Insider Interview: From Shuttle to Shuttle an interview with Steve Lindsey – Part 1
Steve Lindsey has a lot of experience when it comes to winged spacecraft, especially those of the crewed variety. Lindsey was accepted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on Saturday, May 30, along with John Grunsfeld, Kent Rominger, and Rhea Seddon. Wanting to find out more about the highly experienced astronaut’s take on the new space era and what it could mean in terms of commercial space operations, SpaceFlight Insider asked to speak with him on the subject. He agreed. The five-time space shuttle veteran discussed what it was like to work on not one, but two programs that involved a crew-rated, winged spacecraft – one public and the other private.
Lindsey was a NASA astronaut who flew on shuttle missions STS-87, STS-94, STS-104, STS-121, and STS-133 on the orbiters Columbia, Atlantis, and Discovery. After the close of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, Lindsey left NASA to take up a position with Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Explorations Systems.
In his current role, he is responsible for the design, development, testing, and operational employment of the Dream Chaser spacecraft – both the potential crewed and cargo varieties. Lindsey touched on his diverse array of experiences to detail how he became involved in efforts to provide a greater array of spacecraft to several space agencies.
SpaceFlight Insider: First off, Steve, thank you for chatting with us today.
Lindsey: “No problem whatsoever.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What was it like to transfer from NASA, a government agency, to a private company like Sierra Nevada Corporation?
Lindsey: “It was very interesting. I had spent my entire career working for the government, really, because I was in the Air Force before I was in NASA, so I transferred out of the military into the civilian world with NASA, and in 2011, I transitioned into the private sector.
“You know, one of the reasons that I did so was I saw that the Constellation Program was cancelled, and I was very concerned at the time with the Shuttle Program going away that the U.S. may not have any way to get U.S. astronauts using U.S. vehicles up to the International Space Station or anything beyond the space station. Around this time, Sierra Nevada came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have this really cool design.'”
SpaceFlight Insider: What happened after you went to Sierra Nevada? What was some of the first things that you did while working there?
Lindsey: “I went out and interviewed with them and one of the first things that I did was I took their design and pulled it apart, as I wanted to find out what was wrong. What was wrong with it? When I couldn’t find anything that was wrong, I realized that this was a good design that will work. That was when I made the decision to jump to the private sector.
“I saw Sierra Nevada as the company that could best [keep] human spaceflight alive for our country – that’s honestly why I did it.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Was there anything else that compelled you make the move to the private sector?
Lindsey: “I will admit that there is a personal side of me, that, having never worked in the private sector, I always wanted to work in the private sector, it was something that, because I had never experienced it before, I understood the government side very well, but I didn’t understand the private industry side very well – and that was a part of my decision-making process.
“The actual transition was not that difficult. Private industry means that you have to work to stay in business, you’re paying a lot more attention to that. Your budgets are typically a lot more restrictive in the private sector than they are in the government sector. Some might argue that the opposite is true – but it really isn’t. You have to stay viable as a business.
“So, I learned a lot about the business aspects and what’s important and how to think out in the future. You know, with businesses you are typically thinking a lot further into the future – you have to plan further out in terms of what you’re doing.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What about the people?
Lindsey: “You mean at NASA?”
SpaceFlight Insider: Both NASA and SNC – was there a notable change between the two?
Lindsey: “As far as the people go, I just transitioned from NASA, which was a great team I was working on, to Sierra Nevada team, which is also a great team. That part of it, jumping into a leadership position and doing those sort of things and the technical aspect of what we do, was very similar. So, I didn’t find the transition to be particularly difficult.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Are you confident in the Dream Chaser concept?
Lindsey: “I really think that lifting bodies are the future of spaceflight. Certainly in low-Earth orbit because you can land anywhere on the world on a runway.”
SpaceFlight Insider: You worked on two-winged spacecraft, two orbiters. How similar are the two programs? The NewSpace movement, this private, commercial, whatever folks choose to call it at any one given point of time, they are doing things their own way. You said that it wasn’t that difficult to move to the private sector. How similar is the development and processing of those two spacecraft?
Lindsey: “One of the unique perspectives that I got during all of the years that I worked on the Space Shuttle Program is that I really understood that program as well as the vehicle. I learned a lot during that program about what really works, what works well. I also learned on that program, I believe, about what doesn’t work well.
“So, by coming over here (to SNC) I’m able to use the things that worked very well on the Shuttle Program and transition those lessons across. For those things that I was aware of that didn’t work very well, I tried to ensure that we didn’t repeat those mistakes.
“The other really big difference is in the commercial world and certainly in the Commercial Crew Program and the Cargo Program (NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services) do it a lot less expensively than the Shuttle Program and for what typical government programs cost.
