“Then we retired the shuttle without having an alternate crew [transport] method. The Russians could have taken advantage of that, but they did not. I was there when we started negotiating seats on the Soyuz when they knew the shuttle was going away. The initial cost was $50 million, which was for a vehicle that flew to the ISS, stayed docked for six months, and had to be maintained. The price thereafter was adjusted for inflation, which was high in Russia at the time. There’s no doubt they were making money off the seats, but it wasn’t really that much.”
Throughout all of those challenges and his decade-long tenure, the Russian space agency was a close and invaluable partner with NASA, despite a few problems, Suffredini acknowledged, from the unexpected post-Columbia grounding of the shuttle fleet to its planned permanent retirement five years later.
It was a period of tough decisions for NASA – and Suffredini.
“I can’t tell you how much the partners did not appreciate that situation, but the Russians stepped up, increasing their Soyuz manufacturing capability, knowing they eventually would have to take that back down, which is not something the Russians like to do. But they kept us viable throughout this period, so I have a lot of respect for my Russian counterparts. They completely understood the relationship, they remembered how much money we provided when they needed it, they knew it was the right thing to do and they did it,” he said.
“So I have a positive outlook on all our partners, but especially the Russians, who are still keeping us viable today. We have a lot of political challenges right now, but when it gets down to the people we work with, they understand human spaceflight and the need for these countries to work together. It’s the only thing I know of that hasn’t been impacted by sanctions and other problems.”
As to his own achievements while program manager for half the space station’s lifetime, Suffredini cited the successes they had in dealing with that laundry list of challenges – but shared the credit with all of the other nations involved, the contractors, and the NASA team, including the station crews.
“We have a lot of political challenges right now, but when it gets down to the people we work with, they understand human spaceflight and the need for these countries to work together. It’s the only thing I know of that hasn’t been impacted by sanctions and other problems.”
“We were met with challenges all along the way and our ability to work together was a crowning achievement of the time I was there. First, assembly of the station in a compressed period of time when the shuttle was basically retired out from under us. After the Columbia accident, it was decided the shuttle was too expensive and dangerous. We gave up four flights, although we did get two of those back. So second was the transition from shuttle to commercial cargo vehicles, what we did together with the partners. And ultimately the transition of the station from assembly to a user environment,” he said.
“While we were assembling it, we fit research in where we could, but crew safety and safe assembly got priority and the research guys got whatever scraps were left. But when we completed assembly, that reversed. By the time I left, we had gone away from doing things because it was part of the system to a little more than 70 hours of crew time a week on research. To me, that was probably the most fundamental and hardest change we had to make, just getting the mindset of everyone who built the ISS and knew what it took to make it successful to the exact opposite. That was a huge change that took the final third of my time as PM.”
Kirk Shireman – Aug. 5, 2015-
Current ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman took over responsibility for the space station in mid-2015, picking up many of the challenges his predecessor had worked on before his retirement. Shireman brought with him eight years as deputy PM on the ISS, followed by two years as deputy center director for JSC, which he said gave him an intimate knowledge of how the program, the center, and the agency operate.
It was a combination he would find invaluable as he was tasked to complete the start of commercial manned flights to the ISS, promote greater attention to customer and international partner requirements, and smooth the path to full commercialization of the space station.
“Of the two biggest problems at that time, the most urgent was evolving the culture from the assembly mentality, where NASA’s requirements were primary, to a more research lab culture, where the customers’ requirements were tops. We already had an initiative started – RISE [Revolutionize ISS for Science and Exploration] – and have worked on that my entire time here. That is a significant shift, not only in our mentality but also in our processes and procedures and how we deal with our customers, accelerating our processes to accommodate them.
“The second, not as urgent when I took over but perhaps most important now, is integrating the commercial crew vehicles into the ISS. Once there were a lot of technical issues to address, but also some question about when they would fly. I’ve spent three years working very, very hard on that problem and had some pretty significant successes, but they still aren’t flying to the ISS [as of mid-2018]. That is still our biggest concern.”
“Of the two biggest problems at that time, the most urgent was evolving the culture from the assembly mentality, where NASA’s requirements were primary, to a more research lab culture, where the customers’ requirements were tops.”
Commercial launch dates to the ISS must be viewed not as a single, fixed point, but as a distribution of probabilities, he continued.
“There is some probability it will launch in April next year , but there also is a probability it will be some time later. So we have to be prepared for contingencies and making sure we can deal with that should they slip to the right,” Shireman said.