Georgia astronauts, students, businesses shoot for the moon

Fifty years ago, America celebrated “one giant leap for mankind” when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Today, two Georgia astronauts, a group of students at Georgia Tech and dozens of Georgia businesses are among those working to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface by 2024.

Astronauts Eric Boe and Robert Shane Kimbrough, graduates of metro high schools and Georgia Tech, are working with NASA’s new moon project, the Artemis Program. Its goal is to return to the moon and potentially establish a long-term human presence there before moving on to Mars.

The astronauts, interviewed by phone at a NASA facility in Houston, said they, like millions of Americans, were inspired by the grainy black-and-white television footage of the July 20, 1969, moon landing.

Both said they hope Artemis — named for Apollo’s sister, the Greek goddess of the moon — will provide the same inspiration to students.

Boe, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was only 5 when he witnessed the historic moment, but has felt an indelible link with the moon ever since. Kimbrough said his quest to be an astronaut was spurred on by a Florida grandfather who “dragged me to every launch” in the 1970s.

They hope the new moon project will draw more kids — especially girls — to fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Only 12 people have ever walked on the moon,” Kimbrough said. “All were American males. Putting the first female boots on the moon will inspire a new generation of students, especially girls, to pursue STEM fields.”

Which American woman will leave her bootprints in history? That’s undecided, but there are 12 women currently in the astronaut corps, the men said.

Will either Georgia astronaut be on the historic ride?

“We’re both active astronauts that could be assigned to the mission,” Kimbrough said. “We all hope to fly again.”

Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

A new space race

The starting line of the first space race that fueled the Apollo missions was 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik.

Today, the U.S. is facing off against China, which, in 2013, became the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon since the Soviet Union made its final visit in 1976. China also has plans for establishing a crewed outpost on the lunar surface.

President Donald Trump put America’s return to the moon back on NASA’s front burner in December 2017 when he signed Space Policy Directive No. 1.

“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday to many worlds beyond,” Trump said at a White House ceremony.

NASA made plans for a 2028 launch, but Vice President Mike Pence, in March, accelerated the agency’s plans by four years. The updated deadline came just a few months after China successfully landed a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

It won’t be easy for Americans to return to the moon by 2024, but the Georgia astronauts have confidence it can be done.

“We need some things to go our way on the schedule, but the important thing is to make this as safe for crew as possible,” Kimbrough said. “There’s an incredible workforce (at NASA) that’s up to the challenge.”

The Artemis Program is comprised of several missions, only three of which have a launch schedule. Artemis 1, set for 2020, will be an unmanned orbit of the moon and return trip.

Artemis 2, scheduled for 2022, will repeat the journey with a human crew. Artemis 3, slated for 2024, would be the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

“The technical side of getting people there and back is really difficult,” Kimbrough said. “How people did it in the 1960s with the technology of the time still blows our minds.”

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

A different approach

NASA is partnering with private industry to get humans in space cheaper and faster.

The Artemis missions will use the new Orion spacecraft to transport astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit. Orion’s primary contractor is Lockheed-Martin, which has offices in Marietta. Engineering work for the ships was done in Denver, said Lockheed-Martin spokesman Gary Napier.

The Orion ship for Artemis 1 is already built and will soon undergo environmental testing, Napier said. The Artemis 2 ship, the first in the mission to carry a crew, is being assembled now at Kennedy Space Center.

“The big difference (now) is that instead of NASA owning vehicles to take us to the International Space Station, we are basically renting a car, the vehicle that will get us into space,” said Boe, who works with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop and test new spacecraft and launch systems for the space station.

While Boeing and SpaceX are working on vehicles to take astronauts to the International Space Station; NASA is focusing on vehicles like Orion for more distant missions to the moon and Mars, a NASA spokesperson said.

The Orion ships, like the Apollo capsules, will return to Earth via a parachute and splashdown. Kimbrough said he would be in the Pacific Ocean in September working with the U.S. Navy as they practice recovering an Orion mock-up.

Since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, the U.S. has paid Russia hundreds of millions per year to carry Americans into space. That should change soon.

"Before the year is out, the United States will once again send American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil," Vice President Pence said at a National Space Council meeting in August. "In recent months, SpaceX successfully docked its automated Crew Dragon capsule at the International Space Station, Blue Origin tested engines for its own lunar lander, and Boeing is working hard to launch its first crewed vehicle by the end of this year."

NASA is planning to use its own heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), on Artemis missions, the astronauts said.

“Launching humans into space again from Florida is a big thing,” said Boe, who, along with Kimbrough and another Georgia Tech grad, Sandra Magnus, got cheers from the crowd as they flew over Bobby Dodd Stadium with the International Space Station during a 2008 football game.

The Apollo missions used the gigantic Saturn V rocket — taller than the Statue of Liberty — to propel a capsule containing a lunar lander into orbit around the moon. The Apollo capsules, rockets and landers were one-use items, which drove up cost to more than $1 billion per launch.

The cost of SLS launches is in the same ballpark. The new rocket would also be the only one powerful enough to handle the Artemis missions with one launch, NASA says. Private companies, such as SpaceX, controlled by Tesla’s Elon Musk, employ reusable rockets to launch payloads into space for less than $100 million, but their smaller rockets would have to make multiple trips or be modified to undertake lunar missions.

Budgeting, the Georgia astronauts agreed, is a big hurdle. NASA, which has an annual budget of about $20 billion, has said an additional $5 billion per year is needed to make Artemis a reality.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Georgia gets on board

More than 80 Georgia companies are working with NASA on Artemis projects, including well-known names such as Southern Company, which is supplying liquefied natural gas to a NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Smaller companies are getting on board as well. MIT Distributors in Roswell provide materials necessary for testing components of the SLS rocket.

More than $20 million was awarded to Georgia companies in NASA’s 2018 budget, including $12 million to Georgia Tech and $1 million to Emory University.

Glenn Lightsey, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, said the unmanned Artemis 1 mission will help prepare for the return of humans to the moon.

Approximately 20 students from Tech are working on the first Artemis mission, which, while orbiting the moon will eject about a dozen briefcase-sized satellites called CubeSats. Georgia Tech worked with NASA on two of the satellites, designing and building the propulsion systems that they will use.

One NASA satellite dubbed BioSentinel will have a yeast sample aboard to test the effects of deep space radiation on DNA.

Lightsey explained the Earth’s magnetic field protects those of us living on its surface, and partially protects astronauts on the International Space Station, but it offers almost no protection further out.

“Humans haven’t really gone beyond Earth orbit in a long time,” he said, adding that advances in DNA testing will provide a better understanding of the long-term health effects of extended missions on the moon and trips to Mars, which could require a year of travel in unprotected space to reach.

The second satellite, Lunar Flashlight, has a trickier mission. Instead of floating freely in space, it must be propelled into a stable lunar orbit. From there, it will fire a laser into shadowed areas such as moon craters to locate ice, which astronauts could use for water or creating breathable oxygen.

“Lunar Flashlight is basically prospecting for water with a laser,” Lightsey said.

Georgia Tech launched its own first small satellites in December 2018, Lightsey said, and in the eight months since then has operated a total of 4 satellites in orbit.

“Students at Georgia Tech are building hardware that is going to the moon,” he said. “For an engineering student, it doesn’t get more exciting than that.”

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