Saturday, October 11, 2008


Down in Houston, Texas, there's a place called the Johnson Space Center. So named because of LBJ of course. As a kid, I watched the launches of our Saturn V rockets from a pad on the Florida coast. As they blasted their way into orbit, and then the moon, I sat and then listened closely as my heroes communicated with Mission Control. Screaming along at mind-bending velocity, these characters would calmly relay speeds, altitudes, G-forces, vectors, Victors, like they were ordering take-out Chinese food.

Because the Saturn Vs had launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida, I still recall the odd feeling of hearing the astronaut crews preface their transmissions with the word Houston. Immediately, the scope of the venture became clear to this 10 year old kid. Distances were all different to these people. I thought in terms of city blocks, they thought in terms of time zones. Once in orbit, actually even during ascent, it didn't really matter where they launched from when talking to the ground. It seemed at first to make more sense to me that Mission Control should be right there at the launch pad, but in hindsight I see that it really made more sense to put Mission Control in Houston.

As Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of the Apollo 11 crew said, 'Houston just has a ring to it. Hard to imagine calling out...'Uh, Albuquerque we've had a problem up here.''

Houston sounds right, and being in LBJ's home state, it seemed to make perfect sense when the government was deciding where to put the people in charge of Moon Shots. Houston.

The titans of the United States space program have all paced the halls of the Johnson Space Center, and while the rabid public interest that accompanied the early days of Apollo has diminished, there are still some of us, hopefully not just the kids of the 60s and 70s, who have closely followed the evolution of the space program for 4 or 5 decades. I've kept up on this stuff for 40 years, because it still gives me the chills.

After the Apollo Program had run its course, culminating with ...ahem..Chicagoan Gene Cernan's final lunar footsteps in 1972, the US began to devote its energies and budget money to a new program with near Earth goals. An orbiting space-lab perhaps. Someone came up with the notion of a re-usable airplane-type vehicle that could ride a rocket into orbit, and return to earth like a glider. This inspired a man named Max Faget to design what would ultimately become the Space Shuttle, first flown by Robert Crippen and John Young in 1981. After nearly 3 decades of service, and 123 missions (an additional 10 missions are planned) the Shuttle is currently scheduled to retire sometime around 2010. (these estimates can always change, due to either development issues, or the dreaded budget cuts.)

In January 2004, President Bush announced The Vision for Space Exploration, a new direction for American Space Policy. Part of this initiative is Constellation. The program's goals are to gain further experience in operating away from Earth's environment, and to begin to expand our horizons in space to again include the Moon, and eventually Mars.

President George W. Bush came up with a good idea.

There are those who would argue that a manned space program is a waste of money, and that robotics can handle the workload planned for our future astronauts. I would answer that no robot could have possibly repaired the Hubble telescope. No robot could possibly capture a crippled satellite, and perform repairs while in orbit. There are those who think the entire NASA budget is a waste of money. I consider such people to be ill-informed, and utterly out of touch. As other nations, such as China, develop their own space programs, the luxury of choosing whether or not to remain a spacefaring nation vanishes. The US has no choice but to press forward. The alternative would be to leave tens of billions of dollars worth of commercial and military satellites floating around in orbit, unprotected. Never before have there been so many players in the game of space exploration. (China launched their first manned mission last month.) Never before has it been so important for the US to maintain space presence, and I could easily argue for an increase in NASA budget money, considering the preposterous shit the US has wasted hundreds of billions on lately. Never before has NASA accomplished so much with so little as they do currently.

I admit it, I'm a space fan, and a kid of the 60s. I'm biased because I remember the glory days when our astronauts, and everyone connected to the space program were national heroes. They still should be considered in the same way. They're the best we have.

Hard to put into words my surprise, the sheer pleasure, when my sister informed me last year that an old friend of mine, a former high school classmate, had served as Flight Director for several Shuttle missions.

I flipped.

Call me a geek, I don't care. I had a million questions I wanted to ask my old friend. I e-mailed him (to the point of being annoying I'm sure), and for the last couple of years, when his schedule permitted, we've talked about the future of NASA, and new things on the drawing board. We also saw each other recently, at our 30th high school reunion. Some of what follows is from my friend's e-mails, and some is from our conversation over a couple of drinks. He has graciously allowed me to share our conversations with you.

My friend's name is Mark Kirasich.

He works in Houston.

Q- Can you give us a little idea of the path you chose after we last saw each other in 1978? Through a mutual friend, I understand you went to Notre Dame. Where did you go after ND? Grad school?
A~ I went to Notre Dame, studied Electrical Engineering,graduated in 1982 and then went to Stanford University for a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering. I was lucky –Benet Academy, Notre Dame and Stanford. Great schools and great places to grow up. Right after graduating from Stanford, I left for Houston and the Johnson Space Center, where I have been ever since.

Q- What was it that attracted you to a career at NASA? Were you always a space program fan like me?

