't know my mom was covert operations until actually, after she died. I knew she was a systems analyst at NSA, right? That you can't talk about. So, that was the playground talk because people like what, huh, with metallurgy. So, much for being able to make it accessible, right? So, when the NASA -- when I moved over there, I realized it's a complicated agency. It only took one meeting. So, I was like, oh, that's why my dad's PhD is so important. And that is the harsh climate of space. Not just space but getting into space. You have this get out of your atmosphere force shaking and baking and freezing. And they have all the facilities to test these things out at the Glenn facility. And all of a sudden, everything made sense. And so, I put myself on a learning journey. And I basically said, I'm the dumbest person in the room. And in many cases, that was the case, right? Well, you sit in on a meeting, Planetary Protection. Yeah, [inaudible]. Great. We're not talking picking up litter. We're not talking -- well, we probably are talking clean water and clean air, right? That part I got but, foreign organisms from space being introduced into the -- into Earth. What's our first response? Okay, great. Now, look what all we've got on Mars. One defunct rover, two others in operation and a helicopter that's had over 50 missions. So, now you're like, oh planetary protection. Now I understand it. That was one of the worst academic discussions for me, not one that I participated much in. Other than, you know, what, what does that mean? Like the engineer or the medical officer next to me, I'd write them my little basic questions, and ask them to do it. So, I got myself on a learning journey.

>> Maria Varmazis: You got a PhD in NASA basically, as--

>> Renee Wynn: As fast as one could possibly do, which means I couldn't pass a test. But I probably could tell you some pretty cool stories about space.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, well, that makes you -- well, thank you for sharing your career journey because I think that's really fascinating. And I think it's important for people to know that you don't have to have a traditional like, hey, I graduated in this space related thing, and I did the space career. And that's how I got to NASA, or whatever your path wants to be. Paths can be really, really much more interesting than that. So, thank you for sharing that. So, given your background, what you've been doing, I think you are the perfect person to explain why space matters. Because I bet you've had to give that pitch so many times to so many people. And I know many of our listeners might have a sense of that, but you have a much more high level view I think that many people might have. Could you indulge me a bit and give me that pitch? Like, why does space matter?

>> Renee Wynn: Yeah, so let's talk about why space matters, right? So, I'm going to dial back a little bit. Let's go back to the 60s in the Apollo era. And I'm doing that, because there was a lot of unrest in this country. And when Kennedy, you know, made that moonshot, we're going to put people on the moon before the end of the decade. Remember what was going on down here, protest the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movements, Equal Rights movements, were also going around. We always forget to say that one. And so, now you want money shifted into space exploration, over some social domestic type efforts, right? To bring maybe some less, less chaos going on with less protests, fewer protests. You know, focusing on productivity, being all inclusive, you know, how do we shift to that? And if we're going to space, how can we do both, right? Well, we actually as a population in America, are pretty good at doing multitasking. And sometimes multitasking doesn't go well. But for the most part, it does go well when you get the right folks focused on problem solving. We're set out for space during a very tumultuous time in the United States. So, I wanted that as the backdrop because here's why space is important. From that day forward, that point forward, where A, Russia beat us to it. You know, so there's a space race, and there's a bit of that going on again now. Lots of great things have happened. One, there's the economics of space, let's talk about GPS. How many of us use some kind of mapping for navigation? Our cars come with it and this is how we safely get from point A to point B. Well, hopefully safely, right? But this is how you get places that you didn't know. Where is you used to have to have those paper maps. And it was always safer if you had a navigator because you're not opening the map up while you're driving. You're pulling over side of the road, so you know where you're still going. Instead, it reads it to you on your watch. Maybe you're looking at the face of your car plate, because those are huge now, the screen. Or maybe you're just looking at your phone. So, you use it to navigate. Well, those GPSs are used for uncrewed ships, uncrewed other vehicles that GPS is delivering things left, right north and south. So, now we've advanced so much that GPS has allowed us to go to autonomous vehicles, in certain industries. GPS helps us with logistics. You know, things get crowded in our sea lanes, believe it or not. And the GPS can as well as the navigational capabilities in these ports pulled together to allow more ships to be brought in at safe, closer and safer distances. It's the same thing we do with airplanes. So, now you can squeeze more into an area. So, the one thing is, is the whole GPS invention and what that's meant to economics. Then there's weather. Agricultural businesses, soil moisture, big storms coming. The military, how do I do my operations? How do I -- how can I do my operations? How do I practice my operations in horrific events? So, you can practice what could happen in a special program or something like that. And then there's hurricanes. Hurricane predictions, this is this -- is one of my favorite things to talk about. So, the hurricane swath. Let's just talk a decade ago would be, let's say, a foot wide on the weather map. You're going to just going to have to imagine this. And so, that was a decade ago. We get more and more data. More and more models run by high performance computing. Now we're shrinking the prediction of a hurricane. Let's say we get it down from a foot to six inches or even four inches. In that gap, that shrinkage, so would be somewhere between six inches and eight inches. Those are people that don't have to stop what they're doing to prepare for hurricane, which is opportunity cost loss and economic losses. They're not closing down. They're not rushing to the gas station. They're not packing up their family, right? So, now that that swath is much smaller. Preparation can be better because now you're in the zone of highly likely. And maybe people will make the decision to leave that zone. And that they'll feel as if their preparations are going to be worth something. And that and that is a huge difference in our hurricane prediction models. And now with greater weather events, and they're harsher. And that again, preparation saves lives. And it saves the economy because you can -- the faster after you've had a horrific event, climate oriented. The faster you get to recovery. The faster your economy gets back up. And that's good for people that live there. Then you have the fun stuff, right? Space tourism, you can get a balloon ride to see the horizon curve on that. I like looking at the pictures. I don't need to leave terra firma. I don't mind airplanes, but I don't think I need to go. I've flown at 40, 43,000 feet in the NASA airplane telescope. Actually, it's also the German Space Agency's flying telescope in that. So, that's been very cool. That was [inaudible] it was cool. It was high enough. And now we're getting the internet, which has certainly made a difference in some of the geopolitical events that are happening around the globe is access that internet. And access to internet is an economic benefit to anybody on the ground. And so, infrastructure is very different in some of the other countries than it is here in the United States. You know, they can skip generations of that. And then the space internet is just going to continue to grow and grow.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back after this quick break.

