As NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin prepare for the first test flight of an Orion space capsule, Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager, is ending a four-decades-long career in aerospace. He is turning over the reins of the Orion program to Michael Hawes, a former NASA associate administrator and one-time chief engineer of the international space station, who joined the company three years ago.

Lacefield also came to Lockheed Martin from NASA, where he worked as a space shuttle flight director in the 1980s. He left after STS-51F, a Spacelab research flight cut short when the Space Shuttle Challenger lost an engine during its July 29, 1985, liftoff. Challenger made it into a lower but still-usable orbit but had to come home just under eight days later.

Lacefield had his hands full fighting to protect propellant margins for re-entry after the so-called abort-to-orbit. Misconstrued media reports of the term “abort” didn’t help matters.

“He just had this potentially horrific thing happen to him in ascent. The last thing he’s going to do is give up his margin for entry. … He had to defend and fight,” former shuttle astronaut Richard Richards, who was serving as Lacefield’s capcom, said in a Johnson Space Center oral history project interview. On NASA human spaceflight missions, the capcom is the member of the flight control team who communicates directly with the crew.

Lacefield left NASA shorty thereafter.

That experience may be one reason Lacefield is so keen on Orion’s redundant and flexibly designed critical systems. “When you’re on the other side of the Moon, there is little opportunity for trying to get spare parts,” Lacefield said during a recent interview with SpaceNews.

Lacefield has been overseeing Orion development from its start. He previously was the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33 program manager.

Lacefield spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and by telephone.

How is Orion’s redundancy different from what was on the space shuttle?

It’s not a fair comparison because the shuttle wasn’t made to be an exploration vehicle. It was made to be a low Earth orbit operational vehicle, or utility vehicle, and it really struggled with that because the cost to reuse it and to keep it in flying shape was always a challenge.

This vehicle is designed with a lot of backup systems so that the crew has lots of options.

There are two things — the redundancy and the capability. You can tie in strings on different computers and tie up electrical buses to different configurations so that if you have a problem in one area you can get around that. On shuttle, once you lost a string you pretty much lost a string, versus being able to reconfigure it and work at getting it back.

When I was at NASA we did do some work where you would have problems and then we’d work to get things reconfigured for entry, but nothing of the flexibility that we’re talking with Orion. We’re talking an order of magnitude more capability than what we had on shuttle to do that reconfiguration for issues that show up on flight.

You could be on the other side of the Moon and have a hole in the cabin and you’re going to get that vehicle back. The heat shield on shuttle isn’t strong enough for that kind of velocity for re-entry and the shuttle isn’t light enough to even have the propulsion systems get you there.

Speaking of heat shields, I see there’s an American flag painted on Orion’s. What’s that made of?

It’s a special paint. It’ll probably sort of ablate, but it won’t cause any thermal issues.

You just did that for décor?

This is the American space program and we’re very, very proud of this vehicle.

What are the tiles made of?

They’re the same as the shuttle tiles. United Space Alliance developed them later in the program. They are more resistant to micrometeoroids and orbital debris. That’s why we wanted them. You’re going a long ways away from Earth. If you take any hits or anything like that we want to be as resistant as we can.

What makes these able to withstand greater heating?

They’re the same as the shuttle tiles but they’re on the backside, they’re not on the bottom side, so they don’t get much of the 4,000 degree heating as the topside.

At one point Lockheed Martin was toying with the idea of a commercial version of Orion. Anything come of that?

This Orion is for deep-space exploration. We’re not looking at anything beyond the NASA customer.

You have a contract to build three Orions. How will they be used?

Well, this first one, we’re going to prove that we can refly it. The whole idea was that we could refly these five to 10 times, so what we wanted to do was fly this one a couple of times to show what the life capability of the vehicle is and then we can start flying the other vehicles for the NASA missions.

The second Orion will be outfitted for astronauts?

Yes. EM-1 — Exploration Mission 1 — is a dress rehearsal for Exploration Mission 2.

So will the Space Launch System be tested independently before it is used to fly an Orion capsule?

We will be on the SLS vehicle for EM-1, so it will be an entire test of the system, without people.

So between Exploration Flight Test-1 late this year and EM-1, you’re actually going to be test-flying two capsules before a person gets in. That, plus the launch abort test?

Yes, and we also did the pad abort test with another vehicle that we flew a couple of years ago in New Mexico.

Charles Bolden has explicitly said that Orion will not be used for international space station taxi flights, unless it’s “a really bad day.” Would Exploration Flight Test-1 in December theoretically certify Orion for ISS flights? At what point does your path to pursue the primary mission for Orion diverge from its possible use as an emergency backup system for the station?

I think Charlie pretty much explained how NASA looks at this.

But technically? I understand politically it’s one thing, but technically does that flight in December in some way show that it’s a spaceworthy vehicle that could get to ISS if it needed to? Would you need to do any other flights to demonstrate that?

This one doesn’t have the docking system on it, but remember we tested out the rendezvous and proximity operations system on the last shuttle flight. So we’d have to add all that. It’s not on this vehicle.

But it’s been tested already. And that’s part of the same system that was left on the Hubble Space Telescope after the last servicing mission, yes?

It’s a universal target that our system would see and then we could control toward it.

When would a docking mechanism fly on Orion?

The docking mechanism doesn’t need to fly until we’re going to dock with something. So EM-1 and EM-2, since those are like 20-plus-day flights, they go up to around the lunar environment and then come back, neither one of those would require a docking system.

Are you at the highest staffing levels you’re going to see on this project? Because of the flat budget?

With sequestration and everything else that’s going on, that won’t change.

What about during operations?

We’ll have people working on refurbishment so that we can fly this vehicle on the ascent abort test, but we’ll start working on the next vehicle as soon as this one flies. We are buying all the long lead parts for the next vehicle now so that we can start next year.

What’s the status of the second vehicle and the third one?

NASA has extended the contract that covers us through 2020, which covers the EM-1 and EM-2 vehicles and right now we are doing all the long lead for the EM-1 vehicle.

Eventually will you be able to do asteroid rendezvous missions with just the two flight vehicles?

I think when we look downstream for what the missions are … I think there will be some more vehicles that we probably build.

What do you plan to do in retirement?

I have a daughter who is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, and I have a daughter with grandsons — she’s a registered nurse — and her husband, who is also in the medical field, in Destin, Florida, so I think we’re going to become snowbirds and do the summers in Indiana and the winters in Florida.

Do you plan on doing consulting or are you going to become a space spectator when you say goodbye to Lockheed and Orion?

It’s hard to imagine being a space spectator because I’ve been in the business for so long. But I do need to take some time off. Let’s put it that way.

I imagine you’ll be invited back to see Orion test launch in December?

Yes, they’re going to invite me and my grandsons and my wife to come see the launch, and we’re looking forward to it.