At 7:05 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2014, Mines alumnus Paul Anderson ’85 stood on the causeway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, looked out across the water to the launch site, and watched five years of his work go up in flames.
The ground shook beneath him. Then came the deafening whoosh, as NASA’s Orion spacecraft rode a column of orange flame and grey smoke into the sky for a minute before disappearing. Anderson, whose face was sheet white that morning, would have to wait another 4 hours and 24 minutes before the capsule would splash down near the California coast, having just traveled farther from Earth than any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts since 1972. ‘It was nerve-wracking,’ says Anderson, the Lockheed Martin director of avionics for the Orion program. ‘You put years of your life into something and it’s all determined in four and a half hours. It was going to either be a very good day or a very bad day.’
It turned out to be a very good day. When Orion finally splashed down, 52-year-old Anderson and dozens of other Mines-grads-turned-Lockheed employees heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated what, for many, was a lifelong dream realized. But their rest would be short-lived. Within days, they were back to work on the next goal: sending four astronauts to an asteroid in 2021 and, ultimately, sending many astronauts to Mars in Orion, ushering in a new era of deep space exploration that could someday make humans a multi-planet species.
‘One day, an astronaut will leave the first footprints on the red dust of Mars, and we will look back and say it all started on December 5 with this test,’ says Lockheed propulsion engineer Heather McKay ’07, who couldn’t help but tear up a little on the causeway that day. ‘To be part of that historic event was pretty moving.’
McKay and Anderson are among 38 Mines graduates involved in the Orion project at Lockheed, and among 57 alumni working on civil space projects for the company, making Mines one of the best-represented schools in the country when it comes to landing a spot on Lockheed’s aerospace team. That’s not surprising to Anderson, who credits Mines’ high expectations and broad-based curriculum with prepping him for his 30-year career in the field. In fact, more than 10 percent of Mines graduates go into aerospace, and that number is expected to grow thanks to several new courses, the ability for students to declare aerospace as an Area of Special Interest, and a thriving Space Society and Astronomy Club.
‘Aerospace recruiters are looking for a wide variety of engineering and science skills,’ says Angel Abbud-Madrid, PhD, director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines. ‘You need mechanical skills to design components, electrical skills for control systems, and knowledge of geology and geophysics for when these systems go to asteroids and Mars. That is the beauty of Mines’ you get all those fundamentals here.’
WHEN I GROW UP, I WANT TO BE AN ASTRONAUT
McKay decided on a career in space exploration in the fifth grade after accompanying her mom to Take Your Child to Work Day at Lockheed’s Littleton facility. There, she met Bruce McCandless, a NASA astronaut who’d been on two space shuttle missions and had taken the first-ever untethered free flight in space. McKay was spellbound, and has been ever since.
‘We are just beginning to learn about how to live and work beyond our planet,’ says McKay, 30, who has a photo from that day with McCandless on her office wall. ‘What’s out there? Are we alone in the universe, or is it teeming with extraterrestrial life? Just thinking about this, even as a kid, made me know this was the field for me.’
McKay’s academic record and stature (she’s six feet tall) caught the eye of Mines recruiters. She graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering in 2006, leaving a legacy as one of the top female scorers ever on the basketball team. In 2007, after earning her MS in systems engineering, she landed a job working on Lockheed Martin’s new contract with NASA: building a vessel called Orion capable of exploring deep space.
Casey O’Hayre ’09, like McKay, grew up near Lockheed, landed at Mines on a basketball scholarship, and pegged aerospace as his career of choice early on. ‘I have always loved the idea that we are advancing human civilization, moving us closer to being a multi-planetary species,’ says O’Hayre, a systems engineer in charge of avionics.
Anderson’s backstory was notably different than that of McKay or O’Hayre. ‘A lot of people in this business dreamed of being an astronaut since they were little kids, but I dreamed of becoming a basketball coach,’ he says. At 6-foot-3, and as the son of a Division I basketball coach, Anderson always assumed he’d follow in his father’s footsteps. Although he came to Mines to play small forward for the Orediggers, he soon excelled on and off the court studying on the bus to and from distant games. Shortly before he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, he attended a job fair and met a recruiter for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed). ‘I sort of stumbled into this, and I’m really glad I did,’ he says.
