Spaceflight Insider

Insider Interview: Boeing’s Ginger Barnes talks SLS, Mars and Vision

Boeing's SLS Program Manager, Ginger Barnes, spoke at length with SpaceFlight Insider about the current status of NASA's new heavy-lift booster. Image Credit: Misho Katulic with Boeing inset

By all accounts NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft are on time and on budget. Given this, it seemed like great timing when Boeing reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked if we would like to talk with the company’s Vice President and Program Manager for the Space Launch System (SLS), Ginger Barnes, about the progress being made to see the massive new heavy-lift booster send NASA’s next generation spacecraft toward destinations beyond the orbit of Earth.

Barnes, who was attending the National Space Symposium (NSS) in Colorado at the time of the interview, sat down for about a half hour and discussed current developments within the SLS program. Barnes spoke at length about a variety of elements that are involved on SLS as well as her enthusiasm for the program as a whole.

SpaceFlight Insider: Ginger, first off thanks for taking the time to chat with us about SLS. How are things in terms of the program?

Barnes: “Hi there! Sure, it’s no problem. Well, as it turns out – it is a lot of fun building rockets! I am often asked what it is that I do. Simply put? I’m building the rocket that will send people to Mars. Whenever I say that – it gives me Goosebumps – because it is pretty cool being on the core stage development – it’s unparalleled. I have been with the company for almost 33 years and I’ve never seen a development program, at two years into the program where we’ve done so well.

I’ve only been on the program for a year – so all the credit goes to my predecessors. They established an aggressive schedule up front and they got things done swiftly. Right now, if you look at where we are – it’s a very exciting time. On June 2 and 3 we will hold a kickoff for the Critical Design Review (CDR) – that will go on for most of the month of June. CDR validates that the design is ready for build. We’re ready for it. That’s what’s going on with us on the design-side and its very exciting. That milestone will be accomplished five months ahead of the contract commitment. Again, I have never been on a development program that has seen such success – it’s phenomenal.

Boeing is currently producing elements of SLS at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. Image Credit: NASA

Boeing is currently producing elements of SLS at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. Image Credit: NASA

When you look at what’s going on over on the manufacturing side? That’s exciting too! Have you ever been to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans?”

SpaceFlight Insider: Yes, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony back in June of 2013.

Barnes: “Okay, great. In the next few weeks we will perform the final assembly of the Vehicle Assembly Structure which will be the largest friction stir weld tool in the world. That will actually take the barrel and dome and do the weld that will put those elements together and actually build the rocket.

Some time in the July timeframe – we will have a ‘sneak peek’ at that tool, we’ll invite folks to come in and have a look. Then NASA will have a Michoud Assembly Facility ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in the September to celebrate the completion of all six weld tools. By-the-way, you’ll hear six and you’ll hear four. I count six weld tools because I count the rings and the dome tool individually.”

SpaceFlight Insider: What else is going on with SLS?

Barnes: “Another aspect of SLS that is seeing progress is the avionics – you can’t fly a rocket without avionics. The avionics lab, the Systems Integration Test Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center, reached ‘first light’ last December. That’s when they pass the first electron through the system. They have been integrating software since then – I would invite you to come take a look at this as well – it’s very impressive. You get a good sense of scale and can really appreciate what is going on with the rocket. It’s really cool – lots of great stuff.”

Boeing utilizes several advanced welding tools to integrate SLS' components. Photo Credit: NASA

Boeing utilizes several advanced welding tools to integrate SLS’ components. Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceFlight Insider: Can you talk a bit about how things are going in terms of getting SLS and Orion ready for their first flight in 2017? Also NASA has received a bit of a ‘bump’ in terms of funding and there has been discussion about conducting a crewed Mars flyby by 2021. We’ve also heard about the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which along with other initiatives seem to place NASA’s goal in a rather nebulous state. How is Boeing working to accommodate your customer’s requirements given this?

