I Will Launch America: Steve Payne

i_will_launch_steve_payneBy Joshua Finch,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Steve Payne always knew he wanted to work for NASA.

“As a kid, I watched the moon landings on TV,” Payne said. “I grew up with pictures of rockets on my wall. Like every kid in that era, space was everywhere and I wanted to do that.”

Over the years, Payne has not lost his passion for all things space and sometimes he gets a little carried away. Like earlier this year, when he was asked to build a model rocket for his child’s school fundraiser and ended up with a 15-foot-tall, high-fidelity model of a Saturn 1B rocket from the early days of the space program. The model rocket still sits in his living room.

“I did it for the kids’ school, but also because I’m a nerd,” said Payne. “I like launching model rockets anyway. I build my own rockets from scratch. I can make almost anything fly with a rocket engine in it.”

When he’s not building model rockets, Payne is hard at work performing launch integration for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Both Boeing and SpaceX are developing spacecraft and launch systems to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

“Both of these companies know how to launch a rocket, but it’s different when you are launching people on board,” said Payne.

This is where Payne’s experience under the Space Shuttle Program with NASA’s Test Director Office is so vital. He served as the shuttle test director for eight missions and assisted with many more than that. This work gave him a broad scope of space operations from launching to landing.

“There are a number of different nuances when flying astronauts,” said Payne. ”People require oxygen, temperature regulation, food and comfort. Astronauts are human beings working in a complex machine that goes from zero to Mach 25 in about nine minutes.”

NASA is working closely with Boeing and SpaceX to build systems that are designed for human space transportation. Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon to launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket with flight tests scheduled to begin in 2017.

Payne is applying his decades of experience and sharing his knowledge in his integration role.

“These things are not always intuitive and we bring some hard lessons to the table that these companies have not had to learn on their own.  My job is to make sure that all of those lessons learned are incorporated.”

Launch integration is a major challenge as the Commercial Crew Program is different from other programs in that both companies are responsible for independently developing their own systems. Boeing and SpaceX each are building unique crew transportation systems to meet NASA’s performance and safety requirements.

“It’s encouraging that both teams are very, very, enthusiastic about launching,” said Payne. “They are champing at the bit to get into the air just like we are. In that aspect, we are cut from the same cloth. Everyone realizes that we are doing something new, different and important for our country.”

Payne believes that commercial crew is helping create a whole new industry and is similar to the early days of commercial aviation.

“In reality, it’s the beginning of a new piece of history that most people don’t see, because they just think they are doing their jobs,” Payne said. “You don’t realize until later that you are making history. I am making a point of noticing that we are making history today.”

When NASA certifies Boeing and SpaceX to fly crews to the space station, this will be the first time that private companies have done so.

“We have seen the infrastructure being built,” Payne said. “We have seen the rockets. This is real. This is going to happen. A year and some change may seem like a long time, but it’s not for a program. It’s right around the corner. There is going to be smoke and fire from Kennedy and Cape Canaveral for human launches again.”