Georgians playing a critical role in 2024 NASA moon mission

NASA wants a woman standing on the moon by 2024, less than five years from now.

Channel 2 Action News chief meteorologist Glenn Burns went behind the scenes at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and met Georgians working on the program.

That program is called project Artemis. Humans’ return to the moon is just the first step in NASA’s mission. It said the moon will be a test run for NASA’s next big leap, sending humans to Mars.

“We look there, we want to go there,” NASA’s Space Launch System associate program manager Lewis Wooten told Burns as both men looked toward the sky. “The first thing we’re going to need is a gigantic, powerful, rocket and we are building that rocket.”

That rocket is NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS. It will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Wooten showed Burns how they are testing components of the rocket, including a 200-foot-tall fuel tank.

It will hold 550,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen when it’s ready for launch. Engineers will test this tank with 3 million pounds of force, mimicking flight conditions.

The steel used to build the behemoth components of the SLS comes from southwest Georgia near the farm Wooten grew up on.

“We are really doing what NASA was designed to do and that is to explore and in order to explore the fundamental capability you need is transportation,” Wooten said.

SLS is just one of several projects that are part of the Artemis program. Artemis is named for the mythological twin sister of NASA’s first moon program, Apollo.

Along with private partners, NASA is developing new space suits, space capsule, lunar lander and a space station that would orbit the moon.

NASA engineer Logan Kennedy wasn’t alive the first time an astronaut stepped off the ladder of a lunar lander onto the moon’s surface. But he is a part of the team creating the lander that will send the first woman to the moon.

“The lander is the venue to get all of that science to the surface including crew which of course crew is the best science package you can bring,” Kennedy said.

NASA admits the timeline is ambitious. There is no hard number for what it will cost to make a 2024 moon landing a success. NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine said getting to the moon could cost between $20 billion and $30 billion.

Wooten said the moon will be a testing ground for further manned space exploration.

“Our first stop is going to be the moon, and then from the moon we’re going to Mars and from there, hey, who knows where,” Wooten said.

But to send humans to explore our solar system NASA will need more than a powerful rocket, it will also need a smart one.

“What we have here are the flight computers. These, as you can tell, are the brains of everything that goes on in here,” NASA software engineer and Georgia Tech alum Hannah Hopkins explained as she walked Burns through a giant room filled with computers.

That room holds the brains of the SLS. The wires and avionics systems in the room were in the shape of the inside of the rocket where they will eventually be housed.

Hopkins is one of several engineers who writes millions of lines of code for the rocket’s flight simulation system.

“We have the ability to test this rocket thousands of times before we even get on the launch pad because of the simulation that I help write."

Hopkins said the simulation prepares engineers like never before for hazards like an engine or flight computer failing during launch.

“If I was an astronaut, I would feel good in these hands.”

Hopkins said being a part of sending the first female astronaut to the moon inspires her, and she hopes it will inspire a new generation of scientists like her.

"I think seeing the first woman walk on the moon is going to be one of the coolest feelings.”