NASA’s Artemis program has connections in San Antonio, South Texas

Mihir Desai was understandably disappointed when NASA’s highly anticipated launch of the Artemis I mission, powered by its new rocket, was canceled hours before liftoff on August 29. He could not attend the next launch attempt on September 3.

As it turns out, the second launch was canceled as well, as the space agency was still unable to fix a hydrogen leak on the 322ft-tall rocket, known as the Space Launch System. .

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As of Thursday morning, NASA was considering but not committed to attempting to launch the first mission of the Artemis program on September 27.

For Desai, director of space research, space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute, a few more weeks wasn’t that long to wait compared to the eight years he spent developing one of the CubeSats – cubic satellites weighing a few pounds and measuring a few centimeters on each side – it will be on the Orion capsule when Artemis I finally lifts off. Yet the wait is not easy.

“It’s very exciting and a little scary,” he said.

When Artemis I launches, Desai won’t be the only San Antonio-based engineer or scientist to take part in NASA’s program to send people to the moon for the first time in half a century.

The first mission of the Artemis program will be unmanned — a test to determine if the rocket system can handle more than a month orbiting the moon before returning to Earth. Subsequent missions will send astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans on the lunar surface in 2025 or 2026. Beyond that, the Artemis program has big goals to regularly send astronauts to the moon to build a permanent outpost to support future lunar exploration. surface and possibly Mars.

SwRI, a nonprofit research provider, is a longtime NASA contractor, and the engineers hope to continue working with the space agency on science missions. It has 365 employees in the space department at its San Antonio headquarters and 100 in a satellite office in Boulder, Colorado.

In 2014, NASA selected SwRI will work on the CubeSat to Study Solar Particle – or CuSP – mission, designed to deploy instruments on miniature satellites to measure solar particles and space weather that could increase hazardous radiation near Earth’s orbit, forming a threat to astronauts. Such elements can cause electromagnetic storms, damage satellites, disrupt radio communications and damage electrical networks.

SwRI collaborated with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build the CubeSat. The total cost of the mission is approximately $8.5 million, relatively low in the space industry.

The first Artemis mission aims to put SwRI’s CubeSat into orbit to demonstrate that these satellites can be a viable way to study space weather and create a monitoring network, Desai said.

“Right now, our ability to predict these radiation storms is very primitive. It’s almost like we have two weather stations in the Pacific Ocean and we’re trying to predict the weather in New York,” Desai said. “Eventually, we want to be able to build our science and space surveillance capabilities so that we can make these predictions of potential hazards.”

Lunar building

Whether NASA pulls the SLS rocket off the launch pad this month or next, Astroport Space Technologies Inc. and the University of Texas at San Antonio plan to continue testing ways the space agency can create a permanent human habitation on the moon.

At UTSA, Kiran Bhaganagar – director of NASA’s MIRO Center for Advanced Measurements in Extreme Environments, known as CAMEE – has spent years studying polar ice and ocean warming, hurricanes, forest fires and droughts.

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Since 2019, his team of dozens of academics from multiple departments has been working at CAMEE, which was built with $3 million from NASA. The crew, in part, is studying how to develop a base camp, roads, and landing and launching pads on the moon using moon rocks.

“The main idea is to improve our understanding of extreme events on Earth and eventually use that knowledge to go to the Moon and Mars,” Bhaganagar said recently during a visit to NASA Langley Research Center. in Virginia. “It’s the big picture of Artemis.”

Following the first launch of SLS, CAMEE researchers recently learned that they had received $2 million in grants from NASA to continue Artemis program research through October 2024. They plan to use the funding to extend their research to robotic lunar exploration.

Sam Ximenes, is the founder and CEO of Astroport. who is working on developing tools to liquefy moondust and turn the substance into interlocking bricks.

William Luther, staff / William Luther

As part of this partnership, NASA offers summer internships to researchers from the Goddard, JPL and Langley centers.

Part of the NASA funding could also go toward building the long-planned Lunar Test Facility in San Antonio — a site that mirrors the moon’s environment. The lunar installation remains at the pre-planning stage. Bhaganagar said CAMEE was discussing with Port San Antonio the possibility of hosting it at the 1,900-acre campus on the southwest side.

Already in port, Sam Ximenes is the founder and CEO of space construction company Astroport, a division of space architecture firm Exploration Architecture, or XArc.

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Last year, NASA selected Astropost for a $136,000 technology transfer agreement for small businesses to develop a prototype furnace and nozzle by June. Astroport worked with UTSA Faculty at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Construction Management to develop a furnace to liquefy moon dust, known as regolith, and a nozzle to use the lava-like substance to create interlocking bricks.

Last month, Astroport received a second contract from NASA to further its study of building launch pads on the moon.

“Our goals are to advance the state of the art with geotechnical and civil engineering processes for handling bulk regolith using a set of regolith working tools for the preparation of the lunar launch-landing site,” Ximenes said in a statement.

SpaceX, the neighbor of SA

As engineers in San Antonio develop CubeSats and moon bricks for NASA, they’re turning to Elon Musk’s SpaceX – their neighbor in southern Texas – to help the space agency bring humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program in 1972.

Last year, NASA chose SpaceX to build the first commercial lander. Musk’s space engineering firm – headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif. – has developed a 400-foot-tall Starship vehicle at the Starbase complex in Boca Chica, outside of Brownsville.

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NASA plans for the third Artemis mission include launching the SLS from Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX could launch a version of its Starship vehicle from Florida or South Texas, according to last year’s audit report titled “NASA’s Management of The Artemis Missions” by the Office of Inspector General.

SpaceX could also launch from “a floating launch pad in the Gulf of Mexico, which could add additional launch facilities and potentially alleviate the safety and regulatory issues of launching a huge rocket near populated areas.” , according to the audit.

The idea of ​​SpaceX launching from South Texas as part of the Artemis program has sparked the interest of academics and space enthusiasts.

“We are watching carefully, with great anxiety,” said Chris Combs, professor and aerospace program coordinator in UTSA’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “It’s a project that has lasted my entire career. I want it to succeed. It’s a big deal.

Each time the third Artemis mission would occur, the Orion would dock with a Starship vehicle waiting in orbit around the moon.

To land on the moon, the capsule must transfer astronauts to the orbiting Starship. Two astronauts would board the Starship and head to the moon’s south pole, while the others would remain on the orbiting capsule to provide communications support.

Astronauts are expected to stay on the moon for about a week. They will mostly stay inside the spacecraft, although they plan to conduct several research projects on the lunar surface.

The Starship would send the astronauts back to Orion for the return trip to Earth.

If all goes well, NASA plans to move forward with long-term plans to send astronauts to the moon to set up a lunar base camp and an outpost called bridge stationed in lunar orbit.

From his post in San Antonio, Combs believes NASA and SpaceX “have developed a great partnership” that will influence generations of regional engineers, scientists and would-be astronauts. He credits the Apollo mission for his interest in engineering and space exploration, and thinks the Artemis program could have a similar influence on young people in the region.

“Being in central Texas, we’re right in the middle of it all,” Combs said. “It’s about the 10-year-old trying to decide what he wants to do, and it’s going to invigorate our workforce for another 40 years. There are children who are not even born yet who are going to be inspired.

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