[ Music ]

So, when we think about these amazing systems and space that we all rely on, what kind of threats are facing these systems? Yeah.

[ Laughter ]

[ Inaudible ]

>> Renee Wynn: The really fun stuff, right? [Inaudible] other part, right? I'm going to start with cybersecurity, because that's what, that's what I got to learn, right? As the CIO of NASA. Cybersecurity is a serious threat to national security and personal security. So, yes, satellites can be hacked. So, if you're a scientist, and you're depending upon satellite data coming down to write your papers or make discoveries. Or inform your models about space and that, then you need the highest integrity of data, and you need that assurance. So, you don't -- you need to assure that and how do you assure that? And that is you put mitigations in place to protect from a denial of service, a change of data, or other events that can happen in the cybersecurity world. They're spoofing in that, and we've seen some stories on it. But that can happen at the satellite. Now some of the satellite stuff to do is on the higher end of costs. But since nation states invest in cybersecurity on the offensive side. Let's just assume they've invested properly, and they can make difference in their satellites. There's another -- this is a cool thing, but it's to me it's a very scary thing. We can catch satellites now. We've done it.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, it's so wild. Yeah, yeah.

>> Renee Wynn: So, if I can catch it to like, fix it. That means I could probably catch it to do something nefarious.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, or just deorbit it, right? Just completely--

>> Renee Wynn: Yeah, just whatever, right? You know, just make your next sci-fi movie about space and cybersecurity. Oh, that's already been done. So, and I'm not going to say anything, because I don't want us to get in trouble for endorsements or anything like that. So, you have the cybersecurity threats. And those threats are in the uplinks and downlinks, the satellite themselves, as well as your ground systems as well. And frankly, you have insider threat as well, which people always forget to talk about. But we have a recent leak, right? From an insider threat and the signs, they're harder to detect than outsiders [inaudible], right?

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes, yep, yep.

>> Renee Wynn: So, you've got that, and you've got space debris with everything, right? We have this awesome piece that happens. But now space debris is getting to be a very serious issue. And it's being talked about a lot across the globe. As more countries are stepping in, to have space programs, lots going on in Africa and in the Middle East [inaudible] progress because they can catch rides from SpaceX and other businesses, right? You can make your satellite and there's several private sector businesses that offer ground systems as a purchasing thing. So, now it's the cost of the satellite, what sensors do you want to put on it? What scientific data do you want to put on it? And -- or capture with it. And then you create your satellite. So, the cost of satellites are going down. They've got the nano satellites. The smaller ones and that schools do that. So, we're bringing down the cost, which is creating great curiosity. But those things die in space, and the countries are supposed to be responsible for it, you know, that. But it was easier before. Now we have the problem is growing. And I think pretty soon it's going to be exponential.

