NASA Commercial Crew Program Chief Engineers Steve Sullivan, Chris Lupo and Deborah Crane discuss the new approach for launching American astronauts to space.
NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission, scheduled for launch to the International Space Station May 27, will usher in a new era in human spaceflight. The launch of NASA Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley is the first from U.S. soil since 2011. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with partners SpaceX and Boeing to develop a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability and achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit destinations, including the space station.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- How government and commercial partners work together to ensure flight safety
- Independent assessment and verification that requirements have been met
- Benefits of technical diversity
Steven Sullivan is the Chief Engineer of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In this role, Sullivan serves as a member of the technical authority guiding the space agency’s direction in developing U.S. crew transportation services to the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit destinations. Prior to this assignment, he was the Chief Engineer of Launch Vehicle Processing in Kennedy’s Engineering Directorate. As the technical authority for space shuttle processing, Sullivan was responsible for all engineering aspects related to the integration and processing of flight hardware elements and ground support equipment. He holds a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Auburn University and a master’s in management from the Florida Institute of Technology.
Chris Lupo is the NASA Commercial Crew Program Spacecraft Chief Engineer at Johnson Space Center in Texas. In this role, Lupo serves as a member of the technical authority guiding the space agency’s direction in developing the spacecraft for U.S. crew transportation services to the International Space Station. His previous positions include SpaceX Spacecraft Lead Engineer, Orion Test and Verification Engineer, Orion Docking Systems Integrator and Space Shuttle Lightweight Search Design Lead. Lupo began his NASA career in 1990 as a NASA Cooperative Education Student. He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Louisiana State University.
Deborah Crane is the NASA Commercial Crew Program Launch Vehicle Chief Engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Alabama. In this role, Crane serves as a member of the technical authority guiding the space agency’s direction in developing launch vehicles for U.S. crew transportation services to the International Space Station. She previously served as Deputy Manager/Chief Engineer for the MSFC Human Exploration Development and Operations Chief Engineer’s Office, supporting International Space Station, Commercial Crew Program, Orion Launch Abort System and Cross Program System Integration. Prior to that role, Crane was Deputy Project Manager for the Orion Launch Abort System. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.
Deborah Crane: We are getting ready to launch astronauts again, so that responsibility is huge.
Steve Sullivan: NASA’s had a high level of insight into every aspect of this design to ensure flight crew safety.
Chris Lupo: I was talking to my grandmother recently and telling her what I do and what we’re doing. And she said, “You’re making history.” And it’s just something we don’t think about. But it’s true.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast that taps into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
The countdown to Launch America is on as preparations continue for the first launch of American astronauts on an American rocket from American soil since 2011. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-2 Mission, scheduled to lift off May 27 for an extended stay at the International Space Station.
Today on the podcast we’re joined by the three NASA chief engineers on the Commercial Crew Program. We’ll discuss key takeaways from the work so far, the technically diverse team that’s making this happen, benefits of shared accountability, and much more. Let’s start with brief introductions.
Sullivan: All right. Good morning, Deana. So this is Steven Sullivan. I’m the Commercial Crew Chief Engineer for the program. Been with NASA for 34 years or so. I’m working with Commercial Crew for the last 10 from the beginning when it was a kind of a concept and we worked our way through the requirements phase all the way up into flight.
Lupo: Hi, and I’m Chris Lupo. I serve as the Commercial Crew Program Spacecraft Chief Engineer. I’m also Sullivan’s deputy. I’ve been at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston for about 30 years now.
Crane: Good morning. I’m Deborah Crane. I’m the Commercial Crew Program Chief Engineer for the Launch Vehicles. And I come from a propulsion engineering background, and I worked shuttle at Kennedy Space Center and I’ve been at Marshall Space Flight Center for 13 years.
Host: Welcome to all of you. We are so glad to have you on the podcast today. With launch fast approaching, what’s getting most of your attention?
Crane: I’ll start off with that one. As we get closer and closer to actually flying, launching crew, and as you integrate hardware in preparation for that flight, you do incur some nonconformances. It’s just a natural part of the whole process, and that requires your assessment for everything that happens to make sure that you are safe to either to use as is or if you need to do something to correct that. And also as we go forward, there are other flights that are going on with vehicles that are similar to ours that are going to be using for the upcoming crew flight.
And so, we do have to assess any anomalies that occur during testing and preparation for that flight or any anomalies that occur during flight. And we have to assess those to make sure that there is no crossover application to our vehicles, and if there is, how do we mitigate that concern? So that is definitely getting our attention right now. And as you kind of get on the fast track towards that launch, things do happen that require your assessment pretty much on a daily basis. Things could occur. So it does keep us busy.
