The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NASA Associate Administrator Craig Steidle (center) observes the launch of a student-built rocket at the Team America Rocketry Challenge on May 22. (credit: J. Foust)

A few words with Craig Steidle

One of the central figures in the new space initiative at NASA is Craig Steidle, the Associate Administrator for the Office of Exploration Systems. A retired rear admiral in the Navy, Steidle had little experience in space programs before coming over to NASA, having focused his career on naval aviation, including flying combat missions during the Vietnam War. However, he does have extensive experience in the development and procurement of big projects, most notably a stint as the director of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Given the critical importance of proper procurement and management strategies to the exploration vision—not to mention NASA’s lackluster performance on this issues in recent years in programs like the International Space Station—Steidle’s experience in those areas may far outweigh any inexperience in space issues.

Steidle’s outsider image, and willingness to try new ideas, has won him respect both within and outside the agency. While the Bush Administration and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe have sometimes been pilloried in Congress for not providing more details about the exploration plan, Steidle has received a warmer welcome. One Congressional staffer was quoted in last week’s issue of Space News as saying that Steidle was “the best briefer we’ve ever gotten from NASA.” How long those good feelings will last as Steidle and his team flesh out the details of the Vision for Space Exploration remains to be seen.

To get a feel for how Steidle views those issues, and the overall experience of working on the exploration plan, The Space Review editor Jeff Foust interviewed Steidle. The short interview took place Saturday at the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a high school model rocketry competition held in The Plains, Virginia, about 70 kilometers west of Washington, DC. The interview took place literally in the middle of the launch range: we stood about 10-20 meters from where teams of students from around the US were launching their rockets. Several of the launches took place during the interview; each time Steidle stopped to critique and admire the launch. The contest served as a starting point for the interview.

The Space Review (TSR): What brings you out here on a sunny Saturday afternoon?

Steidle: This is our future. These individuals and clubs that are putting this together, by the time they’re finishing graduate school and entering the work force, they are the ones that are going to need to help us out. I’ve been to a lot of different places, we’ve done a lot of Explorer Schools around the country, and I didn’t realize the amount of enthusiasm for the things we’re doing, the number of people who have been tracking Spirit and Opportunity, and Hubble, and getting the shuttle back. This is great. I’m just happy to be here.

TSR: Turing to the exploration vision, the response to it has been lukewarm, particularly on Capitol Hill. Has that been a surprise or a concern to you?

Steidle: I think it’s changed. I’ve been going up to the Hill regularly: for instance I was there for three hours yesterday, I was at the White House doing an interview the day before, averaging about three hours a day. I’ve noticed in the last month or so a change in enthusiasm. First there was some skepticism—actually cynicism, then skepticism. Then, as we have been able to explain actually what our plan is and where all the pieces are and how this plan is put together, I’ve seen a change, some really positive feedback on what we’re doing.

TSR: And this is because you’ve been able to provide more details about the plan?

First there was some skepticism—actually cynicism, then skepticism. Then, as we have been able to explain actually what our plan is… I’ve seen a change, some really positive feedback on what we’re doing.

Steidle: Yes. I briefed the Senate Commerce Committee, the appropriators and authorizers, and the House Science Committee. When I’ve had the opportunity to explain exactly what we’re doing, how the office is put together, what are already all the accomplishments, and the feedback we’ve had from industry, I’ve given them a better understanding and as a result got better feedback. So lately I would say it’s changed, I would say it’s positive.

TSR: What sort of feedback have you received from industry?

Steidle: I put a request for information out on the street and so far we’ve gotten almost a thousand responses from industry on everything from how are we going to do requirements and acquisition to specific technologies and materials to overall general concepts. Industry has been very, very positive.

TSR: These are the white papers you were requesting?

Steidle: Yes. The actual number as of right this minute is 968 that we have gotten back so far. I got a look at them last night and they were very substantive, so I’m very happy. In testimony, and in a couple of hearings that I’ve been in with industry, they have been very positive regarding they way we are going to do business, the way they will be involved, the way they are going to be aware of our requirements process. I’m very enthused about it.

TSR: While this is going on NASA has been studying heavy-lift launch alternatives once the shuttle is retired and missions to the Moon are underway. Can you provide some details about what you’re looking at?

Around the 2014-2015 timeframe, that’s when we have to have something in place [for heavy lift].

