Desire to learn expands a space leader’s orbit
A manager’s career comes full circle with his work on Starliner while his journey of growth continues.
March 13, 2023 in Space
A pleasant greeting can change anyone’s day, especially in stressful times such as a global pandemic in recent years. Just ask Greg Ffolkes.
Ffolkes, Starliner operations manager, tries to always greet people with “Good morning. How are you doing?”
“That’s the mannerly way to greet people before you get down to business,” Ffolkes said. “People may be having issues with their families. They always appreciate you asking how they are doing.”
Raised by his grandparents in Jamaica the majority of his childhood, Ffolkes learned the importance of good manners, respect and education from his grandparents. His grandmother was a school principal and his grandfather oversaw a penitentiary. He loved to read the daily newspaper to his grandparents, enjoyed studying and was highly skilled in mathematics.
He got his work ethic from his mother, who moved to New York to work two jobs as a nurse and sent money and clothes back to Jamaica before he came to live with her at age 11, after his grandmother passed away.
“I’m a tireless worker and I know I get that work ethic from my mother. I do what it takes to get the job done. I look at where we are and what we need to do to get there,” Ffolkes said.
That can explain why he’s been a constant at Boeing for 33 years, moving around to help various programs.
“I like being on the floor and seeing the product come together,” Ffolkes said. “I love working with the teams and helping work through and resolving any issues. It just gives me a very high sense of accomplishment working together to produce something that is going to perform its mission. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. You can’t get any better than this.”
While Ffolkes had worked briefly for New York Telephone Company and Grumman Aircraft on fighter jets after receiving a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, his aerospace career began at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, starting with Rocketdyne on the space shuttle in 1988. He spent nine years as a systems engineer on the shuttle’s main engines, including inspection and repair and final assembly and installation.
Ffolkes continued his education and received a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Central Florida, and then became a manager leading an engineering team. He met his wife, Shelia, of 31 years while working at KSC at the Orbiter Processing Facility document control station. She was working for Lockheed at the time. Later, she joined Boeing and retired in 2019 as a business analyst on the Space Launch System, or SLS, program. They have a daughter and two grandchildren.
Career opportunities took the couple throughout Boeing. To name a few, Ffolkes worked as the space shuttle program element integration manager in Texas and was a missile defense systems engineering multi-skill manager in Alabama. He also spent time in New York as a test site lead on 787 flight deck and lighting systems, and then, from 2011 until 2020, at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on the SLS program, one of the biggest projects he’s worked on.
For SLS, he first led the production area activation teams in preparing the production areas/system for transition into production of the core stage. He then became the senior manufacturing manager responsible for the leadership of the core stage production operations, including Welding, Structural Assembly & Integration, Proof Testing, Primer, Thermal Protection System Application and Final Assembly. His work earned him the Silver Snoopy Award, one of the highest honors bestowed by NASA.
Ffolkes came full circle when he returned to KSC in 2020 to join the Starliner program on a temporary assignment, which became permanent in 2021. He said he’s moved around the company because he was asked and he wanted to learn different areas, and he encourages others to take advantage of opportunities.
“As early as possible in life, decide what path you want to take,” Ffolkes said. “Just make yourself available and portable. If you geographically constrain yourself, you are limiting your possibilities of growth.”
He’s enjoyed being back at KSC after seeing and working on dozens of launches during his space shuttle days. He looks forward to the launch of Starliner’s first flight with crew.
“Working on the space program, you’re able to see the end product launch and go through its mission. And when it comes back, you do it all over again. It never gets old,” Ffolkes said.
Ramon Sanchez, former Starliner senior operations manager and now senior director of operations for Space, Intelligence & Weapon Systems, said the program is extremely dynamic and takes sacrifice and perseverance, so he needed someone who was capable of staying focused on the mission while remaining dedicated to safety, quality and technician engagement.
“Not anyone could walk into this environment and be successful,” Sanchez said. “Good thing for Starliner, Mr. Ffolkes is not just anyone — and that’s why we asked for his support to help get us over the finish line. I am greatly honored that he accepted the challenge with open arms.”