By Tina Alvey
Growing up in Summers County, Robert Ellison never dreamed of a career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, much less advancing to the key post of quality program manager at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.
So it was with little notion of the path his life would take when Ellison, then a high school senior, walked into the dean’s office at Hinton High School for help with the decision of whether or not to attend college. More than 30 years later, he remembers that day well.
“The dean said, ‘You’re good at math. You should be an engineer,’” Ellison recalls.
With the well-known railroad hub of Hinton as his primary frame of reference, a puzzled Ellison responded, “You want me to drive a train?”
He now says with a self-deprecating chuckle, “She explained that wasn’t the kind of ‘engineer’ she was talking about, and I thought, ‘Well, I am good at math.’ So, I went to Virginia Tech and took her advice.”
That advice — and Ellison’s wise decision to take it — ultimately led him to a stellar career with NASA.
After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1982, Ellison says he “bounced around” a few jobs — working for companies like U.S. Steel and Pan Am World Services Inc. — before ending up at NASA in 1988. He found the space program to be a perfect fit, starting his career with NASA as the Kennedy Space Center’s business system manager.
“You find something you like, and you stick with it,” he says.
Advancing to the position he currently holds, chief of the Safety and Mission Assurance Integration Division at the space center, Ellison has won NASA medals for exceptional achievement and outstanding leadership.
“I work in the safety and quality arena — a group we call the Technical Management Division,” he explains. “We have experts in various disciplines connected to quality control. Our job is to keep the workplace safe.”
He adds, “It’s not an easy thing to leave earth’s gravity. We are dealing with very volatile propellants and potentially dangerous activities. Our group works to ensure the safety of the workers who handle those propellants and perform other dangerous tasks.”
The John F. Kennedy Space Center has served as the departure gate for every American manned space mission, along with hundreds of scientific spacecraft. The facility — so massive it has its own ZIP code — is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Ellison’s NASA biography describes him as “the single focal point for quality” at the space center, managing quality across all of the installation’s projects, including the space shuttle, International Space Station, launch services, Constellation and institutional activities.
In addition to serving as co-chair of the Conference on Quality in the Space and Defense Industries for the American Society for Quality, Ellison promotes strategic planning within the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate at Kennedy.
He was NASA’s representative for three years on the board of examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
Ellison lives in Melbourne, Fla., with his wife, Sherri, a civilian Air Force employee who is also a “weekend warrior” in the Reserves.
“We met over the Internet,” Ellison says. “We were both divorced, and we met on a Christian dating website.”
Between them, the couple has three adult children.
“I try to get back home to West Virginia once a year,” Ellison says, noting Hinton is still home to his parents, Herbert O. and Aileen Ellison, along with his brother and sister-in-law, Herbert Steven and Mary Ellison.
“If and when the Lord blesses me to retire, I may return, at least as far as the mountains of North Carolina,” the 52-year-old Ellison remarks. “I miss the mountains. I really do.”
His favorite aspect of his adopted home state of Florida can be summed up in one word: weather.
“Our spring and fall have temperatures like West Virginia’s summer, and our winter is the equivalent to (West Virginia’s) fall,” Ellison says. “Our summer is hot; it’s just hot.”
On his annual trek home last year, Ellison took the time to speak at Summers County High School, the successor to his alma mater.
“NASA has an outreach program, and I spoke to the students about my career and the path I followed from Hinton to the space center,” he says.
According to Ellison’s mother, at least one Summers County student was inspired by that speech to apply to Virginia Tech’s engineering program.
When he’s not working at the 144,000-acre Kennedy Space Center complex, Ellison can often be found volunteering with the Gideons International organization, which is responsible for placing Bibles in such places as hotels, hospitals and military installations.
He is also a member of the Melbourne Church of Christ.
“I see myself as a common, everyday person,” Ellison says. “I truly remember my roots. I’m just a country boy that works for NASA.
“I’m not a rocket scientist.”
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