Jon Cowart, a veteran space engineer, discusses NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and progress toward launching astronauts from American soil.
Cowart shares his thoughts on human spaceflight and some of the benefits and challenges of developing and operating a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Preparation for Commercial Crew flights
- Space science experiment improvements
- Spaceflight parallels with the aviation industry
Jon Cowart served as Deputy Manager for the Mission Management and Integration Office for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program prior to his recent retirement after a 35-year career with NASA. Cowart previously served as the NASA Mission Manager for SpaceX’s Demonstration 2 flight test and second Post-Certification Mission. Prior to joining the Commercial Crew Program, Cowart was the Deputy Mission Manager for Ares I-X, a rocket from NASA’s Constellation Program that successfully launched in 2009. He joined NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 1987 as a project engineer for Space Shuttle Atlantis, and has led many teams, including the International Space Station Flight 2A and 3A Processing teams, Orbiter Docking System team, U.S. Destiny Laboratory and Airlock Processing teams, and Space Shuttle Discovery Engineering team. In 1993, Cowart was one of 50 people chosen from throughout NASA to participate in the Space Station Redesign and received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for that effort. During the recovery and investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, he was the NASA engineering lead of the Columbia Reconstruction Team. Cowart, who was a U.S. Air Force Captain prior to joining NASA, holds a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Jon Cowart: I think we could be in some kind of a golden era of space exploration.
The greatest events in human space exploration have not happened yet, and I want to stick around as long as I can to help make those really great ones still happen.
If you ask me, the greatest words in science are, “Well, now that was unexpected.”
That is when real learning begins. I think by virtue of what we are doing in this program, we are going to enable that sort of thing to happen, and you are going to see just an acceleration in science and space once we start getting the actual scientists up there with their own experiments.
Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program works with American aerospace industry partners as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crew to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.
Jon Cowart is a veteran space engineer who most recently served as Deputy Manager for the Commercial Crew Program’s Mission Management and Integration Office.
Jon, thank you for taking time to talk with us.
Cowart: Oh, it’s my pleasure. This is going to be fun. I like talking about this stuff.
Host: So, what’s going on these days with Commercial Crew?
Cowart: Well, an awful lot, as you can imagine. You may recall that we just recently flew the Demonstration Flight 1. So, now, we are getting ready for Demonstration Flight 2. We’re also getting ready for the Boeing side of this, which will be the orbital flight test and crewed flight test.
So, to get ready for all those things, we are still doing hardware build. We’re doing hardware testing and qualification. The same thing goes with software. We’re reviewing all the paper that’s got to get done. You know, nothing is complete these days without the paper being reviewed, although the paper tends to be a lot more electronic these days.
We’re doing operation simulations, launch and in-flight stuff, practicing when things go well, when things don’t go well, how we’re going to work together as a team with both Boeing and SpaceX, and even amongst ourselves, just within NASA, how we’re going to deal with things that happen.
We are the reviewing the hazards. When you build spacecraft, one thing you go do is you look at every possible hazard and how you can mitigate them. So, we’re ticking down through all of those things and getting ready to really fly people. We’re going to put astronauts on these things and that’s really important. Then in the immediate future, just beyond all the hardware stuff, we’re going to do a couple of abort tests. Boeing and SpaceX are both going to do abort tests coming up in the next few months.
So, bottom line is you name it, it’s going on right now.
Host: Commercial Crew has represented a departure from NASA’s traditional approach to human spaceflight. Let’s take a step back and talk about how this all got started.
Cowart: Well, way back in 2009, somewhere in that general area, it started with seed money for something in what we have that are called Space Act Agreements. It really began over on the ISS, the International Space Station. They wanted to get commercial resupply services. So, they started looking at a couple of companies to bring supplies up to the Space Station, not people, but just the supplies that they would do. So, they let the Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS, contract. That is really the genesis.
Then someone said, “Hey, wait a minute. If you can do that with cargo, maybe we can go do this with the astronauts as well.” And at the same time, we were talking about how we were going to ramp down shuttle and how we were going to start bringing up the Constellation Program. This is all prior to 2010.
Then once Constellation went away, we said, “Okay, now that we’ve got this seed money, let’s get a little more serious about this flying crew up to the International Space Station.” So, through a series of contracts, starting with – I’m going to use the acronyms. I don’t want to go into explaining them, but just so we have a reference point – we call them CCDev1, CCDev2, because those were development contracts and actually happened through a Space Act Agreement.
But now we’re down to the real contracts, where we are actually building hardware and are going to go fly people. So, it started way back then and the amazing thing is how much it parallels, if you go back and look at your history, this whole development thing, how it parallels the early days of aviation. In the original days, in the early 1900s, the U.S. government was flying your mail around. Any airmail was carried by a U.S. government airplane.