Sullivan: I think another primary thing that we’re doing as we’re closing out towards launch is in the verification space. This is the evidence or substantiation that the design met the requirements that NASA levied on it. We’re completing all the independent assessments and verification, the independent modeling. So we’re closing it out. A single end of verification can be over 100,000 pages of evidence or analysis that backs up a design. A small army of engineers are going through all the verifications that the provider SpaceX has given us and we’re just checking them to make sure that all the evidence is there.
Lupo: And another key factor we have to look at is all the individual risk. We try to close out the risk or eliminate the risk wherever possible, but that’s not always possible. So, there are some risks that the program has to accept, and the engineering team builds a story with flight rationale and brings that forward. And, so we’re spending a lot of time getting those final risks closed out or at least accepted for this flight.
And then another key aspect is to step back and look at all the risks we’ve accepted over the years and what is the aggregate risk? In accepting a risk in one area, did we create a stacked risk in another area? And so it’s important to step back and understand that.
Host: Are roles and responsibilities different with the Commercial Crew Program?
Sullivan: I think the roles and responsibilities are the same on Commercial Crew. It’s just split up a little bit differently than the traditional NASA programs. So, the shared assurance model, there’s a tremendous trust in the partnership with both SpaceX and Boeing. So this design, they truly own this design. This is all their work. We’re really checking and making sure they’re in compliance with what we would expect for our requirements. So there’s a tremendous trust. We’re looking for the same commitment to flight crew safety that would be in a traditional NASA program and making sure that human spaceflight culture is instilled into all aspects of the manufacturing, the processing and the closeout of the design. So, I’d say the roles and responsibilities are very close.
From a NASA perspective, we practice kind of a risk-based approach. I think that’s been traditionally done on most programs, too. So we’re really focusing on those critical items that could cause a loss of a crew or cause a catastrophic failure. So then we’re really digging deep to try to look at the designs and the assessments and try to give the program management the best read on where we think the risk is on the design. So, we put a lot of feedback into design reviews and we try to show areas of noncompliance early so we can try to get the design augmented or corrected in the direction that we want to go.
Crane: And I want to add, too, as a chief engineer, our roles and responsibility really has not changed because we’d still work through technical issues with the engineering teams and we find resolutions or assessment. And as Chris mentioned earlier, the risk and the aggregate risk. So as an engineer we still have to assess the technical risk and what does that mean and how we communicate that to the program and to management.
One of the challenges that we have had that’s a little bit different is that we’ve got existing vehicle, say for the launch vehicles, we’ve got existing designs that we are assessing against NASA design and construction standards. So, that has been a challenge because rather than having those standards that you designed to, we’re seeing how an existing design fits within those preexisting standards. And then our commercial providers also have put together what we’re calling their alternate standards. So they take our requirements and how they propose to meet the intent of those requirements. And then our team has to assess that. So, that’s a little bit different than what we’ve technically done or as far as sequentially done relative to those standards.
And we’ve got a diverse team of technical experts that must assess all of those standards against — you’ve got materials and processes. You’ve got your safety factors. You’ve got your mechanisms, avionics and software. So, you’ve got quite a technical diverse team that has to assess existing designs or even be able to provide some of their influence into what needs to be modified to those designs.
Host: What are your thoughts on the approach that’s been taken with Commercial Crew and how it compares or contrasts with the traditional approach?
Lupo: I guess one of the biggest differences is the small footprint on the NASA side. Traditionally, NASA teams were much larger with an oversight role. And now we have more of an insight role where we’re digging into the partners, getting an understanding of how they’re operating, but not the same type of role that we’ve had in the past. So with that small footprint we’re really relying on that shared assurance model. But what we’ve seen is as the program has progressed is that although that plan to have that initial small footprint was out there, the overall NASA management team had different expectations than that original plan. And that’s been a challenge as we get closer to launch, thinking that we’ve had a similar large footprint trying to dig into these partners that we haven’t had. And overall it has been a challenge to get the management team to understand.
Crane: And in addition to that, the Commercial Crew Program, we use hazard reports. So, as a process to ensure that we’ve got risk mitigation efforts, that they’re implemented and that we’ve got proper controls in place to minimize those hazards that have been identified for all the various systems of our vehicles as well as operation of the vehicles. So that’s a little different approach. We’ve had hazards before, but we use that more of a leverage to ensure we put proper controls and design, maybe modifications in place to address those hazards.
