Shooting For Mars

Relying on a tried-and-true design from the Apollo program, Lockheed Martin wins its bid to build the next human spacecraft.


Relying on a tried-and-true design from the Apollo program, Lockheed Martin wins its bid to build the next human spacecraft.

On Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004, President Bush uttered the words Doug Cooke had been waiting to hear for 15 years. "Today we set a new course for America's space program. . . We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own," Bush told a crowded auditorium in NASA's Washington headquarters. He pledged an additional $1 billion to NASA over five years to get the next-generation spacecraft ready within the decade.

Cooke, who then managed the Advanced Development Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, was thrilled. He had been working on plans for missions to the moon and beyond since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush initiated a push to go beyond Earth's orbit. But with the focus on quick and efficient missions to the international space station in the 1990s and early 2000s, plans for manned missions further into space had been put on hold.

Instead of playing with hypothetical design concepts, "all of the sudden, we were in a place where we were going to really . . . make it happen," says Cooke. An engineer with large glasses and a graying beard, he had joined NASA 31 years earlier to work on aerodynamics during shuttle re-entry; he had worked his way up through the space shuttle and exploration programs.

Cooke wasn't the only one moved by the import of the speech. Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 in 1972 and the last man to walk on the moon, told The Boston Globe, "We now have a goal in life." NASA's Skip Hatfield, who worked at the Johnson Space Center on missions to fly unpressurized cargo to the international space station, said later, "A lot of us had been looking forward to the day when we could break out of suborbital space." Cleon Lacefield, a vice president of Lockheed Martin Corp., said he couldn't remember the last time a president got involved with NASA's mission. "We all said, 'This is what we've been waiting for.' "

What Cooke, Hatfield and Lacefield didn't realize at the time was just how big a role they would play in that new mission.

Getting Into Shape

The day after the president's speech, NASA formed the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. NASA's administrator at the time, Sean O'Keefe, appointed Cooke to run it as deputy associate administrator. Cooke's first step was to figure out what the new spacecraft-labeled the crew exploration vehicle and later named Orion after one of the brightest and most familiar constellations-should look like. The directorate spent 10 months weighing various concepts and ideas.

In December 2004, NASA released a rough overview of its requirements for the first phase of Orion and asked for feedback. The agency planned to release a formal request for proposals in March 2005 and to make an award to two contractors, which would continue to work on the project for three and a half years until one was eliminated in a "fly-off."

At Lockheed, Lacefield started exploring concepts with a team of 20 that quickly ramped up to 2,000. Initially, the team focused on "lifting-body" shapes, which have rounded bodies with gently sloping wings. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman Corp., which had teamed up with Boeing Co., focused on an Apollo-like conical shape.

In April 2005, as both teams were racing to put together their proposals, Michael Griffin was sworn in as NASA administrator, replacing O'Keefe, who had resigned. Griffin had a different vision of how the contract should unfold. Instead of keeping two contractors on NASA's payroll for three and a half years, he wanted to more quickly downselect to one contractor and to further refine NASA's requirements for the new spacecraft before handing off the concept to contractors. With the request for proposals still out, Griffin created the Exploration Systems Architecture Study to make recommendations about the best approach. Even the shape of the spacecraft was still open for debate.

The Apollo Model

Griffin enlisted Douglas Stanley to head the study. A visiting professor at the National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Va., Stanley had been Griffin's colleague at NASA and at Dulles, Va., space technology company Orbital Sciences Corp. Alongside 400 NASA employees, he reviewed the latest research and technology to decide how a spacecraft should get to the moon and back. Should the crew launch with the moon landing gear, or should they go up separately, and rendezvous in orbit? If they rendezvous, should they "mate" in lunar orbit or Earth orbit? Should the spacecraft look like an Apollo capsule, or a lifting-body vehicle, or something else altogether? NASA wanted a spacecraft that could visit the moon's polar regions, not just its midsection as Apollo had done, and provided space for four to six crew members, not just three, as with Apollo. And NASA wanted it to be ready as soon as possible, because the shuttle was set to retire in 2010, and Congress wanted to minimize the amount of time Americans were Earth-bound.

Because the moon is almost 250,000 miles away and a visit requires a hefty dose of propellant, Stanley and his colleagues knew they wanted to minimize the mass of the new spacecraft. "Big wings don't look attractive; you would need more engines and propellant," Stanley says. (That's why the shuttle design doesn't make sense for trips beyond Earth's orbit.) Team members focused on lightweight, compact structures. They also needed a spacecraft that could stand the intensely high temperatures of re-entering Earth's atmosphere; returns from the moon happen at higher speeds than returns from Earth's orbit. That means engineers had to avoid using sharp edges; a blunt-bodied capsule can better withstand that kind of heat. And because the shape already had gone through extensive testing for missions in the 1960s, an Apollo-like vehicle had the advantage of being well understood. NASA also estimated that the capsule and accompanying rocket, which sits below the capsule as opposed to next to it, is 10 times safer than the shuttle. Launch vehicle debris cannot easily hit the capsule. For all those reasons, the study recommended an Apollo-like shape.