Finally, the U.S. government said, “Hey, maybe we can farm some of this out to private sector companies,” and they did. Over time, those companies got very good at flying airplanes, flying very programmed routes, and that blossomed into the aviation industry that you see today with an unparalleled safety record. So, we’re hoping that what you see here right now in space will blossom into the same thing that you see with our airline industry that we have in this country.
Host: What are some of the challenges that the Commercial Crew Program has faced?
Cowart: Of course, there are always going to be the technical ones. With spaceflight hardware, you have to design close to the margins of where your equipment is going to operate, because you can’t afford any excess weight. So, you’re going to stay very, very close to your margins.
New rocket engines are having to be developed for both the abort engines that fly on both Dragon and on the Starliner. We’re looking at parachutes. You have to – the whole thing with parachutes, I thought parachutes, before I got into this program, was a pretty well understood thing, but the dynamics of what goes on with parachutes is really incredible, and the amount of work you have to do to certify parachutes has been mindboggling to me.
In fact, we don’t even call them parachutes anymore. We call them Trailing Deployable Aerodynamic Decelerators. I guess you really can’t be a government program until you’ve got a cool acronym like that. We call that TDAD.
Another thing that’s been a bit of a challenge for us is the mindset of NASA folks that have been involved. In prior programs, we were very prescriptive about what we wanted. We laid out in the contract exactly how big the box had to be, how much it was going to weigh, what finish was on it, all those sorts of things.
Nowadays, we are trying to unleash the power of the private sector to go be more efficient. So, we don’t say so much exactly what the box has to look like, how much it has to weigh. We say, “Well, you’re going to have a whole bunch of boxes and they’re going to need to fit into an area that does this sort of thing. So, you guys go develop that the way you want.” All we care about is that in the end, it will meet the requirement of how that whole suite of boxes have to perform in whatever they’re doing.
So, all of that, that’s been a challenge. Also, now because we don’t own the spacecraft and we don’t own the rockets, we have to be much more aware of the proprietary information that we’re dealing with from SpaceX, Boeing, and ULA as well. They are in a bit of a competition, so we have to make sure we keep the data separate. We can’t let Boeing see SpaceX data and vice versa. That’s a new thing to us. We’ve not had to deal with that kind of environment here in the human spaceflight part of NASA ever before. So, it’s kind of cool.
Host: Was there also somewhat of an adjustment phase for you as you walked through these changes and doing things in a different way?
Cowart: Absolutely. Yeah, nothing happens overnight. You do not turn the great ship of NASA on a dime. Getting people to come along and understand, “Yeah, this is a new way of doing business,” has been pretty tough. I would say we are still making that turn. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not all the way there yet.
So, like I say and you were saying, it is a challenge and one I think we’re all up to. We’ve made it this far and we’re going to keep working through it, and get to the end on this thing and fly some folks up to the space station.
Host: As you’ve dealt with some of these challenges, how would you characterize the value of lessons learned?
Cowart: Lessons learned in any program are incredibly valuable. By the way, by any other name, lessons learned are called experience. What you do with lessons learned is you want to take your experience and somehow codify it, and make it so that other people – it’s not just tribal information, that somewhere it’s written down. Somewhere, somebody can go reference it and see exactly what your lessons learned were.
We learned a lot from the shuttle, and when the shuttle folks came on, they learned a lot from the Apollo folks. Everything builds on top of your previous experience.
Then a lot of folks come in and they say, “Well, that’s how you did it in that other program, but I think we can do it better,” and that’s good, but you don’t want them to make – the cardinal sin is to make the same mistake twice. So, we’re hoping with lessons learned that’s the biggest thing, to stop that kind of a thing from happening. Don’t be dumb in the same way twice. Find a whole new way to be dumb. But we’re working hard on that.
As you know, Boeing has a ton of experience over the long run. They’ve been doing human spaceflight for a long time now. SpaceX has not, but SpaceX has ramped up quickly because even though they’ve been doing it for less time, their activity has been much more intense. So, we get a different feel from each of our providers that we’re working with, and we’re getting to a really good place with both of them, where within the next year I am certain we’re going to be flying crews up to the International Space Station.
Host: Then what are some of the long-term goals of Commercial Crew?
Cowart: First and most importantly is to be able to take our crews up to the ISS routinely. We want it to be a very almost turnkey kind of task, where we say, “Hey, we need another crew up there. You’ve got the experience now. We’re going to turn you loose to go do that.” With some amount of oversight because they are our astronauts that are flying on these things – but that is the real long-term goal and the one we had our sights set on when we started this thing way back in the early 20-teens.