Sullivan: And what I’ve seen with the commercial partners, they both have very unique ways to approach the design development. So, they challenged the requirements a little bit more. They want to understand the basis where they were derived and why they’re levied on them. And so there’s a little bit of more challenging on the requirements side. They embrace new technology or new nontraditional approaches in their designs across the board. And that’s actually forced kind of for NASA to pull in experts from across the agency and in the different NASA centers. So, I think there’s more utilization of what we call the NASA Engineering Safety Center, the NESC. So, it’s a group of technical fellows that are discipline experts and it’s really forced us to do actually additional testing or understanding of the physics that’s going on or the chemistry of a new approach or maybe a methodology that the partner’s using. So, a lot of places are using kind of nontraditional spaceflight things that we haven’t had experience with.
So, at the end of the day, I think it ends up being the traditional approach. So, I think all that evidence that we’re talking at the beginning on verifications, those hundreds and thousands of pages of substantiation ends up getting you there to the design closeout, and then I think ensuring that the design is done correct.
Host: What are some of the key lessons learned so far?
Sullivan: Key lessons learned. There’s so many. I think you could spend hours on key lessons learned. So, if I was giving advice to someone kind of following on in a similar type of program, levying the NASA standards in the beginning, Headquarters levied all the NASA standards in what they call “meets the intent.” So, traditionally we would go with that meets standard like have to meet a specific NASA standard. But “meets the intent” causes you to have a dialogue with the provider early on to try to figure out expectations. So there’s been cases where there’s things in our standards or guidelines that are challenged, and they’re rightly challenged. Some of them have been actually found to be an error. So things that were done in the 70s or testing that was done in the 70s or 80s and now you’re looking back and then some things were actually done wrong. So, getting those NASA standards, meets the intent, and getting that dialogue across the design team is super important.
I think the second thing early on in the design phase is getting what we call seasoned engineers. These are NASA engineers that have a lot of experience in hands-on type of design. They’re very knowledgeable of their discipline. They do their own analysis and work and they can have a dialogue that’s based in data, in fact on the design, maybe the shortcomings or other ways of doing the design. So, getting those seasoned engineers into the partner, getting them as close as you can to the responsible engineer doing the design has big benefit at the end.
And I think probably the third biggest lesson learned is don’t design something that you can’t analyze. There’s a lot of ways to do many of the approaches in the spaceflight-type designs. But if you don’t really have a way of analyzing, it really forces you into a lot of empirical testing. So, making sure that you look at how you’re going to close out and qualify that design, what type of analysis needs to be put into it. And if you can’t answer a lot of the basic questions at the beginning, it’s going to force you into a very expensive lengthy test program to prove out that design.
Lupo: Yeah, I think Steve hit a lot of the key points there, especially with requirements and verification development. It’s really key to understand as early as you can if there’s any disconnects in the partner’s interpretation of the requirements. We did spend a lot of time trying to get that clear up front, but we found as the designs matured that how we thought they were going to apply the requirements and how the requirements actually got implemented weren’t always the same. And getting those disconnects resolved later resulted in challenges. And so if you can try and make sure that’s covered and especially the verification aspects of it early, that’ll really help.
Another key thing to think about is with the new partners we are encouraging them to expand the way we’re doing business, change the way we’re doing business. And so there are some things that are unique to human spaceflight and it’s important to pay attention to how that new technology is being used or even if it’s an existing system design-type technology that maybe is being used different than it was in the past, like higher operating pressures or ramp rates than previous experience. Those are key areas to pay attention to make sure that you really understand, really qualify to that. And then as the systems mature, another thing to pay attention to is how the vehicle’s operated versus maybe how it was qualified to make sure that we’re not getting outside of those qual limits.
Crane: And I think Steve and Chris have touched on a lot of what I’m going to bring up, but as far as how NASA, how we assess adaptive designs in vehicles versus accepting design as is, an already established design. And yet as already mentioned, we’ve got a small team and a lot of our experts in different areas are working both vehicles. So I think as far as lessons learned and as far as timelines coming up too as we’re getting ready for a launch that we’ve got a small team that’s working very hard, they’re very dedicated, but they’re working on both vehicles somewhat in a way simultaneously. So we’ve got to be cognizant of that as we go forward as a lesson learned to make sure that we do have a team that is aligned with the agency’s goals and also that’s aligned technically and also that we’ve got allocation and how we utilize their efforts strategically as we go forward.
Host: Have you felt a different sense of responsibility working with this new model for human spaceflight?
Lupo: I’d say to some extent, I feel like we have more responsibility because we have such a smaller team. So, more people have to take more on their shoulders, I guess is a good way to say it.
