Baker saves $4B on purchase of Air Force rockets

Listen to In Depth with Francis Rose’s interview with 2014 Sammies Finalist Jonathan Baker, Delta IV Launch Systems Deputy Chief Engineer at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Systems Directorate. (Photo by Sam Kittner/

One thousand things have to go right to launch a rocket into space successfully, according to the Air Force.

Jonathan Baker, deputy chief engineer of the Delta IV Launch System at the Air Force Space and Missile Center Launch Systems Directorate in El Segundo, California, has helped save the Air Force billions of dollars and a lot of stress on its satellite launches.

Baker was responsible for saving taxpayers $4 billion on the purchase of 40 new rockets. He also led the team of engineers responsible for sending 13 Air Force rockets into orbit.


“Mission success is what they pay us for, and Jonathan has that focus on making sure the rockets work,” said Walter Lauderdale, deputy division chief in the Launch Systems Directorate. “The U.S. government doesn’t buy commercial insurance. People like Jonathan are your insurance.”

For his leadership and money-saving efforts, the Partnership for Public Service recently named Baker as one of the finalists for the 2014 Call to Service Medal. The award recognizes federal employees for professional achievements that demonstrate important contributions being made by a new generation coming into public service.

Getting to know Jonathan Baker

Federal News Radio asked each of the Sammies finalists five questions about themselves. Here are Baker’s responses:

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Empower your people. Growing up I was a perfectionist and I refused to let anyone else do anything on a project. That is OK for doing something small well, but to accomplish big things takes large amounts of people. If people are empowered to make decisions and own their project success usually follows.

What’s the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
Trust your engineering instincts. My trusted friend and adviser Dr. Nat Bhaskar (Aerospace Corp employee and former physics professor) taught me that when you think something is wrong, it probably is and you better investigate. He also taught me how to really dissect and solve a problem. That seems simple, but it is actually a rare and valuable skill.

Who is your greatest role model and why?
My dad. He has lived his entire life working hard to provide for our family while following Christian principles and doing what is right. The love and stability I receive from my dad and family is my greatest asset and has been a constant source of strength that allows me to go out and accomplish things.

What’s the last thing you read and what’s next on your reading list?
I just finished the book of Exodus in the Bible. If you haven’t read it recently, it is a good read. Some people living as slaves in a foreign land are given their freedom and they can’t stop fighting, lying, cheating, stealing, etc., after having been given the gift of freedom and are subsequently punished by walking in a circle for 40 years until they are less stubborn. I think most of us, or maybe it is just me, are similarly obstinate and probably can learn something from the story. Overall, I read a great variety of things including many space and defense blogs, sports blogs (Kansas City Chiefs/St. Louis Cardinals/Missouri Tigers), and general news. I probably have at least five other books I am part way through (one on the extinction of dinosaurs, another on the founding of the tech division of the CIA, another on how to strengthen my marriage, and …). I don’t always have a lot of free time, so I end up reading the Bible every morning and usually get into books when I have vacation time.

What would be the title of your autobiography and why?
Second Chances. I am forever grateful to the U.S. Air Force for the opportunities it has provided me. In my early 20s, I went to USAF pilot training with my head in the wrong place. I eventually washed out of pilot training and entered the most intense period of soul searching in my life. I was unaccustomed to failure. The Air Force gave me a second chance to serve my country in the space industry. I grew up, learned the satellite and rocket business, and found surfing in the Pacific to be a great place for reflection. Amazingly, 10+ years have passed quickly and I have been fortunate to work with some of the United States’ most brilliant scientists and engineers in fielding systems to protect the freedom of the United States and the world. I have learned more, seen more and experienced more than I ever knew would be possible in a career, and as I was recently reminded I have 29 more years to retirement so who knows what is next.

The Call to Service Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a photo gallery of all the Sammies nominees.