NASA’s Kristin Morgan discusses 2021 progress and what’s ahead for the Artemis Program in 2022.
Artemis is the first step in the next era of human exploration. With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. NASA is working with commercial and international partners to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon and then take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- The upcoming launch of Artemis I
- First-time-through issues and challenges
- Science payloads aboard Artemis I
Kristin Morgan is the Programmatic Operations Manager for the Artemis Program’s Space Launch System Liquid Engines Office (LEO) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Morgan provides day-to-day management of LEO resources and the RS-25 and RL10 engine contracts. She also leads the LEO affordability strategy. Morgan previously worked in Center Strategic Development in the Office of Strategic Analysis and Communications to advance NASA Marshall’s additive manufacturing capability. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Florida.
Kristin Morgan: The real objective of the Artemis I flight, this one that’s coming up, is it’s planned to be the first uncrewed flight of the integrated SLS Orion system.
We’ll trace this series of orbits around the Moon, and we’ll test out our critical systems. And then we’ll come back to Earth and test our heat shield.
It’s exciting to see a NASA vehicle back in space.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Episode 75 of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
In Greek mythology Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon. Now she personifies our path to the Moon as the name of NASA’s efforts to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.
Kristin Morgan is part of the Artemis Program and serves as Programmatic Operations Manager for the Space Launch System Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Kristin, thank you for being our guest.
Morgan: Oh, thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Host: Artemis is such a complex program. It might be helpful to start with the big picture. Could you give us a general overview of the program and its objectives?
Morgan: Sure. Absolutely. So, the Artemis program is pretty exciting. It’s our next step in human exploration with the ultimate goal of establishing a long-term presence on the Moon. So, it’s part of NASA’s entire Moon to Mars exploration approach. And the idea is that the knowledge that we gain from living and working on and around the Moon under Artemis will help us take that next step, which would be sending astronauts to Mars.
So, we have really kind of four basic phases of the Artemis program. So, the first phase is just getting to the Moon with the Space Launch System – SLS — and Orion. And that’s the phase that we’re in now. And then we would establish an outpost that would allow for kind of cislunar operations, and that’s where Gateway would come in. And then we start working to kind of gain lunar operational experience with a lot of surface operations. That would be phase three. And then finally the goal is to establish a base camp and that would be kind of the end of the Artemis implementation strategy.
So right now, we’re in the process of just kicking Artemis off. So, the first three flights are really to get humans back to the surface of the Moon, and then the following flights, Artemis IV and beyond, are designed to really kind of help build up that longer term presence and start incorporating some extensive ground infrastructure and surface transportation.
Host: I know this has been an extremely busy year. As the year winds to a close, let’s take a look back at Artemis progress in 2021. What are some of the accomplishments over the past year?
Morgan: Oh, man. So, Artemis has been a whirlwind in 2021. So, we started the year off in January with the first Green Run hot fire test for the Artemis I vehicle at the Stennis Space Center. And we culminated that Green Run testing in March with a full-duration hot fire test. So that really kind of took up most of the spring. And then we loaded up the vehicle onto the barge and made our trip around Florida to go up to KSC and we arrived there in late April. And since then, engineers have been getting the vehicle ready and kind of running through some of the integrated vehicle test at the Cape. So we did a big Umbilical Release and Retraction Test in September, and then we also completed the integrated mobile testing of the vehicle at the end of September. And as of October 22, the vehicle is fully stacked at the VAB. So right now, we are ready to go. So, this year has been really just a whirlwind of testing and some complex operations that have really involved kind of every part of the Artemis Program.
Host: And 2022 is shaping up to be another exciting year.
Morgan: Yes, because 2022 means launch. So yeah, so we are all looking forward to 2022. This is what we have been working for. And it’s exciting. It’s exciting to see a NASA vehicle back in space. So yeah, it’s really all about launch and then refocusing and starting to work on the next launch. So, we’ll look at all the data and hopefully, learn a lot about the vehicle. We’ve still got a lot of work that’s going on to prepare the Artemis II and the Artemis III launch vehicles. So, the boosters office, the engines office, the tanks office, ground support, we’re all working to make sure that we meet the schedule for the Artemis II and the Artemis III launches. But I think that the launch is certainly what 2022 is going to be remembered for.
Host: Let’s talk about your role, how you got involved with the Artemis Program and what you’re doing now.
