The Orion Crew Module: A conversation with NASA’s Jason Hutt
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — In the lead-up to the first Artemis 1 Space Launch System (SLS) launch attempt, Spaceflight Insider had the opportunity to speak with a number of people involved in its design, construction, assembly, and flight. One of those people is Jason Hutt — NASA’s human-rating, systems engineering, and integration lead for the Orion crew module.
A portion of our conversation with Hutt is below.
Jim Withrow, NASA’s Deputy Propulsion Functional Area Manager for the European Service Module (ESM), also participated in the discussion.
SpaceFlight Insider: Let me get your name?
Hutt: Jason Hutt, and I’m out of Johnson Space Center and I’ve been there for about 23 years.
SpaceFlight Insider: Where are you from, originally?
Hutt: Grew up in Philadelphia. Went to college in Worcester, Massachusetts – Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mechanical engineering with an aerospace specialization.
SpaceFlight Insider: And then what do you do right out of school?
Hutt: I went and commanded satellites for a year with the Navy, on the coast of Maine. Way up in the middle of nowhere – Prospect Harbor, Maine. About an hour from any . . . from Bangor, Maine. So, and then after that, I started at, about a year in, I had a friend of a friend, who got me a job with United Space Alliance [(USA)], and I started to work as an ISS [(International Space Station)] instructor.
SpaceFlight Insider: When was that?
Hutt: That was in 1999, and I . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Was that in Houston or was that . . .?
Hutt: Yes, in Houston. And then I’ve been down there since.
SpaceFlight Insider: Because USA used to do stuff here too, with the . . .
Hutt: Yes, they did.
SpaceFlight Insider: They were the pad techs and . . .
Hutt: That’s right.
SpaceFlight Insider: But you were in Houston doing training?
Hutt: Yeah, I did crew training. Trained Expedition 1 [(the first long-duration stay on the International Space Station)], so Bill Shepherd and Sergei Krikalev, and his crew, so . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Tell me exactly what you do [now].
Hutt: So, I have two titles really. I am the systems engineering and integration lead for Orion. My team manages the interface between Orion and SLS [(Space Launch System)], Orion and EGS [(Exploration Ground Systems)], Orion and [SpaceX’s] Starship, Orion and Gateway [(NASA’s future lunar-orbiting space station)].
SpaceFlight Insider: When you say interface, we’re not talking physical interface?
Hutt: We are, sometimes. We’re talking physical interfaces, but we’re also talking handling of the vehicle. Making sure that we have the right temperature / humidity levels while it’s sitting on the pad. But also command and data and power interfaces, structural interfaces. My team owns all of the interface requirements between our Orion spacecraft and any of the other spacecraft, or EGS and their ground systems. So that’s that role, and then I’m also the human-rating lead for Orion. For Artemis 2, I’ll be responsible for making sure that we’ve completed all of our human-rating requirements and we’re ready to put crew on the spacecraft.
SpaceFlight Insider: I talked to Mike Hawes with Lockheed Martin / Orion, yesterday, and some of the things we talked about were the differences between both the EFT-1 [(Exploration Flight Test 1)] Orion and this one, Artemis 1, and the differences between Artemis 1 and Artemis 2. And I guess one of the big things that he told me was that this Artemis 1 Orion is not flying a full life support system, but he said there was some on there.
Hutt: There are a few items on there for crew support, but we don’t have any of our cabin air circulation. We don’t have our CO2 removal systems. We don’t have the toilet / waste management system. So yeah, there are a handful of systems that we’ll use for the first time on Artemis 2.
SpaceFlight Insider: Because I asked him yesterday, I’m trying to get a better understanding, and I said if I jumped in there before y’all shut the hatch, how long would I live?
Hutt: Not too long, yeah. You’d have 20% O2 to start. You also don’t have a seat to hold you.
SpaceFlight Insider: Or a place to go the restroom?
Withrow: Too much CO2, which was the Apollo . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Apollo 13 – got to put a square peg in a round hole?
Hutt: Yeah, and your suit. I mean, we have a suited mannequin onboard for Artemis 1, but it’s not connected to any of our fluid systems. So, you won’t have any O2, CO2, or water-cooling fluids.