Beyond that, another long-term goal is to enable and empower the private sector to build and operate their own facilities in space, and then fly, for lack of a better term, normal people, like you and I, up into space. What we really hope is possible is that they can build their own space station up there, and then they can market this capability that we’ve helped them to develop. “You guys now can take NASA astronauts up to the space station,” if you want to try to market that to universities, to tourists, to folks from other countries who want to come and fly up to your space station and either do tourism or go up and do experiments.
If you ask me, the greatest words in science are, “Well, now that was unexpected,” because the way the situation works now is if you are a scientist and you want an experiment to be done up in space, you get it all ready. You put it into a nice, neat, little package that should operate practically autonomously. You give that to an astronaut. You train that astronaut on how to go run your experiment. That astronaut gets up in space and runs the experiment.
If something goes wrong with it and it doesn’t operate flawlessly, that astronaut has to stop, somehow contact you. You’ve got to talk about it. It’ll be so much better when the person who actually knows completely what’s going on with that experiment, who thought about it thoroughly, is up there with their experiment, and something goes wrong and says, “Now that’s unexpected,” that is when real learning begins.
I think by virtue of what we are doing in this program, we are going to enable that sort of thing to happen, and you are going to see just an acceleration in science and space once we start getting the actual scientists up there with their own experiments.
Host: When we talk about NASA’s future, there is so much excitement now as America gears up for Artemis and the mission to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon. What are your thoughts about going to the moon in 2024?
Cowart: [Chuckles] As someone who watched the very first Apollo 11 when that happened, I am very excited. I am ready to go back to the Moon. But this is, as everybody fully understands, it is still a tough goal. That’s why we haven’t done it since 1972. It’s still not easy. It’s going to take a lot of work.
Now all of this that we’ve got to go do to make the future happen is intertwined. I know people tend to think – when they go and study history, they think of it as – and that’s the way it’s kind of taught is it’s this very linear thing, where events bubble up, straight up to when this happened right here, then all of a sudden we had televisions or we had radio. They see it in that kind of a linear relationship. That is exceptionally not true.
What happens is someone makes a discovery in one area. Someone makes something in another. Somehow, they combine. Somebody hears something. Some other little piece of the puzzle falls in place. It’s really much more of a puzzle than a stovepipe.
One of the best examples of all time is we can go to the Moon or we can go out beyond Pluto, because there was a doctor in Apalachicola, Florida, in 1850, who was trying to find a cure for malaria. What he did was he said, “Well, I think malaria is caused by hot, mucky air.” So, he kind of invented air conditioning, and the process that we use to run your air conditioner is the direct descendent of the process we use to make liquid hydrogen, which powers our rockets. That’s not linear at all. That process has been used across many, many things.
So, we’re getting excited because getting to the Moon, while it may look straightforward to us right now, it might not be. We may be using a hybrid of government assets and private sector assets. I love the possibilities. This is just, like I said, incredibly exciting.
I tell people I think we could be in some kind of a golden era of space exploration. When you look at all the things that are going on, that have happened recently and what’s coming up – I mean I don’t know how you know when you’re in a golden era when you’re actually going through it, but to me, it seems to have some of the signs.
We’ve got probes going out past Pluto. We just got done with Cassini. We’re sending more probes out to look at Europa. There might be life under the ice of one of those moons out there of Jupiter and Saturn. We just got done with Kepler. Now we have TESS up there.
When I was a kid, we only knew of nine planets, then that went down to eight for a little while, but now we’re up to 4,000 planets. So, it’s just an incredible time, and the future of human spaceflight, with us doing the Commercial Crew thing and then, hopefully, enabling the private sector to take people up to a space station that they would build. Holy cow, what a great time. I can’t imagine a better time.
But I do know this beyond a shadow of a doubt. The greatest events in human space exploration have not happened yet, and I want to stick around as long as I can to help make those really great ones still happen.
Host: Did you always love space?
Cowart: Now that is a bit of a story. I didn’t always love it, obviously, like I do now. When I was very young, this is back in the 1960s, I didn’t really like the space program, because in those days there were only three networks, and if you were a little kid and you wanted to watch cartoons, the only time cartoons came on was between 8 a.m. and noon on Saturday morning. And I’ll be darned, it seemed to me as if NASA was always launching on a Saturday morning. Back in the ’60s, each rocket launch was a big deal and they were always carried live on the network. So, whenever NASA launched, I didn’t get to see my cartoons. I didn’t like NASA.
But then, Christmas Eve of 1968, little Jon is laying in bed, trying to go to sleep, because it is Christmas Eve and Santa will not come until you are asleep. So, I’m laying there trying to go to sleep. My mom sticks her head in the door and says, “Jon, are you awake?” I said, “I am, yes.” She said, “Well, I want you to see something.” So, she took me outside.
