In this episode, we step behind the scenes of NASA’s Orion project to explore the remarkable teamwork, leadership, and communication that drive this groundbreaking endeavor. Join us as we sit down with Stu McClung, the NASA Orion test lead, to talk about the Orion mission and the human side of space exploration.
In this episode we’re diving into the intricate web of collaboration, leadership, and communication that powers the Orion project. Our guest, Stu McClung, serves as the NASA Orion Test lead at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), where he plays a pivotal role in orchestrating the efforts of various Orion program offices.
While the Orion spacecraft is a technological marvel, it’s the dedicated individuals like Stu who make the dream of deep space exploration a reality. In this episode, we delve into the intricate dance of coordination, integration, and effective communication required to send humans farther into space than ever before. We’ll explore the human stories behind the Orion project and gain a deeper appreciation for the extraordinary people making it happen.
In this episode you’ll learn about:
- The Orion project, NASA’s new spacecraft built to take humans farther into space than ever before, including trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
- What Stu McClung, the NASA Orion test lead, has to say about the challenges of overseeing a multifaceted aspect of Orion’s development, including coordination, integration, and cost risk management.
- The importance of space exploration, especially the return to the moon, and how Orion plays a crucial role in these endeavors.
- McClung’s leadership lessons he’s learned, including the importance of effective communication, dealing with challenging stakeholders, and handling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Orion program.
Stu McClung is the Chief of Staff for the Program Planning and Control Office of the Orion program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He is responsible for coordinating and integrating various Orion program offices, managing cost risks and threats, and leading the program’s COVID response efforts. McClung has been involved with the Orion program since 2006, holding various leadership positions. He previously served as the Orion program executive at NASA Headquarters, representing the program to internal and external stakeholders. His roles have included overseeing mechanical and pyrotechnic systems, production and assembly, and ground test articles. McClung joined NASA in 1989 and has a background in space shuttle orbiter hardware upgrades and safety improvements.
Teresa Carey (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, your window into the world of knowledge and innovation at NASA. I’m Teresa Carey and I’m thrilled to be on this journey with you.
Stu McClung: Don’t go in with an incomplete story or try to fake it because they’ll see right through it. You’re going to get blown out of the water, you’re in trouble. Don’t go there. If you don’t know, you don’t know, you got to say it that way.
Host: That’s Stu McClung, the NASA Orion Test Lead at Kennedy Space Center, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today, something truly out of this world, The Orion Project. This is NASA’s new spacecraft built to take humans farther into space than they’ve ever gone before. Think trips to the moon, Mars and even beyond. This is an important component of NASA’s ambitious exploration goals. So how does it all come together? Well, that’s what we wanted to know, and that’s why Stu McClung is on the podcast today. Stu oversees coordination, integration and cost risk management across various Orion program offices. So let’s get started with our guest, Stu McClung. Stu, thanks for talking with us today.
McClung: Thanks for having me.
Host: Stu, you’ve had a remarkable journey with The Orion Program starting back in 2006, is that right?
McClung: That’s right.
Host: So you started even long before The Artemis Program really took shape. Could you tell us what it is about The Orion that makes this project so special to you?
McClung: A couple of things come to mind. In a sense, I kind of look at Orion almost as a building block to everything that Artemis is doing and will do, and the vehicle itself is really, I like to call it flexible. And so I’ve always thought that’s one of the real strengths of it, that as the missions and as the agency’s goal to explore continues to evolve, you got this aspect and you’ve got this vehicle that’s a key part of it that can support most any request and requirement that’s been made of it. And so sometimes I say I’m almost mission agnostic, I’m like, “Where do you want to go? We can take you there,” and then let the rest of the architecture sort of play itself out.
Host: That must be really exciting.
McClung: It really is, yeah. I mean, look at where we’re at and look at what we’re building on. So it’s a great ride really. We’ve got one of the cooler jobs in the world. The crew that we launch has the coolest job, we’ve got the next coolest job.
Host: So looking back on the earliest days of the Orion spacecraft, we can imagine there were significant challenges in spacecraft engineering and supply chain management. Could you walk us through some of those key challenges and give me an example of a situation you had to deal with and how the team worked through it?