Morgan: So, I am in the SLS — the Space Launch System — the Liquid Engines Office. So, our office is responsible for delivering the RS-25 core stage engines. So, these are the four engines that kind of sit on the business end of the rocket and the RL10 Upper Stage Engines. So, these are the propulsion elements for the upper stage, which has the ICPS module on it for Artemis I. So, my role now is really, I’m kind of in charge of day-to-day programmatic operations, so to speak. So I work really closely with our procurement office on all of our contract items. I work closely with our business office on all of our budget and resource questions. And then I work, of course, directly with our Liquid Engine Team and our prime contractor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, to really just make sure that they have all the resources they need to have in the course of the work.
And then kind of on a related subject, I also manage our affordability initiative with the office, with the prime contractor. So, I’m really always looking for more efficient ways to do things, ways we can kind of trim our budget. I do a lot of cost-benefit analysis and try to develop strategies to infuse some of these affordability initiatives into the larger engine project. So, I’m a little more on the business side of the house, I guess, than the technical side of the house.
Host: Has that always been the case for you with your involvement with Artemis?
Morgan: With Artemis, yes. So, I came into the Artemis Program directly into the Liquid Engine Office, and this is the capacity that I’ve been working in. I had more of a technical role in previous programs. So I kind of came into Marshall working Shuttle. I’m a materials engineer by training. So, I did a lot of work on shuttle and then with the Ares Program. But so far as Artemis is concerned at the course of where I am in my career, I’ve kind of switched over from the hands-on engineering to more of the project management world.
Host: What’s it been like for you making the transition from hands-on engineering to the project management side?
Morgan: It’s interesting. I have always kind of viewed myself as a little more of a generalist. I kind of like to dive into things for a couple years and then move on to something new and project management very much allows me to do that. There’s always something to learn. But there was a bit of a process of just learning how to let go. I think one of the great joys of working at NASA and one of the things that attracted me to NASA in the first place is solving these big, grand technical challenges. And we really hold our engineers and scientists as heroes in NASA and rightfully so. They do a tremendous job. So to kind of step back from that world and enter a different world, which is project management, it’s a change, but again, I like it.
There’s certainly a lot of challenges. There’s a big emphasis on communication and soft skills, which I kind of like. There’s a lot of negotiation and working across teams and understanding how my piece of the puzzle, in this case, engines, fits into the larger picture of how do I fit into the vehicle? How does the vehicle fit into a larger schedule? How does that schedule match up with mission profiles? So, it’s a different perspective, but I like it and I’ve found it to be rewarding. So, I certainly spend a lot more time on budget and schedules than I ever thought. And I know certainly when I was an engineer, I kind of poo-pooed that side of the world. But now that I’m kind of seeing things from a different perspective, I realize just how important it is or how important it is to have all these various people coming together to really get a project like this off the ground.
Host: Are there lessons learned and experiences that you might share with other NASA engineers and project managers?
Morgan: The thing that I kind of think most in, it’s applied kind of across the years and I see it all the time, is really just to assume positive intent, I think, when working with colleagues, particularly on something this complex. I don’t think that means that we necessarily have to agree with each other all the time, but in work like this, people are very passionate about what they do. And I think if we remind ourselves that we’re all coming from a place where we want to do the right thing and we’re advocating to make sure the right thing gets done, I think if we can kind of step back and recognize that, then we can come to solutions more readily and we can really kind of understand what’s motivating the other and what the concerns are and come up with a path forward.
And to me, that’s a lesson that I learned early on in my career, where sometimes you just have to step back and ask another person. It’s like, ‘I hear you’re really passionate about this. What’s your real concern?’ And sometimes that can cut through a lot of the bluster and the miscommunication, and really kind of try to hone in on what needs to be done to make a situation better.
Host: Kristen, what are some of the biggest challenges Artemis has overcome so far?
Morgan: Oh, man. Every day, I think we’re overcoming a challenge. Right now, it’s all first-time-through issues. We haven’t done this before, or not Artemis. We haven’t built the SLS before. And it’s a new vehicle and every day something comes up that was unexpected. So certainly, on the RS-25 and the engine world, and I think this kind of extends to practically all the major systems, we’re just learning things about our hardware every day. And particularly with engines, we hadn’t built an RS-25 engine since the 90s. So, we ended up in a situation where we had 16 engines that were remaining from the Shuttle program. And so, we were able to leverage that remaining hardware and get these first few Artemis flights off without having to build new engines, but certainly looking forward, we had to initiate that production.
