Returning the crew home safely—the most critical element of human space
As NASA prepares to send astronauts deeper into space than
ever before with the Artemis program, Mark Kirasich leads a global effort to develop
the Orion spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the lunar Gateway around the
Moon and, above all, return them safely to Earth.
Kirasich manages the Orion program at NASA’s Johnson Space
Center, but the project has united every NASA center, as well as international
and contractor partners, to prepare for daring missions to the Moon and on to
Mars. Kirasich makes a point to meet the team members working at all levels of
development for the Orion program, from the project designers to manufacturers.
Given the geographic and cultural diversity of the program, he ensures the
teams understand how their work relates to the safety of the crew and success
of these missions.
“There is an Orion
saying that ‘truth is found at the factory floor,’” Kirasich said. “From my office at
Johnson, I can’t fully understand the challenges our team faces on the
production line, so we travel across the world to have meaningful conversations
about what we can do improve work on the front lines and educate the team about
how important their contributions are.”
One of the goals of informing the team about the role they
play in mission success is ensuring they are always focused on doing the job
right, whether they are building a simple washer and bolt or the aluminum walls
of the spacecraft itself.
While the team building the spacecraft is a critical
component for success, the most important component for Orion might be the
international partnership forged with ESA (European Space Agency). Orion is the
first NASA spacecraft to put an international partner in its critical path. ESA
contributed the European Service Module, the powerhouse of the Orion spacecraft
that provides in-space maneuvering capability, power and other commodities
necessary for life support.
NASA’s international partnership with ESA underscores Johnson’s
devotion to the principles of diversity and inclusion—tools that Kirasich
learned to leverage early in his career as the liaison for the first docking of
the space shuttle to the Russian Space Station Mir, and continues to leverage
“ESA has a unique culture with their own standards and
procedures,” Kirasich said. “Blending our two agencies with our different
approaches has made us both stronger and more efficient. You learn that you can
have a different answer for the same problem; it’s diversity at the highest
While the program benefits from global collaboration, Kirasich
is keenly aware of the contributions from the Johnson Space Center. . He sees direct benefits from NASA’s renewed
goal of exploration and the mission tempo resulting from the center vision of
Dare. Unite. Explore.
“The vision has energized us to look for more efficient ways
of doing our jobs,” Kirasich said. “It has allowed us, as a program, to ask
questions, and the supporting directorates at Johnson and industry partners respond
with new and different ideas. We have new capabilities, new materials and new
missions; you can’t always just follow the cookbook.”
The fast-paced mission tempo helped Orion move forward by balancing
risk with decision velocity to take a risk-based approach, rather than
compliance-oriented, for design and development. This shift enabled the team to
complete projects by critically assessing and mitigating potential issues and reducing
mandatory inspection points to take place only at critical steps.
A success story resulting from this approach was conquering
the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test that proved the reliability of Orion’s Launch
Abort System. Instead of flying a production spacecraft during the test, AA-2
flew a simplified boilerplate model, lowering cost and providing test data
nearly a year earlier than would have otherwise been possible. That data is now
being used to prepare for crewed missions of Orion that will take place on
Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 in the coming years.
Outside of preparing for NASA’s lunar missions, the research
and development that went into creating Orion has added to the success of
NASA’s commercial partners. Commercial companies can request data and test
results from NASA that provide a foundation to develop new technology more
quickly and affordably, increasing the number of potential commercial partnerships
An important example of commercial collaboration was when NASA
shared insights from Orion’s parachute development program with SpaceX and
Boeing to use for Commercial Crew Program spacecraft. The data collected
allowed the partners to similarly develop parachute systems that will safely
return astronauts home from the space station.
“As a program, we push the state of the art in human
spaceflight and help enable commercial success,” Kirasich said. “By undergoing
the development process, we gained not only the engineering expertise, but also
the tooling, designs, manufacturing process and the industrial base. Now we can
take those lessons forward to complete bold missions and improve other areas of
human life as well.”
Kirasich predicts one of the potential benefits of
developing Orion will be inspiring the next generation of engineers to safely
and successfully take NASA to the Moon and on to Mars.
“Artemis is going to inspire kids everywhere to work hard
and study math or science, then go out and advance humanity to the next level,”
Kirasich said. “Especially when we see the first woman step out on the Moon,
that’s going to inspire a lot of young women to know they can do anything.
That’s the impact exploration has on society.”
These daring missions are getting closer every day. Vice
President Mike Pence announced on July 20 that the Artemis 1 crew capsule is
complete and preparing for launch, and the vehicles for Artemis 2 and Artemis 3
Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Mark Kirasich is program manager for NASA's Orion Program at Johnson Space Center.This story is part ten of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find previous stories on the directors website.
Mark Kirasich, program manager for NASA's Orion Program at Johnson Space Center.