Crane: I have to agree with Chris. I think it’s a greater responsibility, again, working two different commercial partners simultaneously with different designs with a small team and also the fact that we are getting ready to launch astronauts again, so that responsibility is huge. And it’s been a long time coming that we have this opportunity to do so. So, I do think that we have a greater responsibility right now, not only from a NASA agency perspective, but from the American public perspective.
Lupo: Another unique aspect of the commercial partnership is that unlike previous designs where NASA owned the vehicle, the partners own the vehicle. And so we have to be aware of the proprietary nature of these commercial designs and that that does put more challenges on the team, both in collaboration and how we share the data. That has been something that we’ve had to learn to deal with.
Host: Are there benefits of shared accountability that we haven’t highlighted?
Sullivan: I think shared accountability, it kind of gives you the opportunity, kind of share the culture that NASA has been really traditionally been doing since the Mercury / Apollo / shuttle. So it allows you to kind of spread that culture of digging deep on the design to understanding your limits and your qualifications and all the physics that are going on through your design. So, I think it allows to kind of spread that culture a little deeper or across the commercial sector. So I think the shared accountability model has worked. I think both partners have full accountability and responsibility for their designs, and then NASA’s had a high level of insight into every aspect of this design to ensure flight crew safety.
Crane: I think there has been a cultural shift within NASA, too, to adopt this approach. I think we found ways to make it efficient. Also I think it’s good to question the requirements and to really assess their applicability and also to be able to try to identify efficiencies in our approach and develop maybe new methods to our approach and strategies and to be able to accommodate working with a smaller team and still try to make that progress. So definitely I think there have been benefits to this. And I know other programs are looking at us as far as, OK, what did you do, how did you accomplish this, and what lessons have you learned from this approach that we can apply in the future?
Lupo: I also think it’s helped us maybe break down some of the walls within NASA. So as a young engineer growing up in the engineering organization, I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the operations teams and the S&MA teams. I feel like in this shared accountability approach, we’ve become this melded team that you have to work together. We’re counting on each other to do our part together because we don’t have the people to do it by ourselves.
Host: Let’s talk more about the team. Chris, how would you describe the team and the dynamics of the Commercial Crew Program?
Lupo: What I like to tell people is I get to work with world experts every day. We’re really working with a great team. I’ve always been impressed with NASA and the partners, how smart the team is. It’s incredible the amount of expertise that is out there that we’re able to draw on. And I’m fortunate every day to work with the team. They’ve been so diligent and tracking down all the issues and burning down risk, and the dedication they’ve had to get us to where we are today is incredible.
Crane: I have to add to what Chris did say about the dedicated team. And they are very excited, both the NASA team and our commercial partners. You can feel that excitement that they are getting ready to do something new within the space program. So it’s a great environment to be working in. And I’ve had some of my team members say this is the best team that I’ve ever worked for because of that excitement and because of what they’re looking forward to. The team works great together, and we have seen how our teams have had direct influences on each other in a positive way. So, it’s an awesome environment to be working in and it’s a great team to be working with.
Host: Steve, your thoughts on working with this team?
Sullivan: With both the partner and the NASA teams, you have a very dedicated workforce that works many late hours going through the designs and trying to influence kind of the outcome and then also going into substantiate and getting the right evidence for closure of these designs so we can have a safe flight for the crew coming up. So, I think we do have a world-class team, so I really appreciate all the hard work of the NASA teams. It’s spread across probably four or five centers and really appreciate all the hours that have been put into Commercial Crew.
Host: And this team has faced some challenges along the way, some external challenges, right?
Lupo: Yeah, we’ve actually weathered two different hurricanes. I think it’s three now with a major flood in Houston. So, we’ve had cases where one center was shut down and the other center was still operating. We’ve had at least two government shutdowns and now the COVID isolation. So it’s been incredible how the team has been able to weather all that.
Crane: And bring in the fact too that we are multicenter. You’ve got us three on this podcast and we’re from three different centers. So how we integrate the communication amongst all that has been a challenge. But we’ve also been able to adapt to that. So, I think that says a lot to the determination of the team and the program to make all this work, and also the creativity, how we address these challenges and how we can still work through all these.
Lupo: It’s also been great getting a chance to know the first crew. They’re not just anonymous astronauts. They’re not just coworkers. They’re often friends. Some of the first crew is in my scout troop. So it’s nice to have that connection.
Crane: And if I could add, too, the crew, the first crew, Bob and Doug, they’ve been at the commercial providers for meetings. They’ve visited the centers. So there’s more of a personal connection to the crew and the crew getting to know the team, the team getting to know the crew. So, I think when you go back to the responsibility side of it, we know the people that we’re going to be launching more on a personal basis, have a beer with them or go out and have a celebration with them. So, there’s lots of opportunities to interact directly with the astronaut crew.