SpaceFlight Insider: Does that, and I’m trying to figure the right way to ask this, does the fact that you’re flying a large portion of the life support system for the first time with a crew, does that cause anybody any concern?
Hutt: It does. Absolutely. Which is why the Artemis 2 mission, we’re going to design it so that we have a 24-hour period in earth orbit. And in that 24-hour period, we’ll test all of those systems. And we’re carrying some dissimilar backups. Basically, similar in style to, if you’re familiar with Apollo bags. We’ve got the toilet, but we’ll also have a collapsible urinal, that if the toilet breaks, they’ve got enough to get home.
SpaceFlight Insider: Yeah, those were nice things that had the little tape strips on them, and you’d sort of . . .
Hutt: Yeah. Now this is just the liquid.
SpaceFlight Insider: For the front, they had condom-like apparatuses?
Hutt: Yeah, so that’s part of our survival system for if we were to have a cabin leak going around the moon. We’ve got a bag that glues to you, and a condom like apparatus that attaches to you. That’s the real fun scenario.
SpaceFlight Insider: And I know, probably the last week, or probably the last several months, it’s been a little different, but if I showed up at your office in Houston a year ago and followed you around for a day, what would that look like?
Hutt: So, I do a lot of _____ [inaudible] with different stakeholders to talk about where we are with different technical issues for the two different roles. So, for the systems engineering role, we own all of the procedures and processes that EGS executes for us here. And so, we’re frequently having discussions over: this step is wrong, this step is unclear, how do we, what do we need to do to fix it. What procedure changes do we need to make. And so, we do that item. Lately, it’s sitting down in meetings with SpaceX and talking about, OK, what kind of commands do you want to see from us for Starship. What kind of commands should we expect to receive from you. Yeah, we don’t really have that capability right now.
SpaceFlight Insider: When you say command, you’re meaning?
Hutt: If I want to command Starship, so I have an astronaut on Orion, they see that there’s an emergency, I want them to be able to push a button on Orion, it sends a signal over to Starship that says there’s an emergency on Orion and it alerts all the crew members to do that.
SpaceFlight Insider: So, you’re talking about actual electrical / computer commands between the two?
Hutt: That’s right. And we’re going through now and trying to find what needs to be exchanged across the two vehicles. That’s a lot of the job. And then on the human-rating side, we, I used to do cockpit integration for Orion. A year ago, you would have caught me in testing for the crew, to make sure that our crew interfaces fit the full range of crew members. Now, it’s making sure that we can egress from the pad on time. We did a full-up test in Building Nine at Johnson Space Center, in our Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where we had four crew members test how quickly they can get out of the vehicle in an emergency if they’re on the pad.
SpaceFlight Insider: I was out there at the event a couple of weeks ago, August 5th. So, I guess you’re talking about the one there was a big line for . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: And I never got into.
Hutt: Yeah, it’s the highest fidelity mockup that we have for Orion.
SpaceFlight Insider: It’s the one that had a portion of . . .
Hutt: The ogives. Yeah.
SpaceFlight Insider: Boost protective cover, both hatches?
Hutt: Yeah, and actually the platform there we oriented to match the platform of the White Room and the Capsule, because EGS is going to bring their folks out there . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Let me ask you, since you brought it up, everybody loves to talk about SpaceX. Tell me something about SpaceX. About, now, for this first Artemis 3, the first landing, they’ve been picked to provide the lander.
Hutt: That’s right.
SpaceFlight Insider: Their Starship. How’s that going?
Hutt: Right now, we’re trying to define our interfaces. So, we’re developing our interface requirements documents, where we have what format does data go across between the two vehicles. What I’ve mentioned, commanding, before. What are their power needs across the two vehicles. What kind of radio frequency requirements are there. Make sure we don’t have interference. And so, the teams, we’ve been going through a series of meetings over the last four or five months. You know, lay out . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Between NASA and SpaceX?
Hutt: Between NASA and SpaceX, and between Orion and Starship.
SpaceFlight Insider: Ya’ll do that in Houston?
