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Mission Routinely Impossible

The new administrator at Marshall Space Flight Center describes a sharply defined U.S. space program — one that still includes doing the impossible every six months or so.

New man at top space job in Alabama: Patrick Scheuermann, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

New man at top space job in Alabama: Patrick Scheuermann, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Patrick Scheuermann was named director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in September. He took over the reins of the Huntsville complex — one of the primary operations centers of America’s space program alongside the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida — during a transition in NASA history. The space shuttle program ended the year before, leading to thousands of NASA layoffs, including 300 jobs at MSFC. And a year before that, the Obama administration put its stamp on the space program with a three-year budget that put an end to the ambitious Constellation program developed under George W. Bush. Obama’s space policy calls for more private company participation and a space launch system (SLS) largely based on existing technology — especially the big rockets that powered space shuttles into orbit.

Scheuermann went to work at NASA in 1988 as a propulsion test engineer. From 2010 to 2012, he was director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. From 2005 to 2007, he was chief operating officer of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, in New Orleans, which is managed by MSFC.

Is the mission for NASA clearly defined under the Obama administration and are contracts and funding on track?

We have great clarity from Congress and the administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, embarking on the Space Launch System — first with orbital based flights — with a firm date of 2017 to deliver the launch vehicle. MSFC’s role in that mission couldn’t be any clearer, to be up and running in T-minus four years and counting. We have a defined schedule of contracts: with Lockheed Martin, for the Orion, and with Boeing, for the space launch system core stage and as the integrator of the launch vehicle. And we are very determined to meet the dates for the testing of the existing hardware that will be going into it: Morton Thiokol for the external booster set and Pratt & Whitney for the RS-25 engines, the core engines for the SLS.

How does the call for increased participation by the private sector change the way you do business?

When you look at the history of the partnerships we have had from Apollo to the shuttle, you understand you really can’t go it alone. Eighty percent of the money goes out to the private companies that partner with us. What we are doing that we have not done in the past at NASA is to enter partnerships that employ commercial companies like SpaceX to transport supplies to the international space station. Without those partnerships, without the shuttle, it would have left us completely reliant on the Russians.

We look to our private partners for their concepts, but the Johnson Space Center — for Orion — and Marshall Space Flight Center — for the launch vehicle — are the science, engineering and integration decision makers, just the same as they were for Apollo and the Space Shuttle. 

Is it a bad thing that the SLS largely depends on a foundation of re-engineering existing propulsion systems?

The important thing is getting crews from Earth to the destination and back. Safety is the utmost concern. But you also have to factor in the affordability and sustainability, and that is why we are working with our shuttle heritage to meet the milestones. The solid rocket booster from the shuttle programs has the same core, and the tooling fits the dimensions at the Michoud Assembly facility. Among the most important components are the engines on the bottom, the space shuttle main engine, and we are using flight-proven hardware and taking advantage of investments we have already made.

Is there less emphasis now on manned flight?

If you look at the history of NASA, there is a natural ebb and flow between manned and unmanned missions. There have been observatories with and without humans. And we choose to send unmanned probes to test the technology and test the environments as a precursor to sending humans on a mission, which is why it is important that we keep the space station until 2020 or longer. We will learn valuable lessons for getting to our destinations, whether it is back to the moon or on to Mars. We’ve done a lot of research on the Space Station in regard to that. And we’ve learned valuable lessons with the successful landing of Curiosity and a lot more with Spirit and Opportunity. But, still, robots can’t take the place of humans. They are going to do exactly what we tell them to do, but they will never replace a person. That’s what has happened over the history of NASA. When we understand enough, then we dare to step into the arena of the impossible.

For inspiring the country with our mission, nothing will take the place of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon for the first time. That’s why at NASA they do the impossible every six months, that’s what the taxpayer has come to expect of NASA. In May, the SpaceX Dragon completed a flyby of the Space Station in preparation for a future rendezvous. When we landed rovers on Mars, our website had an enormous number of hits, because we had done what had never been done before and what others said couldn’t be done. We take it to be our job to continue to inspire the next generation. In survey after survey, when the general public sees the NASA logo, 75 percent of the people have a positive feeling, compared to other government agencies.

In the transition that ended the shuttle program and Constellation, has morale been set back?

The transition, if there has been one at all, is already behind us. There have not been massive layoffs, and I don’t foresee any major layoffs. Marshall Space Flight Center is focused with great clarity on the SLS and Space Station research and its scientific discovery missions, and we will keep pushing on every front.

What are the most important jobs ahead for you as administrator?

As a leader, there are a lot of things on my plate. Two things basically: One has been to come up to speed as quickly as possible, which I’ve done. And to be the advocate for the resources we need, so that we can execute the mission that is on our plate today with unmatched engineering capability, working on long-term projects like the future lunar base on Mars and seeing that long-term is factored into the equity that the taxpayers are investing in.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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