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Meet some of NASA’s Hampton Roads team behind the Artemis rocket launch

Photo by Katherine Hafner. A model of the Space Launch System tested at one of NASA Langley’s wind tunnels.
Photo by Katherine Hafner. A model of the Space Launch System tested at one of NASA Langley’s wind tunnels.

In 1969, Americans watched with awe as their country sent the first humans to step foot on the moon. It was famously dubbed a “giant leap for mankind.”

But no one has been back since the Apollo program ended a few years later.

NASA’s been working for years to get back to the moon. The upcoming launch of its newest rocket is the agency’s first step.

Artemis 1 is an uncrewed, 42-day test flight that will orbit the moon. If all goes well, it sets the stage for more launches in coming years with humans on board.

Scientists and engineers from all over the country contributed to the Artemis mission — including some from NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

WHRO spoke with four people there about their work on Artemis.

Designing the mission

NASA’s Hampton Roads team behind the Artemis rocket launch

Pat Troutman’s job title sounds a bit like what a child might say they want to be when they grow up: space architect.

Just like there are architects who design houses or cities, the final frontier also needs a planner.

“My job is to design an architecture that enables humans to explore other destinations,” he said.

Practically speaking, that means helping map out a mission from start to finish.

A space architect must weigh constantly shifting and competing priorities such as time, budget constraints, safety, ambition, policy and more.

“It’s leveraging what’s been done in the past with an eye towards the future, knowing what needs to be done,” Troutman said. “And then working backwards from the future to pull that past experience to where it needs to go.”

Most of the time it’s not his team’s job to make decisions about big goals. That’s left up to higher-ups and political leaders.

But he works to provide them with analysis of the pros and cons — for adding a certain technology to the mission, for instance, or nixing another.

Troutman started at Langley almost four decades ago. His earlier roles focused more on the International Space Station and lower-Earth orbit.

Artemis takes him even further out of this world.

Returning to the moon is an important way for the U.S. to learn more about space, Troutman said. But he also sees it as practical knowledge for humankind.

Sometime, maybe millions of years from now, maybe sooner, “the sun's going to turn into a red giant, and it's going to get hot here,” he said.

“So I look at exploration of the solar system and beyond as an insurance policy for all humanity.”

Building the rocket


The rocket for the Artemis mission is called the Space Launch System.

When it flies, it’ll be “the most capable rocket that has ever been designed and built in the world,” said Jeremy Pinier.

He’s associate director of the Artemis program for the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate and Langley. He’s been working on the rocket for over a decade.

It stands at 322 feet tall, weighs 6 million pounds when fueled and can reach 4,000 miles per hour in just a few minutes.

But one of the models Pinier works on is much smaller – maybe a foot long. It sits in one of Langley’s many wind tunnels for experimental testing.

Pinier measures aerodynamic forces that bear down on the rocket in the first few minutes after launch.

“Air loads want to crush the rocket like a soda can as it’s flying through the atmosphere,” he said.

His job is to help prepare it to withstand those forces.

One way is by extensive computer modeling. The other is in the wind tunnels.

The team tests models at various speeds, such as approaching supersonic or even five times as much.

“Because we are carrying astronauts into space on this rocket, we are not taking chances,” he said. “We have to know exactly what the air flow is doing on this rocket. Not just approximately, we have to know exactly.”

The spacecraft has to accommodate carrying both crew and very large cargo, Pinier said.

NASA plans to use it as its primary method of deep space exploration for the foreseeable future. That includes going to the moon and ultimately Mars.

Getting things right


In 2003, NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia. It disintegrated when reentering the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board.

The agency later discovered that a small piece of foam had broken off an external fuel tank and hit the shuttle’s left wing.

Modern technology may have helped prevent the tragedy, said Jennifer Inman, a project manager at Langley.

She leads a team that sprung up in the years after the Columbia accident to avert future disasters.

It’s called SCIFLI, for Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery.

In other words, the group uses advanced sensors to gather data about a space vehicle as it travels in and out of our atmosphere.

“I remember seeing those models with the different pieces of the wing missing and just catching my breath and realizing people died because we got this wrong,” Inman said.

“So I feel kind of a personal, ethical responsibility … to have the best data that we can during launch and reentry so that astronauts make it home to their families at the end of the day.”

SCIFLI sets up near a launch site with high-powered telescopes on planes, on the ground or even sometimes on ships, all pointed toward the vehicle.

The goal is essentially to take the rocket’s temperature. They assess how hot different parts of it get and compare that to what they’re designed to endure.

The real-time data complements computer modeling, calculations and wind tunnel tests done beforehand, Inman said.

The sensors are like scientific-grade versions of thermal technology anyone could use around their house to spot a hidden cat based on its heat signature, she said.

There are sensors on the Space Launch System. But they can’t capture the entire picture and could go awry in an emergency, she said.

“It closes the loop where we see, ‘OK this is what we expect will happen. And then we can see what actually happens in flight.’”

Protecting astronauts


There won’t be any astronauts on board the Artemis 1 rocket.

But there will be next time, and it’s Chuck Gray’s job to make sure nothing happens to them.

Gray, an aerospace and pyrotechnic engineer, works on the Orion Launch Abort System at Langley. In fact, it’s the only thing he’s worked on in his 14 years at the Hampton center.

The abort system is the emergency capsule that sends astronauts safely back to Earth if something goes wrong after takeoff.

If you look at the 322-foot-tall rocket, the abort system is the spear at the very top. It weighs 17,000 pounds and can get about 400,000 pounds of thrust, Gray said.

The system is designed to recognize anything amiss within milliseconds. If that happens, “boom,” the crew module will fly away, he said.

After spinning and reorienting, the system would then kick in a motor that sends the crew module into freefall, eventually landing with a splash into water on our planet.

There have been many tests of the abort system, Gray said. During them, representatives from other offices across the agency have shared some poignant words with his team.

They said, “‘You just saved a life. You just saved a crew,’” Gray said.

“And to be honest with you, that’s the best thing I ever heard, because that’s what we’re doing. I hope we never have to, but we know … we got it to that point.”

This launch is special for Gray. He’s retiring at the end of this year.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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