Profile: Doug Cooke

Deputy Associate Administrator, NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate

The man  NASA trusted to pick the company that will build the United States’ first manned spacecraft since the space shuttle is no stranger to space exploration.

Doug Cooke, a Texas A&M aerospace engineer who joined the U.S. space agency in 1973 just as the Apollo Moon program was winding down, has spent half his 33-year career thinking about ways to get astronauts back to Earth’s nearest neighbor and beyond.

Back when NASA Administrator Mike Griffin was known as the associate administrator for exploration in charge of implementing the first President Bush’s 1989 call for returning to the Moon, Cooke was Griffin’s man in Houston. After the Space Exploration Initiative was put out of business a few short years later, Cooke returned to the international space station program and quickly rose to deputy program manager. By 1996, Cooke was back to dreaming up more exciting missions for astronauts, serving as manager of Johnson Space Center’s Advanced Development Office.

Cooke said there were times when it felt like those planning efforts would never amount to anything more than PowerPoint presentations and slick computer animations. Cooke, an avid sailboat racer, said he never lost sight of the end goal. “My motto is never give up.”

Now, just two-and-a-half years since the second President Bush renewed his father’s call for returning to the Moon and venturing beyond, NASA has mapped its route back and awarded an $8 billion contract for the ship that will take them there — the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV).

“I’ve been pushing to make this happen since about 1989,” he said. “It’s a tremendous feeling to really be making progress, to actually have the contract under way for the first vehicle that will take people into space since the space shuttle.”

Cooke, as the second-in-command of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, was the source selection official for the CEV competition, picking Lockheed Martin over the combined team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing for the job.

Cooke discussed his reasons for picking Lockheed Martin and other topics with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

Why did NASA pick Lockheed Martin to build the CEV?

We got excellent proposals from both teams. Either team had the capability to build a vehicle. The Lockheed Martin team showed some real innovation in certain areas, particularly in their operational streamlining and the approach they took in avionics and software, very critical parts in any design. Lockheed Martin and their partner Honeywell borrowed from commercial aviation to propose avionics solutions that we think will help us stay in sync with the rest of the flight community. We also liked the financial incentives they built into their proposal that we think will help keep them motivated through the first phase of the contract. And then there was cost. Lockheed Martin was substantially less.


About $700 million less than Northrop Grumman over the first five years?

It was something like that.


Doesn’t going with the lowest bid often lead to trouble?

Obviously it can . But we have a very good understanding of what we are buying. We had both of the teams under contract since July 2005 verifying requirements, developing concepts and doing a lot of detailed study into the design. We also had a NASA Smart Buyer team that brought together experts from all over the agency to come up with their own proposal for the CEV including what it should cost. This was the most thorough approach I’ve seen in getting to a major contract.


As the CEV source selection official, does gut feel enter into a decision like this?

It can. If it were closer, that’s where we would have been. I’m confident of the choice, so it didn’t get to that point.

When Lockheed Martin unveiled
a winged CEV design in 2005, some saw it as a major flub, since NASA soon after made clear it wanted a capsule. Did it look like a fumble to NASA?

Lockheed Martin got from that point to a winning proposal that was technically sound, showed innovation and a very good understanding of the design requirements. They were actually very aggressive in working off trades and questions that were posed in the reviews and that sort of thing.


Was Lockheed Martin more flexible
during the competitive phase?

I was not directly involved in that phase. Past performance was a factor and the feedback I got was that Lockheed was very responsive in terms of their interaction with the government folks, that they were very proactive in pursuing issues and trade studies. We thought that would be an advantage to the government.

How did NASA evaluate which team
would be the better partner helping keep the CEV program sold?

That was not a part of the evaluation and did not come up in our discussion. I personally think that both teams are very supportive politically and will continue to be so. And there’s more work to come.


During the competition, Lockheed Martin made several big public announcements about where it would design and build CEV, while the Northrop team did not. If this had no bearing on the selection, was it just a waste of time?

Obviously we like to see them advocating the program, but it’s not part of the evaluation and never surfaced in those discussions. But I wouldn’t say it was a waste of time for them to do it either.

Does NASA feel it needs all the major aerospace prime contractors engaged to make Constellation work?

It’s important to NASA for all of the aerospace industry to be healthy. It helps our programs. We’re also interested in the emerging commercial entities like those we dealt with through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition. But when we work with the contractor community we intend to have open competitions. We’ll use the same methods we did this last round to make sure we get the best possible value for the government.

Did NASA learn anything from the short-lived Space Exploration Initiative that will help keep the Vision for Space Exploration from meeting the same end?

In the early 1990s we were at a point in the international space station program where Congress and some of our other stakeholders were very interested in NASA keeping its focus on getting the hardware developed and some saw the Space Exploration Initiative as diversionary. The politics of the situation are different today. We are getting the support we need from both the White House and Congress. We had very little money for the Space Exploration Initiative. This time we have a real budget to work with. We also have the benefit of all of the studies and concept work we’ve done over the years, including SEI, so we really have a good background in what it takes to do this.


With political support subject to change, how does NASA guard against Constellation devolving into a shuttle replacement program that doesn’t go the extra distance to the Moon and beyond?

Obviously we have to stay on track and show that we are making progress and meeting milestones. We also have made certain decisions about the capabilities for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares launchers that help us get to the next steps.

Orion is designed for the long term. It can do the space station missions, go to the Moon, and be used to ferry astronauts to and from space for the long Mars missions. We’ve also decided to go with a five-segment solid-rocket booster for the Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle because we also will need it for the Ares 5 Cargo Launch Vehicle. We’re doing the same thing with the J-2X engine, using it instead of a modified space shuttle main engine for the Ares 1 upper stage because we also will need it for the Ares 5 upper stage.

camp within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
would like to take that strategy a step further and develop the Ares 5’s liquid core stage now and use it
for the Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle
. Does that idea have merit?

Certainly you could use a heavy-lift vehicle for space station, but in terms of the budget reality, I think the approach we’re on right now is the one that really works and that decision has been made. We need the five-segment booster for the Ares 5 heavy-lifter anyway, so if we went a different route for the Crew Launch Vehicle CLV, that means we wouldn’t be building solid boosters between the last shuttle launch and when we start launching the heavy-lift vehicle. And it would be hard to maintain that capability. Anytime you have a five-year gap in building a piece of hardware, it’s almost like starting over. We don’t foresee the same kind of problem with the liquid engines.


Will the Ares 1 be as finicky about weather as the shuttle?

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(118.000,0,” “,)> I don’t think we have the 100 percent answer on it yet. We are modeling flying through the launch winds and we’ll see how that goes. Because it is a basic rocket, it doesn’t have a lot of the vulnerable areas that we have on the shuttle stack with the tail, wings, leading edges and tank protuberances. Now it is a long thin vehicle so you do have to look at the bending loads, for example, but they’re working through all that.