Profile: The Task Ahead: Keeping Orion On Schedule and Budget

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  Space News Business

Profile: The Task Ahead: Keeping Orion On Schedule and Budget

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 17 January 2007
03:30 pm ET



Leon Lacefield Vice President and Orion Program Manager, Lockheed Martin

 

Leon Lacefield is industry’s point man in the NASA-led effort to design, build and field its first astronaut transportation system since the space shuttle.

 

Lockheed Martin surprised many this past August when it beat the team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing to clinch the $3.9 billion prime contract to build NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Boeing, after all, built the space shuttle fleet and is prime contractor on the international space station. Lockheed Martin makes the shuttle’s external tank but is better known for building robotic explorers for the
U.S.
space agency.

 

Lockheed Martin now hopes to extend its presence in the human spaceflight arena by teaming up with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to build the upper stage of the vehicle that will be used to launch Orion. NASA intends to award the prime contract for the Ares 1 rocket’s upper stage later this year.

 

One of Lacefield’s biggest responsibilities is to keep Orion on time and on budget.

 

Calm and collected, the former
NASA
Johnson
Space
Center
flight director oversees a contractor team of 1,200 that is expected to grow to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2009, Orion’s peak design year before production begins.

 

Lacefield recently spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger in
Houston
about the win, what it means for Lockheed Martin, and the challenges that lay ahead.

 

Were you surprised when Lockheed Martin won the CEV contract?

 

I knew we had achieved the relationship with NASA we were looking for, had impressed NASA with the technology we presented, and had shown we could keep our prices in line because we didn’t have to do a lot of development on a lot of the subsystems.

 

But yes, I was surprised because you never know in something of this magnitude where you stand. Up until the last day, neither team really knew who was going to win.

 

Were you hearing the buzz that the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team was going to win?

 

Yes, we were. And we just told the teammates there’s going to be rumors out there but NASA is handling the competition and nothing has been released by them. We had high confidence in that and we just said, “keep your heads down and keep working.”

 

Has Lockheed Martin’s win on CEV changed the company’s thinking about the importance of the NASA market?

 

The Orion program gets high-level visibility within the company because of its importance, so it gets the interest of our [chief executive officer] and definitely of the executive vice president who runs the space business area.

 

Does that extra attention translate into additional resources for aggressively pursuing Orion- and Ares-related business under NASA’s Project Constellation?

 

It really does, because it allows us to really look at technology investments that can enhance our position on the program, which in turn enhances our competitive position on new programs.

 

Given NASA’s emphasis on proven technologies in the CEV competition, why did Lockheed Martin select the latest in commercial avionics for its proposal?

 

We were aggressive on the avionics because it’s one of the most critical systems in human spaceflight. Orion is going to have a glass cockpit like the Boeing 787 and 777, not panels of switches like you had on Apollo or on older aircraft. From that perspective, it made sense to bring to the table an avionics solution that’s not only state of the art, but something Honeywell is going to support as core technology for its aviation customers as well. As improvements come on line for the 787, they become available for our program as well. I think NASA knew we were bringing in a system that’s not going to become obsolete.

 

Does Lockheed Martin take satisfaction in hearing from NASA that one of the details that set your CEV proposal apart was an avionics solution designed for your competitor’s commercial aircraft?

 

From our viewpoint, Honeywell’s avionics system was a clear winner and the team recognized it early. We were kind of surprised that the other guys did not.

 

Does Lockheed Martin have the team needed for CEV in place or will you be adding to the roster?

 

We’re not looking to add any major players to the team. There are still opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses. But we’re not planning to use small companies as body shops. We use them to do real tasks. They come on, do the task, and then they come off. There’s a lot of opportunity in that role. So besides the make vs. buy decisions that lie ahead, there are ongoing opportunities for specialty engineering companies throughout the entire program.

 

Is there anything you know today about the task ahead that you did not know the day you won the CEV contract?

 

NASA had challenged us to really look at what we could do to bring the [initial service] date back to 2011 and we did. NASA has since decided that for a lot of issues, mostly relating to cost, CEV will enter service closer to 2014. I think NASA knew then that was coming, but we really didn’t have a good feel for it.

 

If Lockheed Martin laid out a plan for fielding CEV in 2011, then making 2014 ought to be easy, yes?

 

A program this complex is always a challenge.

 

How many Orion vehicles do you anticipate building and how much are they going to cost?

 

We’re currently on the hook for six flight units, which are going to be qualified for 10 uses but fly a maximum of six times. They start out in the $200 million to $300 million range and then they come down from there.

 

Does the CEV have a weight problem?

 

Over the next three months we will be doing a lot of evaluation of CEV requirements, performing the trades, and taking a look at how they affect the system’s weight. Some requirements drive you to higher weights and some drive you to lower weights. Until we get through the requirements definition process, we are going to see weight fluctuations. For example, we took a look at what it would take to be able to land a crew in 75 mile-per-hour (120 kilometer-per-hour) winds. It’s not very realistic to try to land a crew during a hurricane, but you go off and think about it and calculate what impacts it would have on the system. On that particular day, you could say CEV was well above weight. If we had implemented landing in a hurricane, it would have had a huge impact on the system, so NASA drastically lowered the winds requirement. That’s part of the requirements iteration process — we look at the options, analyze the impacts, and find the optimal solutions

 

Lockheed Martin plans to bid on the Ares 1 upper stage production contract with two companies already under contract for the rocket’s core booster and upper-stage engine. Doesn’t that give the team an unfair advantage?

 

No. The government is really, really careful not to give one company an advantage over another. You could probably say the same thing about ATK – that because they have the first stage, they have inside knowledge. Or Pratt & Whitney, which is building the upper-stage engine. Because the government is so careful in today’s environment, every day you’ve got to prove yourself again.

 

But isn’t Lockheed, as the CEV prime contactor, privy to information beneficial to trying to win Ares work?

 

Just because you have another program element does not put you into a lead position on one of these new procurements. With NASA, every time you go after a procurement, you have to prove yourself again. In many cases past performance is a factor, but these competitions are all won at pretty slim margins.