In June 2005, NASA provided feedback to the two competing contractors, Lockheed Martin and the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team, and selected them both for the first phase of the contract. An internal NASA team also began developing spacecraft concepts so the directorate could weigh the contractors' concepts against its own ideas when it came time to choose a winner 12 months later.

The contractor teams still had lots of leeway, including freedom to design almost all the systems used on the vehicle. The launch-abort system, the environmental control and life support systems, thermal systems, electrical systems and navigation control remained unspecified by NASA. "On all these systems, the contractors could use their creativity," says Cooke. Lacefield, who became Lockheed's Orion program manager, was proud of the safety features his team was developing. "We came up with a system with a lot of redundancies and failure tolerance," he says. The design allowed for the capsule to leave its orbit quickly and to touch down on land or in water in an emergency.

On a bimonthly basis, Lockheed Martin and the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team met with NASA to present their concepts for evaluation. They operated under rigid procedures to ensure fairness. Only designated NASA employees could communicate with the two contractors and they couldn't provide much feedback.

Hatfield, who took over as NASA's project manager for Orion in March 2006, decided not to work directly with the contractors during the first phase so he could be involved in the selection of the winning team during the downselect. He and his team jokingly called the strict rules the "cone of silence," a concept from the 1960s television comedy Get Smart.

While the contractors couldn't talk to the people who would be deciding their fate, they could emphasize their strengths in the media. In February 2006, a Northrop Grumman program manager told Aerospace America, a magazine published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, that his company's partnership with Boeing was "a good marriage and the right alignment." A month later, Lockheed's vice president of space exploration, John Karas, told The Daily News of Los Angeles that his company's proposal was low-risk and low-cost because it used existing technologies.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office was tracking NASA's progress, and it wasn't happy. In a letter to Congress in July 2006, GAO wrote that because the costs for the Vision for Space Exploration program were so high-$230 billion over the next 20 years and $31 billion through fiscal 2011-NASA should take care not to commit itself and the government long term without making it known what it wanted for its money.

Indeed, GAO wanted NASA to rethink its decision to award the second part of the contract for Orion in September 2006. The contract was scheduled to continue through 2019, and GAO didn't think NASA had done enough research to make such a big commitment. There was a risk of cost overruns, schedule delays and overall poor performance, GAO wrote. If NASA did not reconsider its plans, then Congress should consider restricting its funding, GAO recommended.

NASA officials disagreed. In their response letter, they said the agency had done enough preparation to proceed with the contract.

Cooke says NASA did take GAO's advice on a couple of recommendations, such as turning parts of the contract into options instead of including them in the basic contract. Plus, Cooke adds, if the contractor ends up not meeting performance expectations, then NASA can terminate the contract at any time.

Final Poll

On Wednesday, Aug. 30, Cooke woke up in his Rockville, Md., home at 5 a.m., half an hour earlier than usual. He rode the Metro to his office at NASA headquarters in downtown Washington and just before 8 a.m., took the elevator from his office on the 2nd floor to a windowless 9th floor briefing room right outside the glass-paneled doors of the administrator's office. A dozen senior NASA officials, including Hatfield, gathered around the U-shaped wood table. Cooke walked to the podium. This decision was an important one, he reminded the participants. He told them about his lifelong passion for human space flight and that it was an honor to be involved at this critical moment in NASA's history. And he reminded them to ask tough questions and to base their recommendations on the previously established criteria.

Cooke took his place at the center of the table, and Robert Floyd, who headed up the source evaluation team at Johnson Space Center, began a PowerPoint presentation of the two proposals. The source evaluation board had been sequestered for six months in secure offices, nicknamed the "bunker," at the Johnson Space Center. The team of 70, gathered from various NASA centers, evaluated each proposal's technical aspects, management concepts, and health and safety plans. They also reviewed the cost estimates and in some cases corrected the numbers provided by the companies.

Four hours later, Floyd wrapped up and the group took a brief break. When they returned to their seats, Cooke asked each adviser to give an assessment of the proposals. Cooke then gave his assessment. He polled the group one last time. The winner was obvious-it was Lockheed. He announced his decision to the group.

