((Photo: NASA Ames, Dominic Hart) )

When there are major technological breakthroughs for air traffic control at airports, Katharine Lee and her team at NASA are usually behind it.

For those who are surprised to learn that air traffic research and development are the work of a space agency, Lee, the deputy division chief of a research organization at NASA Ames Research Center in California, reminds them, “The first ‘A’ in NASA stands for Aeronautics!”

Recently, a system to bring greater efficiency to the landing of airplanes at “rush hour” was developed by her team and handed over to the Federal Aviation Administration, which will deploy it at major airports around the country.

“Sometimes the planes can’t fly the most efficient routes because there’s so much traffic,” Lee said. Air traffic controllers do a lot of vectoring—deviating airplanes by sending them out and back, a phenomenon Lee referred to as “tromboning.” The congestion results in significant delays for flights, as well as increases in noise pollution and in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

With the new system, known as Terminal Sequencing and Spacing, air traffic controllers will be able to tap into information about the speeds they should assign to aircraft as the planes follow fuel-efficient, continuous-descent arrival procedures. That is, air traffic controllers will be able to slow down planes so they can line up for a landing and don’t have to trombone.

As a head of a team of 70 civil servants and 120 contractors working on air traffic management, Lee interacts with the FAA, airports, and researchers and software developers.

“A lot of coordination and communication skills are required, and Kathy has those,” said Sandy Lozito, chief of the Aviation Systems Division at the Ames Center. “When people have a problem, she can help solve it because she listens and she has a solid understanding of the technical issues. She knows a lot about aviation operations.”

Lee came to NASA more than two decades ago armed with a double-major bachelor degree in biophysics and psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree in psychology from San Jose State University.

As a student, she had become interested in the little-known field of human factors, which examines how people interact with automation. While completing her master’s degree, she worked as a graduate student intern with NASA Ames researchers on the communication

patterns of airline pilots, contrasting their performance in “traditional” versus more highly automated “glass” cockpits.

She has continued to pursue human factors as she has worked on projects at NASA.

“When I first started working in air traffic management, human factors often were applied as a Band-Aid after an automation system or piece of technology was designed,” Lee said. “Now it’s clear that you have to evaluate the impact of human factors throughout technology development, so you don’t end up with a technology that although is more efficient, the user simply can’t trust or understand it.”

Lee keeps up with the science behind the team’s breakthroughs not just to understand and review the work, but also to make sure the end user, such as FAA, sees its relevancy. Understanding the science behind the technology also helps her secure funding and acknowledgement of her team’s accomplishments.

In earlier years, when Lee worked directly on a NASA team researching advanced air traffic management automation systems, she was “focused on whether the FAA or airlines eventually would use our technology.”

Today, however, she said her proudest moments “are when I have some role in helping our staff earn promotions, awards or recognition for their incredible technical achievements. It’s not the same as personally inventing some new technology or method, but it’s very satisfying.”

As the married mother of three children, Lee feels fortunate her youngsters are exposed, at the dinner table and elsewhere, to NASA’s cutting-edge work in aeronautics and space. “They get a good laugh out of phrases like, ‘well, if you’re going to go to Mars….,’ ” she said.

Lee said she is inspired by the knowledge that “one’s contributions at NASA, however small, will likely advance technology and make a huge difference in the world. Researchers from other countries that we collaborate with have commented to me that they know that once NASA sets their mind to something, it’ll get done.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.