Phil McAlister, Acting Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
- Saturday, 01 October 2011
NTB: Are there any other capabilities that you envision?
McAlister: Right now, those are the two areas that we’re most focused on at NASA: commercial crew and cargo. I do envision future initiatives at some point down the road, but you need a fairly unique set of circumstances, in my opinion, to take on these projects in a commercial nature, under a commercial development initiative.
First, you definitely need the prospects for other customers. If NASA were the only customer, I would not be a proponent of doing these systems commercially. I don’t believe you should be pushing the state of the art, needing a lot of breakthroughs to bring these systems to market.
You also need a fairly strong and robust industrial base. I think we have that in certain areas. And you need to be doing a mission that is fairly straightforward and simple. So you put all those together, and I think right now the conditions exist for crew and cargo to lower orbit being done under this commercial development initiative. I don’t think there are others right now today that we can say have that same set of ingredients, but soon I think there will be a couple other areas that would be right for that kind of development.
NTB: What are your biggest challenges in getting these projects off the ground?
McAlister: There are significant challenges. We’re really changing the paradigm for human spaceflight development, and that is a significant challenge for NASA, the US aerospace industry, and the nation as a whole. I think there are some technical challenges. There are certainly some financial challenges and some cultural challenges to implementing this kind of a change in the human spaceflight and the cargo area as well. So success is not guaranteed, just like success can’t be guaranteed for our more traditional programs, but I do think, given appropriate funding and progress on the part of our industry partners we can see hopefully by the end of this year, maybe early next year, cargo delivery to the International Space Station, and by the middle part of the decade, I’m hopeful that we can have at least one US commercial crew transportation system.
NTB: You mentioned technical obstacles. Can you take us through some of those?
McAlister: Again, there’s no real, specific technology that is needed for this commercial crew and cargo programs to be successful. We just need good sound engineering focusing on our traditional processes that have been demonstrated many times before. There is going to be technology development for sure, and all of our partners are developing new systems, and we hope to see a lot of rewards from that and maybe some spillover into some other spacecraft development efforts.
NTB: What are the cultural challenges?
McAlister: To date, every NASA human spaceflight initiative has been done on a cost-plus arrangement, where NASA owns the design, and we make every decision on the design aspects. We signed off on every piece of paper, and the requirements that we placed on industry to meet, were very detailed, and sometimes they numbered in the thousands.
In this case, we really want private industry to own and operate these systems. They will own the intellectual property, they will own the design, and they will make decisions on how to meet NASA’s requirements. What we want is still going to be NASA’s purview, and we hope to get a very good set of requirements out on the street for industry to review by the end of this year. We’re still going to establish what we want, but we’re no longer going to be saying how we want it done. We really want the innovation and new ideas to come from traditional and non-traditional aerospace companies; that represents a big change for NASA, and one that I think we successfully accomplished in the cargo area. We’re trying to leverage that experience and apply it in the commercial crew area as well.
NTB: How did your career path lead to your job as acting director?
McAlister: I joined NASA about 5 years ago. Administrator Mike Griffin hired me to advise him on commercial spaceflight initiatives. I believe that Mike’s vision was to enhance and grow that area, and he was the one who started the Commercial Cargo program. While I’ve been here at NASA for almost six years now, I’ve always been involved in analyzing and studying commercial initiatives that NASA could undertake, and I’ve reviewed those commercial cargo programs several times within that six years.
When the FY-11 budget came out, and Commercial Crew was in there, I transferred over to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, and I’ve been advising the associate administrator Doug Cook ever since. I started out on a launch vehicle development program called the Advanced Launch System, working as an engineer for the Department of Defense. I really became grounded in the technology and the systems required to do spacecraft development. Then, I worked on the International Space Station for many years, understanding that program and its culture and requirements, and that is very much part of the commercial cargo and crew programs, because the NASA customer is the International Space Station.
In the latter part of my career, really focusing on the commercial space industry, I was a consultant to companies such as Intelsat and Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), helping them define their markets, work their business plans, and come up with financing. If you put those three experiences together—spacecraft development, International Space Station, and commercial space—I kind of have a tailor-made background for this commercial crew and cargo initiative.
NTB: What is the most satisfying part of your current role?
McAlister: I think the most satisfying part of me is that we’re working on the next-generation system that‘s going to end the gap for human access to space. When the space shuttle comes to a real stop, it’s going to be a very sobering and somber experience for all of us. Yet we can look to the future for commercial cargo and say the next US-flag vehicle is going to come from this program, given appropriate funding and technical progress. And that makes me real excited for the future.
I am sad about the shuttle program coming to an end. It’s been an amazing program, but at the same time, we do need to move on, and I think there are some real innovation and exciting aspects to Commercial Crew that we’re going to experience very soon. Just in this next year, our CCDev partners have some very exciting milestones, tests, and demonstrations that are on the books, and I think after that, over the next years, we’re going to see a lot of activity because we’re going to have multiple partners working different systems, trying to solve these problems in different, innovative ways. At the same time, NASA is going to be working on our beyond-lower-orbit exploration system, a multipurpose crew vehicle, and the space launch system. Those are much more difficult initiatives, they have much more stringent requirements, and more challenging environments that they need to operate on.
To download this interview as a podcast, click here.