Hutt: We’ve done it in Denver, with Lockheed. We’ve done it in Houston. We have one, we’re not meeting with SpaceX this week, but there will be another one soon. Personally, I’ve been responsible for trying to find what’s our emergency CONOPS [(concept of operations)] across the two vehicles. If we have a fire, or a cabin leak, while we’re docked, open hatches between Orion and Starship, how is that going to work. So, we’re making progress and it allows what we’re doing. We have an Orion system that is mostly designed and built. We have a Starship system that is still in development. So, we’re able to give them information they need to help go refine their design — which they have a design milestone I think in November this year, either November or December, where they’re trying to make sure that they have their preliminary design concepts in place.
SpaceFlight Insider: And this probably isn’t your area of expertise either, but I’ll ask, and you can tell me it’s not. A lot of people, pundits or whatever, seem to think that the lander might be the long pole in the tent here. I mean, we’ve got a rocket that’s hopefully going to fly in a few days. And, Starship is, meanwhile, I guess it’s kind of flown, once or twice, down in Texas. I mean . . .
Hutt: It goes back to Orion design is almost complete. SLS we’re going to fly. They’re at an earlier phase in development.
SpaceFlight Insider: I guess the contract with the lander really wasn’t let until fairly late in the game as well?
Hutt: That’s right. And there were delays there too, so . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: And again, this may not be something you can answer, but, how confident is NASA that when Orion and SLS are ready to go, hopefully around 2026, that the lander will be there and ready to go?
Hutt: Yeah, I can’t . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Anything else you can tell me about SpaceX? I know I saw some things just in the last few days, and this probably didn’t have anything to do with you either, that whole elevator . . .
Hutt: I saw that they were testing their elevator.
SpaceFlight Insider: Apparently, people are concerned because how far up it is they’ve got to come down [ — the astronauts from the Starship hatch to the lunar surface]?
Hutt: Well, from a human-rating perspective, it is a concern. With human-rating, we do have to have fault tolerance on everything.
SpaceFlight Insider: What is the fault tolerance on that elevator?
Hutt: That’s a great question. I’m waiting to . . .. Yeah, I don’t know yet.
SpaceFlight Insider: If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work? I mean, they got a rope?
Hutt: So, you’ve got to have a ladder or something that they can climb up.
SpaceFlight Insider: Or a rope with knots in it?
Hutt: Yeah, and human-rating, you know, we don’t just do one spacecraft at a time. It’s supposed to be the entire architecture. So, we’re looking at right now, how can I leverage Starship capabilities. Like, when, I don’t know how familiar you are with the NRHO orbit that we’re going into for . . .
SpaceFlight Insider: Near-rectilinear halo orbit? Is that the one you’re going in this mission?
Hutt: No, Artemis 3 though. And that’ll put us more than five days away from home. Our survival systems for Orion are designed to get the crew home within 144 hours. Once we go into NRHO, there’s no way around it. You’re going to be more than 144 hours from home.
SpaceFlight Insider: The orbit on this mission is a, what’s it called, Artemis 1, the orbit?
Withrow: Distant retrograde . . .
Hutt: Yea, DRO.
SpaceFlight Insider: And then, Artemis 2, they’re not even going into orbit?
Hutt: It’s not an orbit. It’s just going around.
SpaceFlight Insider: It’s a free return?
Hutt: That’s right.
SpaceFlight Insider: Like Apollo 13?
Hutt: Yes. And Artemis 3, it’ll be one rev[olution] in NRHO, at least as of what we understand today. So that could put you anywhere from 10 to 11 days from home, depending on where you are. And that becomes real challenging. How do you keep the crew alive in that scenario, for that long. [(Note: After publication, Hutt contacted us an informed that three revolutions in NRHO is the current plan for Artemis 3)].
Stay with Spaceflight Insider for more Artemis coverage, including our conversation with Lockheed Martin’s Mike Hawes on the Orion crew module.
Artemis 1 launched at 1:47 a.m. EST (06:47 UTC) Nov. 16, 2022, and its Orion crew capsule is in transit to a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon before a scheduled Dec. 11, 2022, splashdown off the coast of California.
Video courtesy of NASA
Video courtesy of Orbital Velocity
Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.