Countdown to 50: Ohio's contribution to the next Moon mission

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Half a century has passed since what has been considered one of man's greatest achievements to date, though it's not in NASA's nature to dwell on the past. Instead, the agency is learning from it to build on future missions -- namely, our return to the Moon, in which Ohio is once again taking the reins.

Dr. Janet Kavandi, 3-time shuttle mission specialist, is overseeing a variety of projects as director of Cleveland's Glenn Research Center. One of them: the method of descent and ascent using an orbiting platform, dubbed "Gateway".

"What we did in the Apollo program was we flew directly from the surface of the Earth to the surface of the moon," says Dr. Kavandi. "Now what we're going to do is have essentially a platform that will be in lunar orbit. We can send lunar landers to the surface and back, and bring people to the surface and back."

Another endeavor at NASA Glenn involves trading in traditional liquid hydrogen fuel for ion propulsion. The thrusters strip the electrons off xenon atoms to give it a charge, and electromagnets take care of much of the rest of the propulsion through space.

Mike Barrett, Project Manager, Power & Propulsion Element
"The bulk of what we actually launch for most spacecraft is the fuel that has to be used to take it to places," says Mike Barrett, project manager for Glenn's Power and Propulsion Element division. "Since it's so much more efficient in the use of that fuel, instead of taking the fuel, you can take things like oxygen for the astronauts, or you can take payloads like landers."

A novel way to lighten that load is to live off the land. 40% of the Moon's surface is made of oxygen, and high heat can help extract it for propulsion or even life support.

Diane Linne heads up the center's In-Situ Resource Utilization project, and offers that "instead of taking all our supplies with us from Earth to the exploration site, we're going to get to the exploration site, look around at resources that are available and see what useful products we can make out of them."

There's also plenty of water at the poles to recover, but with rough terrain and abrasive lunar dust to deal with, it's simply hard to get to. That's where excavation lead Phillip Abel comes in.

"What we're doing is trying to design machinery that's relatively dust-immune or dust-tolerant," he says, "both in its mobility as well as its space-rated mechanisms that actually perform the excavation."

The European-built Orion crew module itself has had its components rigorously tested stateside -- an ongoing mission at Glenn's satellite campus, Plum Brook Station in Sandusky.

Director David Stringer echoes the agency's mantra: "Save money, test first. We want to test things because space launches are very expensive."

Among the facilities on-site: the world's largest vacuum chamber, standing 12 stories tall. Inside, Orion will be placed inside a "cryo shroud" -- affectionately dubbed "The Big Burrito" due to its appearance -- to simulate the cold environment of space.

Nicole Smith, project manager for Orion testing at Plum Brook, says they can cool the chamber to "about -250 degrees Fahrenheit, although for the Orion test we'll only go down to about -100."

Plum Brook Station also has a "Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility", the most powerful for its size in the world. Here, the capsule is subjected to sound on all fronts, mimicking the dynamic environment experienced during liftoff. According to Director Stringer, "this allows us to check to see if the mechanical structure can handle those stresses of going supersonic."

Dr. Kavandi says that returning to the Moon is worth the time and effort, as a proving ground for extending humanity's reach to other planets.

"Part of moving away from Earth is to help ensure the survival of the species, and if we're able to try out processes on the Moon for generating oxygen, for growing food, for generating living habitats to protect us from radiation... then we can actually make that a possibility on Mars."

With a looming 2024 deadline for the next lunar mission, researchers say they're up to the task.

Mike Barrett "really like[s] the fact that we're trying to do this in a shorter time frame. It does have challenges, but some of the benefits of the challenges are it's going to make us focus and prioritize."

That year will arrive quickly for NASA, and Nicole Smith sums up the atmosphere in the labs and facilities.

"To be here when the spacecraft is here, and then go see that thing launch and go to the moon... it's every aerospace engineer's dream. This is why we got into the business, you know?"