Kris and me at the NRO’s 50th Anniversary celebration

With each advance in technology, we get new capabilities.  The NRO has been at the forefront of revolutionary advances for over sixty years now.  Sometimes these advances are so profound they require changes in the way we do our jobs.  Most people resist change in both their personal and professional lives.  We are creatures of habit.  We like a neat and orderly life.  The analytical side of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the CIA, NSA, DIA are all creatures of habit.  Each organization is like an aircraft carrier; they take years to build and take miles to change course.  

NRO satellite ground stations are at the confluence of change and habit.  The NRO flies the satellites.  At the stations, the NRO cadre are the agents of change.  While the satellites belong to the NRO, the data from the NRO satellites belong to and drive the analytical agencies, the CIA, NSA, and DIA.  Fences between government organizations serve to keep everyone doing their piece and not venturing into some other organization’s backyard.  Everything works fine until a new technology shows up.  Sometimes a new technology is heralded by all and fits like an old shoe.  Such changes are evolutionary and make jobs easier or more efficient.  The color television, the electric car, and the sports bra come to mind.  Then other times, the new technology is as delicate as a hammer hitting a pane of glass.  Technology changes that are revolutionary eliminate or drastically alter the jobs of the day.  There are new jobs that could not have been imagined before and old jobs that vanish overnight.  The submarine, the airplane, and pantyhose are but a few examples.  In the history of the NRO, Colonel Kris Henley will go down as a hammer.

I met Colonel Henley, the commander of the NRO Ground Station in Denver, Colorado, in his office.  I’d been retired from the Air Force for a few years and was working as a consultant on an initiative sponsored by the Director of the NRO.  “Call me Kris,” he said.  Typically, colonels in command positions don’t invite you to call them by their first names.  Something about being in command; but nothing was or is typical about Kris.  He grew up poorer than the dirt on his father’s farm in rural Mississippi.  ROTC scholarships, hard work, and just a bit of luck earned him a spot at Mississippi State, where he earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in mathematics.  I must admit, I used to harbor a bit of prejudice against those silver-spoon-fed officers whose Mommy and Daddy paid their way through college.  I thought I was the only one who paid my own way through college.  I lost that false notion getting to know Kris.  

In the 70’s when everyone was doing one-year tours in Vietnam, Kris was sent to Cheyenne Mountain and then on to Shemya, Alaska, to track space junk and a few satellites, both ours and theirs. The motto of the Air Force is to ‘fly, fight, and win.’ For his entire career, Kris always aimed a bit higher. He was always a ‘space guy.’ Nobody gets hired after being newly commissioned into the NRO. The NRO has no 2nd lieutenants. There are few, if any 1st lieutenants. Instead, the NRO weeds through the seemingly endless sea of competent and well degreed to find the few officers who show ingenuity and initiative. Competence is a given, but ingenuity can’t be taught; you’re born with it or not. As a young captain, Kris’ initiative and ingenuity were beacons shining directly at the NRO.

A recently launched NRO weather satellite was spinning hopelessly out of control. Wait. I know what you’re thinking, “the NRO had weather satellites?” “Come now, come now. . .” If your camera was above the clouds, wouldn’t you want to know when they moved out of the way? As my brother, Lowell Zelinski, Ph.D., is fond of saying, “Everything is easy if you don’t understand it.”

With each pass around the globe, the spin grew faster and more erratic. Tracking the satellite and plotting the spin rate, young Captain Henley provided the key information and helped the NRO spacecraft anomaly team regain control of their multi-million-dollar satellite. Against his Air Force Command’s wishes, the NRO awarded this junior officer an Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. During the next twenty-six years of his career, Kris never spent a day outside the NRO. Kris went on to command every NRO Ground Station an Air Force person can command. He was an advocate of an integrated workforce and revolutionized ground station operations. While NSA and the other agencies were stuck in their individual rice bowls, Kris preached the gospel of ‘one team.’