All three alumni say juggling 18-credit-hour schedules with two-hour daily basketball practices helped prepare them for the grueling, travel-heavy schedules of their current jobs. Playing on a basketball team (which they all still do at Lockheed) also taught them the art of collaboration and braced them for the pressure cooker that is aerospace engineering. ‘If you can make a freethrow with 2,000 people screaming at you and calling you names, you can handle this,’ says Anderson, who played small forward for four years at Mines.
Athletics also taught them how to lose sometimes but pick themselves back up again, a lesson Anderson has been forced to draw from more than once in his aerospace career. He oversaw the electrical power systems (which, as an aside, worked perfectly and were not blamed) on the failed Mars Climate Orbiter, a robotic space probe that famously disappeared and then disintegrated in 1998. He was also on the team that helped build the Mars Polar Lander, which failed to communicate after descent and is presumed to have crash landed on Mars in 1999.
‘These failures were very tough to get through, but in the end, just like in basketball, you had to have a longer-term vision and some perseverance and work your way out of it,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, when you think about it, they led to the next generation of planetary vehicles that have been unbelievably successful.’ They also led him to Orion.
A NEW ERA OF DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION
The Orion project has a billion-dollar annual budget and an aggressive time schedule that looks like this: In 2018, NASA will test its new 77-ton Space Launch System (the largest rocket ever built), which will hurl Orion to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. In 2021, four astronauts will climb into the pod (which is about the size of a small dorm room), for a 21-day journey to an asteroid on the far side of the moon to conduct research. Around 2030, they’ll embark on a six-month trip to Mars. Eventually, its architects hope, multiple Orions will be running missions to Mars.
But sending people into deep space comes with unique engineering challenges, McKay says. The Space Station orbits the Earth about 460 km away, relatively close in the grand scheme of things. Deep space is exponentially farther, with the moon hovering 384,400 km away, and Mars at 55,700,000 km from Earth. With that distance comes communications challenges. (A signal sent from Mars to Earth takes 30 minutes to get here and back). The radiation is also intense, which can be hard on people Earth’s atmosphere after traveling such a distance, its surface temperature rises to more than 4,000 degrees (Fahrenheit), making it tough to keep the spacecraft’s interior habitable for humans.
‘We even have a requirement for how loud the toilet onboard can be,’ McKay says, noting that the one on the space station is so loud, astronauts have to wear ear protection when they use it.
Each of the 38 Mines alumni working on Orion serve a slightly different role. McKay originally worked on the Launch Abort System, a trio of rocket motors designed to pull the space module away from the booster and return it safely to the ground in case of an emergency during launch. For the past several years, she’s turned her attention to the liquid propulsion system that ensures the module lands on target when it re-enters the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Anderson headed up a team of 160 people at Lockheed and hundreds of other subcontractors around the country working on avionics, essentially all electrical hardware on the vehicle, including the computers, the batteries, the wiring, the communication equipment, and the guidance and navigation hardware. Software specialist Kim Fleming ’01 focused her efforts on integrating software and hardware onboard. ‘I always wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, but in a way this has been more interesting and gratifying for me,’ she says. ‘I get to build it.’
On launch day, many of them gathered before a giant screen at the Hilton in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as Orion rose to 3,600 miles above the earth; circled twice, hitting speeds of 20,000 miles per hour; and decelerated toward the ocean on the other side of the country. A hush came over the room as Orion re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and appeared on screen, 11 giant parachutes slowing its speed as it plummeted toward the water. The cheers erupted. ‘It was a flawless flight test,’ says McKay.
Now, she and her colleagues are busy analyzing the 1,200 sensors aboard the flight to get a better sense of the temperatures, loads, and stressors Orion will encounter in deep space, and to make sure the craft is ready to withstand these pressures when humans come aboard.
In their spare time, McKay and O’Hayre are also reaching out to future engineers to enlighten them on a mission they could someday be a part of. Prior to the December 5 launch, they spoke to the Mines Space Society and Rocket Club, inspiring members to rise at 4 a.m. in their dorm rooms to watch the launch. They also offered live Q&A video presentations from their workstations at Kennedy Space Center, allowing students in classrooms nationwide to pose questions about everything from what kinds of insects have been up in space, to what it takes to become an astronaut.
‘I tell them, ‘The first person to go to Mars is probably in middle school right now,’ says McKay. ‘That could be you.’