Gearing Up for the Next Giant Leap

Orion will take us farther than we’ve gone before, and dock with the Gateway in orbit around the moon.

Gearing Up for the Next Giant Leap

University of Miami alumni and faculty are helping to send humans back to the moon and worlds beyond.
University of Miami alumni and faculty are helping to send humans back to the moon and worlds beyond.
by Robert C. Jones Jr.

THIS TIME THEY WILL RIDE THE MYTHOLOGICAL ARROW OF A GREEK GODDESS, SHOOTING THROUGH SPACE TOWARD A CELESTIAL BODY WHERE ONLY 12 OTHERS HAVE EVER SET FOOT. And when they reach their destination, they will stay longer than previous visitors, perhaps planting the first seeds of colonization. Nearly a half-century since humans last walked on the moon, the United States is going back. It’s no longer a dream but a decree—a mandate set forth last March, when Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to land astronauts on the lunar surface some time in the year 2024. The venerable space agency, which answered President John F. Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s, has even given its new mission a handle: Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo, whose name was used for the series of expeditions that sent humans to Earth’s only natural satellite from 1969 to 1972. Fittingly, Artemis will include the first female moonwalker. It will take a massive coordinated effort, not just to return to the moon but also to travel farther. A University of Miami researcher fascinated by otherworldly substances, an astrophysicist with a track record of working with NASA, a recent Ph.D. graduate who wants to eventually travel into space, and a mechanical engineer who believes space exploration is part of our DNA are aiding the effort.


A NEW POWER SOURCE

It wasn’t a Buck Rogers comic book story Luis Rodriguez’s third-grade teacher was lecturing about, but the real thing. Astronauts, she told his class, had actually blasted off from Earth aboard a rocket ship, traveled a quarter of a million miles into space, and safely landed and walked on the surface of another world.

Though Rodriguez was only 8 at the time of that history lesson, the magnitude of what astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins accomplished didn’t escape him. “It made me believe we could do anything,” he recalls.

Now, Rodriguez, born nearly two decades after Armstrong’s historic “giant leap for mankind,” is part of the latest generation of NASA engineers who are creating new technologies to safely return humans to the moon—and perhaps hurl them to other worlds.

Since completing his postdoctoral research at the University of Miami College of Engineering last February, Rodriguez has worked as an electrical power systems analyst at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where he and other engineers are conducting experiments on small, lightweight Stirling engines that won’t wear out over the lifetime of a space mission.

How do they work? A radioisotope element provides heat energy, and the Stirling engine converts it to electricity. Free-floating pistons inside the engine move continuously at high frequency. But the pistons never make contact with other engine parts, eliminating wear and tear.

NASA engineers at Glenn recently operated a free-piston Stirling engine at full power for over 110,000 hours of cumulative operation—the equivalent of 12 years—and the engine is still running without issue. Which is an important accomplishment because going deeper into our solar system, a major goal of NASA, will require a power source of almost immeasurable energy.

It’s the challenge of going beyond your bounds that drives me.

So Rodriguez and other engineers are going a step further, working on a Stirling engine for a new type of radioisotope power system called Dynamic RPS. It will use less fuel on journeys that require more efficient and powerful spacecraft and will sustain power for deep-space operations such as conducting science experiments and transmitting data back to Earth.

Born in Colombia, Rodriguez wants to eventually become an astronaut. It’s been a lifelong goal of his ever since that third-grade history lesson on the Apollo 11 mission. “It’s the challenge of going beyond your bounds that drives me,” says Rodriguez, a U.S. Air Force veteran, “of exploring and going on an adventure—like Neil Armstrong stepping on the surface of the moon.”

 

THE SOLUTION IS IN THE SOIL

But what will happen when astronauts get to the moon? NASA not only wants to go back; the space agency hopes to eventually build a permanent base there, making the concept that British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke envisioned in his “Space Odyssey” literary series a reality.

Such a task, however, is easier said than done. The cost of transporting payloads like building materials into space can be pricey, as much as $10,000 per pound.

Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an associate professor and civil materials engineer in the College of Engineering, is working on a solution. “Use the lunar soil that’s already there to build structures,” he says.

Fine as flour and rough as sandpaper, lunar soil is similar to fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired electric-generating power plants which, when mixed with certain chemicals, forms a compound similar to Portland cement.