Barnes: “That’s a great question. In terms of Mars, we have an integrated roadmap that will get you there within the 2030 timeframe. That makes certain assumptions as to what capabilities you need to accomplish this. NASA has a really great chart that I like. On the left it has Earth-dependent, which is LEO (low-Earth-orbit). It then goes to what is viewed as the ‘proving grounds,’ which is cislunar, or an asteroid, which gets you back to Earth fairly quickly, not as fast as you would from LEO. On the right of that chart we have the destinations where you can’t get back as quickly if something were to go wrong.

On that chart there are a lot of possible destinations, there’s cislunar, Lagrange points, asteroids. We actually have a book where we document in detail a number of missions that this rocket is capable of carrying out. So, it’s not that any of those missions are exclusive in my mind – it’s that we’d be building off of each of them to get us to the ultimate point – Mars. My responsibility at Boeing is to be able to support trips to any of those places.”

One of the domes which will be used on SLS. Photo Credit: NASA

One of the domes which will be used on SLS. Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceFlight Insider: So it sounds like Boeing is working to incorporate elements which will allow SLS to be able to accomplish a variety of missions.

Barnes: “Yes. So if you look at it, it’s not just one mission. You know, ‘let’s go do an asteroid mission or lets go put people on the Moon.’ It’s not just one, it’s all the exciting things that you can do on a wide range of possible missions that will validate the technologies required to send humans to Mars.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Their was someone who posted a comment that SLS is not able to carry out a flyby mission to Mars in a single launch. Would it take more than one flight?

Barnes: “I have seen proposals where the flyby mission could be carried out using a single launch of SLS as well as other architectures that would suggest two. I’m not the final authority as to whether it will be one or two however.”

A tank measuring 18-feet in diameter (5.5-meter) tank was lowered into a structural test stand at the Marshall Center. Composite tanks could provide a 30 percent reduction in weight and possibly a 25-percent savings over metal tanks. Similar systems are being considered for SLS. Photo Credit: NASA / MSFC

A tank measuring 18-feet in diameter (5.5-meter) tank was lowered into a structural test stand at the Marshall Center. Composite tanks could provide a 30 percent reduction in weight and possibly a 25-percent savings over metal tanks. Similar systems are being considered for SLS. Photo Credit: NASA / MSFC

SpaceFlight Insider: No worries, thanks for providing that bit of info. With the CDR taking place as well as Orion flying later this year – is SLS becoming more ‘real?’

Barnes: “Absolutely! For me? I don’t isolate the rocket from the spacecraft (Orion) – it’s all part of the overall system and we work very closely with our friends at Lockheed-Martin to integrate their space vehicle on the top of the rocket. Also, I’m excited about the upcoming EFT-1 mission. What that flight says is we’re getting back to the business of exploring deep space. Soon, we’ll be launching people into deep space again.

What I failed to mention about CDR, and this is really, really cool – is that we have not had a Critical Design Review of a deep space rocket since the sixties – so we are making history.”

SpaceFlight Insider: What is that like for you? You said it yourself, you have worked in this industry for some time.

Barnes: “I’ve never built a rocket before. I was the program manager for the first element of the International Space Station, the FGB, so I have developed space vehicles before. For three years I was the president and CEO for United Space Alliance from 2010 up until a year ago. In that role I operated the shuttle program for the last five flights where we transitioned the fleet into retirement.

So, I have experience and more importantly I’ve developed a network across this industry and within the customer set. We are all working toward the same goals. We want to get this rocket built, to get humans into space. let’s go!”

SpaceFlight Insider: We have seen an uptick in predictions as to the how frequently SLS will be able to fly. From once every four years, to two, to every other year and even some predictions it might fly as often as once a year. Where do we stand now? How often do you think it will be pragmatic and possible to fly SLS?