Steidle: We’re looking at lift in general. This is why the process of defining the requirements is so important. We have to do the trade studies between an EELV—what does it take from a business case to human-rate that, and the costs of in-space assembly—to the full scope of a shuttle-derived alternative—what does it mean to maintain the infrastructure that we currently have in place—and any kind of hybrids in between. My group is looking at trade studies around those particular cases. I’ve got a lot of help from Marshall, Langley, and Kennedy, and I will have those studies by the end of the summer. I needed to take about six to seven months to do those particular trade studies before we move on, so that’s where we stand right now. I haven’t made any conclusions yet, and I won’t before those particular trade studies are done.

TSR: Do you have any idea now how much time you need to develop either a derived or clean sheet vehicle?

Steidle: That actually comes back to the requirements as well. If we’re looking at a demonstration in 2008 of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we don’t need heavy lift for that. In 2011 we’re going to put something in orbit, an unmanned CEV, so we don’t need it for that. Around the 2014-2015 timeframe, that’s when we have to have something in place. So, if you back that up, I need to do the trade studies this year, I need to refine the trade studies throughout next year, then about the ’07 budget is when I need to start putting the funding in to develop the vehicle.

TSR: Given that there’s a lot of overcapacity in the launch industry today, particularly with the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 not flying nearly as much as foreseen about five years ago, are you looking at alternatives where you try to just utilize that excess capacity as much as possible and not develop a new vehicle?

Steidle: I’ve asked very similar questions. In the RFI I put out there’s one section where I asked for launch alternatives along those particular lines. Those are the ones that we’re just getting, so I hope there’s some good things in there. The answer to your question is yes, we’re going to entertain all those particular options.

TSR: How much coordination have you had with Code S [the Office of Space Sciences] on the lunar program?

Steidle: Good question. I own the requirements for the lunar missions. That means my group develops those requirements. Ed Weiler, the director of space science, has populated my office with some people, so I’ve got operators, I’ve got technologists, and I’ve got scientists from his area. I have developed those requirements for those missions already and I have passed those off to Ed Weiler—I physically handed them to Ed—and he has passed off the programmatic requirements to Goddard Space Flight Center for the first one. We’ve put a team together, and as that team comes together to harmonize those requirements over all those particular programs, they come back and brief Ed and I together. What this is is the horizontal integration across NASA, the different enterprises.

I asked for the technology transfer programs, I asked for the small business programs, and I asked for Centennial Challenges. That gives us a wide scope of all the technology development across the agency.

I do the same thing with Mary Kicza, who’s the director of biological and physical research; she does most of the work that’s on the International Space Station. I will pass requirements to her and she will be my customer and develop those requirements. I’m doing the same thing with the Office of Earth Science. Earth science was developing a synthetic aperture radar for planetary use, and I need that as well. So here’s another alignment between the enterprises. This is something that Mr. O’Keefe put into place just recently and it’s working out fantastically; it’s the horizontal integration of the enterprises. Then we extend that to the centers, so we have the centers working on these things together. It’s working great.

TSR: Centennial Challenges looks like a program that could benefit a wide range of enterprises within NASA besides exploration. Why have the program within the Office of Exploration Systems?

Steidle: It needed to be managed some place, that’s the first thing. I asked for it: I asked for the technology transfer programs, I asked for the small business programs, and I asked for Centennial Challenges. That gives us a wide scope of all the technology development across the agency. In one enterprise we have most of the development efforts to meet our needs. I am sensitive to the needs of the other enterprises as well. I’m sensitive that I have science needs met, and also make sure the tech programs are not whittled away to pay for these big pieces such as the CEV. So, it seemed like a real logical place to fit, I made a pitch for it, and the boss said yes.

TSR: Over the last four or five months, are things proceeding as you envisioned, or is it doing better or worse then you thought?

Steidle: It’s doing just about what I thought it would, if, as I mentioned to my boss back in the December time frame, I had the capability to do business differently, to get operators and technologists in an office for the requirements development process, if we can have a process of locking down those requirements, and if I could hand-pick my people, bring some people from outside and inside, we can accomplish those particular things and get the requirements done by the summertime and get the Broad Agency Announcement out to industry. And the boss—Mr. O’Keefe—let me do that, and we have the people in place, the process, so it’s tracking right along. I couldn’t do it without the support of the boss and the willingness of everyone to do things a little differently, the enterprises willing to do some horizontal integration, and the talent of the people I’ve brought in. If you go to my office I’ve got people from the space station, people that are in the shuttle, mission ops people, and technologists. Yesterday I had a Nobel Laureate come in who wanted to apprise us of a few things that we should be looking at. It’s really been fantastic. And that’s been just four months. Imagine what we can do in another four months?