ill Parsons knows a lot about managing through tough times.
For two years he led NASA’s effort to return the space shuttle to
flight status following the 2003 Columbia disaster. He then took the job as director of
Stennis Space Center for a second time to oversee the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts there
and at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans
Now as director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Parsons will direct the agency’s transition from
the space shuttle program, which has been the focus of his career since he joined NASA in 1990, to the Constellation program. The success of the final missions in the shuttle
program, which is being dismantled,
and the future of many of Kennedy’s 2,100 civil service and 15,000 contractor employees will
depend a great deal on Parsons’ leadership over the next two years.
His challenge is
to maintain a highly skilled work force that can see the space shuttle safely through to its 2010 retirement, while providing that work force with hope that future job opportunities will emerge with NASA’s Constellation program, which consists of Ares launchers and the Orion crew capsule to succeed
the shuttle and eventually go on to the Moon. He also will work with the contractors NASA selects to develop a commercial launcher for space station supply flights beginning in 2011 under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS).
As he embraces
Parsons also relishes the excitement of the present: the October mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope
followed by a shuttle mission to the space station one month later and the beginning of launch pad reconfiguration for Ares. Parsons spoke to Space News Editor Lon Rains and staff writer Becky Iannotta May 9 at NASA headquarters in Washington.
What is it going to take to close the gap between the time the space shuttle retires and Orion is ready?
You could take $5 billion and throw it at this problem and
close the gap a certain amount. There’s been a lot of discussion that by putting
$1 billion or $2 billion
into this program you could
help reduce the gap from five years to three years. At some point, though, you couldn’t put more money into it and reduce it any more. The design and everything that’s got to go into this is just going to take a certain amount of time.
With two space shuttle contingency flights on the manifest to take backup hardware to the space station, is there some concern that COTS is not going to make the 2011 target?
This is new development for them so you have to believe that they’re going to need some contingency. This business is so complex and so difficult that having some reserve is always good. And we can’t put ourselves in a position where we’re so dependent on an outcome.
We’ve got to hedge our bets a little bit, so part of that is making sure that we have the capability to give them a little more time if they run into issues or problems and need time to solve them. The amount of supplies and maintenance parts and replacement units you can bring up on a shuttle far surpasses the cargo capacity of any expendable vehicle we may have in the future. So by using a couple more shuttles, you could get yourself to the point where the station would not need resupply – other than the normal things – for some length of time.
You will be in a time of great transition over the next couple of years. How do you keep the work force focused on the mission at hand?
We’re communicating with them. When I talk to the contractor work force I’m not telling them anything that their own
management hasn’t told them.
They know that there’s an end coming in the future but they feel like we’ve been honest and upfront with them and I think that helps keep them focused.
Right now is not the hardest time. They still have some missions in front of them and still have some good work in front of them for a couple years. It’s going to be harder as we get closer to the real end. That’s the summer of next year. Incentives will keep some people, the fact that people love this program will keep others, and some people will just see it to the end and then retire. But there is a core group of people, some of our best people, who have a car payment and a house payment and kids going to college and they need a job. They’re going to have some tough decisions.
Do you anticipate the estimate of 6,400 layoffs will hold?
I think we will know better at the beginning of next year. I don’t think it’s going to be the worst case and we’re working toward the better case. We need to get some things defined a lot better before we’re able to say with confidence that this is going to be the number. I think we’ll get closer to it next year, but we probably won’t get to the real number until 2010.
What is the situation for civil servants?
Civil servants are fairly steady. We’ve got some skills that we need to change even within the shuttle program. We’re trying to show our NASA civil servants where they fit for the future.
As you look at the shuttle fly out, what challenges are you most focused on?
The team in place has been there now through a lot of hard times and they will be a great deal of help keeping us focused. Probably the greatest challenge is to stay vigilant on this very complex vehicle, making sure we don’t let up our focus as we come to the end. It’s still going to come down to keeping the right skills and people in place up until that last launch.
That’s not just going to be a shuttle problem, it’s a NASA-wide problem and the agency is going to have to be a part of the solution as we get closer. The contractor may lose some key people and NASA people at Kennedy Space Center or Johnson Space Center may have to step in and do that work. We’ve had to hire some people that we think are critical to keep on the work force, and we may have to do that as we go along.
Do you still hire people right out of college?
Not as many as I’d like. Part of that is our business and the shuttle program requires qualifications and certifications. I have to hire some mid-level folks who have those qualifications. In most cases our contractor has trained them. We also have full-time equivalent ceilings so I can only hire about as many as I’m losing, and I’m losing about 100 a year through retirements and things like that.
So we set our goal really high to bring in as many young people as we can, we have a great co-op program and we transition the co-ops into the center. I’d love it to be 60 percent to 75 percent of new hires but it’s not there, it’s probably more in the 20 percent to 25 percent range.
Are you competitive with private businesses?
NASA has an allure, so we don’t have a problem getting the best and the brightest. It’s sometimes hard getting their attention, but if they come out and work with us, they fall in love with it. They get it after they’re out there. There are kids where
all they’ve ever wanted to do in their whole life is work for NASA and we’ve got them out there, and then there are the ones who just tripped into it and all the sudden they fall in love with it.
We also have an intern program through a contractor. Again it’s exposing them to NASA and we’re getting to observe the best kids that we can. We get to pick and choose. We look at their attitude, their grades and their work ethic, and we evaluate them and decide which ones we want. We think it’s a good program. We haven’t lost very many.
Will you be doing anything differently to get ready for the Hubble servicing mission?
Absolutely. When you send a shuttle
to the international space station you have about an 80- or 75-day cycle for launching one shuttle before you might have to launch a second one for a rescue mission. However,
with the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission you’re down to the 15-day mark
because you have to be prepared to launch a rescue mission pretty quickly because that orbiter will not be capable of reaching the space station
. So we will have two orbiters
at the pads. We’ll have one on pad A that will go to Hubble and one on Pad B. That means we have to simultaneously get both of the external tanks ready and down to Kennedy. That is
kind of why the mission is moving around a little bit. There’s a different pace of operations upfront.
Once the shuttle is cleared for re-entry after repairing Hubble, we’ll move the [rescue] vehicle off Pad B over to Pad A and get ready for the next launch going to the international space station. And then we’ll start modifying Pad B for Ares 1X. This one really excites me – it’s not only going back to Hubble, it’s getting these two vehicles ready, then it’s jumping in and starting to modify Pad B for Ares 1X for the test flight. That’s all just neat stuff.