McClung: It was interesting to me because for one thing, looking back, and even though the shape was the same we’re building a new vehicle, a new human rated vehicle that hadn’t happened, at least in any great depth in the recent timeframe. And so the supply chain, if you look back to even to Shuttle or Apollo, the supply chain today is much more compressed, just not as many folks to go build that hardware. And so balancing the abilities that are out there, making that all fit, identifying the vendors and aligning them, our prime contractor and then the NASA team to execute tasks ended up being an interesting balance because if you compare back to say Apollo, we are not throwing the same level of resources at it that the Apollo team had. And they weren’t completely unconstrained, but it feels like compared to them, we had different limitations, different box to fit into, if you want to call it that.
Host: And so in terms of the Apollo, since we’re on that topic, I’m curious, we’ve been to the moon and now there’s a plan to go back. Why now? Why is it important today?
McClung: I get back to it’s important for great countries to explore, and to me it’s kind of like the next logical step. And that’s not kind of like my personal kind of hook into it is like that’s what we need to be doing. We need to be pushed. Lower earth orbit and what we’re doing on Space Station, what’s going on right now, it’s fantastic. Next step is let’s get back to the moon and set the stage for who knows what else is going to come. If we’re going to explore, let’s go do that.
Host: One aspect that stands out about Orion to me is its complexity. It has over a dozen pyrotechnic system teams coming together, all contributing to various mechanical and pyrotechnic systems. What specific leadership lessons have you gained from overseeing the cost, the schedule coordination of such a multifaceted aspect of Orion’s development?
McClung: When I think about that from a skillset and a leadership capability, you really have to focus and learn how to, I’ll say, assess how a team’s operating, not just an NASA team, but the global team and situationally sort of figure out, what’s the right way to influence and lead a team? I like to use the term cat herding, right? We are not the military, so it’s not like the general can just decree, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” We have groups of highly intelligent engineers that all have great ideas and so from a leadership perspective, you try to herd all those smart cats in the direction of goodness and making progress. Because it is really easy to bog down into fine-tuning or debating, “Here’s how we did it on Shuttle, I don’t want to do it that way now,” you go through kind of that evolution process and that was one aspect that really struck me that you have to work that out.
And I think over and over, the other thing I’ve learned is that it’s almost like you can never ask the dumb enough question. It can be healthy, right? Go ask the silly question and make sure that the people in the room nod, “Yeah, we are doing the right thing,” because communication across the groups becomes a huge piece of it. My old school days, you plunked us all down in one big bullpen of people working on drafting boards, and so it was easy to yell at each other across the hallway. Making sure you’re asking the right level of question becomes an important part of making sure that those interfaces are captured.
Host: During your assignment as The Orion Program executive at NASA headquarters, that was a one-year assignment-
McClung: That’s correct.
Host: Yeah, you served as a representative to a wide range of stakeholders, both internal and external. Can you tell me a little bit about who those stakeholders were and what challenges you faced in balancing their needs, their diverse needs and expectations from the program?
McClung: So your audience and the stakeholders, it’s a pretty interesting mix. You’ve got plenty of highly experienced technical managers that were probably an engineer, like all of us were at one point, and that have risen into the ranks into technical leadership, but you also have a big mix of both internal and external, like gosh, we talked with the Department of State on export control one time, you’ve got congressional members and congressional staffers that are part of our process, but they’re generally not technical folks.
And so you’ve got a really diverse audience that you have to figure out how to message to and basically fit their background. If you’ve got a technical manager, you’ve got to function much like an engineer because they’re going to want a lot of data, if you’ve got somebody but yet has an influence on your budget, you’ve got to be able to articulate why something is important in a manner they’ll understand. Sometimes people will scoff because they’re not an engineer, put them at a different level. If I got somebody that’s a political science major, that’s just a different skillset. Their brain clicks a little different than my engineering brain does and so they are an important stakeholder. As an engineer, whether you like it or not, they’re an important stakeholder. Why should I have to justify my test program to them? Because they’re your banker.
If the banker calls you and wants to know something before they give you the loan, you need to be able to explain why it’s important. And so it’s an interesting experience to try to sort of craft your message for your different audiences. They don’t have the time for you to explain the nitty-gritty detail of your request, right? You’ve got to be able to bundle it up. I joke almost like you have to think like you’re on social media and brief and talk.
