Eyes to the skies

shannon gregory doing a pre-flight check
Shannon Gregory performs a pre-flight check. ~Photo by Dan Gunderson

In the mid-’90s, U of M Carlson School of Management alum Shannon Gregory, '18 MBA, found himself on the movie set of The Jackal, an action-thriller starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, and Sidney Poitier. The movie needed trained military members to complete stunts in the film and Gregory, then active in the Marines, signed up.
Noting Gregory had the same height and build as Poitier, the movie crew quickly identified him as a stunt double for the legendary actor. In a blink-and-you-miss-it scene, Gregory made his Hollywood debut by jumping out of a helicopter and sliding down a rope onto a rooftop. Behind the scenes, the young Marine found himself face-to-face with an icon.
“[Poitier] asked me how my military service was, and at the time, I wasn’t a pilot,” remembers Gregory. “I said, ‘It’s OK, but it’d be better if I had this flying opportunity.’ He said to me, ‘Before the week’s over, I need you to take the first two steps in making sure that happens.’”
Poitier’s profound directive became the final nudge Gregory needed to put in motion his childhood dreams of becoming a pilot. “It was something that had a great impact on me,” he says. “I took those first couple of steps that turned into, finally, this step today.”
That step? Working at NASA—an organization known for its giant leaps.
More than two decades after that fateful conversation with Poitier, Gregory is now the chief of flight operations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In his role, he manages operations of the center’s helicopters and unmanned aerial systems and provides support with space launches and recoveries, most notably with NASA’s return to the moon—the Artemis program. The program entails a series of missions that will send the first woman and person of color to the moon and eventually establish a lunar base camp for astronauts.
Having a small part in the historic program is “mind-blowing” to Gregory, but at other times he feels as though he’s been preparing for an opportunity like this all along.

Shannon Gregory poses with iconic actor Sidney Poitier on the set of The Jackal in 1996. Photo: Courtesy of Shannon Gregory
Shannon Gregory poses with iconic actor Sidney Poitier on the set of The Jackal in 1996. Photo courtesy of Shannon Gregory

After six years in the Marines, Gregory joined the Minnesota Army National Guard, where he became a helicopter pilot. He flew during deployments in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf, led aviation teams, and when stateside, managed search-and-rescue efforts in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
By the mid-2010s, he was looking to bridge his 25 years of military experience with a business background. David Wagner, ’18 MBA, a fellow guardsman at the time, encouraged Gregory to enroll with him in the Carlson Executive MBA program. 
“[Gregory’s] always been a real outgoing guy, very personable,” says Wagner, a longtime friend. “I’d say probably one of his greatest attributes is that he can captivate people.”
At the Carlson School, Gregory honed his leadership skills, gaining a better understanding of organizational behavior and learning what it takes to guide teams through adversity.
“Military leaders aren’t always great at asking for help,” admits Gregory. “I think the Carlson School helped me to be the kind of leader that understands that needing help or asking for help was OK.”
It’s a lesson he applies on a regular basis.
“At NASA, I’m never going to know everything,” he explains. “So, as a manager, as a leader, it’s my job to listen to individuals to guide our decisions in a way that the whole entire organization can be successful.”
NASA’s new age of space exploration began in November with the Artemis I launch at the Kennedy Space Center. The mission sent an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond the moon and back to test a new launch system rocket and the Orion, which will carry astronauts in future missions. As chief of flight operations, Gregory worked to help ensure a safe liftoff and landing. The lessons from Artemis I will inform Artemis II, tentatively scheduled to launch in 2024.
Gregory says it’s an honor to be part of such a historic space program.
“I’m so glad that the thing I first fell in love with—helicopters—translates into an opportunity to be able to lead in a great, dynamic organization,” he says.
To his friends, it’s no surprise to see him thrive.
“[Gregory] has the drive and he is not scared to put himself out there to try something different and might be a little out of his comfort zone,” says Wagner. “He definitely has a passion for flying and leading people as well.”
It’s perhaps that same spark Poitier saw in the young Marine. Poitier’s ability to inspire him and others to achieve is a “superpower” Gregory says he aims to share with the next generation of trailblazers.
“No opportunity is outside of your reach,” says Gregory. “I can say that this is the best job, outside of riding the rocket, at NASA. But one thing I remind myself of is that nothing is out of your reach. So continue to keep your eyes toward the sky.”

See the original version of this story, which includes a video, at the Carlson School of Management.