“Fly ash has been used as an additive to improve the durability of concrete for quite some time,” Ghahremaninezhad says. “So the idea is to use some of the techniques we’ve developed here on Earth and apply them to the soil on the moon.”

My research is part of the bigger picture.

Tests conducted on lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand, and dust brought back to Earth during the six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 have confirmed lunar soil’s similarity to fly ash. But it will take something much more potent than water to activate the soil’s cement-like properties. And that’s where Ghahremaninezhad’s NASA-funded project comes in.

Inside his College of Engineering laboratory, he is testing different materials to determine which would be most effective in turning lunar soil into a hardened, concrete-type substance. Some call it “mooncrete.”

For his testing, Ghahremaninezhad is using a lunar regolith simulant synthesized to approximate the chemical properties of real lunar soil.

“We’ll absolutely still need to transport some materials to the moon. There’s no getting around that,” he says. “But the goal is to minimize cargo.”

Equally as important: The structures built from lunar soil must be sturdy enough to protect astronauts from the harsh conditions on the moon, which include everything from extreme temperature variations and radiation to meteor strikes and even the lunar soil itself, which can cut like glass.

While Ghahremaninezhad’s research is still in its infancy, some of the small, hardened blocks he has produced from the simulant so far have performed well under testing, withstanding different pressure loads and exposure to extreme hot and cold.

We’re going back to the moon and beyond,” he says, referring to plans for the human exploration and colonization of Mars. “And like the Apollo moon missions, we’ll need new technology to accomplish that.”

Luis Rodriguez is part of the latest generation of NASA engineers who are creating new technologies to safely return humans to the moon.

Luis Rodriguez

Luis Rodriguez is part of the latest generation of NASA engineers who are creating new technologies to safely return humans to the moon.

Luis Rodriguez is part of the latest generation of NASA engineers who are creating new technologies to safely return humans to the moon.
Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an associate professor and civil materials engineer in the College of Engineering

Ali Ghahremaninezhad

Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an associate professor and civil materials engineer in the College of Engineering, is testing different materials to determine which would be most effective in turning lunar soil into a hardened, concrete-type substance. Some call it “mooncrete.”

Ali Ghahremaninezhad, an associate professor and civil materials engineer in the College of Engineering
Massimiliano Galeazzi, a University of Miami physics profes- sor, worked with NASA and other academic institutions to launch three rockets into outer space from a site in Alaska.

Massimiliano Galeazzi

Massimiliano Galeazzi, physics professor, is being tapped by NASA again to be part of a team to explore more about Earth’s only natural satellite.

Massimiliano Galeazzi, a University of Miami physics profes- sor, worked with NASA and other academic institutions to launch three rockets into outer space from a site in Alaska.
Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering

Victoria Coverstone

Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, is working on a way to protect future Mars explorers from harmful radiation.

Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering

LUNAR EXPLORATION

Massimiliano Galeazzi, a University of Miami physics professor, worked with NASA and other academic institutions to launch three rockets into outer space from a site in Alaska. Called the Poker Flat Sounding Rocket Campaign, Galeazzi’s work was to study X-rays coming from two different sources in space. Now, the astrophysicist is being tapped by NASA again to be part of a team to explore more about Earth’s only natural satellite. The new investigation is part of a comprehensive study aimed to help NASA send astronauts to the moon by 2024 and prepare humans for space travel to Mars.

Being part of the first set of missions to the moon 50 years after the Apollo landing is simply a dream come true.

Galeazzi was selected to work on the Lunar Environment Heliospheric X-ray Imager (LEXI), which is designed to capture images of the interaction of Earth’s magnetosphere with the flow of charged particles from the sun, called the solar wind.

“LEXI is an amazing opportunity,” says Galeazzi. “From the scientific point of view, the moon offers a unique vantage point to study the Earth and the upper level of its atmosphere. From a more personal standpoint, being part of the first set of missions to the moon 50 years after the Apollo landing is simply a dream come true.”

 

FROM THE MOON TO MARS

If the inherent dangers in going back to the moon seem daunting, just imagine the hazards that come into play should astronauts ever reach the surface of Mars. Radiation is arguably the biggest risk. Without a magnetic field and with little atmosphere to provide effective shielding, the red planet is bombarded by radiation.

Victoria Coverstone, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, is working on a way to protect future Mars explorers from harmful radiation. The answer, she says, lies in what is left of Mars’ original magnetic field.

