FAIRMONT — With the first of NASA’s Artemis missions set to launch in only a few months, the agency’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont has been hard at work running software testing for the project’s critical components.
The Artemis Project, which has an end goal of eventually putting humans on Mars, has been one of NASA’s primary focuses for the last couple of years, and according to Joelle Spagnuolo-Loretta, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) IV&V project manager, the project’s first mission — Artemis I — is closer than ever to launching.
Spagnuolo-Loretta said that most recently, the agency has completed work on the rocket that will carry the space-faring components out of Earth’s atmosphere, noting that the rocket is quite unlike those seen in the past.
“It’s going to be the most powerful rocket that NASA has ever built, and we need that extra power to get us farther into deep space when we want to go beyond low-Earth orbit,” Spagnuolo-Loretta said.
She said NASA recently completed a “green run” ground test for the rocket in March, which generated 1.6 million pounds of thrust and gave workers at the IV&V Facility some much-needed data to ensure that the rocket’s software is operational.
“During that test, we had the SLS core stage, which is essentially the backbone of the rocket … with the four main RS-25 engines, and during that test, they actually lit all four engines and executed the full eight-minute asset duration,” Spagnuolo-Loretta said. “It gave us the chance to make sure we can properly load the fuel and do all of those pre-launch sequences. Once we hit the start button, the engines fire and it goes through a nominal ascent scenario so we can make sure the software is executing correctly to monitor engine conditions and shut down if we need to.”
Wes Deadrick, the facility’s office lead, spoke about the importance of the Artemis mission during an interview in March.
“We have a lot of opportunities ahead of us with the Artemis mission,” Deadrick said. “I would say half of our program in some form or fashion is helping support the development that is taking place on the Artemis missions. It’s exciting to see that type of work take place in West Virginia.”
NASA’s plans during the upcoming Artemis missions will be to go to the moon and build a “gateway” of sorts in its orbit piece by piece. This gateway will act as a space station and give humans on board and the missions a place to stay before they descend from orbit. In 2020, Deadrick explained the importance of the IV&V Facility’s software testing as a part of the Artemis mission.
“A lot of our team members remembered what happened with Challenger, and no one wants to see that happen again,” Deadrick said. “Yes, we want to see people on the moon. That’s exciting, but more important to us is not having a loss of life in that process.”
The scheduled launch date for Artemis I is this November, although Spagnuolo-Loretta noted that this is a tentative date.
“It all depends on how integration and checkout goes,” she said. “If it needs to be delayed, we will, of course, do that to make sure everything is safe.”
Additionally, humans won’t be on board for the launch until Artemis II, which officials hope to launch by the end of 2023.
Then, the launch of Artemis III will, hopefully, see humans return to the Moon’s surface.
Spagnuolo-Loretta said she’s beyond excited to be able to work on the Artemis mission, and even if she and her team play only a small role in getting humans back to the Moon and, eventually, Mars, they’ll still be defining history.
“Just the sheer thought of being a contributor to a mission like this and helping provide assurance that the software is going to work like it needs to and is intended to is simply thrilling,” Spagnuolo-Loretta said. “We’re going to be making history again, and that’s quite humbling to be a part of. …
“It’s to go where we’ve never gone and to explore what’s out there beyond low-Earth orbit. The opportunities are exponential as far as what we can learn. Further into deep space, we’ve just had telescopes and satellites and such that have given us views into those depths, but when we actually have human presence, it’s a whole new paradigm. There’s nothing that can analyze something like the human itself. It’s extremely exciting to think of what we might learn.”
Her passion for NASA’s space exploration was shared by IV&V Facility director Greg Blaney in a 2020 interview.
“Building the capability to put boots on the moon and have the ability to sustain life on the moon and eventually get us to Mars (is something) we can’t do yet,” Blaney said. “We can’t do it right now. We did it with Apollo, but we weren’t there to stay. We landed and came back. We’re talking about sustaining life and science and research and mining on other planets.
“The whole idea of picking a goal is to pick one that’s beyond your reach currently and then build technology and gather science to get there. That’s the motivation. … It’s driving you to something that you cannot do now.”
Spagnuolo-Loretta also briefly spoke about the growing interest in civilian spaceflight. If the IV&V Facility runs software testing on such missions, she said that, while civilians are different than astronauts, it won’t affect how seriously she and her team take their jobs.
“The bottom line is the same,” Spagnuolo-Loretta said. “Any time there is human life at stake, the work that we do is crucial to ensure their safety and that the mission is successful. Everybody takes pride in their work, but this is a ‘no kidding’ (situation). It’s got to work. Whether it’s an astronaut or a civilian, it’s one and the same, in my opinion, and we want to be as diligent as we possibly can to make sure that these missions are safe.”
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or email@example.com.