An Interview with Boeing’s Outgoing SLS Program Manager

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Profile | Virginia ‘Ginger’ Barnes
Vice President and Program Manager, Space Launch System, Boeing Space Exploration


Ginger Barnes is well aware of the symbolic directional contrast between her previous job as chief executive of United Space Alliance (USA), the now-defunct space shuttle operator, and her current position at Boeing.

At USA, Barnes ultimately was responsible for the smooth retirement of NASA’s astronaut-launching system. Today she is helping to usher in a successor of sorts in the Space Launch System, which borrows heavily from the shuttle’s technology and infrastructure. Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration is responsible for manufacturing the SLS’s core and second stages, including the fuel tanks, associated plumbing and avionics.

Barnes recognizes that while the SLS has established a firm foothold within NASA’s human spaceflight program courtesy of congressionally driven budgets totaling more than $1 billion per year, the agency has yet to take steps to ensure the massive vehicle’s long-term future. For while SLS and its companion Orion deep-space crew capsule built by Lockheed Martin are part of a notional strategy that would see NASA send astronauts to Mars two decades from now, there are no firm plans for missions beyond an initial pair of flights to lunar space in 2018 and 2021, only the second of which will carry an astronaut crew.

NASA SLS booster
NASA SLS booster. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Already, Boeing’s workforce on the $3 billion SLS Stages contract has dropped from a peak of 1,400 last year to 1,000 today, Barnes said. Boeing nonetheless retains the largest industrial share of work on SLS, whose contractors also prominently include Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, who are responsible for the vehicle’s solid- and liquid-fueled propulsion systems, respectively.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is the lead integrator on the rocket, initial versions of which will be capable of lifting more than 70 metric tons to Earth orbit. The SLS core and second stages are being assembled at the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where Boeing has about 250 employees.

Boeing has Michoud set up to stamp out enough stages for one SLS a year — two at most with the factory’s current manufacturing capabilities, and then only if NASA pours more money and personnel into the facility.

Although there are plenty of long-term strategic questions surrounding SLS, Barnes has to worry about more pressing kinds of issues that go hand-in-hand with managing large, complex programs. For example, Boeing is wrestling with alignment issues on the Vertical Assembly Center, the 50-meter-tall welding tool needed to assemble the stages for what NASA says will be the most powerful rocket ever built.

Despite those difficulties, which have delayed the start of assembly of the first SLS stages, Barnes said the program remains on schedule for its first flight.

Barnes, who will be retiring in May, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.


Which parts of the SLS rockets for the 2018 and 2021 flights have been completed so far?

We have all of the rings for the 2018 Exploration Mission-1 completed. A ring is what joins the domes and barrels, which make up the tanks.

What about the domes and the barrels?
All of that is in work. We don’t have the flight barrels yet. Of course we do confidence and acceptance welds and we make qualification articles before we do the flight articles. If you were down there today, you would see a force of barrels. Some of them are waiting on the Vertical Assembly Center to complete acceptance testing. Everything at Michoud goes through that tool.

Vertical Assembly Center
The 50-meter-tall Vertical Assembly Center uses a technique called friction stir welding to bond pieces of metal without melting them or using filler material to seal joints. Credit: NASA

And what’s the status of the Vertical Assembly Center?
We are still in the process of checking out the tool. We expect it will be fully functional around the midsummer time frame, which is later than we had hoped. It should have completed certification in the first quarter but we’re moving that to the second quarter.

What’s the problem?
We have run into an issue with alignment of the tool, and we’re working to sort out our options for recovery. The rails that guide the material lift ring were slightly misaligned and wouldn’t allow complete translation over the entire height of the Vertical Assembly Center.

In other words, the ring cannot lift the different parts of SLS’s stages as high as it needs to. What caused that?
That’s part of what we’re studying right now. There are a lot of things that could cause the alignment to be wrong: if the tool was not built properly, or if it was not checked out properly, or if the foundation under the Vertical Assembly Center shifted. We have been clipping along and have actually had very few issues. This is one we’re working through right now and I have every confidence we’ll work through it.

How could the foundation be a problem?
The foundation that was already there at Michoud was too weak to support the tool. We had quite a job to reinforce it, to dig it out and then put it back so it could hold up the Vertical Assembly Center. To give you context for the magnitude of the new foundation, Louisiana is not known for its hard soil, and the new foundation that we laid for the Vertical Assembly Center would hold the largest building in downtown New Orleans, 1 Shell Square.

Does Boeing still believe it will finish the SLS stages in time for the rocket’s scheduled maiden launch in 2018?
Yes. Our confirmation review last summer said SLS would launch no later than November of 2018 and we are confident that we will make that.

In its 2016 budget request, the White House again requested less funding for SLS than Congress appropriated the year before. Do you think Congress will plus that up again?
I think funding in 2016 should land closer to where we are today. The White House request was not a surprise, so I expect we’ll be having the same efforts this year to fuel an informed decision as we did last year. Congress really feels ownership of this mission and they support what we’re doing so greatly.

Orbital ATK Bacchus facility
Sunrise on the first day of operations at Orbital ATK’s Bacchus facility in Utah. Credit: Orbital ATK

Has Boeing’s SLS work been affected by the Orbital ATK merger?
We haven’t seen any affect.

If NASA is serious about operating this rocket once a year starting in the 2020s, shouldn’t it put Boeing and the other manufacturers under longer-term manufacturing contracts soon?
We would really like to engage in that dialogue of having a contract for one a year right after Exploration Mission-2, but there hasn’t been any real engagement on the topic. We all firmly believe there’s not a business case that you would make the investment in this rocket to do two and done. We all believe, all of the contractors believe, and I believe NASA firmly believes, that we will have a launch cadence at some regular interval after Exploration Mission-2. And you are right: Now is the time to begin looking at that.

Next year’s presidential election foreshadows at least some political and budgetary turbulence for NASA. How do you think SLS will fare after the Obama administration turns over power in 2017?
The thing that I continue to hold in my head is that we have a real rocket. There are a lot of people talking about human spaceflight today, and I’m really glad that it’s back in the discussion. But we actually have flight hardware. This rocket is very real. When you look at history and you see the fate of some programs in the space business, it’s a lot easier to impact a program that isn’t performing well. We’re performing well.

Do you think it would be appropriate for NASA to contract out SLS operations the way it contracted out shuttle operations to United Space Alliance?
I’m a little biased. I had a great experience with United Space Alliance and I thought that was a really good model that worked well for NASA as well as for the missions. And I tell you, I’m really proud to have been able to retire NASA’s last heavy-lift launch vehicle with dignity, and now to be developing their next one. It gives me goosebumps when I think about it.