TR: The Space Shuttle is due to be retired in 2010, and the first crewed test flights for the Constellation Program–or at least the Ares rocket with Orion on top–are planned for 2014. What will be the hardest technology challenges as you try to hold to that schedule?
PM: Typically, the avionics software development ends up being a critical path element. The RCS engines, derivatives of the Shuttle’s RCS engines, are another [Reaction Control System–the small side-mounted rockets used for attitude control and steering. The Shuttle’s RCS engines were themselves derived from Apollo. -eds.] So it comes down to software and propulsion. We’re aware of those critical-path issues and working with NASA to address them early. We’d like to close the gap after the Shuttle’s retirement and skinny the schedule down to test launches in 2012 or even sooner. But the Ares I launch vehicle development process has to come together along with Orion.
TR: From President Kennedy’s May 1961 speech announcing the goal of landing on the Moon to the actual Apollo 11 landing in July 1969, a little more than eight years passed. Today NASA says it’s going to take at least 14 years to do the same thing. Why?
PM: The Orion part of the project would probably be capable of lunar missions sooner than 2020. That being said, you’re also going to need to develop a lunar lander, an Earth-departure stage, and a lift vehicle [the Ares I and Ares V]. Because NASA’s budget in this day and age is a much smaller percentage of the budget of the nation than it was in the Apollo era, we have to “go as you can pay,” as NASA administrator [Michael] Griffin puts it. The initial budget priority is on developing Ares I and Orion. We will not be able to do development on the lunar lander, the EDS, and all the elements of Ares V in parallel.
TR: Why do you think Lockheed Martin’s proposal for the Orion contract won out over Northrop Grumman’s? Was Lockheed offering superior technology?
PM: I’m extremely proud of the team and what they accomplished with the technical concept we delivered to NASA. But the requirements are still in the process of changing, and all of the bidders actually had to deal with a diameter change [in the Orion capsule] halfway through the process, from 5.5 meters down to 5 meters. With NASA delivering so many things to us as requirements, the playing field was leveled somewhat.
When it gets right down to it, NASA is signing up for a relationship with an industrial partner that’s going to last a couple of decades. They wanted to know that it would be a happy marriage, where the spirit of partnership was in real evidence. During Phase I [when NASA paid several bidders to develop designs for Orion], we took the initiative to make sure our project office was co-located in Houston, which made it easy for them to participate in all of our control board meetings and other important events over and above the typical bimonthly reviews. We’ve got a significant workforce at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans [where the Shuttle’s external tanks are put together]; we made a decision early on to do final assembly and checkout at Kennedy Space Center; we’re going to be doing engine testing at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi [NASA’s primary rocket propulsion test site]. I think NASA has appreciated that.