Tracy Belford ’92, Assistant Chief Counsel for NASA
Tracy works at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and sat down to answer some questions reflecting on where she is now and what helped her achieve her success.
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I am a senior level attorney with NASA at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I have been with the agency almost 25 years now. My work in the first 18 years or so was primarily procurement law, environmental law, and Space Act agreements. From 2011 to 2016 I worked with our Center Planning and Development office doing commercial law and supporting the transition of the space center into a multi-user Spaceport. In other words, we negotiated the appropriate lease or permit instruments with third parties and other state and federal government entities (e.g., Space Florida, SpaceX, the Air Force) for use of facilities leftover from the shuttle program but no longer an immediate need for NASA. During this period we turned historic launch pad 39A over to SpaceX, the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) and Orbital Processing Facility 3 (OPF3) over to Space Florida, OPF1&2 over to the Air Force, and activated Phase 2 of our Exploration Park agreement with Space Florida so that they could begin working with tenants like Blue Origin, who is in the final stages of constructing their newest rocket manufacturing site. Currently, I am working on litigation associated with two major construction projects, and have successfully transitioned a junior colleague into the commercial law area.
What was your career path? What led you to your current position?
I was never very excited about the idea of working for a big law firm, even in law school. While I was at OCU Law, I had an internship with the Oklahoma Supreme Court and did research and legal writing for Justice Alma Wilson during that time. I enjoyed working at a level where I could see a bigger picture of things. I applied for work with NASA (the only federal agency I wanted to work for) toward the end of my third year of law school, and I received lovely rejection letters from all 11 centers and Headquarters. A year later (1993), the Chief Counsel here at KSC pulled my resume out of the file and called me. I made him let me call him back because I didn’t believe he was real! He flew to OKC to interview me and we had a long chat in the airport back when you could sit with someone right at their gate until they left. I was offered a temporary one year position a few days later, and I packed up and drove myself to Florida two weeks later. Within three months they had converted me to a permanent, full-time employee. The rest is history. I love the space program and the amazing things we do, and I have always loved being a part of it. I love having a job where I always get to do the right thing, and where my focus includes the greater picture of the taxpayers of the U.S. and exploration of our planet and universe for the greater good of humanity.
What overall impact did OCU Law have on your success today?
In particular, I really loved real property in law school, and Professor Schwartz was a great influence. He was also my thesis advisor. The five years I spent working commercial/property law here at KSC have been, by orders of magnitude, the most fun and fulfilling that I have had in my entire career. I think OCU focused us on our research and writing skills throughout the program, and if you can do those things well, the rest will come. Law school cannot teach you how to be a good lawyer, but it can certainly teach you how to think critically and solve problems, and OCU Law did that for me in many ways.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
Sitting at the table with SpaceX officials negotiating the terms for their use of Launch Pad 39A. That pad is historic, Apollo 11 launched from there. The agency had decided to use Launch Pad 39B for our future Space Launch System (SLS) program, and we no longer had an identifiable need for 39A. Left unused, it would quickly deteriorate and crumble in the corrosive Florida environment and history would be lost. So we offered it up for use in a competition and SpaceX won that competition. I lead the negotiations with a small but powerfully smart and savvy team of engineers and other disciplines. The resulting lease allows SpaceX to use and modify the pad for their Falcon series of rockets. It has been amazing to watch the transformation out there, every day, and they have always respected the history for which they are now responsible. They recently completed a successful static test of their newly built Falcon Heavy rocket, and as of the time of this writing, that rocket is scheduled to launch February 6. The largest rocket currently on the planet, and the second largest once we launch the SLS in 2019. Eventually, their Falcon 9 will carry our astronauts into low earth orbit (LEO). I am deeply humbled to have played such a role in the future of commercial spaceflight, and the future of our own space program.
If you could tell young lawyers one thing, what would it be?
Keep an open mind about what it means to be a lawyer. Don’t start by thinking about your paycheck, start by really asking yourself what you want to do with your skills as an advocate. There are so many areas of law so try to get exposed to as much of it as you can. You may be surprised by what moves you, and where you feel most useful and fulfilled. Try to say yes to new opportunities as often as you can. Find a mentor and really use whatever they offer. Wait, is that more than one thing?
How has the commercial space launch industry affected NASA and its future?
By investing in the commercial space launch industry through our Commercial Crew Program (CCP), we have catapulted launch providers forward in development and certification of human-rated vehicles at a much faster rate than they could have managed on their own. Because they will presumably be able to launch more often, and for much less money, our country will be able to do so much more than we have been able to achieve in the past. With the commercial providers focused on carrying cargo and people into low earth orbit, our SLS program will focus on the exploration of deep space, e.g. the moon, Mars, and beyond. This efficiency and focus will enhance our progress in developing new technologies, new capabilities that will improve the lives of human beings and the planet where we live. This is an AMAZING time to be part of NASA!