Profile: Steve Isakowitz, NASA deputy associate administrator Exploration Systems Mission Directorate

Steve Isakowitz left industry for government because he wanted to be in the driver’s seat.

He started out as a commercial space consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton “when a lot of people thought we were going to have big pharmaceutical factories in orbit.” From there it was on to Martin Marietta, where he worked on launch vehicle concepts that were directly tied to the sweeping space policy changes that followed the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

“What’s always tough about being in the private sector is that the government dominates this market,” Isakowitz says. “Major policy decisions were being made that affected everything I had worked on up to that point.”

So Isakowitz took a job with the White House Office of Management and Budget, and after an extended tour moved on to the NASA comptroller’s office, where he spent three years helping to straighten out the agency’s tattered finances. The payoff came when he was assigned to the copilot’s seat in the NASA shop responsible for getting astronauts back to the Moon by 2020.

“The big question the agency faces now is whether we can implement those goals, and I felt what better place to be than back with the programs,” says Isakowitz, who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Isakowitz also is the author of the International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems, a standard text that is updated every couple of years.

He spoke recently with Space News Staff Writer Brian Berger.

How critical to NASA’s exploration strategy is retiring the shuttle in 2010?

The work we are doing in this decade — the technology, research and design efforts that will prepare us for the major development decisions ahead — is paid for mainly with money from ending legacy programs such as the Space Launch Initiative and refocusing our technology portfolio. Retiring the space shuttle frees the funding we need to build the lunar landers, transfer stages and other systems we need for the next phase of this exploration effort. We won’t move out until we retire the shuttle.

Does NASA still need the space station?

I think we have concluded that we do need capabilities in low Earth orbit to demonstrate life-support systems and other capabilities for long stays on the Moon and the trip out to Mars, and the space station has an important role to play in helping us make informed decisions. We’ve spent the last few months identifying the contributions the space station can make to supporting the nation’s exploration goals, and I believe we were brutally honest in our assessment. NASA is now in the process of translating those requirements into what they mean for the space station and the space shuttle manifest.

What does NASA expect to achieve with the 2008 Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) flight demonstrations?

What exactly the demonstration will entail, I best not speculate. We have a request for proposal on the street and are leaving it to the contractors to come back and tell us what they think makes the most sense. But in everything we do, we want to make decisions based on performance, not promises. It’s one thing for a contractor to say they can build a CEV for us by 2014. It’s another thing to show that they can actually fly missions at the cost, schedule and performance they promise. That’s why the 2008 demo is so critical.

NASA spent more than $1 billion on X-33 and other X-vehicles in the 1990s and nothing flew. How do you avoid a repeat with the 2008 demo?

The X-vehicles were meant to demonstrate extremely advanced technologies representing potentially huge breakthroughs. This time we are not interested in technology for technology sake.

Will the CEV be built to go to the space station?

We will be better prepared to tackle that question once we get the contractors on board. Does going to the station mean doing things differently on the CEV or are there things we can do on the station to make it easier for CEV to operate in its vicinity? When will the CEV be available and how much longer will we operate the station? We expect to have those questions answered when we hold our systems requirements review in the summer of 2006.

How soon will NASA make a heavy-lift launcher decision?

We have time to figure out how we are going to launch cargo into space. The more urgent issue is human-rating a launch vehicle to carry people into orbit. We expect to make a decision on that toward the end of the year once we have the CEV teams under contract. As for the heavy-lift decision, we don’t have a firm date yet.

U.S. policy requires Defense Department concurrence with a heavy-lift recommendation. Will the Pentagon’s preference for an Atlas 5- or Delta 4-based solution limit NASA’s options?

We are going into this with our eyes wide open. We need to weigh the benefits of having common systems for defense, NASA and potentially commercial users versus the fact that NASA will have unique requirements. We don’t want to so compromise our requirements that we don’t do our mission particularly well just so we can have higher production runs and lower costs for everyone.

Do you expect human exploration of the Moon to mirror the Apollo program?

No. We fully understand that if we’re going to meet the president’s mandate to be sustainable and affordable, we must do things differently. We’re looking at new concepts for exploration that require innovative human-rated designs leveraged by robotics capabilities. We also plan non-traditional efforts to tap into entrepreneurial ideas and possible new markets, much like we’ve seen in the recent X Prize award for Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. Indeed, we just announced prizes for technology efforts as part of our Centennial Challenges program. This type of innovation will be a pig part of my new job if we’re going to succeed.

Is NASA’s doing enough in the near-term to sustain public interest?

Yes. Space shuttle return to flight is on track for May. The Mars Exploration Rovers surpassed everyone’s expectations, the Cassini-Huygens mission is sending back new pictures every week, Deep Impact is on its way to a comet, Messenger is on its way to Mercury and New Horizons is launching next year to Pluto. The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is launching the Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology in April, and making the Crew Exploration Vehicle concept development awards this summer. We’ve got a lot going on that will keep the public very much engaged in what we are doing.

With the exception of the CEV, everything you mentioned predates the president’s exploration vision. What about new business?

I would argue that none of that is old business. People have read in the press that some parts of NASA are being hurt because of the new exploration focus. I would argue that NASA on balance is doing much better overall precisely because of the exploration focus. We got a very significant budget increase last year because of the vision. Without it, our budget would be smaller and a lot of programs would be much worse off. Because robotics is so integral to our exploration plans, for example, there are very significant increases proposed in the president’s budget. Take the science program’s solar system exploration effort. It’s increasing roughly 65 percent over the next five years, not because of old business but because of the president’s exploration vision.

How do you convince aeronautics supporters that NASA’s new vision isn’t bad news for that enterprise ?

People need to remember that NASA, like every other government agency, is doing its part to help the White House reduce the deficit so our 2006 budget request is about $500 million less than what we projected the year before. Between that and addressing space shuttle return to flight, we had to apportion about $900 million in cuts in the 2006 budget. Nearly half of that amount came out of exploration systems and the rest from science and aeronautics. So it’s a misperception that exploration has grown at the expense of aeronautics and science. We’ve had to make adjustments in exploration to deal with near-term budget realities while maintaining key exploration milestones.

Does backlash from the aeronautics and science communities threaten the exploration vision?

Change is hard. Anytime you are making changes of this magnitude, it is very difficult. There is uncertainty out there and that makes people uncomfortable. We are fortunate to have been given a clear vision that lays out where we want to go. Prior to the vision, the debate was about long-term utilization of the space station, how much longer we should fly the space shuttle, where we were going with our Mars exploration efforts and how this all fit together. Frankly, it made it very hard to determine what near-term investments we needed to make. Now we know and that makes it much easier to make our case before Congress.