A lot has changed since we first walked on the moon in 1969. Cars can now manage over 100 miles to the gallon, whereas the ever popular ’69 Pontiac Firebird drove a measly 22 miles per gallon. The Beatles recorded Abbey Road. Major League Baseball’s first international team, the Montreal Expos, now represents the Nation’s Capital as the Washington Nationals. Fringe suede jackets—well, those are making a comeback. But most importantly, Americans are preparing for a return to the moon.
The new era
This is the next generation of space exploration—in more ways than one. Millennials and Generation Z join the talented aerospace professionals planning for the next human landing system, the oldest of whom were born around 10 years after the last astronauts left the moon’s surface in 1972, and bring fresh, innovative ideas to companies like Leidos subsidiary Dynetics.
Furthermore, traveling to the moon will be vastly different than it was 51 years ago. Dynetics’ human landing system (HLS) strives to be a sustainable vehicle with the ability to take both people and cargo to the surface of the moon and back to Earth. Previous power vehicles would dispose of the descent element that landed them on the moon’s surface and leave that piece behind, but the Dynetics HLS is more versatile, with a descent element that stays with the vehicle. Because of this design, the vehicle can be refueled and reused without having to rebuild major sections of it, therefore enabling sustainable space exploration to the moon and beyond.
Dynetics Project Engineer Nic Flesher is one of said talented Gen Z aerospace engineers. A graduate of The Ohio State University, he accepted a role with Dynetics and now, only three years later, is the Document Lead for the concept of operations (ConOps) for the HLS vehicle. “It’s an unbelievable atmosphere to be able to work because not only do you get to ask questions of experienced engineers who have worked on so many space flight vehicles, from shuttle programs to the International Space Station, and you get to be part of a new generation of engineers, bringing new ideas, experiences, and diversity to our program,” says Flesher.
A project of great magnitude
Candidly, he continues that a project of the magnitude of HLS is awe-inspiring; “You really understand that the work you get to do is extraordinarily important because it is going to have humans on board with the eyes of the world watching. That’s something that we always go back to making sure that any question we have is answered and anything we’re doing is definitely right.” But Flesher is admittedly excited about these conversations with some of the more experienced engineers as they instill confidence and share understanding of how they put together a spacecraft that will deliver humanity back to the moon.
Innovation since Apollo
Flesher notes that space exploration has evolved in two critical areas in the last 20-30 years: computing and additive manufacturing (also known as 3-D printing), leading the way for improvements in propulsion, structures, and other mission-critical systems. “We have the ability to lighten them, shrink them, and make them 20,000 times more powerful than anything that Apollo used—,” explains Flesher. “—But on top of that, we use 3-D printing on the ground to prototype things and now we can put together the prototype, verify that it’s going to work, pass it around, and everyone can hold the part in almost real time.”
COVID-19 demonstrated that technological innovation would not have been possible during the Apollo program as everything was done with pencil and paper, Flesher claims, “We are really quite lucky, so much of what we are doing now can be done remotely, in a way that allows us to actually make real progress during even these tough times.”
The importance of spaceflight
As many years have passed without another human lunar landing system, information and interest in space exploration has fallen between a generational gap. “(The 1969 lunar landing was) outside my lifetime, and I don’t have a direct experience,” says Flesher. “That’s where we lost that excitement, space exploration has almost bypassed a generation. So gaining back the excitement, in a way that it is more sustainable than Apollo, is really awesome, as it gives us the opportunity to start making the moon and that journey relevant again.”
Why should you care about spaceflight now? It’s a topic Flesher is passionate about; “The moon, at the bare minimum, has water, which is immensely important because you can make rocket fuel.” The chemical make-up of water, oxygen and hydrogen, is one of the most efficient chemical fuels. “To be able to make fuel on the moon and then refuel vehicles is huge. That gives you better access to all sorts of things, including not only allowing you to have self-sustaining space stations in micro-gravity, but also to have vehicles go out and do things like mining operations on asteroids.” Mining asteroids is productive because of the metals like gold and platinum on asteroids that are worth many times the economic output of most countries. As these elements become more sparse on Earth, the rich mining options in space can stimulate the economy, coming full circle and affecting opportunities on Earth.
Flesher never thought he would have the opportunity to come to a company like Dynetics, but believes his enthusiasm and passion for aerospace is what landed him on the HLS team. “Ultimately, going to the moon sustainably enables exploration beyond.”