Profile: Alexis Livanos

President, Northrop Grumman Space Technology

F or Alexis Livanos, becoming president of Northrop Grumman Space Technology last year was a homecoming of sorts. Before stints at Boeing Satellite Systems and Space Systems/Loral, Livanos was deputy general manager at the former TRW Space and Electronics Group, the legendary Space Park operation that Northrop Grumman acquired in 2002.

Today Livanos, 57, is in charge of the 9,000 men and women who work on the Space Park campus in Redondo Beach, Calif., on high-profile U.S. civil and military satellite systems, including the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope and the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

While Northrop Grumman does not break out its sales by sector, Livanos said civil space, including NPOESS, accounted for 23 percent of Northrop Grumman Space Technology’s 2005 sales. The remaining revenue came from Pentagon or intelligence community programs.

Proud of Space Park’s heritage and its reputation for building reliable spacecraft that tend to far exceed their design lives, Livanos said the organization’s satellites have a “perfect on-orbit record.” And the job description he has written for himself is to ensure that it stays that way.

But is has not been all smooth sailing for Northrop Grumman Space Technology. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which Northrop took over when it bought TRW, has been pushed back a couple years to 2013 as NASA wrestles with over $1 billion in cost growth. NPOESS, meanwhile, is in the midst of a high-level review triggered by a cost overrun that has exceeded 25 percent. The White House is required to report to Congress by June 6 what it intends to do with the over budget and behind schedule civil-military weather satellite system.

Livanos spoke about these and other issues with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

Do you think the problems on NPOESS will be held against Northrop Grumman in NASA’s selection of a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) prime contractor?

I don’t think NPOESS is going to be a decisive factor in CEV. Let’s start by putting NPOESS’ problems in context. We have a very robust ground system that is on schedule. We also have 10 out of the 13 sensors on NPOESS that require no further development, because they’re done.

Of the three remaining sensors, one of them, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder, which is manufactured by a subcontractor in Ft. Wayne, Ind. , has gone through the Engineering Development Unit phase.

Of the other two, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Sounder, or the VIIRS instrument. That is being done by our friends at Raytheon in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is in the process of environmental testing, which is a very significant milestone. And on the Conical-scanning Microwave Imager Sounder instrument, we have done a lot of work in terms of building prototypes to address the risk and understand it.

As for CEV, everything that goes into that system is going to be mature technology — what NASA calls Technology Readiness Level 6 and above — so there is minimal development associated with it. Second , Northrop Grumman’s team has a combination of capabilities. Our partner, Boeing, has manned spaceflight experience. Northrop Grumman understands space and our Integrated Systems sector knows how to put a cockpit together and bring together a system. It’s a pretty strong team.

Who is to blame for NPOESS’ problems?

NPOESS is a program we take responsibility for at Northrop Grumman. What we considered ‘heritage’ at the time of our original investigation was clearly not heritage. As a result, we now have teams of people resident with our subcontractors. I think our performance on NPOESS in the last few months since we re-baselined the program is excellent.

Some blame the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) $1 billion in cost growth for a lot of the cuts NASA is making within its science budget. Is that fair?

No. The science budget has gotten smaller to fund the shuttle and CEV. On JWST, only 7 percent of the growth was due to overruns on our basic work. The vast majority was due to additional requirements NASA felt were necessary and the effect of the launch delay.

NASA and the JWST Science Working Group have said that the delay in finalizing the decision to launch the telescope on an Ariane 5 rocket is responsible for $300 million to $500 million of the program’s cost growth. Do you think these estimates are accurate?

NASA estimated that about half of the $1 billion cost growth was due to the 22-month launch delay from August 2011 to June 2013. The time it took for the U.S. government to complete the interagency coordination process to approve an Ariane launch was a major factor in the delay and is estimated to account for 12 of the 22 months. So the $300 million figure sounds about right.

Could JWST be canceled?

I don’t think so. There are a couple of things to consider. First, of all, the science is going to be phenomenal.

Second , the number of grants that major programs like JWST generate for universities and different organizations is very substantial. And lastly, JWST is going to dramatically affect science. It is something that excites young people.

Could scaling back JWST help solve some of NASA’s science budget problems?

We will support NASA in what they would like to do. It is all a question of what the scientific community expects out of the instrument. Last summer, NASA chartered a blue-ribbon panel of scientists, called the Science Assessment Team or SAT, to review the JWST requirements and capabilities compared to current and planned terrestrial astronomical facilities.

The bottom line is that JWST is unique and provides an enormous discovery space that is simply impossible with any other facility because of background infrared noise and absorption by the atmosphere. Several capabilities at the very short wavelength end, in the 0.7 to 1.7 micron range, were recommended to be de-emphasized due to future ground-based observatories, and these recommendations have been implemented on the JWST program.

When you couple this with how far along we are with the telescope — all flight mirrors are in precision machining, and we have already begun fine grinding on the development mirror — descoping the telescope doesn’t make sense.

Also, because of the international participation NASA has negotiated on JWST, two and a half of the four instruments are provided by a combination of European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Most of the U.S.-supplied instruments, which would bear on NASA costs, will reach Critical Design Review-level maturity this year.

Taken together, the conclusion is JWST has the right telescope and the right instruments to do phenomenal science that is outside the grasp of any other facility. Moreover, the critical elements of the observatory are far along in their development cycle.

Where is the U.S. defense market headed?

The war on terrorism has changed the outlook substantially. We’re looking at tracking people as opposed to tracking submarines at this point, so there is a new set of problems that need to be addressed such as locating weapons of mass destruction; finding people in caves; locating improvised explosive devices before they are detonated.

At the same time, I think people are growing more concerned with China and China’s intentions. They’re concerned with the presence of nuclear weapons possibly, or the nuclear material development in Iran. They’re concerned with the availability of low-cost cruise missiles.

So, all these are new, difficult problems that the Department of Defense is facing, and there is a lot of emphasis that’s actually been going to that.

Where do you see the NASA market headed?

NASA’s emphasis is on programs that are in line with the Decadal Survey, including programs such as JWST and the Space Interferometry Mission, or SIM. Although SIM has been pushed out a little, we are still supporting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as their industrial partner responsible for designing and developing the spacecraft and its precision support structure, and eventually doing the overall satellite integration and testing. Beyond that, replacing the space shuttle with the Crew Exploration Vehicle is going to be a big part of NASA’s focus.

Does the Air Force have its act together on acquisition reform?

I think that they’re working really hard at it. It is hard to take a situation that started in the middle ’90s as a part of the peace dividend and do it all in one or two years. It’s going to take some time. It takes time to train many program managers. It takes time to train the technical people. It will take time to train the contracts people.