Barnes relayed that Boeing has a close working relationship with Lockheed-Martin whose Orion spacecraft will ride SLS aloft. Image Credit: NASA

Barnes relayed that Boeing has a close working relationship with Lockheed-Martin whose Orion spacecraft will ride SLS aloft. Image Credit: NASA

Barnes: “We have built our factory so as to optimize the tooling and the workforce to support 1-to-2 launches per year at rate. My contract has the first two launches taking place at one in 2017 and one in 2021. We hope to be able to populate the Florida skyline with launches at the rate of one or two a year.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Back when NASA had an established long-term plan for human deep space exploration under The Vision for Space Exploration there was an incremental approach to space exploration, Moon, Mars and Beyond. Our question there is, do you think it is more important to have an established road map in place – or do you think that we can get by with a more versatile launch vehicle instead?

Barnes: “What you’re describing as to a road map is what I call a flight plan.’ We’re leaving Earth. I think – it’s really both. I think you have to have the flexibility but you have to have to decide on an architecture and then be nimble as the resources and the environment dictate. Not only because of the funding – but also in the technologies that are needed. Because, as we learn more, we might realize that it is more important to carry out ‘Mission D’ as opposed to ‘Mission A.’

So, I think we have to have both. We have to have a vision as to where we want to go in terms of a flight plan and then we have to be able to be nimble with that flight plan to make adjustments and we need to be able to do this with the configuration of the rocket, with the missions that need to be done – all of those things. I don’t see the two as being exclusive.”

SpaceFlight Insider: If there’s one thing that you would like to relay to the public about SLS – what would it be?

The RS-25 rocket engine will be used on initial flights of SLS. Photo Credit: NASA

The RS-25 rocket engine will be used on initial flights of SLS. Photo Credit: NASA

Barnes: “When I tell people that I am building the rocket that will send astronauts to Mars – that gets their attention. I characterize it in the terms that we are making history and that we are building a tremendous capability that currently does not exist.

It bothers me that some people view SLS as competing with what is happening in low-Earth-orbit. It’s not. This is something else. I try to diffuse that myth, that it is competing with anything else because it is not. There is not another rocket anywhere that has the capability that SLS does.

The one thing that sets SLS apart from all others – is it is not a paper rocket. I have flight hardware sitting in the factory at Michoud today. I have demonstrated progress. It’s a lot more credible to talk about what is going on and where it is when you have the depth that this program has.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today Ginger, we look forward to speaking with you more in the future.

Barnes: “It’s my pleasure!”

If everything continues to go according to schedule, Orion will conduct its first flight in December. In 2017, the Space Launch System will conduct its first test flight from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B. There will be a number of test flights and milestones in-between which are designed to prepare the system for the first crewed flight of the rocket and spacecraft in 2021. NASA has been directed to capture an asteroid and deliver it into lunar orbit where a crew will journey to conduct research.

Below are excerpts from Barnes’ Boeing biography.

Photo Credit: Boeing

Photo Credit: Boeing

Barnes began her career as a financial cost analyst with Boeing in Huntsville, Ala., in 1981, after graduating from the University of Alabama in Huntsville accounting program. She later earned her master’s degree in business from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

During her tenure with Boeing, Barnes managed a number of defense and space programs and efforts, including International Space Station (ISS), fighter and support programs, defense modernization and weapons, and simulation and training. She left Boeing as Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Program Manager, overseeing the programmatic and financial aspects of the Army’s modernization efforts.

Continuing a lifelong aerospace career, Virginia Barnes is now leading the team designing, developing and producing the massive core stages for NASA’s Space Launch System, the world’s largest human-rated rocket. As Vice President and Program Manager for the Boeing Space Launch System (SLS), she is shaping the future of deep space exploration by working with NASA to develop affordable, extensible and innovative systems, technologies and business practices.

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA


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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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

FANTASTIC interview Jason!! Yet another of your interviews bookmarked for future reference. I love Ms. Barnes’ unbridled enthusiasm for her work, her excitement is contagious. I am delighted to learn of the excellent progress being made on the Space Launch System and Orion which is OURS – yours, mine, and that of every taxpayer of this great nation. I earnestly hope that a Mars flyby becomes a reality in 2021, it would make a great 100th Birthday present for an incredible individual and personal hero of mine – John Glenn.

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