At NASA headquarters, they call it "the swamp," a broad expanse of the fifth floor where experts gather to figure out how to accomplish the most ambitious space feat ever: a multidecade plan to send humans from Earth to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
The master of this domain is Associate Administrator Craig E. Steidle, the retired Navy rear admiral who runs NASA's not-so-new-anymore Office of Exploration Systems and who went to work for NASA after the top brass lured him in as a consultant. "I thought initially they were just looking for someone to tell them how to manage development of large programs," Steidle recalled.
Craig E. Steidle, left, is laying the groundwork for NASA to return to manned space exploration by sending astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars.
(David J. Phillip -- AP)
Craig E. Steidle
Title: Associate administrator, NASA.
Education: Bachelor of science, U.S. Naval Academy; master of science, systems mangement, University of Southern California; master of science, aerospace engineering, Virginia Tech.
Family: Married; three children.
Career highlights: Self-employed aerospace consultant; retired rear admiral, Navy; served in Navy, 1968-2000: combat fighter pilot, Navy test pilot, ran F/A-18 fighter program for the Navy, ran Joint Strike Fighter Program for the Defense Department. Received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal with gold star, Air Medals with bronze star.
Pastimes: Soaring, woodworking.
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That was Nov. 27, 2003, and the brass liked what they heard, so they asked him to come back. They gave him a little office and asked him to stick around as a consultant on "organizational structures."
He agreed. Ten days later, when he got hired as "deputy for aeronautics," he had the idea that President Bush was developing the "Vision for Space Exploration" -- a plan to put humans back on the moon by 2020 and then send them to Mars. Bush announced the idea on Jan. 14, the day after Steidle got the job to implement it.
Steidle, 59, knows from large programs. A one-time fighter jock who flew in the Vietnam War and later became a Navy test pilot, Steidle also earned master's degrees in aerospace engineering (Virginia Tech) and systems management (University of Southern California) and ran the Navy's F/A-18 program. He ended up in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter, the Defense Department's largest program.
While a naval officer, Steidle had become a disciple of the Packard Commission Report, prepared for President Ronald Reagan as a road map on how to streamline military acquisitions, avoid gross cost overruns and sloppiness, and build a leaner, more coordinated procurement culture.
"You want to get the operators and the technologists together, mature the technology at a low level and look at lowering the system's cost, not just at enhancing its performance," Steidle said. It worked for the Joint Strike Fighter, which won the Defense Department's David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award.
So Steidle set up the swamp on the fifth floor of NASA headquarters. "I called the office 'Requirements,' and I actually moved families from [NASA's] Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall" space centers, Steidle said. "I took operators, mission directors, astronauts and technologists and put them in one big place."
But that was only the first move. As the year draws to a close, Exploration Systems has become NASA's centerpiece, tabbed to lead the agency through the first two decades of the 21st century and probably beyond, rebuilding not only the human space flight program but also serving as a focal point for developing technologies ranging from robotic docking of spacecraft to telemedicine and nuclear-powered, space-based machinery.
And after nearly a year in operation, Exploration Systems has set up a timetable for arrival on the moon -- 2020 -- and picked 11 proposals to compete for the right to build the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the next-generation spaceship that is to fly humans beyond near-Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s.
Finally, the office has let more than 120 contracts to develop everything from lightweight, high-powered solar arrays to wireless implants capable of transmitting information to Earth about astronaut health, and genetically modified food crops adapted to grow in space -- or in extraterrestrial environments.
"Every contract has a couple of [NASA] centers linked to it, and we encouraged it," Steidle said. "In large organizations, you sometimes have a lot of stovepipes, and [the NASA leadership] has been trying to draw centers to work collaboratively. This has been a step forward in that direction."
Phrases such as "stovepipes," "maturing technologies" and "operational concepts" come easily to Steidle these days, but not always, for it was not "systems integration" that attracted him to the Navy and kept him there for more than 30 years.
"I love flying," he said during a recent interview at his headquarters office. "I stayed in the Navy because in almost every single assignment, I had an opportunity to fly, even in senior positions, so I kept signing on for more."