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Photo by NASA/Ben Smegelsky

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Space Wranglers: The People Behind Artemis

Huntsville Makes The Unimaginable Imaginable

When the Huntsville Space Launch System (SLS) team had to decide whether or not to launch with Hurricane Nicole on the horizon, a group including NASA's David Beaman, Manager of the SLS Engineering & Integration Office, and NASA Chief Engineer Dr. John Blevins traveled down to Kennedy Space Center and made the recommendation to leave it on the pad. They wanted to be there with the rocket. That shows you the commitment of this team, and those people are from Huntsville, Alabama. As David Beaman says, “The rocket is us, we are the rocket, and we rocked it like a hurricane.”

A second-generation rocket scientist, Beaman’s dad did the same job for Apollo that Beaman now does for the Artemis mission. Beaman’s dad worked alongside Rudolph and Dr. Werner Von Braun; “I’m a second genner. My dad was the finest engineer I’ve ever known and a giant because he was with a team doing something that had never been done before.” His dad is 89 years old and mom 88 years old, so he spends almost every weekend with his parents. He watched re-entry of the Orion sitting beside his father. “To me there’s not a place I’d rather be watching this mission than right next to my dad.”

Born and bred in this community, Beaman has seen the progression of Huntsville from being a very small town to a world-class leader in technology. “It takes every single job in this community to make this community work. Whether it’s high tech or low tech, whether it’s people working in a restaurant or delivery drivers or landscapers, all these people make this community work. So this rocket is something we share because this community played a major role in us getting where we are today. That’s why I say this is our rocket.”

“If you look at our history, I don’t think there is any way we would be on the moon without Huntsville, Alabama,” Beaman believes, “We’ve had a lot of people come through here that were tremendous leaders. Leadership isn’t about being the smartest person in the room, leadership is about bringing the smartest people into the room and listening to them.”

With thousands of companies involved, there are thousands upon thousands of people working on the Artemis mission in Huntsville with several thousand engineers working on SLS. Beaman has 900 engineers working under him, “But it’s not just engineers, in order for this to be successful we have the finance control side, configuration management, contracts, and public affairs. It takes all of these skill sets to make it successful. So we have around 6,000 people around this area influencing this mission in some way or another.”

The goal of SLS and the Artemis missions is to explore. “What you do is you give someone a challenge that seems unimaginable and then they figure out a way to imagine it. So it's the exploration part itself that drives us toward technology development.” Beaman continues, “When we were kids we explored our room, then our house, then our neighborhood, then our school. As we grew our world expanded - and our exploration expanded as well as our desire to know more. The real goal is exploration and how that breeds technologies that end up helping us back here on Earth that can make my life better, my children’s life better, and my grandchildren’s life better.”

"I heard our associate administrator say not too long ago, 'We went to the moon 50 years ago. The moon is the same, we are not.' When you think about it like that, we are going back to a place we have been but in a totally different way with totally different desires.” The moon was the end goal before. It’s a stopping point now. “The whole approach changes. It's not 'how can I go to the moon and keep someone alive for 7 days', but 'how can I make a habitat on the moon and use that as a jumping off point to go deeper into space.'”

The SLS team develops systems that help fly the rocket better. They develop testing capabilities, tracking and data capabilities with the real technological breakthroughs happening after the mission. “People think you automatically develop something and then it applies to a product, but what really happens is they see our team develop new technology for a specific purpose and then they think of more unique ways to use it. I think of things like artificial hearts, control systems, and you hear the stories of velcro. You don’t plan a specific technology, you challenge the team to do something and they develop things along the way.”

The SLS team just had the most successful rocket launch that has ever happened on the first launch of a system. Beaman was the booster manager during Shuttle and the performance predictions and how it flew were better on this first mission of Artemis than how they were on the last mission for Shuttle. “The performance has been amazing and we are in the middle of assessing. For instance, our insertion velocity, where we target a certain place in space at a certain speed, we delivered Orion at 99.974% of our predicted velocity. That prediction itself says we have a fantastic vehicle and we understand that vehicle.”

Fifty years ago with the Apollo mission, our computers were not even equivalent to a handheld calculator today that controls and flies the whole vehicle. Beaman considers, “If you think about the progression of science, think about people before Von Braun like Sir Isaac Newton. An apple hit him on the head and he asked why. It takes real visionaries to think outside the box and challenge yourself to do something that is a stretch goal. The original Huntsville guys took us to the moon with slide rulers and paper.”

Putting the first woman and person of color on the moon and being part of the culture that encourages breaking those socioeconomic boundaries is the ten-year goal for Beaman and the SLS team with its continuing Artemis missions (there are eight planned). “Most of the time you never believe you can do something until you see someone like you doing it. I think about Charlie Blackwell Thompson - she was our launch director for Artemis I - seeing her doing that encourages other young women that they can do it too. We have to break down these socioeconomic walls both locally and globally.”

  • SLS Test Site, LH2 Test Stand
  • Doug Parkinson, SLS Launch Integration in Mission Operations Lead
  • Darrell Bailey Avionics Testing
  • LH2 Test Stand
  • Brent Gaddes, OSA Manager For SLS
  • Mike Nichols Lead Test Engineer
  • LH2 Test Stand
  • Photo by NASA/Cory Huston
  • Photo by NASA/Ben Smegelsky
  • Photo by Kim Shiflett
  • Photo by Kim Shiflett
  • Photo by NASA/Ben Smegelsky