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May 29, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 5


The opportunity to build a new launch vehicle that can loft humans into space does not come along often. The Ares family of launch vehicles, conceived in response to the Vision for Space Exploration, presented the first chance for NASA engineers to get hands-on experience designing and building a human-rated system since the development of the Space Shuttle thirty years ago.

In 2005, NASA Headquarters solicited proposals from Integrated Product Teams for different segments of the Ares I-X test flight vehicle. The Ares I-X test flight objectives focused on first-stage flight dynamics, controllability, and separation of the first and upper stages. The launch vehicle would consist of a functional booster stage and an upper stage mass simulator, which would have the same mass as an actual upper stage but none of its functionality.

A team at Glenn Research Center prepared to bid for the job of building the Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator (USS). The first challenge in bringing the Upper Stage Simulator to Glenn was assembling a core team with the right skills to develop a winning proposal. “Early on as we formulated, even before we had gotten authority to proceed but were doing concept studies, and cost and schedule estimations, I needed a good systems engineer to look across this conceptual simulator that we were coming up with and help us identify if we were missing any functions,” said Vince Bilardo, who headed the proposal team and would eventually become the Project Manager. “We needed a good systems engineer to help us do a draft functional allocation.”

As the proposal development period for the Upper Stage work progressed, Bilardo drafted Bill Foster to serve as his Lead Systems Engineer. Foster began attending systems engineering technical interchange meetings while Bilardo ran concept teams that drew up a series of designs ranging from high-fidelity and expensive to low-fidelity and inexpensive. “(Vince) had different teams laying out concepts, and that’s where the first ‘tuna can’ — the design we actually ended up with — came up. He ran those concept teams over a three-day period, and that kind of kicked everything off,” Foster said.

The Glenn team continued to define its concepts and cost estimates as the Constellation program developed the requirements for the test vehicle. “The requirements were pointing us toward a higher fidelity simulator instead of a lower fidelity. So some of our concepts started to fall to the wayside while the higher fidelity one was really the only one that was going to pay off: the expensive one,” said Bill Foster. “When we rolled that all up and Constellation was figuring out their budget, they said, ‘We’re not doing high fidelity because it’s way too expensive.'”

A few weeks later, Glenn came back with a significantly trimmed-down version of its low-fidelity proposal. “This low-fidelity launch did a few things. One, it gave us good flight data about ‘Can we launch this long, skinny rocket?’ Another thing was it was fairly inexpensive. Third, it was going to be an early launch (2009) to get this early data, whereas the high-fidelity version pushed out into 2011,” said Foster. “That’s what got us turned on (approved). At that point we started ramping up people.”

The significance of this assignment for Glenn could not be overstated. Most of the center’s recent space flight project work consisted of developing small (“glove box”) microgravity experiment payloads for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Just months before Bilardo’s team received approval to build the Upper Stage Simulator, NASA Headquarters conducted a readiness review to determine Glenn’s ability to manage significant space flight projects. Shortly thereafter, NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin announced a policy of maintaining “ten healthy centers”: each field center would “contribute to NASA’s primary mission of space exploration and discovery.” Glenn would have to earn its assignments and its work would be closely supervised, but it would have a chance to revitalize itself.

Read the full case study.

Read an abbreviated version of this case in the Spring 2009 issue of ASK Magazine.

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