We went out on the back porch of my little house there in Tucker, Georgia, where I grew up. She pointed at the moon, which was just coming up above the pine trees there, and she said, “There are people from the planet Earth, three people going around the moon right now.” That really captured my attention. We came back inside. My dad was adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV, and we listened to the Apollo 8 crew recite from Genesis and show us the Earth from the Moon, and that really ignited my interest. From that point on, I was pretty sure I wanted to work in the space business.
Now I haven’t gotten to do the ultimate thing, which is strap the rocket on my back and go up there, but I’ve done everything but that. I’ve had a great career and I love space now.
Host: I understand that on a personal level you’re in a period of transition, retiring from NASA after 35 years, and shifting into a new opportunity to continue supporting human space flight, but on the private side. As you reflect on your NASA career, what are some of the experiences that stand out?
Cowart: The things that I carry heaviest in my heart are the events — I saw both Challenger happen, and I was here at the Cape when Columbia happened. So, those weigh in on my memory on one side of it.
But on the much better side is I have gotten to work in every human spaceflight program we’ve had since 1983. That’s ISS, that’s Constellation, that’s shuttle, all those things. I’ve gotten to be a part of those and helped try to make those things happen and make them better.
I have gotten to meet all six of the original seven astronauts. I met Neil Armstrong a few times. When you meet people that you practically worshiped as a kid, they were certainly your heroes, it certainly has an effect on you.
I remember all the people that I’ve worked with. All of them have contributed something to make me a better engineer or person. I am so glad that I got to go do this. I’m glad I’m not getting out of human spaceflight. My next job will still be helping NASA out, though not with a NASA badge on, but still helping NASA with the human spaceflight endeavor. So, the future is looking really good and I’m glad I’m not getting out of the business just yet.
Host: You have spent a lot of time in the firing rooms. So, I’d like to hear some of your experiences related to actual launches. Could you talk us through some of the experiences that you’ve had related to human spaceflight launch?
Cowart: I’ll tell you there’s two sides to the story. The first is if you get a chance to be in a firing room on a launch day, take it. You’ll love it. It’s an amazing experience because you’ll be in a room full of people, all of you very much dedicated to whatever the data is you are committed to reviewing to make that launch safe.
If you’re an environmental control engineer, you’re looking at certain parameters. If you’re a software engineer, you’re looking at other stuff. If you’re an electrical engineer. You’ve got all these people. So, when you’re in the firing room, you look up and you see all of these people very intensely focused on what their piece of the pie is in order to make sure this launch is very safe and happens correctly. There’s not a whole lot of talking. You’ve got things to go do. You’re very, very busy.
On the other hand, when you go to see a launch, it is much, much better to see it outside, where you can feel it. When you’re in the firing room, it’s a very antiseptic experience in the sense that you will not see the launch because, generally speaking, the pad is not in your view. You won’t feel it or hear it like you do when you’re outside, and, like I said, you’re focused on the work you’re doing.
But when you’re outside and that vehicle goes up and you hear the crackling of the rocket, and especially on the Shuttle or even for folks who were around back during the Saturn V days, you look at that and you feel the power. You can feel it actually pounding on your chest as you’re standing there, and you can feel the ground trembling just a little bit under this incredible noise. And you go, “Wow. There are people brave enough to sit on top of that and ride that thing.” It just provides you another level of awe when you watch it.
But the firing room, firing rooms nowadays are very different than when I was working there. Like I said, it was very antiseptic. You were behind a metal cabinet with a hard vinyl floor. Nowadays, I go in the firing room and there’s carpet and there’s oak paneling. It’s so much softer and nicer than it was back in the day. I don’t know. I think this new generation of people launching, I look and go, “Oh, they’re very soft. They don’t have it like we did.”
Host: Jon, thank you so much for joining us. Do you have any closing thoughts, anything we didn’t get to today?
Cowart: I wanted to convey to you my sense of how important it is, how important human spaceflight is to all of humanity. I heard Jeff Bezos say this the other day, essentially, “Eventually, we’re going to have to leave the planet. We’re going to run out of some stuff. It’s just math. It’s going to happen.” The one organization here in the United States that’s doing that is NASA. It’s leading the way. We’ve got other folks coming along, looking really good, and I wish them all the best because I know, beyond a doubt, that our destiny lies above us and it’s time to get going.
Host: “We Are Going,” a video that shows how NASA is going to the Moon to stay, by 2024, is linked from our website. You’ll also find links to more information about the Commercial Crew Program, Jon’s bio and a transcript of today’s show at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
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