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NASA’s Artemis mission has distinctive Auburn University flavor

“‘War Eagle!’ is written somewhere inside that vehicle. I’m not going to say where, or who put it there, but I can assure you, ‘War Eagle’ is there.” – Joseph Pelfrey, deputy director, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Auburn University is going to the moon.

That’s right. When Artemis I — the most ambitious space mission since the shuttle — sends rockets into the heavens to begin a series of missions, the cumulative work of Auburn University alumni, scientists, engineers and researchers will ride along.

Standing 322 feet, the 5.75-million-pound unmanned Artemis I, powered by a central Space Launch System, or SLS, orange core rocket with twin solid rocket boosters, will carry spacecraft Orion up to 280,000 miles in an exploratory mission NASA considers, “The first in a series of increasingly complex missions… that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond.”

Auburn researchers believe their work could impact future Artemis missions and space exploration. Some of them include:

  • Masatoshi Hirabayashi, assistant professor in aerospace engineering, is one of eight co-investigators assigned to NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover mission, which will explore the lunar soil and search for water, during an Artemis-related mission in 2023.
  • Masoud Mahjouri-Samani, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, and Nima Shamsaei, Philpott-WestPoint Stevens Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering, are part of a NASA-funded team challenged to create electronic devices in space via dry printing technology.
  • Michael Hamilton, the James B. Davis Professor in electrical and computer engineering, is principal investigator on a project designed to test the viability of specific electric devices in extreme lunar environments.
  • Auburn University’s National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence, or NCAME, spearheaded development of a 3D-printed nozzle liner for large-scale, liquid rocket engines.
  • David Scarborough, associate professor in aerospace engineering, Vrishank Raghav and Masatoshi Hirabayashi, assistant professors in aerospace engineering, and Brian Thurow, professor and aerospace engineering department chair, are working on a NASA-funded project to study plume-surface interactions and lunar dust formation during descent and touchdown on the moon in relation to rocket exhaust, for future lunar missions.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to play a variety of roles in the future of space exploration,” said Steve Taylor, interim dean of engineering. “Auburn’s history with NASA is among the richest in the nation, from men and women in space, to engineers who helped design Gemini, Saturn V, the Space Shuttle and now the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I mission, to our researchers who keep finding means to make space travel more efficient and innovative. Auburn is proud to play a role in this new, ambitious mission and looks forward to being a leader in space engineering and exploration for years to come.”

Auburn space history not limited to astronauts

When Auburn and space exploration are discussed, it’s natural to consider alumni and astronauts Jan Davis ’77, Hank Hartsfield ’54, Ken Mattingly ’58, Kathryn Thornton ’74, Jim Voss ’72 and Clifton Curtis Williams ’54. After all, space shuttles, space walks and Apollo missions come to mind.

But Auburn’s space history isn’t limited to astronauts. Nearly 500 alumni have worked in various capacities at NASA, including three Kennedy Space Center directors – James W. Kennedy ’72, Lt. Gen. Forrest S. McCartney ’52 and Richard G. Smith ’51.

In addition, alumni such as Todd May ’90 (former director, Marshall Space Flight Center), Brooks Moore ‘48 (50-plus years working in the space industry), Jim Odom ’55 (led development of the Hubble Space Telescope), John W. Thomas ’60 (instrumental in space programs for 60 years), Gerald W. Smith ’61 and ’71 (40-year career included stints at Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA headquarters and Stennis Space Center), Tim Monk ’05 (senior manager, New Glenn Project at Blue Origin) and Jonathan Mitchell ’13 (policy advisor for the New Zealand Space Agency) made considerable contributions to space exploration.

Marshall Space Flight Center Deputy Director Joseph Pelfrey, a 2000 Auburn aerospace alumnus whose team designed and developed Artemis’ SLS, said it’s easy to pick out Auburn engineers at NASA’s Huntsville home.

“You notice them by the way they communicate,” said Pelfrey, who pointed out that more than 200 Auburn engineers are employed as civilians at Marshall Space Flight Center and played valuable roles on the Artemis mission. “They’re deep technically, and they understand the big picture, too. When you think about a large rocket, it’s actually a system of systems within itself. Auburn engineers can lift their heads out of their technical area and recognize how some parts of a system will interact with other parts of a system. That’s critically important when developing complex space missions.”

Notable Auburn alumni working as contributors at Marshall include Robert Champion, director of Center Operations who recently served as the director of the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where major components of the SLS and Orion capsule were manufactured; Neil Otte, chief engineer for the SLS Core Stage; Amy Buck, key engineer in the thermal protection systems for SLS; Paula Khoe Decesaris, deputy manager of the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department, which has been responsible for all of the systems engineering and integration, structural analysis and guidance, navigation and control for the SLS; Leslie McNutt, who served as project manager for Near Earth Asteroid Scout, a secondary payload flying on Artemis I to test solar sail propulsion technology; and Joel Broome, senior leader responsible for systems engineering and integration and mission analysis.

‘War Eagle is written somewhere inside that vehicle’

Pelfrey credits his Auburn aerospace education for making launch preparation more routine.

“I learned the value of teamwork at Auburn,” he said. “That is so important when taking on comprehensive projects of this nature. I remember our senior project—testing propellant tank designs on NASA’s KC 135 zero-gravity aircraft. Our team worked together and participated in the process for safety and design reviews, which is very similar to the process we use to evaluate space craft flight readiness today. Industry experts came in and evaluated our experiment to ensure we were not doing anything unsafe. I believe I’ve repeated that process more than 50 times since then.”

Pelfrey, who considers the late Mike Ogles—former director of NASA programs at Auburn—his first mentor, said he and his team were responsible for “meeting agency objectives and to ensure we’re managing the risks,” which culminate in a flight readiness review—much like his senior project at Auburn.

“When making that formal declaration, that’s a big deal,” he said. “You’re signing your name at that point. You’re saying, ‘We’ve done our work. We’ve checked our work. We had other people check our work. We’re ready to fly.”

Artemis I’s launch window from Kennedy Space Center is Aug. 29, Sept. 2 and Sept. 5. The capsule will spend four to six weeks in space before splashing down off the coast of San Diego.

“War Eagle! is written somewhere inside that vehicle (Artemis),” Pelfrey added. “I’m not going to say where, or who put it there, but I can assure you, ‘War Eagle’ is already there.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

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