Host: We do anymore, right?
McClung: Brief and talk like you’re on social media until you get the person’s interest and then you lock down and can have a discussion.
Host: Yeah, it’s a blessing and a curse to have all this fast communication available to us that we have now. So in terms of communication, let’s talk about that a little more. As we were just talking about, it’s critical when you’re working with a variety of stakeholders. So in your role as program executive, maybe you’ve encountered some difficult stakeholders, maybe you could give an example of some insights you learned into handling challenging stakeholders and offer some advice to people that might be in other similar roles.
McClung: Most of my experiences anyway were with folks that were, again, technical with their background that have risen to a senior leadership level. So their training is such that they expect a solid technical story. Don’t go in with an incomplete story or try to fake it because especially somebody that’s really skilled, they’ll see right through it, you’re going to get blown out of the water, you’re in trouble. Don’t go there. If you don’t know, you don’t know and you got to say it that way.
And so then if you get back to, “Hey, it is time. I want to hear, what’s the latest?” Be able to cleanly say, “Here’s what I know and what I don’t know,” and put it in the right context because what’ll happen if you turn an engineer loose, even if they’re a manager, if you turn the engineer loose, they’re going to gather more data because that’s what we’ve been trained to do for years, we do it naturally, we just can’t stop ourselves. And once you’ve started the ball rolling, if you turn the senior manager engineer who’s making phone calls and text messages to everybody in the world, you’ve created more trouble than is helpful had you been crystal clear in your messaging upfront. I can remember one example of getting a phone call late in the afternoon, and I knew I didn’t have the full story, and I was driving and I pulled over because as a NASA person, you can’t drive-
Host: You don’t drive and talk, as any person we shouldn’t drive and talk.
McClung: I didn’t have hands free so I pulled over and I said, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you what I know, give me two hours,” I said, “I’ll tell you what I know if you promise not to send anybody an email or send any messages, because you’ll generate work and it’ll cause chaos, please strike me that deal.” And I got the deal. And then two hours later the phone rang.
Host: Okay. Well, you jokingly said you were the pandemic guru. And so I want to ask a question about the pandemic. The pandemic had a huge impact on many of the projects, of course, including Orion. Could you tell us how soon after you completed your role as program executive that the pandemic started affecting The Orion Program? And what were the leadership challenges you faced in addressing COVID while still working on this project?
McClung: Well, all of the agencies had to set up, “Here’s how we’re going to deal with the pandemic.” Came to the center, the center formed a team, and the center reached out to all of the different institutional orgs and the programs and said, “We need a rep for this center team.” I happened to be at my desk and they found me and so I became the COVID guy. I mean, it was high-tech like that, lucky me.
It was an interesting stretch. Big picture, I look back at it, and of course everybody who went through it recognizes, but there was absolutely no playbook, right? We paused everything initially, actually for a short time we paused and then formed a small team that would really do the risk trade to say, “All right, if we’re going to keep Orion work going forward, here’s what’s critical from a schedule and a program perspective and something that we can do that the team can execute in a safe manner.” So we formed a really loosely organized board of three of us that would review those kinds of things and say yes or no, and process them on. Putting that in place allowed us to minimize the impacts. And it was interesting because the other thing I found interesting about it was, of course NASA has 10 centers, and there were 10 different center approaches on how to handle it.
Host: Yeah, I’m sure.
McClung: Even basic stuff like who is allowed to come on site or not come on site would vary across the agency. And so you’d have to work through some of those little hiccups along the way.
Host: Well, it’s nice that you’re able to kind of think back on it and chuckle. It was such a chaotic time.
McClung: It was chaos. There you go. Here’s an opportunity, opportunity is always an interesting word when you hear that.
Host: After, I guess about 16 years dedicated to Orion, you got to witness the successful launch last year in November, followed by its return and splash down in early December, about a year ago now. Can you describe the emotions and reflections you had during those few months?
McClung: The day we splashed out, I was in the murr down the hall from the control room, flight control team with our engineering team. On the day of entry, I was so zoned into looking at data and working that it wasn’t until afterwards that I really felt the emotions hit me. There’s one or two pictures that I’m in, and I can tell we’ve just splashed down, either the main shoots are out or we splashed down and there’s people with happy faces going on. And I’m not there yet, I was still staring at data, so I was still in-
Host: Focus mode?