A: Yes, I have been interested in human space exploration for as long as I remember. I stared at the stars as a kid and dreamt about exploration. I watched Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon on TV in Lombard, Illinois in July, 1969 with my dad and sister. We went outside during the telecast to stare at the moon and try to find Neil and Buzz. I wanted to be an astronaut – to fly – which is what led me to NASA and the Johnson Space Center. My eyesight was never good enough to get past the Doc’s medical screening though, so I had to forego that dream. Instead, I’ve been a part of the country’s human program throughout my career.

Q- This was early in the development of the Shuttle Program, correct? What was your first job at NASA?

 A: Yes, I arrived for my first day at work on July 17th, 1983. It was shortly after STS-7 – the 7thflight of the Space Shuttle. You probably remember, this was Sally Ride’s (the first American woman to fly in space),first flight. You can imagine my surprise when, during my 3rd or 4th week on the job, I went to a meeting only to have Sally plop down in the chair next to me. This was the one of many great experiences I’ve had over the years.

Q- I understand that you were Flight Director on several Shuttle flights. That must be an amazing feeling of responsibility. Let's face it buddy, that's the same job Gene Kranz did. 'Failure is not an option' and all that. Do you remember what it felt like when they called you upstairs to tell you that you were going to be in the Big Seat? Were you nervous on your first Launch Day as FD? Did it get easier after the first few?

A: I remember the day vividly. After a very, very brief moment of elation, I got the chills, got scared to death, and asked myself what did I get into now. That afternoon we went to meet our new boss, the Chief of the Flight Director Office. He welcomed us not by talking about the “Big Seat” but by telling us we were whale crap on the ocean floor. And so, there we started. The NASA operations organization has an unbelievable training program though – it takes about a year to get through it and includes all sorts of training opportunities. The program culminates in months of simulations with our teams in the Control Center. By the time I actually sat in “the seat” for the first time, I was well prepared, though I didn’t fully appreciate it and was still scared to death. It was probably my 3rd or 4th flight before I finally felt like I belonged there – in the Flight Director seat in that Flight Control Room.

Q- You mentioned that you were the NASA guy who went to Moscow to work alongside the Russians on the joint Shuttle/Mir mission. Any lasting memories you'd care to share? I know the Cold War was over, but was there any feeling of residual rivalry? Were they cooperative? Friendly? Did you do vodka shots with your Russian counterpart?

 A: I traveled to Moscow and worked with Russia’s Space Agency from the mid-90s until I left the Flight Director office in 2006. Though we had been “competitors” with the Russians for quite some time - the entire moon race was built on this competition - there was little if any rivalry left when we started working together on Shuttle/Mir. To the contrary, there was a lot of interest and respect by both sides in our respective accomplishments. The Russians at the time, had built and flown humans continuously in space on board Mir and the predecessor Salyut space stations, and we had a robust, capable Shuttle program. There were of course language and cultural differences, but we worked through these and found much common ground when it came to the important technical issues and decisions we had to make. The most lasting impression I still maintain is the incredible progress made while the country transitioned from the Soviet to a free market economy. If you traveled every 6 months, you always saw significant new construction every time you went. Yes, there are always vodka shots when it comes to Russian counterparts.

Q- I once told you that Kranz, Chris Kraft, Mike Collins, Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, and Max Faget are a few of my NASA heroes....Who are yours?

A: I’ve worked with many great leaders since I arrived, Gene Kranz, Ron Dittemore, Jay Greene, Bob Castle (who had the unenviable job of mentoring me when I arrived in the Flight Director office)and many, many more. I’ve also worked with a lot of very talented astronauts. But,when you are a Flight Director, and later, when you are a Project Manager, you come to respect the team and organization that makes things work. There was a saying used by Apollo astronauts(and others) to describe their accomplishments, it goes something along the lines of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” and refers to the hard work and sacrifices of the thousands of engineers and scientists it takes to build and fly humans in space. It takes the team.

Q- In the early days of NASA, one gets the impression of a closely knit 'family.' It was kind of small. After a few decades of growth, NASA has become huge. Is there still the feeling of a family? 

A: I’m not sure I can compare the two times, but the folks involved in our human space program today are still very much a family. People come to Houston (and Alabama and Florida and the other places where work is done on the program)because they believe in the dream, in human spaceflight and exploration. We work hard together, train together, solve problems together, share successes and failures together. A lot of my neighbors have flown in space, alot of them build the hardware and software that carry humans to space. Whenever there’s a Shuttle launch, we all gather in conference rooms to watch on TV. In many ways, it reminds me of the way the entire student body at Notre Dame gathers in the football stadium on Saturdays in the fall. Yes, we are still very much a family.

Q- My parents were at the Cape to watch the launch of Challenger in 1986. I recall the shock vividly. Can you describe the feeling within the NASA family after such a tragic loss?

A: Shock, sadness, a feeling of failure. The astronauts were our friends and neighbors, our teammates, and we failed on that day.

