In November — by which time the rumors had been circulating for months — word came down from NASA headquarters that the directors of the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland would retire at the end of the year and be replaced by their deputies.

Longtime NASA hand James Free took over at Glenn in January. Free, who joined NASA in 1990, has spent most of his career working on space systems. Then, in 2010, he became deputy director at Glenn, one of three NASA field centers specializing in aeronautics research.

“Learning what we do in aeronautics here has probably been the most eye-opening experience I’ve had,” Free said in a recent interview with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

He has also had to learn how to keep Glenn’s brick-and-mortar assets in good working order in a budget environment that does not leave much to spare for maintenance and repairs.

Now, with the threat of automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts still looming large, Free said he can take comfort from one fact: Glenn has been planning for them for a while.

There’s a budget storm brewing in Washington, and besides further tightening that might have happened in 2013 and 2014 anyway, sequestration threatens to cut NASA’s budget by 8.2 percent. Does Glenn have a plan for coping with cuts like that?

We started planning in 2010 as the budget looked like it was clearly going to shrink or stay flat, anyway. And a flat budget is a shrinking budget, because costs are going up but your procurement dollars aren’t. We took a look on the institutional side and said, “OK, the budget is going to go down. Let’s plan and operate for that, and if we get additional dollars, we can adjust.” When we approached this for 2013, the agency had some pretty clear guidance: “Here’s the House mark, here’s the Senate mark, here’s the president’s budget, here’s sequestration, let’s try to find some value in that range.” It was really kind of appropriation-line-dependent how NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson picked them, and that’s what we set our course to. We didn’t start out hoping for the best. We tried to be realistic and set realistic center milestones and center budgets that we could meet with an already-planned-for reduced budget.

What was Glenn’s 2012 budget?

I think we started 2012 at $640 million, and it fluctuates as we get some additional business through the year. We’ve been between $640 million and $700 million for the past few years, so we’ve gone down. Our 2013 proposed budget is a little bit higher than the 2012 budget, but that’s more for some construction work we had going on, so it was a little bit of an artificial bump.

Besides the Lewis Field campus near Cleveland, Glenn has Plum Brook Station near Sandusky, Ohio, with its B-2 cryogenic vacuum chamber and a hypersonic wind tunnel. In Washington, there’s constant talk about trimming some fat at NASA. What case can you make for maintaining duplicate infrastructure at the centers?

Now when you talk about “trimming the fat,” in my experience, if you lined up all the wind tunnels across NASA, there’s obviously overlap in speed regime — which is the effective wind speeds the tunnel can produce. It’s just natural that you’ll get overlap there. But NASA centers that have wind tunnels with overlapping speed regimes have different capabilities within those regimes, be it the environmental conditions you can create at that speed or the size of the tunnel. So when you weave the story of “What can you close down?” there are things you can look at. One facility might be Mach 1 to Mach 2, and so is another. Why don’t we close one? Well, the first might have a large test section, and in the second you’re able to create really low temperatures. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, we could trim it,” but you will lose some capability or another if you do.

The European Space Agency is still deciding whether to test the fairing for its upgraded Ariane 5 rocket at the B-2 facility. Has Glenn booked any other tests at that facility?

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is going to go through its qualification test there. And we’re actually starting a test for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX): a separation test of their 5.2-meter fairing for the Falcon 9 rocket.

How did the NASA Glenn people like working with SpaceX?

They’re a great company, what with all they’ve accomplished. But their mindset is very interesting to understand and learn from.

How many people work at Glenn?

We have about 1,600 civil servants and 1,600 contractors.

Has that 50-50 ratio been the norm for Glenn historically?

I don’t know that it’s historical. Over the past seven to 10 years, it’s been about 50-50. Glenn’s civil servant complement was much higher in the 1990s, when the expendable launch vehicle program was here. We’ve gone down from around 2,500 to about where we’re at now since the mid-1990s.

What big projects has Glenn been working on?

The big one that we launched in 2012 was called the Space Communications and Navigation, or SCAN, testbed. SCAN is a program within NASA, at headquarters. That was probably one of our biggest ones in a while. It went up to the international space station on Japan’s HTV cargo tug. It’s a software-defined radio experiment where basically you eliminate part of the communications hardware onboard and form the waveforms in software. It’s very flexible; you can have multiple communications frequencies on the same payload without repeating a bunch of hardware. That’s up on station and we’re checking that out now. We’re just about finished with checkout and we’ll go into the experiment phase where people can fly different waveforms, communicate direct to ground or through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network. It’s a bit of the wave of the future.

Glenn had a part in the Orion program under the Constellation program, and you used to work on Orion at Johnson. Did Glenn retain any work on the rechristened Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) program?

We do a lot of work on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle here. When it was called Orion, we were leading the service module. Now we’re deputy on the combined crew and service module office. We have a strong partnership with the Johnson Space Center and we’ve actually been leading for Mark Geyer, the MPCV program manager, the interface with the Europeans on MPCV’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-derived European service module. Our engineers and project management team here have been helping define those requirements and working with the European Space Agency to get the technical side set. Our experts here in those three systems have worked with ESA in taking the requirements and developing a system that could meet those requirements and fit within the goals that Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human operations and exploration, has for maintaining international relationships in this program. When we started out in Constellation as the lead on the service module, and for the most part this is true today, the service module was about a large propulsion system, containing the solar arrays and the thermal dissipation system as well.

What other work do you have coming down the pipe at Glenn?

On the communications side, building on the expertise we have working on the SCAN testbed, we’re continuing work for the SCAN program in developing that next-generation of space-based relay. So there are some space-based relay studies, which is code for a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite follow-on. We’re leading and doing the systems engineering work for that. The folks that worked the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite interface and the architecture for the SCAN testbed, some of them have morphed over into working on that.

We’re also working with the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters. Specifically, we’re working on the cryogenic propellant storage and transfer mission, which is basically in Phase A right now. That is to store and transfer cryogens in orbit for six months. That’s a mission being led out of Glenn. The payload is being built in house by NASA, a joint team between ourselves, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. We’re working the acquisition strategy for the spacecraft bus right now. That’s going to launch in late 2017.

The other space technology mission is in its infancy: a solar-electric propulsion mission. That’s really intended to be a steppingstone for the deep-space exploration missions that are being planned for an asteroid or to Mars. That mission is around a 30-kilowatt to 40-kilowatt mission, to be extendable to around a 300-kilowatt mission that you’d need for deep-space exploration. The cryogenic mission and the electric propulsion mission are phased differently, more for dollar reasons, than we’d like. Headquarters would love to start them both now, but dollar-wise they’re phased differently.

Did these missions provide work for the people who are rolling off the SCAN testbed program?

The folks that worked on what we just launched and that have continued to work some of our other space work, either in studies or in space station experiments or space station replenishment, they’re all moving over to the cryogenic mission and the solar-electric propulsion mission.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...