“To do that you have to pay close attention to what you throw out and you don’t do the things that you don’t need to do. However, you have to be careful, because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“For example, in the design of the Dream Chaser we looked at a lot of the challenges that the Shuttle Program faced. We asked ourselves, what drove the cost, for example, the turnaround of the vehicle, the thermal protection system and the maintenance of the thermal protection system. We looked at those challenges from shuttle and how they had to replace tiles and why they had to replace them and we looked at ways to mitigate that by flying tougher tiles, those that are better-suited for multiple flights.
“We looked at the vulnerabilities of those systems and developed ways to eliminate those vulnerabilities from a safety and manufacturing standpoint as well as from a turnaround case.
“We also reviewed how the Space Shuttle used hypergolic fuels, which are great on orbit because they are very reliable. They work well. All we had to do is have the fuel and oxidizer contact each other and they ignite. However, that turns into a great big hazard on the ground, very difficult to work with, a lot of challenges; it drove up costs and added a lot of complexity to the turnaround process. So, if we go with non-toxic propellants and we can get those to work on orbit in an efficient, cost-effective and satisfactory fully redundant manner, then we can eliminate that issue with processing on the ground and make things a lot simpler.
“This would also allow people to walk right up to the vehicle upon landing and not have them have to wait for folks in SCAPE suits (SCAPE is an acronym for Self-Contained Atmospheric Pressure Ensemble. In addition to post-landing, the SCAPE suits were worn during prelaunch hazardous operations with the RCS and OMS systems) to clear the vehicle as being safe before you can move around it. This has also provided benefits in terms of our cargo design as you can land at the runway there at Kennedy, walk right up to the vehicle, open the hatch and pull the critical payloads out and get it into the scientists’ hands immediately.
“So, we looked at all of those things, tried to take the things that we learned from shuttle and keep all of the ‘good stuff’ in place and try to keep the challenges that drove up cost – we tried to eliminate those. We had the benefit of looking back at 40 years of shuttle history – and really leveraging that.”
Stay tuned to SpaceFlight Insider for the second part of this interview. In the next chapter, Lindsey discusses the decision to submit an automated variant of Dream Chaser under the second Commercial Resupply Services contract, what it was like to not be selected for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – and more!
ABOUT STEVE LINDSEY
Steve Lindsey is the Senior Director for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Explorations Systems where he is responsible for the design, development, testing, and operational employment of the Dream Chaser® orbital crew and cargo transportation system. He is a former Air Force pilot and NASA astronaut with more than 30 years of flight test experience.
Lindsey earned a B.S. in Engineering Sciences from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1982. Upon completion of his degree, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and sent to Undergraduate Pilot Training. After receiving his pilot wings, he qualified in the RF-4C Phantom II and served as a combat-ready pilot, instructor pilot, and academic instructor. In 1987, he was selected to attend graduate school at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he completed an M.S. in aeronautical engineering. In 1989, he completed the USAF Test Pilot School course at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In 1990, Lindsey was assigned to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida as an experimental test pilot, where he conducted weapons and systems tests in F-16 and F-4 aircraft. While a member of the 3247th Test Squadron, Lindsey served as the deputy director, Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System Joint Test Force and as the squadron’s F-16 Flight Commander. Additionally, he served as an Integrated Product Team leader in the USAF SEEK EAGLE Office where he was responsible for weapons certification for the F-16, F-111, A-10, and F-117 aircraft. In March of 1995, he was assigned to NASA as an astronaut candidate. Lindsey retired from the Air Force in September 2006 after logging more than 7,000 hours of flying time in more than 50 different types of aircraft.
Lindsey became an astronaut in May 1996 and qualified for flight assignment as a pilot. During his more than 15 year tenure at NASA, he completed five space flights and logged more than 1,510 hours in space. He served as pilot on STS-87 in 1997 and STS-95 in 1998, and was the mission commander on STS-104 in 2001, STS-121 in 2006, and STS-133 in 2011. He last served as Chief of the Astronaut Corps, responsible for spacecraft development, crew selection and training, and flight test/crew operations in support of the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and Constellation Programs.
Upon joining the SNC team, Lindsey led Dream Chaser spacecraft flight operations. In August 2013, he was selected as Dream Chaser Senior Director tasked with managing the Dream Chaser Space Systems development through the design certification phase, including atmospheric flight tests of the Dream Chaser at Dryden Flight Research Center in Calif., and launch of the Dream Chaser into low-Earth Orbit with a crewed ISS docking mission.
The preceding biography of Steve Lindsey was provided by Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.