Like Earth does now, the red planet once had a strong magnetic field that protected it from the full brunt of solar and cosmic radiation. But when its iron core cooled about four billion years ago, Mars lost its magnetic field.

Traces of it remain. So, by using loops made of superconductors (metals that allow electrical current to flow unimpeded if cooled below a certain temperature), Coverstone hopes to enhance those remnants to generate a localized magnetic field on Mars.

It’s something in our DNA that forces us to do these extreme things. It’s part of the human spirit.

For now, she is using computer simulations to test her shield. But eventually, she would like to test a small version of it under a proton therapy or electron machine.

Returning to the moon and going on to Mars is vital, says Coverstone. “Why did we go to the South Pole? Why did we climb Mount Everest?” she asks. “It’s something in our DNA that forces us to do these extreme things. It’s part of the human spirit.”

Astronauts

FROM LAUNCH TO LANDING

Two University of Miami alumni helped make the Apollo 11 mission possible

The rows and rows of strip chart recorders seemed to go on forever, their long rolls of paper being expelled as more and more data was compiled.

It was just past 8 a.m. on July 16, 1969, and instrumentation engineer Frank DeMattia was sitting at a console in the back of the Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, monitoring a readout of the pressure and temperature inside the Saturn V rocket’s second stage fuel tanks.

If the readings were too high, the 21-year-old DeMattia, B.S.E.E. ’69, just five months removed from graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Miami, would have to scrub the launch.

“It was one of the mission-critical systems of the rocket,” he recalls, “and it was my responsibility to call an abort if those red lines went beyond limits.”

They didn’t. The pressure and temperature of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel mixture remained stable, and at 8:32 a.m. EST, the powerful Saturn V, with all other systems go, blasted off from Launch Pad 39A, sending astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the greatest adventure in human history.

Today, 50 years after the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the moon, DeMattia is now a consultant to the aerospace and defense industries, the many key engineering positions he held with North American Rockwell and Boeing now behind him. But one thing hasn’t changed—the modesty he exudes when describing the role he played in ensuring that Armstrong was able to take his “giant leap for mankind.”

“Twenty thousand companies and 400,000 people worked on Apollo 11. I was just a very small part of it, a cog in a very huge machine,” he said.

At the University of Miami, DeMattia was a whiz at digital electronics, the same technology built into the instrumentation system used to monitor the Saturn V rocket’s second-stage fuel tanks. So just days after he left Coral Gables, the young DeMattia, who accepted a job with Rockwell over several other employment offers, found himself working on the rocket built to send people to the moon. Called a heavy lift vehicle, the multistage Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever successfully flown.

It was also complex. “If any one of its many, many parts failed, it would have been catastrophic,” says DeMattia. “The reason for its success, I believe, is because every single person who worked on it was absolutely committed to ensuring its quality and safety, making sure that whatever part they were responsible for worked properly.”

DeMattia worked at Kennedy Space Center for the entire Apollo program, helping to send 24 men in all to the moon.

It is nearly impossible, he says, to measure the impact of the Apollo program. “It drove the miniaturization of electronics. It drove software development and helped improve materials and management processes to a much larger scale—all of which have benefited our way of life,” says DeMattia. “We have cell phones that are smart, computers that sit on our desks, and networks that tie the world together—we have the space program to thank to some degree for all of that.”

Hidden Figure

The harsh environment of space is unforgiving, with extreme heat and cold, radiation, debris impacts, and even sound waves from powerful rocket engines posing a threat to spacecraft.

Shirley Hoffman Kilkelly, B.S.M.E. ’52, was aware of that fact better than anyone. When she went to work for the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in the late 1960s, her job was to make sure that Apollo 11’s lunar module, the Eagle, which touched down at the moon’s Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, would operate properly after being exposed to the brutal conditions of space flight.

“The module consisted of many different systems, and all of them had to be tested,” says Kilkelly. “So we would simulate everything from violent vibrations and heat to extreme cold and rapid acceleration.”

She was one of the few women engineers working in the male-dominated space program at the time. But Kilkelly, now 97, never considered herself a trailblazer. “It was just part of my job,” she says, though she admits that she is now pleased to see more females studying and becoming engineers.

She is ecstatic that plans for a return to Earth’s only natural satellite are underway, especially since NASA is planning to send the first woman to the moon.

“It would be worthwhile for us to go back,” she says. “We spent such a small amount of time there [during the six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972]. With new equipment and new technology, there’s a lot more to learn.”


Apollo 11


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