Later he would explain, "both contractor teams were capable of doing it . . . but on performance, management, cost and past performance . . . [Lockheed Martin was] ahead." In the sourcing evaluation document that he signed the next day, Cooke said Lockheed's cost estimate was significantly lower than the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team's. He also said he was worried because the relationship between Northrop Grumman and Boeing did not seem clearly defined. "I am concerned that two very large companies integrating and interacting as prime and sub will be a recurring management challenge," he wrote.

Cooke met with Griffin at 2 p.m. to explain his decision, which still was top-secret. Griffin approved. Now, Cooke just had to keep the secret until he could announce it the next day, Thursday, Aug. 31.

Winner Takes All

Cooke finalized and signed the source selection letter Thursday morning. At 1 p.m., he called the heads of both teams to let them know the results. "One was hard, one was not that hard," he says. The easy call was to Robert Stevens, Lockheed Martin chief executive officer, president and chairman, who immediately called Joanne McGuire, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. Cooke had told Stevens not to spread the information too widely, so Lacefield had to wait for the news along with everyone else.

The official press conference was scheduled for 4 p.m., and Cooke's goal was to keep the information from becoming public until then. Meanwhile, Michael Cabbage, veteran NASA reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, was working to make sure he could get the scoop for his readers. Cabbage knew the announcement was expected that day, and he had spent his morning calling all his top sources. One of them called him back around 3:40 p.m. and Cabbage quickly got a second source to confirm the news. At 3:47 pm, he posted the Lockheed win on his blog, beating Cooke's announcement by 13 minutes.

Lacefield was in Houston, watching the announcement on television in a conference room with his team. He felt confident with their proposal, but didn't know if it was good enough to beat the competition.

With the cameras rolling, Cooke announced Lockheed as the winner. Lacefield's conference room erupted in cheers. Lacefield couldn't talk. "It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences to win something as important as this," he says. He got his voice back and called his wife, who also had been watching the announcement on television. That night, they hosted an open house at their Houston home to celebrate.

The losing Northrop Grumman and Boeing team was crushed. The companies declined to participate in this article. Not only had they spent two years preparing a proposal that was now off the table, but because the contract lasts for so long, they were essentially cut out of the manned vehicle market for a decade. "It was a painful learning experience," says a Northrop Grumman spokesman.

Hatfield was relieved that the decision was public. "The cone of silence has been lifted and now we can talk to one another," he joked with his colleagues.

The Clock Is Ticking

Friday, Sept. 1, was a normal working day for Lacefield and Hatfield; their teams met at the Johnson Space Center to figure out the next steps. They first had to cull the best design ideas from the Lockheed proposal and the internal NASA team. The clock already was running; a launch-abort system test was scheduled for the fall of 2008 and Orion was scheduled to blast off in 2014.

Critics also got to work. Many people had expected the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team to win because they have more experience building vehicles to send humans into space, while Lockheed had mostly specialized in unmanned vehicles. Some suggested that Lockheed had underestimated its costs because it didn't realize how expensive it would be to bring a vehicle up to the safety level required for human space travel. (Cooke says he is confident that the cost estimates are accurate.) The New York Times pointed out that the last time Lockheed was hired to build a manned spacecraft, the X-33 in 1996, it failed and NASA shut down the project after spending almost $1 billion. Space entrepreneurs argued that NASA and the federal government should seek innovation by engaging cutting-edge space companies instead of the traditional giants.

In early January, NASA released a request for information for the next big contract, the launch vehicle that will carry Orion out of Earth's atmosphere. "That's where I think NASA will get into trouble," says Howard McCurdy, author of books on space and professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. The technology likely will require more innovation than a capsule, which relies so heavily on Apollo-era designs, he says.

Another challenge for NASA will be getting Orion off the ground before a new administration shifts the agency's focus. "The next administration will not likely be a significant supporter of this president's vision," says James McAleese, a principal of an aerospace and defense law firm that bears his name in McLean, Va. Some politicians would likely argue for extending the life of the shuttle, especially if Orion gets delayed. Few people, however, would suggest shutting down Orion altogether, McAleese adds.

As President Bush noted in his January 2004 speech, "We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit."

Here's the plan for getting Orion, the spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the Moon and beyond, off the ground. So far, it's on schedule.

Time Actions
2014 Orion will carry astronauts into low Earth orbit in preparation for Moon landings.
2015-2020 Orion will take astronauts to the Moon for visits of
four days or longer.
After 2020 Astronauts will visit the Moon for extended periods - up to several months-in preparation for Mars landings.
Source: NASA Statement of Objectives, March 2005

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