Steve Cook

Director, NASA Exploration Launch Projects Office

A t 39, Steve Cook is part of a generation of engineers who joined NASA in the 1990s to design fully reusable launchers that would revolutionize space transportation for both humans and cargo.

Today Cook is in charge of designing and building something that is anything but revolutionary: a two-stage vehicle derived from space shuttle and Saturn 5 rocket hardware that will launch astronauts in a space capsule reminiscent of the 1960s. NASA hopes to field the Ares 1 Crew Launch Vehicle by 2014.

Cook is a veteran of several long-since abandoned efforts to develop futuristic space transportation concepts, including the X-33, X-37 and others. But he said that this time out, NASA has not only the technology in hand but also the political mandate to see the job through .

Cook said the billions of dollars NASA invested in next-generation launch vehicle technologies in the 1990s did not go to waste. Some of these technologies, he said, could find their way into the Ares 1 and its heavy-lift companion, the Ares 5. Meanwhile, he said, these efforts cultivated a cadre of young engineers who are now working on Ares 1 and should be around long enough to see the project come to fruition.

Cook includes himself in that group. “I want to take this thing all the way through and get us to the Moon and get us on to Mars,” he said.

Cook spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger during a recent trip to Washington.

What are your expectations for the upcoming Ares 1 upper-stage competition?

I expect it to be very competitive. Because we are looking for a production partner instead of an end-to-end turnkey design, we anticipate proposals from folks who may not have even wanted to participate if it was a full up design competition. That makes it a more competitive environment and the government gets a better deal.

Why does NASA plan to award a separate contract for the Ares 1 avionics unit?

Doing it this way will allow firms that might not be up to building the full upper stage to compete for a smaller but still very important piece of the job. The instrument unit, which includes the avionics, software and power systems for the upper stage, will control the whole stack. This acquisition approach is very Apollo-like. We did the same thing on Saturn. So we plan to put out the request for proposal for an upper-stage production partner in mid-February 2007; then about six months later, in August, make our selection and release the request for proposal for the instrument unit.

How much will Ares 1 cost to develop and operate?

We’re still in the process of determining that. We will not commit to a cost estimate until we get to the preliminary design review in February 2008. But we haven’t seen anything that would tell us the cost will be significantly different from what we saw in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. Our 2007 budget request includes a little over $6 billion for [Ares 1] through 2012.

When will NASA know for sure that a rocket seemingly as top-heavy as the Ares 1 can fly?

All of our analysis to date says it works and we’ve done an awful lot of analysis. The Ares 1-1 flight in April 2009 is going to be the proof.

Can the
Ares 1-1 flight be considered a definitive test given that it
will involve
an existing shuttle solid-rocket booster,
an inert upper stage and a suborbital trajectory?

Yes, because we’re going to test through the toughest part of the flight, going up the hill , through the lower part of the atmosphere where atmospheric effects are the greatest. On this flight, the timing on the stage separation will be very close to what it’ll be on the real vehicle. We want to see how these two vehicles separate apart and go from there.

When will NASA fly a five-segment Ares 1 booster for the first time?

On Ares 1-2, which right now is slated for 2012.

When will work begin in earnest on the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket?

Right now we’re doing enough work on the heavy lift to ensure that we keep the Ares 1 and 5 matched up from a requirements standpoint, so that we get common development where possible. Work on Ares 5 will remain at that kind of conceptual design requirements level until the space shuttle retires in 2010.

What role do you envision industry playing in
Ares 5 development?

We want to see how Ares 1 acquisition works first. We’ll find some things that work, and some things that don’t work. I’ve got five years to figure that out.

Will NASA’s Marshall and Johnson centers
be able to put their long-standing rivalry aside and deliver Ares 1
by 2014?

Honestly, this is the best working relationship I have ever seen between Marshall, Kennedy, Johnson and the research centers. The folks have a mission; they’re focused. When you have that and you have a job to go do, a lot of this other kind of stuff goes by the wayside and we focus on getting the job done.

Marshall had oversight of the X-33 and X-34, both of which were derailed by technical problems before getting anywhere near flight tests.
Is Marshall up to building Ares?

Yes. Marshall’s up to it. You learn a lot through failure. Keep in mind that NASA was not in the driver’s seat in either X-33 or X-34. We were supporting efforts led respectively by Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences Corp . They made a good effort and we tried to help as best we could. We learn from our failures and move on. How many Redstones and Saturn 1s did the Von Braun team blow up? Many. What they learned from the early failures in the 1950s and 1960s allowed them just a few years later to put a man on the Moon. So in the same way, we learn from our successes and our failures in the past and move on.

Was the lesson to make sure Marshall is in the driver’s seat with industry sitting in back?

No, that wasn’t my point at all. X-33 and X-34 were done under a different acquisition strategy and I don’t mean to imply that Lockheed Martin or Orbital Sciences were at fault. What I meant is that it reminded us that we needed to go back to the roots of what made Marshall successful in the 1960s, which was rigorous systems engineering from day one with no shortcutting the process. The faster, better, cheaper approach of the 1990s led us to shortcut processes and we needed to quit doing that. Not shortcutting processes is probably one of the biggest lessons Marshall and, frankly, the whole agency, learned from X-33 and X-34.

Do you think the White House and Congress today would tolerate NASA blowing up as many rockets as Von Braun and his team?

Keep in mind they were still learning how to get off the planet. We’ve got 40 years of their lessons learned and heritage to bring into what we’re doing. Are we going to have some failures along the way? Yes. But we want to have them in the developmental phase so we can react, adjust the design and go forward. It’s hard to build a rocket. You’re going to have some failures along the way, so we need let everybody know that it could happen. Is America’s risk posture what it was in the 1960s? Absolutely not. And I recognize that. So our job is to do it early, test as much as we can, and keep our stakeholders aware all along through the process of what the expectations are. That’s the only way we can be successful.