Coastal Texans remain at the center of lunar missions
Blaine Brown remembers the day man landed on the moon. He watched the momentous event on TV, and then went outside and looked up.
“I was watching it,” Brown said. “I was looking at the moon when they were on it. I remember that distinctly, looking at the moon, saying ‘There are people there right now.’”
Brown was 10 years old and living in California on July 20, 1969.
Today, the Dickinson resident is one of the leaders of a project that aims to take us back to the moon.
Brown is deputy for the Orion crew and service module at Lockheed Martin. The Orion capsule is the next-age spaceship that U.S. Astronauts expect to fly to and land on the moon, possibly in the next five years. Lockheed Martin has developed the capsule in partnership with NASA.
In late May, Brown stood inside Building 9 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where astronauts train in full-scale models of space vehicles. The building holds a scale model of the International Space Station and of the Russian Soyuz capsule, the only way man can currently travel to space.
‘MOON AND BEYOND’
There’s also a model of the Orion capsule. A little larger than an SUV, it’s designed to carry four people. Compared to the Apollo capsules of the early space programs, it’s huge. But in form and function, Orion takes a lot of inspiration from those 50-year-old capsules, Brown said.
“It is what drives me,” Brown said of the Apollo missions. “My goal here, my career, is to get people back on the moon and beyond.”
Brown has been on the project since it was announced in 2005.
In recent months, progress on the United States’ next moon mission has been fast and frequent.
In early June, NASA announced it had chosen three companies to build unmanned landers to transport science experiments to the moon. That came weeks after it chose a manufacturer to build the first piece of a lunar gateway — a space station that would orbit the moon and be a pit stop for travelers headed to the lunar surface.
At the same time, NASA announced it was four-fifths of the way to assembling the core stage rocket, Artemis 1, which could carry Brown’s Orion capsule to the moon. Orion itself is set for a test flight in early July to assess its ability to safely detach from a rocket if something went wrong early in a launch.
All of those things are part of an aggressive timeline Vice President Mike Pence laid out in March to return humans to the moon by 2024.
‘NEED TO DO BETTER’
“It took us eight years to get to the moon the first time, 50 years ago, when we had never done it before, and it shouldn’t take us 11 years to get back,” Pence said in a speech at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
It’s a challenge he and his team are embracing, Brown said.
“I’ve lived in the shadow of Apollo’s accomplishments,” he said. “We need to do better now.”
At the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it just feels like big things are happening at Johnson Space Center. And, as they were 50 years ago, Galveston County residents are at the center of some of the biggest projects at the heart of NASA.
Brown is a Dickinson resident. The other top leader of the Orion project lives in League City.
High above the Earth, aboard the International Space Station, Galveston resident Christina Koch is part of what’s supposed to be the longest space flight ever completed by a woman. Koch’s stay is scheduled to last 328 consecutive days. She’s not scheduled to return to the Earth’s surface until February 2020.
It’s a sharp change from the early part of the decade when a cloud seemed to hang over NASA. In 2011, thousands of NASA employees and contractors were laid off with the end of the space shuttle program, which led some to speculate that Johnson Space Center’s days were numbered.
Almost 10 years later, however, many of the people who lost jobs have moved on to other projects with other contractors, including the likes of Space X and Boeing, which are partnering with the agency to develop commercial crew vehicles to serve the International Space Station, Brown said.
‘ON A MISSION’
Galveston County residents also are at the center of restoring part of NASA that had been neglected for years: historic mission control at Johnson Space Center. The control room from which the Apollo missions were carried out was declared a historic landmark in 1985, but had been neglected to the point that the National Park Service listed it as “threatened” in 2015.
In recent years, Apollo alumni, their friends and relatives have led an effort to restore mission control, the result of which is scheduled to be revealed in July.
Ed Fendell, of League City, was inside mission control on the night of the moon landing, and was among the Apollo alumni leading the mission control restoration.
A former assistant flight director, Fendell was the instrumentation and communications officer in mission control during the Apollo 11 mission.
What people don’t remember about that night is there wasn’t live video of what exactly was happening on the surface of the moon, only an audio feed, Fendell said.
‘I DIDN’T THINK WE’D PULL IT OFF’
Fendell remembers the feeling inside the room when Neil Armstrong was taking his first steps out of the lunar lander. Despite Fendell’s involvement with the program, he was filled with doubts about the chances of actually making the 1969 landing, he said.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Fendell said. “All these different sequences and things needed to happen and must happen correctly, and some of them in microseconds. In my mind, I didn’t think we’d pull it off on the first time.”
But pull it off they did.
As Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were descending to the lunar surface, Fendell felt as if he were levitating off his chair, he said.
“I was so wrapped up in listening to this, and what was going on, I didn’t feel like I was touching anything,” he said.
Fendell’s career spanned generations of NASA projects, from the Gemini missions to the early days of the space shuttle program. The agency is different now, he said. For one, everyone is smarter, he said.
Fendell is frequently noted in Apollo lore for his humble path to the moon landing team. A Connecticut native with a degree in merchandising from a junior college in Massachusetts, he got connected to NASA after joining the Air Force, taking an aptitude test and finding that his IQ was much higher than his academic history suggested.
NASA of today also can do great things with a mission on which to focus, he said. He noted that over the past 20 years, NASA’s mission has vacillated from the end of the shuttle program, to going to Mars, to returning to the moon.
“Those young people working over there are twice as smart as we were,” he said. “They’ve got tools to work with that they understand, and know how to work programs that we didn’t even know would exist.”
“I personally don’t believe we’ll go to the moon or Mars until the Chinese do it,” he said.
But, he’s been wrong before, he said.