John Vickers has been with NASA for over 20 years and worked within the aerospace industry for almost 30 years. As manager of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, he has worked on many projects utilizing advanced composites, including presently a new larger space launch vehicle, and participated in several national projects with NASA, industry leaders, academia, and other government agencies.
Describe what your department does. How is it organized?
The Marshall Space Flight Center is one of ten NASA Centers throughout the nation. I work in the engineering directorate and within the Materials and Processes Laboratory.
What is your R&D like?
Within NASA there are ten levels that measure technology maturity called Technology Readiness Levels, which guide the insertion of R&D into a project. Level 1-3 consists of basic research levels, 4-6 are more advanced development and above six are technologies that are very advanced but still need some work to be inserted into a project. Within my organization we perform mostly level six or higher projects and our primary focus is on the technology challenges for propulsion and launch vehicles at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
What prompted NASA’s use of composites on a larger scale?
We’re in the planning and early design stages for very large structures and associated technologies related to NASA’s Ares V cargo launch vehicle. The structure is 10 meters in diameter, which is larger than any composite aerospace structure to date. To address these technology challenges, NASA has initiated the Advanced Composites Technology Project.
How and when do you use outside suppliers?
When we begin a project, I think many people believe we are looking for that Eureka moment. Yet in reality we utilize a great deal of existing technology and we perform much of our own research and perform sophisticated experiments in-house. But sometimes we don’t have the materials or processes we need, so we must invent them. We start with a concept or design and then determine if we want to do it in-house or contract it out, which is determined by what is available and who’s best suited within NASA or outside within the industry base.
How do you determine which suppliers to use?
We work through our prime contractors, who help us reach down into the industry to find the right companies. But we never want to lose visibility of the whole picture. We look at past performance, their production capability and cost.