Kris would risk his career for his ‘one team approach.’  At the height of his career, as the Commander of a workforce of nearly 4,000 NRO, NSA, and DIA personnel, as well as service members from every branch of the military, he bet the farm.  The pressure from the four-star in charge of NSA was unrelenting.  Even the director of the NRO called to tell Kris to stand down.  Undeterred, Kris prevailed.  Today, NRO satellites provide information instantaneously.  NRO data in real-time to combat forces actively engaged with the enemy.  While new advances in technology revolutionized the way the NRO supports combat forces.  It was Colonel Kris Henley who made it work.

When Kris saw the next generation of spy satellites being planned and the capabilities they afforded, he knew the operations workforce needed to change, and change dramatically. The new systems provided information in real-time. There simply wasn’t time for each agency to do their jobs in a vacuum. Working together as a single team with only one chain of command. “This is not the United Nations,”Kris would say. Kris implemented a “one team” approach. Key jobs went to the best qualified. This was not the way NSA did business and they fought every inch of the way.

When I first met Kris, it was a few months before his retirement after thirty years on active duty. He still had the scars from his battles with NSA and DIA. “Call me Kris,” he said. “Nope, don’t think I will,” I thought.

After retirement, Kris went to work for a small company based in Palo Alto, California.  He remained in Denver but commuted to D.C. or California almost every week.  With two children now grown and out of the house, his wife Minky soldiered on.  Minky has done a lot of soldiering on.  We worked together on various projects over the next fifteen years.  When, as a senior consultant, I found myself helping a new operations organization establish new processes and build an organizational foundation, Kris stepped in to help.  While I had earned the Ground Station commander’s trust, Kris commanded their respect.  We were a formidable team.  While I had the background in business management, Kris brought a fair amount of ‘been there, done that’ to the mix.  While strategic planning and organizational development get a bad rap in the business world, I can tell you firsthand that new organizations fail without it.  Kris calls this ‘that vision thing.’

Because the NRO organization we supported had ground stations worldwide, we went on more than a few trips around the world.  In 2003, when Hurricane Isabel trashed the mid-Atlantic, we were sitting in Sydney Harbor drinking a beer.  Lillian was safe and at our home in Virginia.  But our beloved sailboat, the s/v Toucan, was a foot away from floating off her mooring and cruising down the Chesapeake Bay.  

Now Kris is an organized person who doesn’t believe in chance.  While I planned out every aspect of my professional life, my personal life is mostly a jumbled mess of just winging it.  Once, in England, when we were trying to get to our return flight, Kris lost his passport.  Rummaging through the commander’s office and our workspaces, he eventually found it, right where he’d put it, in a small pocket of his briefcase.  I believe we were also delayed due to his cellphone or Blackberry being confiscated by the site entry guards.  But that’s a painful memory, so let’s just skip it.

This part of the story Kris and I disagree on.  Somehow, this part of the story has morphed into being my fault.  Now, hopelessly late, we rushed to the airport.  We arrived with less than three minutes to spare.  There was no time to pay our rental car bill or even wait in line to return the car.  We had no time to check our luggage.  I tossed the car keys to the nearest airport security guard, and off we ran to our gate.  As our rental car was arranged and provided through the NRO site, I knew that any problem would be the responsibility of the commander of the NRO Station.  Apparently, he had to send a security detail to retrieve the station’s rental car.  The commander also had to pay our bill.  At that time, the commander was someone I had known for several years.  He never mentioned the problems we caused or the money I owed him.  

Kris’ wife Minky rules Kris’ life and their home like Kris ruled his slice of the Air Force.  Being the commander’s wife was an easy fit for her.  In moments of quiet, Minky is a quilter, their home in Denver is more a monument to her artistry than Kris’ career.  Two children and now five grandkids compete for their time.  

Who will be the next generation of leaders in the newly minted Space Force?  Rest assured, several of them worked for and were mentored by Colonel (R) Ronald K. (Kris) Henley.

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