By Jason Silver
Mingling with astronauts and hanging out at Kennedy Space Center’s launch pads are merely dreams for many people, but for Douglas Hendriksen (JD 66), those experiences have been part of just another day at the office for more than 40 years.
Hendriksen, whose main responsibilities include giving government procurement law advice and serving on source evaluation and mishap boards, was recently awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
His career at NASA, an organization that was in its very early stages while Hendriksen was in law school, has been an unexpected experience.
“NASA was not even around when I was growing up in Tampa, and it was just getting started when I was at UF,” he said. “It was a brand new agency that was blowing up rockets all over the place. Kennedy Space Center was not even built yet.”
After UF Law, Hendriksen went to NASA so he could practice contractual negotiations. He arrived shortly after the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts and was inspired by the organization’s progressive mentality.
“When I came to NASA, I got an amazing feeling,” he said. “I had never been around so many bright, positive and proactive people.” He also recalls the sense of urgency around Cape Canaveral after President Kennedy announced that the U.S. will go to the moon in the 1960s.
“Whenever there was a problem or challenge, we never backed down because we had to get to the moon,” Hendriksen said. “The Apollo Program was a big venture that attracted the best people from around the world. That’s the kind of people NASA had back then.”
At NASA Hendriksen relies on his days from UF Law to sometimes help solve problems totally unconnected to legal issues. When the Apollo Program ended NASA began preparing for the Space Shuttle Program, and had problems figuring out how to place new cranes in the Vehicle Assembly Building.
He thought back to his days at UF when Dean Fenn, a UF Law professor, told his classes to think outside of the box. Hendriksen used that mindset to help solve a major issue.
“The engineers wanted to cut a hole in the top of the Vehicle Assembly Building, which would have been a very complex operation,” he said. “The roof of that building is like lasagna, and contract-wise, the project would have been very hard to do.”
By thinking outside the box, Hendriksen convinced the engineers the newer refined cranes could be lifted into position by the old cranes already in the assembly facility. The head engineer loved the idea.
“Years later, during the Space Shuttle Program, the launch director came up and thanked me because the older cranes we kept in there were also still being used from time to time,” Hendriksen said. “That’s thanks to Dean Fenn showing me to think outside the box at UF Law.”
An expert when it comes to giving business and legal advice, Hendriksen has been extremely involved when it comes to helping NASA recover from tragic accidents like the Columbia disaster.
He serves on a board of advisers that decides what to do with the remaining wreckage and still gets calls daily for permission to work with the wreckage from universities and scientists.
“When the pieces of the shuttle started to come back, my team had to figure out what other people could have access to, where they could view everything and where NASA should store the wreckage,” he said. “To this day I get calls from many different types of people who want access and I have to make certain recommendations.”
NASA employees value pride and honor when it comes to their daily work. Hendriksen, like other NASA employees, dedicates his efforts to astronauts who have fallen in the past.
“Since we couldn’t bring back the astronauts, we make sure the program goes on,” he said. “Everything we do at NASA honors the astronauts who have died, and we all spend whatever resources it takes to make sure we get a ‘Return to Flight.’”
A “Return to Flight” refers to getting astronauts to land safely back on Earth. In the 1970s, during the Apollo missions, Hendriksen remembers when NASA would allow employees to get really close to the Saturn V Rocket liftoffs.
“NASA was more cavalier when it came to safety back then. During Apollo 17 my colleagues and I were allowed to stand right at the tow-away facility to watch the launch,” he said. “I remember having to hold onto a gatepost while my entire body and everything else vibrated during the launch.They would never let us that close nowadays.”
His responsibilities as a contract expert allow him to work with famous ex-astronauts such as Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell, and former Sen. John Glenn. Hendriksen helps them organize math and science scholarship programs. “The U.S. is not as strong as it used to be in math and science, so I work with ex-astronauts to get young people on track,” he said. “NASA can’t offer scholarships because it’s a federal agency, but we help the exastronauts figure out what they can and can’t offer.”
Although his career at NASA is coming to a close, he’s still involved in daily contract writing and reviewing. As NASA transitions into the new Constellation Program, new contracts have to be made to build the redesigned rockets, transporters and launch pads.
“We need to replace the old crawler-transporters with one or two new ones that cost tens of millions of dollars each, and we have to write out the right clauses for the bidding that is coming up,” he said. “In the counsel’s office we have to be very careful about the costs and what options we offer to the contractors.”
After four decades of hard work and dedication, Hendriksen says he still loves being part of NASA operations and that it will take a big effort to keep him away.
“I just love working out here and could do it much longer, but my wife is getting mad and hammering me to say goodbye,” he said.