World’s Largest Rocket: The U.S. is Returning to Deep Space

Huntsville-born Virginia Barnes is head of the team that is building the world’s largest rocket, one expected to launch astronauts to Mars in about 11 years. She is vice-president and program manager of the Boeing Space Launch System — the big rocket system that’s the core of the U.S. manned space program.

The SLS replaced NASA’s Constellation program after the Obama administration ditched Constellation in 2011. Less costly than Constellation, which called for all new engineering of systems, SLS uses legacy engines from previous NASA programs to achieve the same ambitious goals of a return to the moon in 2018 and a Mars landing in 2025.

Critics say NASA’s SLS design meets budget constraints by cobbling together systems whose integration is uncertain. Barnes has another view.

In July, Boeing successfully passed a review of the parts that it will be integrating — the first deep space critical design review (CDR) since Saturn V in 1961, when Barnes was in elementary school in Scottsboro. Barnes graduated from the University of Alabama in Huntsville with a degree in accounting and earned a master’s degree in business at Vanderbilt University. She was put in charge of Boeing’s SLS program in May 2013. Before that she was president and CEO of United Space Alliance, the LLC owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin that was NASA’s primary contractor for space shuttle missions.

Boeing has been working on contract for the core stage for three years, and on July 1, we completed the critical design review, which is part of the development phase and continues to mature the design. We had 1, 000 people — the best from government and industry — conducting the review, and there is unanimous approval to proceed from development to production.

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We’re on contract through 2021. The contract supports two missions, the first EM (Exploration Mission 1, orbiting the moon without a crew) in 2017 and the EM2 in 2021 (manned flight to moon orbit). Of the total of about 1, 500 working on the contract, about 800 to 900 people are in Huntsville.

Most of the design work is done in Huntsville, the program headquarters, which will be contracting program integration. We have tapped into design expertise in the company from around the country. A small part of the team is in Houston, also a team doing analysis work at the Kennedy Space Center, which will help with the launch operation requirements and execution. We have 300 workers at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, and a small team in Cleveland working with thermal protection systems and actuators. 

There’s a reality in government contracting that customers are requiring more for less, across the boards, in all contracts, and space is no exception to that. In this budget environment, you have a flat budget profile, and it requires that things be done differently. NASA was smart to repurpose existing hardware and use modern manufacturing techniques for proven subsystems to make it more affordable. And we’ve done some smart things up front by focusing on affordability. 

NASA was smart to include legacy hardware and components where it made sense to mitigate the cost of developing systems, where they have proven capacity. Boosters from the space shuttle and a core of five RS25 engines (modified space shuttle main engines), are proven hardware that mitigate the cost. The core stage CDR really does validate that our design does what we expect it to do.

NASA will have their critical design review next summer, and that will validate that all the elements will work together. That takes us from the CDR we just completed on the elements to the CDR of the rocket that includes the elements plus the integration.

It’s easy to talk about rocketry on paper, but we have the actual flight hardware at the plant in Michoud, Louisiana. That’s where we built the Saturn V and the external tanks for the space shuttle program, and that factory came back to life to build and integrate the elements of the core stage SLS.

The ICOS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) is being procured from United Launch Alliance, a modified Delta IV upper stage, which has flown a lot of times and is proven. We’re using it as the upper stage for the first flight.

That launch has been scheduled for 2017. Yesterday (August 27) in its Key Decision Point C, NASA announced a commitment to Congress that — with all of their formulas and budget risks incorporated into a statistical model — committed the agency to a baseline launch date in 2018, although we will continue to work to achieve the more aggressive schedule (2017).

There are probably dozens of other jobs I do that are more important than accounting, but certainly it’s a big part of my job, which focuses on cost and scheduling and technological viability. It’s balance of all of those things — having to keep close tabs. We predict and plan and manage, and we perform to our plans. 

In an aerospace company, you like to begin in the engineering disciplines and progress to program manager, particularly with development programs. I did work not only in accounting and finance but also scheduling business operations, which led to a subcontract management role for the International Space Station. I was running the subcontracts for the FCB (Functional Cargo Block), the first element of the International Space Station, which the Russians built and the Americans paid for. That was our first contract with the Russians; we were pioneering a relationship with the Russians. Part of it was that it led to the standing up of the (Boeing) Moscow Design Center. We tapped into the expertise of the Russians and applied that to the design requirements in the commercial airplane business. What I was doing was working with NASA and the Khrunichev Space Center to design, develop and deliver the FCB. 

In the job I have today, I’m directly responsible for all of the pieces of the Core Stage, Upper Stage and Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, and working with the customer integrating all of the elements.

Accounting has provided an incredible foundation for all the jobs I’ve done over my 33 years with Boeing. I’ve learned to surround myself with experts.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

Interview by Chris McFadyen

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