Host: Has technical diversity been a difference maker?
Sullivan: Yeah, technical diversity. We kind of throw that term around a little bit. Especially in the beginning of Commercial Crew, we were a very small team of folks trying to get into the designs, work with both partners and understanding which way they’re going to go. So, you had to go across the center and grab wherever you could get the resource, and you would pick the best person for the job that would represent NASA or that discipline to the partner. So again, you have to kind of earn your way a little bit in on your technical capability. You have to show that the experience and the designs and you can come in with data and numbers, an analysis approach. So you have to try to convince them. But that technical diversity, that willingness to go across the centers to go pull in experts.
It could be a spacecraft designer out at Marshall for propulsion helping the JSC guys on the spacecraft side. It could come in from different angles. It could be bringing in the NESC folks in, too, there with the tech disciplines, but having that technical diversity, that ability to go across the centers and get the right technical expert at the right time.
The other part is when you have a problem and you bring a diverse group of folks, they have different backgrounds. Perhaps have been launching expendable rockets for 30 years or perhaps have been doing ground systems. But when you bring them together and you start talking that technical problem that you’re dealing with it, you get a lot more solutions, you get a lot more diverse approaches on how you might tackle that problem. So, I think technical diversity has been super key to Commercial Crew success on the NASA team and trying to work your way through the problems.
Crane: I agree with Steve, and also to add, technical diversity — even within NASA you’ve got your NASA civil servants and your contractors that have worked many different programs, scientific programs, human-rated programs. So to bring their perspectives I think is key to solving some of these technical issues that we are dealing with. And not only NASA, but within our commercial providers as well. They have different approaches to technical solutions. So I think it’s healthy to be able to try to solve a problem. And you bring in different approaches and you learn from each other and you assess those approaches and you come to I think a better solution in the long run.
So, definitely, technical diversity is key and different perspectives, different backgrounds, different strategies and approaches to an issue I think is something that you want to encourage in any program to be able to look at other options of how you can approach a solution.
Host: How have the Commercial Crew partners transformed the way we do business?
Crane: From the Commercial Crew provider’s perspective, they own their vehicles and we have input into their design and their operations. So, it’s a little different than NASA owning, having a contract to own the vehicles. So, we work more in a collaborative environment and we look more at how we can be efficient with the people that we have to support the Commercial Crew providers.
Sullivan: I agree with Deborah. So, I think at this point right now it feels like a traditional NASA design closeout. We’re really going through hours and hours of verifications, reviews of analysis. We’re closing out our independent assessments and our independent modeling that was done. And so right now it’s feeling very traditional, so we’re checking our procedures, we’re going down our fault detection, isolation, recovery aspects of the design. So, at this point it’s feeling like a traditional NASA design.
Crane: I want to add something to Steve’s, because ultimately we are looking at safety and that’s the ultimate goal from both the NASA and the commercial providers is we want to ensure their vehicles are safe, launch vehicles and spacecrafts, so that we can transport crew.
Host: What would you say is the biggest takeaway from the work so far?
Sullivan: I would say the biggest takeaway from the work so far is both the SpaceX team and the NASA team. They’re very excited to launch crew from U.S. soil with an American spacecraft. I think we can definitely see the passion on both sides for human spaceflight and I see a strong commitment to flight crew safety and ensuring that Doug and Bob get a great ride going up and down to ISS.
Crane: To add onto that too, the pride, the entire team, the NASA and the commercial provider, we’re all very proud to be working this program and to be looking towards the goals of NASA and the United States to be able to launch astronauts again. So everybody’s just very proud. I’m very proud to be working with this very dedicated and very talented team on the NASA side and the commercial provider.
Lupo: I was talking to my grandmother recently and telling her what I do and what we’re doing. And she said, “You’re making history.” And it’s just something we don’t think about. But it’s true.
Sullivan: And I think a big takeaway is these two partners, both SpaceX and Boeing, they are having the first commercial sector human-rated spacecraft launch vehicle design. So this is new territory. Hopefully it will enable a little bit more growth in the market and maybe human spaceflight might branch out beyond the government. So, we’re very hopeful that this commercial sector will start taking off.
Host: Well, this has been so much fun and so interesting. Thank you to all three of you for joining us today on the podcast.
Crane: Thank you, Deana.
Sullivan: Yeah, thank you, Deana.
Lupo: Yeah, it’s always great to step back and think about the cool stuff we’re doing.
Host: You can learn more about the “cool stuff” NASA and its commercial partners are doing via links on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast. Steve, Chris and Deborah’s bios and a show transcript are also available on the site.
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