>> Maria Varmazis: And there's no agreed upon norms as yet or I mean, we're trying to get there. But--

>> Renee Wynn: We are trying to get to space norms. There are some space norms that are out there. There's a lot of questions being brought up about those space norms. Or do they fit today's mode, and my little pea brain has looked at them. And in some cases, they hold but not all cases. Because also, if you weren't at the table, we sometimes as humans have a sort of, well, I wasn't there negotiating that. So, does it really apply? Or I'm slightly different than that. So, there'll be human reasons to not do it. So, I think it's time they need to continue the discussions and reset the table. Talk about space norms in a global world now. Both from an economics perspective as well as the way space is operating. Yep, it's time. Yeah.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, beyond time, right? Beyond time, we've been there. So, something we had been chatting about before we started the interview was the new -- the report that came out recently saying that space needs to be classified as critical infrastructure. I want to get your thoughts on that because to me, that felt like a really big move when that report came out. So, what are your thoughts?

>> Renee Wynn: Yeah, I think the timing is right now. This is -- this issue's been talked about a lot in the background for quite a while. And on April 14th, that time to designate space systems as critical infrastructure, that report was issued. And lots of good research went into that one. And just, you know, if you look just to picture, which are always a great way to tell a story. It boils down to sort of three areas of threats. And the report is much more detailed. And actually, it's a very good read, I thought, but I'm interested in this stuff.

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll put a link in the show notes for folks.

>> Renee Wynn: Yeah, it'd be great to take a look at this one. And we'll talk a few -- a little bit about some of the dissenting opinions, I think as well. So, there's the in-orbit threats, which I've talked a little bit about from the space debris. Cybersecurity threats but people forget we have humans living in space, right? Right on International Space Station, we've got astronauts and astronauts are from U.S, as well as other countries, including Russia. Humans live in space and when you get space debris. You got to maneuver International Space Station and those maneuvers happen more and more regularly. And that's -- we got -- right. You know, it's just not the thing you want to have happen on your watch. But we have to remember that we've got humans up there and we're contemplating space tourism. And there is that, it's already started. And the United States in partnership with lots of other countries are establishing Gateway, another lab, a space lab. And so, again, you're putting these expensive assets which have benefit to humanity. And now you've really got to think about how to protect space differently. And naming it as critical infrastructure is another way to do that. Already mentioned the uplink and downlink and what can happen with that, and it's fairly expensive proposition. But, you know, nation states are doing this on a regular basis. And you even have launched threats. Just straight collision. Yeah, and we, you know, things don't go as planned. And we -- and we've seen that. although--

>> Maria Varmazis: We've seen it, I've seen it. We've seen, yeah, yeah.

>> Renee Wynn: And it's a learning event. Everything is a learning event. And then you also can have a denial service. Now, a lot of the launchpads are pretty well protected. But people are trying to do these things. And so, you've got -- always got to be on alert, that even if it hasn't been done. You should assume it can be done, and what are you going to do to mitigate those risks? So, naming critical infrastructure, because we talked about different ways space impacts our daily lives. The GPS, the weather, Internet, and such. And so, yeah, now all of a sudden, it really matters. It is critical infrastructure. Human lives can be saved or lost, of depending on reliance with a space asset, of satellite, and the data that comes from space and the accuracy of that data. So, I think it's time to really start the important debates on naming it as critical infrastructure. But it's going to be hard, because space is part of critical infrastructure for some other elements of critical infrastructure, because it does already rely on satellites. And so, they've got to debate do you pull all of it in and space systems as one collective or leave it in the already designated critical infrastructures and just capture what is left? And that's -- those debates go on. And so, why name it as critical infrastructure, because we'll treat it exactly as the name says. It's critical to humanity and there are real threats. And so, we need to be smart about future development, and mitigating current risks as best as one can. Which is, you know, risk scenario building, and things like that, which also creates a lot of economic opportunities, right? You know, people can now, you know, walk in and if they love risk, boy, talk about moving into an environment. You know, go into space economy and any number of businesses, or the government in any government, right across the globe. And just be a risk manager and boy, you're going to have some fun.

>> Maria Varmazis: I love that. I was thinking, what a great way to wrap up our interview too, is like this pitch for going into working in space and managing risk. It is pretty exciting honestly. For those of us who enjoy that kind of thing, that is a really great place to be. Space is the place. Renee, thank you so much for walking me through your career, your story, your expertise, and your perspective on why space matters. I really appreciate your time today.

>> Renee Wynn: Maria, thank you so much. Make it a great one.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: And that's it for T-Minus Deep Space for May 6th, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of our podcast. You can always email us at space@n2k.com or submit the survey in our show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester [assumed spelling]. With original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

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