And so, what this really meant was trying to figure out how to make something all over again that really, we hadn’t made in 10, 15 years. So, a lot of these shops that had built hardware originally had gone out of business. A lot of the tools that we used to make parts had been scrapped. Some of the alloys that we used are just harder to get now than they were in the 90s. So, we really had to look at every aspect of the engine and figure out how to do it kind of all over again and without a lot of the knowledge base that we had originally. So, it really is just kind of making something all over from scratch and every time you do that, you’re going to face challenges. New people are doing things for the first time and just really working through those and gaining that experience and just engineering your way through the problem.
Those are certainly the biggest challenges that we’ve faced so far. And it’s good. We learn from them. It’s to be expected. Getting to space is difficult. And I’m sure that every element has similar stories. That, I think, has been certainly what I would consider some of the biggest challenges to kind of slog through.
Host: What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?
Morgan: Aside from still having first-time-through issues, one of the things that I kind of worry about, and I know we talk about in our office a lot, is succession planning and workforce retention. So, it’s people who get everything done and we have a workforce that is just really skilled and competent and dedicated. And to keep conducting missions for the next 10, 20 years, we need to make sure that we’ve got people in place that kind of represent a workforce that has that right diversity of skills and talents and perspectives and education levels and life experiences to make the mission work.
And there is fear that after Artemis I, we may see some of our more experienced engineers opt to retire. And so really trying to pass that knowledge on and bring up the next generation of people with flight experience and operational experience, and just know kind of that tribal knowledge of how to not only build the rocket and assemble the rocket, but launch it, analyze the results, just having those skills in the pipeline is something that we’re very committed to making sure happens. So, I think from our perspective, that’s what we see kind of as the largest near-term challenge is making sure that we’ve got that workforce that we need with the right balance of skills.
Host: Absolutely. Is there anything you see being on the inside of the Artemis Program that most people may not know about Artemis or that may not get talked about as much, but would still be of interest, especially to NASA’s technical workforce?
Morgan: Yeah. Everything I think about the Artemis program is exciting. One of the things that I don’t think that we hear a lot about are the secondary payloads. And unfortunately, it’s probably because they are secondary payloads. The real objective of the Artemis I flight, this one that’s coming up, is it’s planned to be the first uncrewed flight of the integrated SLS Orion system and we’ll trace this series of orbits around the Moon, and we’ll test out our critical systems. And then we’ll come back to Earth and test our heat shield and that, obviously, is the primary objective of Artemis.
But the other objective that we have, and what I think is pretty cool is we’ve also, again, we’ve got these secondary payloads, which are really going to enable a lot of science. And sometimes, I think we don’t hear as much about the science, because we’re just in awe of this gigantic rocket that we’re building, but we actually will be flying 10 6U CubeSats, and they’ve all been competitively selected.
And we’re really going to be able to get some interesting information out of each of these little CubeSat missions. The scientists that have been working on these have been working eight, 10 years to get some of these missions off the ground. So, they’re pretty neat little experiments in a shoe size-sized box.
About half of the CubeSats will actually be scouting the Moon. So, they’re going to be taking imagery and looking for water, ice, or hydrogen-rich deposits and collecting information about the lunar surface and radiation, so we’re just more informed when it comes time for us to actually land on the Moon or send people down to the Moon. And then there are two others that are pretty cool. One is NEA Scout, which is actually going to be kind of going to look for asteroids and interact with asteroids, which is pretty cool.
And then the one that I think is really neat is it’s something called BioSentinel and it’s the only biological CubeSat experiment, but it’s going to be this long duration biology experiment in Deep Space with yeast. And so apparently, yeast — who knew it? — has similar DNA damage and repair mechanisms to human cells. So the idea is to send this yeast out into deep space to see how it reacts to radiation, and then maybe we can infer more about how human cells would react to the radiation as well on deep space missions. And apparently, there’s a comparable mission that’s going up to the space station, so we’ll be able to compare the effective relative radiation on these yeast organisms. So pretty interesting. And each of the Artemis flights is capable of flying these CubeSats. So not only will we have these primary missions where we’re really trying to directly expand our presence on the Moon, but we’ll also have all these secondary payloads that are gathering the information that we need to help on that steppingstone to Mars.
Host: Many thanks to Kristin for joining us on the podcast. You’ll find her bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a transcript of today’s episode.
The Small Steps, Giant Leaps podcast is on holiday break the next few weeks and returns with the first episode of the new year Wednesday, January 26.
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On behalf of the APPEL Knowledge Services team, I want to wish you Happy Holidays and again thank you for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.