Robert W. Moorehead served as NASA’s chief investigator for the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986 and managed the Space Station Freedom program from 1989 to 1993. He has also held the title of NASA’s Chief Engineer, developing system architectures for the Space Shuttle’s replacement. He is currently Director of Space Flight Systems at the John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
NASA Tech Briefs: What is the primary function of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at Glenn Research Center?
Robert W. Moorehead: The Space Flight Systems Directorate has responsibility to manage, conceptualize, develop, and integrate flight and ground systems in support of NASA's exploration and science objectives. Some of the larger efforts include responsibility for managing the work to build the Ares I Orion service module. We’re also building — right here at NASA Glenn — the Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator in compliance with spaceflight hardware specifications. In addition, we support the Space Shuttle Program, as well as subsystem management and sustaining engineering for tasks in support of the International Space Station.
NTB: From 1989 to 1993, you served as program manager for the Space Station Freedom. Tell us about that project and your involvement with it.
Moorehead: As the Program Manager, I worked in conceptualizing and development of the space and ground portions of the Space Station Freedom. I led efforts where we looked at designs that had worked in the past and incorporated newer methods of generating power. I also wrote a book called “Shuttle Avionics” with John Hanaway that resulted largely from my Space Station management days.
NTB: By 1993 it must have been obvious that that project was never going to come to fruition. How frustrating was that for you?
Moorehead: We were working on schedule for completion by the year 2000 and hoping that the administrator was enlightened to that fact. This was frustrating because our team was on schedule and on cost for completion by 2000, but the Administrator didn’t see it that way.
NTB: In 1986 you served as chief investigator for the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. How difficult was that assignment, and what did you learn from it?
Moorehead: For almost 3 years our team spent 10-12 hour days analyzing the performance of all the Space Shuttle orbiter systems to find the anomaly. All Level II personnel at Johnson Space Center worked on different aspects of the Shuttle’s performance. I led the Engineering team which, as I recall, numbered 60-70 individuals. This was no more or less difficult than any other assignment I’ve undertaken at NASA. What we learned centered on the restructuring and streamlining of the Shuttle management organization, as well as non-managerial safety enhancements, Shuttle crew escape systems, and landing improvements.
NTB: Following your stint as chief investigator, you spent 3 years managing the system engineering and integration effort to get the Space Shuttle back into space. Reportedly your team identified more than 500 hardware and software updates that had to be made. Tell us about that project and the kind of pressure you were under.
Moorehead: We did make about 500 hardware and software updates seeing important failure issues in the Shuttle program. This involved no more or less pressure than is normally felt in an engineering environment. One of the changes resulting from our investigation included adding drogue chutes to the shuttle to slow it down without additional wear on the brakes. Also, improvements were made to the digital auto pilot that flies the Shuttle, making its operations more efficient in orbit as a result of our investigation.
NTB: You retired from NASA in 1994 and co-founded a company called Saldana & Associates, which you ran for 12 years. What did that company do?
Moorehead: The company did overall systems engineering work, software cost work, and work on systems for Blackhawk Management Company – they had a contract with NASA JSC.
NTB: In 2007 you decided to come out of retirement and return to NASA as director of Glenn’s Space Flight Systems Directorate. Why?
Moorehead: I was offered an opportunity to work on programs I enjoyed the most, those relating to space flight.
NTB: Had much changed technologically in the time you were away?
Moorehead: While we don’t deal with technology, rather with applied systems, I found that many technologies developed at Glenn never found their way to their application.
NTB: What challenges do you see facing NASA in the years to come?
Moorehead: Leadership. We will need strong leadership at NASA that can take us back to the Moon and on to Mars. We all need to follow the leadership of the current Administrator, Mike Griffin, who has been largely responsible for implementing goals set by the President’s Vision for Space Exploration. Having specific goals to work toward, namely getting back to the moon, has helped us all have the desire to take on the challenges we face in the world of space flight.
NTB: Looking back over your long and distinguished career at NASA, what gives you the most satisfaction?
Moorehead: My work on Apollo communications and Shuttle avionics, including software.