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Orion Ignites The Dreams Of A Rocket Engineer

Kelvin Manning will oversee work on the Orion spacecraft at Kennedy. The capsule is slated to carry astronauts to the moon. Photo credit: Steven Siceloff, NASA/KSC
by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) May 10, 2007
Kelvin Manning has seen the space shuttles up close for about 15 years. Now he's excited about helping NASA give birth to a new spacecraft, one destined to go to the moon. The Orion capsule and its service module will take shape in the high bay of the Operations and Checkout Building a few feet from Manning's office and those of the Constellation Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Coordination is the key word for the engineer's role as he watches over Orion's development from the Kennedy perspective. For Manning, it presents the latest challenge in a career that has spanned 25 years and seen aerospace from several different perspectives.

"Coming out of the Air Force Academy I wanted to fly, but I didn't end up being a pilot, so I worked space operations," he explained.

Opting out of the military, Manning worked for several contractors including McDonnell Douglas as the company supported the shuttle program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Seeing an opportunity to work at Kennedy, Manning signed up for NASA operations.

"My first interview with NASA was with (astronaut) Bob Crippen," he said. "It was a great discussion."

Manning was eager to see the launch pads, processing facilities and shuttles up close as soon as he arrived at the Florida center.

Before long, Manning started working third shifts, holidays and weekends to learn about the orbiters and NASA culture. He moved up to become NASA vehicle manager for Columbia, then NASA test director. Next came the role of flow director for Atlantis, a position which called on him to make sure the orbiter is ready for its mission.

While overseeing Atlantis' preparation for the STS-110 mission, he ended up readying the vehicle for Air Force Academy classmate Michael Bloomfield, who was commanding the flight to the International Space Station.

"I felt privileged to know the guy," Manning said.

Manning next took on a project to replace the spacecraft fleet he had grown so familiar with. The effort, known then as an orbital space plane, did not have a firm timeline because no one was sure when the space shuttle would be retired.

But with a firm directive in the nation's Vision for Space Exploration, the Constellation project Program had a clear destination and Manning knew he would be watching over a capsule designed for the moon instead of a space plane.

"What's different was the decision to retire the space shuttle in 2010," he explained. "That's pretty firm." Lockheed Martin was chosen to build the capsule, which will fly its first missions to the International Space Station. Although the large components of the capsule will be built elsewhere, they will be assembled into one spacecraft at the Operations and Checkout Building. "This is going to be more or less a Lockheed Martin factory," Manning said.

It is part of Manning's duty to get the Kennedy Space Center ready for the new spacecraft, from the facility at the Operations and Checkout Building, to the reconfigured launch pad to stacking the modules on top of a shuttle-derived, solid-fueled rocket booster and liquid-fueled upper stage.

The goal is a simpler, safer manned spacecraft, but Manning left no doubt about the challenge of handling a program from the ground up.

"This is the hardest job I've ever had," he said. "Working with a new program, you understand the depth of the shuttle program."

How different is the capsule from the orbiter, on a scale of one to 10?

"I would call it an 8 1/2, nine."

For those looking for a concrete sign of progress, Manning points to April 2009.

"When we start getting ready to do this first test flight (of the Ares I booster), that's going to be a big deal. Here, internally, when you start stacking those boosters and the test articles start rolling in, it'll be more real for folks. ... It's real for me right now."

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St. Louis MO (SPX) May 09, 2007
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