McClung: Total focus mode at that point in time. But yeah, I mean, emotionally, it’s everything from pride to, gosh, you look at this team in front of you and there’s just this immense sense of pride and teamwork for the team that you’ve worked with. Or it’s almost like watching your kid graduate or something. Once you splash down, you’re like, “”Good.” And then at the same time, that was one test flight, it’s a building block. It was great, boom. But all right, let’s move on and get busy with the next one, right?
Host: You’re going to have many more moments like that.
McClung: That is the idea, right?
McClung: So it needs to not be a one-off, let’s keep going.
Host: You started to work on The Orion Project in 2006, so looking back on that journey, what do you wish you had known? What would you tell yourself 16 years ago if you could?
McClung: Probably two things. NASA’s always had a brand that’s strong, but I don’t think I really appreciated it 16 years ago. As I started doing work outreach with students or just with the public, I was overwhelmed by the level of interest that we get. And so, gosh, I should have figured that out earlier. Young engineers or anybody that’s working needs to realize what an absolutely exciting, cool job we have because the job itself can break you down, it is hard, there are long days, it is a grind.
And that would be the other thing I should have thought about in 2006 was not completely appreciating just how long this was going to run and then doing a better job at that time than I do now in stepping back, taking a break. And then, like I said, if you enjoy it more and you figure out, “Man, people like to hear about us,” go tell your stories to your family, to your kids, to your neighbors. I’ve had neighbors that I’ve taken out to show an ISS pass, and it’s funny to watch.
Host: That’s so cool, yeah.
McClung: Absolutely, so cool.
Host: Even though it’s just a little dot.
McClung: I know. And early on in Orion, we did an outreach event in Dallas when we had a very simple boilerplate of the Orion. It looked like an Orion, but it was a bunch of sheet metal, something we had used for ground purposes and drew big crowds. And one morning, the Sunday morning, this family showed up and they had driven over from Lubbock, they had driven all the way over, spent the night, were going to spend two hours with us talking about Orion and they were driving back home. And I remember when we were talking with them, I was like, “What brings you to Dallas? What are you here for?” And they’re like, “No, we came over to see you.” I’m like, “Really? You drove, I don’t know, 300 miles to talk to some nerdy engineers?”
Host: No, I like that though. That’s great advice to give, like you said, new engineers, to any newbie like myself, new at NASA, to just kind of recognize how exciting it is to be a part of this great place.
McClung: It has an interesting effect of resetting you. It’s healthy to get outside of our little bubble and go talk to somebody that’s not necessarily a space nerd, just go share the story with whoever and see what the rest of the world thinks about us and what they want to know.
Host: So the Artemis II mission, which will be the first crude mission of The Artemis Program, is coming closer. Could you share some key milestones or upcoming events that we can look forward to as we progress toward this mission?
McClung: Yeah. So early in 2024, the Artemis II crew and service module goes into one of our chamber tests here. We’ll actually put the vehicle into our altitude chamber and run a vehicle system test on it. We’ve finished a lot of the testing that leads up to that, so that’s a big test event. Then later in the spring or summer, we’ll finish the remainder of the assembly work and the test work and roll the vehicle, roll it out of the ONC, the building that we test in, the Armstrong ONC, and hand it over to the rest of the KSC team for the next round of processing and getting ready to stack it on top of the SLS hardware. So that’ll be the big visual event come up this summer. And in the meantime, the crew has already started training, and it won’t be long before the flight control team and the engineering team will start running sims and start doing their training for the mission operations, and that’ll start happening all summer as well.
Host: Oh, I’m looking forward to that. I’ll keep an eye on it.
McClung: Oh yeah, it’ll be good.
Host: Well, thank you so much for talking with me, Stu. It’s been a pleasure.
McClung: Oh, my pleasure, thanks.
Host: Thank you for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps. For a transcript of the show and more information on Stuart McClung and these topics, simply head over to our resources page at appel.nasa.gov/podcast. That’s A-P-P-E-L .nasa.gov/podcast. And while you’re there, don’t forget to explore our publications and courses. I’m Teresa Carey, your crew mate in the world of learning. That’s all we have for today. May your steps towards knowledge be both small and mighty.