NASA Constellation Program Manager
s the manager of NASA’s Constellation Program, Jeff Hanley oversees
development of the rockets and other spacecraft the United States needs to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. At the top of
his to-do list is fielding the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher as soon after the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement as possible. Hanley’s boss, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin,
told Congress that March 2015 is about the best the agency
reasonably can expect to do given its current budget limitations. But Hanley hopes to get the job done perhaps 18 months sooner than that.
“I want to put on my team a plan that is as aggressive as I can reasonably put together without it being folly,” Hanley said. “So we are trying to keep the work front loaded in this plan such that if things broke our way – if we can do what only one
project managers might be reasonably expected to accomplish – we could have the first humans flying on Orion in September 2013.”
Meeting that 2013 date, Hanley said
, will take either a lot of luck or more money than the $23 billion NASA expects to spend on Constellation over the next five years.
During a recent visit to Washington, Hanley spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger about some of the challenges the U.S. space agency is confronting as it attempts to develop its first new human spaceflight system in a generation.
Earlier this year, Orion weighed in about
heavier than you’d like. Has it shed that weight?
Yes, the Orion team has achieved a credible conceptual design that meets our mass targets for the lunar phase of the program, which is where we really have to worry about weight. We’ve just received the go-ahead to move into detailed preliminary design where we will gain further definition of Orion and its systems and will be constantly looking for additional mass savings.
How did Orion manage to lose the weight?
In their recent weight scrub effort, the Orion team settled on a targeted water-based landing off the California coast as the nominal landing mode, which the program has accepted. However, we are not done with land landing. We still want to be able to do that in a contingency situation and still have the crew, if not the vehicle,
unharmed. That’s the guidance going into preliminary design.
Other weight savings came from the elimination of unnecessary redundancy,
alternative component selections, and clarification of design loads and environments. But I would stress that this is only the close of the conceptual design phase. There will surely be more mass threats and challenges ahead. Mass will remain a watch item for us for the entire duration of development.
Why does NASA tell Congress Orion won’t fly until March 2015 even though Constellation is shooting for September 2013?
It has to do with the confidence level behind each projection. When NASA tells Congress we will field Orion by March 2015, we are saying that 65 out of 100 project managers could, within the budget we’ve laid out, come along and deliver the goods on or before that date. I’ve got to set the bar higher than that if I want to meet that date or even beat it. So we are working towards first human launch in September 2013, but the likelihood of pulling that off is only 1 in 3.
NASA, like most federal agencies, was denied a budget increase for 2007 when Congress passed a continuing resolution setting 2007 budgets at the 2006 level. How did that impact Constellation?
The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate bore the brunt of the continuing resolution’s impact. NASA leadership went to great lengths to realign the Exploration Systems’ portfolio to mitigate the impact to Constellation over these next three years, which are a critical period for the program. I’ve absolutely got to make it through 2010 without running out of money. Now, we always have to manage our money carefully, but we have to be particularly careful until the space shuttle retires. My rainy day fund is very small between now and then.
If Congress were to give NASA an extra $1 billion for 2008, could you deliver Orion and Ares sooner?
Depends on which date we are talking about. The reason we only have a 1 in 3 chance of making the September 2013 [date] we are working towards for Orion’s first human flight is because I have very small budget reserves to address the
unknowns that crop up in development. Additional money early would improve our confidence in meeting that date. Whether it would boost it to the same 65-percent confidence level we have in the March 2015 date, I don’t know. But it would improve it.
More money probably is not going to make a huge difference in the date of the first unmanned launch of Ares 1 because there’s not much that we have not already done to speed up development of the rocket’s J-2X engine and ensure we stay on schedule. But more money would allow us to produce more copies of the vehicle so that once Ares 1 makes its debut in 2012 we could fly every three months instead of every six months and progress through our test program more rapidly. That in turn could allow us to move up the date when Orion is deemed ready to carry a full complement of crew to the international space station and remain there for six months.
What issues keep you up at night?
One of them is knitting together NASA’s 10 field centers. Constellation has work at every single center. That’s 10 slightly – and sometimes not so slightly – different ways of doing business. We are getting great support from the leadership at headquarters and the field centers. But knitting everyone together is an extra load on my team.
Is getting the field centers working cohesively on Constellation your only worry?
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about possible budget cuts and things like that because those are the kinds of things you just have to take in stride. I would like to have a plan for fielding Orion in 2013 that had a better than 1 in 3 chance of succeeding. We’re still working on it.
What will Orion and Ares cost per flight?
I don’t have that data in front of me, but we
are trying to get the marginal cost of an additional flight as low as possible. We are putting a lot of pressure on the designers to make Orion and Ares as inexpensive to operate as we can. I want to be spending the wedge of money Constellation gets on developing the landers, rovers
and other systems we will need for a
robust lunar surface program, not tie it all up in fixed costs associated with producing and operating that system that gets us there. Life cycle costs are a key focus of this program. So I have and will continue to make choices on program content that may not seem the most expedient just in terms of the design of a rocket but they are the best choice for the overall life cycle costs of the program.
Will Orion be cheaper per flight than shuttle?
If it’s not, we’ve done something wrong. The substantial fixed costs associated with the space shuttle program were set in motion by compromises made in the 1970s. What we are trying our best to do with Orion and Ares is set the program up right and not make compromises that we are going to live with for a generation. That’s where the additional money would help.
What kind of compromises might an inadequate budget force you to make on Orion and Ares?
I wouldn’t be able to design in as many operational features, such as making systems at Kennedy Space Center better able to handle this hardware, stack it, check it out and operate it. One of the things that makes the shuttle so expensive is the turnaround and refurbishment of the hardware. There was not enough money at the time to avoid some of the compromises that went into designing the maintenance and operations end.
To give you one example,
I have to make some design choices very soon on the Ares mobile launch platform.
The baseline we’ve budgeted for is a very basic mobile launcher with a tower. If I can find more money, I will design a mobile launcher that will require less effort to refurbish between missions. But that’s not part of the baseline right now. Folks need to understand that the designs are progressing here, for both Orion, Ares and the systems that will support them. This isn’t just a view graph exercise like it was a year and a half ago.
NASA plans to give some company $175 million next year to help it build and demonstrate a commercial alternative to Orion and Ares. Why not put that money into Constellation instead?
While I could certainly put it to good use, the amount of money NASA plans to award under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) demonstration program is not going to solve my problems. And there’s enough potential in what COTS could do for us that it’s worth seeing if we can make that happen.