Q- Chris Kraft said shortly after Grissom, Chaffee, and White died in the Apollo 1 fire (1967) that 'We are in a dangerous business. We are in the business of experimental flight. It's never routine. The important thing is to find out what went wrong and fix it. Some day it's going to happen again,but we must always realize that the important thing is to solve problems, and keep pressing on.' Is Kraft still right? Is it an inherently dangerous business? Is that feeling of 'pressing on' still there?

A: Yes, it is still quite a dangerous business. The Space Shuttle weighs 4.5Million pounds at liftoff and to lift this weight off the launch pad and accelerate the spacecraft to orbital velocity – over 15000 miles per hour - takes a huge amount of explosive chemical propellant. During re-entry, the vehicle’s thermal protection system sees temperatures of several thousand degrees as the atmosphere slows the spacecraft down from orbital to landing velocities. In between, the crew lives in space – a very hostile environment to humans with no air where temperatures range from 100s of degrees below zero to hundreds of degrees above zero. The spacecraft has to sustain life throughout all of these dynamic phases and environmental extremes. Dr. Kraft was right, then and now, we learn every time we fly and we fold this knowledge into subsequent missions and new spacecraft designs. Even though we have been flying humans in space for over 45 years, and flying the Space Shuttle since 1981, we are still in the early infancy of human space exploration.

Q- What's your job now?...and try to keep it simple. It ain't rocket science. I've been waiting a lifetime to tell that joke, you hear it...what....twice a day?

A: I am the (blocked for national security reasons) of NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle Project. It really is rocket science! (and I’ve always wanted to say that!)

We are developing the follow-on human spaceflight program to the Space Shuttle. We have been flying Space Shuttles since I joined the Agency in the early 80s and will retire the Shuttle in about two years from now. The follow-on program is called Constellation and our goal was set by President Bush in 2004. We are going to send humans back to the moon and eventually, on to Mars.

The Constellation Program is the next step, to not only expand our mission and our capabilities,but to build a safer, more reliable system. Our goal for the new Ares-I/Orion system is to be 10x as safe as anything we have flown to date. 
The first two “pieces” of Constellation are Ares I – the rocket – and Orion – the human spacecraft. Ares I is what launches Orion into Orbit and Orion is the spacecraft the crew rides and lives in. Initially, Orion will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which we will continue to fly with our many partners from around the world. Then, when the additional Constellation flight hardware comes along, such as Altair, the spacecraft that will land on the moon, and Ares V (Ares I’s big brother which is needed to launch and push Orion and Altair to the moon), we will once again send humans beyond earth orbit and to other celestial bodies, first the moon, then to Mars.

Q- So Orion will first be used to take over for the Shuttle in servicing the International Space Station. What's the time frame on that? And Lunar Missions?
Our commitment is to fly the first Orion mission to the Space Station in 2015 and back to the moon in 2020. We maintain more aggressive work to schedules internally as this provides us some schedule margin. Our internal schedules have the first Station flight in 2014.

Q-I heard that our old friend and classmate Dave McGrath is, amazingly enough, working at ATK on the solid boosters that will take Orion into orbit/space. Do you find the complexity of the Constellation Program, and the need for contractors all over the country to be a hindrance? How immediate is communication in re: changes, modifications,eliminations etc.?

It is a small world – Dave, a fellow Benet Class of ’78 Alum has a new job (since you sent me the questions) and is now the (blocked for internet stalking reasons) on the Orion Launch Abort System. This new motor is going to significantly increase the overall performance of our Launch Abort system – we did not have a similar motor on the Apollo launch escape system. With the attitude control motor,we will be able to successfully abort from a much larger envelope of abort environmental conditions (attitudes, velocities …) This is going to improve the overall reliability of aborts and the safety of the crew should we have a problem on the pad or during ascent.

As far as organizational complexity, we have a lot of people working on Orion, several thousand at last count, and if you look across the entire Constellation Program, its over double that. The complexity comes with the challenge of keeping all these folks headed in the same direction on the same schedule. This is especially tough early in the Program where we are now, when we are still formulating our designs and plans, and things change more than they will once we mature our concepts. So, the key is communications – as much as you can do as often as possible. Email,telecons, and airplanes have made the geographic distribution of the team much easier to deal with – I can’t imagine how they did this back in the 60s, but again, its all about talking and making sure the organization knows what’s expected and where we’re headed.

Me to Mark at our 30th Reunion~ 'Thank you Mark. I know you've been very busy, and the time you took to answer these questions is very much appreciated by me personally, by Quiblit's readers, and also by my blog readers. I'm looking forward to visiting Johnson, and eagerly anticipate the first launch of your baby, Orion, atop the new Ares booster. Bartender...two vodkas please.'

**I can't think of anyone I'd rather have sitting in the middle of the development of our next spacecraft than a guy like Mark. I hope there are many more like him working at NASA, and at all of the other companies whose efforts will ensure that the United States will continue to be the world leader in the exploration of space. Their efforts, and their accomplishments, will also I think, one day be seen as the shoulders of giants.** 

Schmutzie is a Chicago contractor.