One giant leap from Huntsville to the moon

Monday July 20, 2020

It's been 51 years since Neil Armstrong delivered one of the most famous lines in history; "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." That one-liner sparked inspiration across the country in 1969 and it continues to do so today. But why would we go back to the moon? Simply put, it's the launch-pad for the next generation of space exploration.

Fast forward from 1969 to 2019 and Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, visited Huntsville, Alabama and announced that "the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts launched by American rockets from American soil."

That's where Dynetics comes in, competing to design the next human lunar landing system to be chosen by NASA. The opportunity to be nationally highlighted as an innovative, trusted aerospace company has put Huntsville and Dynetics on the world's stage and, for Dynetics Lead Systems Engineering and Integration Engineer for the Avionics Software and Power Group Liz Canty, "to know that we impressed upon NASA, that we have the ability and the technology to support them in this challenging and historic mission- I think that's really impressive."

Meet the Dynetics Human Landing System (HLS) 

The HLS is the vehicle that could return astronauts to the surface of the moon in 2024 for the first human landing since the Apollo missions. But even more than that, it will be a reusable spacecraft that allows astronauts to complete several descent and ascent stages within the same vehicle.

Moon landers like those used in the Apollo missions were designed to descend astronauts to the moon and then ascend them back to an orbiting craft for a single use. HLS is promoting a sustainable architecture that could complete multiple missions without any major refurbishment.

Main Engine project lead for the Dynetics Human Landing System Jeremy Voigt explains, "We can't have astronauts going out and turning wrenches on the vehicle on spacewalks because that's hazardous, expensive, and time-consuming. Anything that we want to change out between flights has to be exceedingly simple, like refilling propellants."

In addition, a reusable lunar landing system will allow the astronauts to be more familiar with the vehicle, notes Propulsion Integrated product team support Miranda Caserta. The HLS is being designed with reusability in mind, with a straightforward system, which Voigt believes is the innovation needed for success.

Why go to the moon?

Dynetics is thinking about how moon exploration can benefit life on Earth. "It's an opportunity to advance science in an environment that we have no way to replicate on Earth. There's a lower gravity response, dust environment, and incredibly cold temperatures that we have no way to replicate naturally, so I think the experiments that we'll be able to run in this new habitat will aid medical advances and lead to new space technologies," says Canty.

Due to the distance from Earth to the moon, it's safer for initial exploration than Mars but provides us a deeper understanding about living on another body. "Going to the moon prepares us to go to Mars, to go anywhere we want. It gives us new avenues to explore, technologies to develop and the landers that we're developing to land on the moon will have versions that can land on Mars or Mars' moons. The habitats we're going to build on the moon, those are applicable to habitats on Mars. So we need to know how to do all of these things (for further space exploration) and the moon helps us get there," Voigt says.

Not only does the next trip to the moon serve an educational purpose for NASA, but it also provides an economic stepping stone to exploring other planets. "It takes a lot of energy to launch things from Earth. Imagine launching something into orbit and then refueling it and then it goes onto Mars, rather than having a vehicle that goes directly from the surface of the earth to Mars," Voigt imagines. "Your limitations in a lot of these technologies go away when you do that."

Past space exploration programs like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the International Space Station have shown immense benefits to humankind through technology like global positioning systems (GPS), satellites used for television, internet, radio, and telephones - all directly predicated on launching vessels into space.

Further down the roadmap of space exploration, Voigt predicts that the technologies developed to land on the moon will lend themselves to finding ways for humans to live on the moon, commercializing it and building an economy and infrastructure. 

"I think the future of space exploration is going to be increasingly more commercialized," agrees Caserta. "As we've seen, NASA has chosen to let industry determine the best lander design that can lead to commercial lunar services as well provide transportation for NASA astronauts to the moon, rather than defining rigid architectures and requirements."

Why else should we go to the moon? To Voigt, it's simple: "Humans are explorers; it's what drives us. And having that drive as humans, as a nation, as our culture, that's what helps focus our efforts and helps us do amazing things."

Going back to the moon and beyond

It doesn't stop there either. In addition to HLS, Dynetics is pursuing smaller, research-based projects and life support systems. Some of their other products include the Laser Air Monitor System and miniature carbon dioxide scrubber. "I think we've taken a much quieter approach to make life better for astronauts and improve technology with our own internal research and development, coupled with project opportunities through NASA. We are developing critical systems that can be incorporated in multiple programs and spaceships. You might see another company's logo on the side of a NASA vehicle, but 10 of the life-saving components within it could be Dynetics' products someday," says Canty.

Leidos + Dynetics

As a recent addition to the Leidos family, Dynetics has 37,000 people to support their projects. "As we expand our HLS team, there have been several cases where we've gotten folks reaching out to us from Leidos who have offered expertise which was extremely helpful and critical in growing our team," notes Caserta.

"There are people with really good backgrounds and support networks that we've been able to take advantage of, being a part of Leidos now," says Voigt. "Also knowing that we have the whole Leidos family working with us to make this a success is really great."

Written by Kiersten Freedman

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