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The Sky is Not the Limit

Nicole Aunapu Mann aspires the be the first woman to set foot on the moon, and among the first humans to step onto the lunar surface in more than a half century. It’s a long term dream, but it could one day become reality.

As a member of NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts, Mann is right now engaged in intensive training with seven others to fly first to the International Space Station, and then, within a few years, to an observational platform orbiting the moon.

A specific assignment is yet to come, but she expects it soon.

Meanwhile, as assistant chief for NASA’ Exploration Branch, she is closely attuned to ongoing testing of the Orion space capsule, a larger more high-tech version of the familiar cone-shaped capsule used for Apollo flights to the moon back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. While Apollo could ferry 3 astronauts, Orion will seat four.

Mann comes to Grand Rapids this week to relate how she became a NASA astronaut, what is involved in her current training regimen, and what she is expecting to do in coming years. Her illustrated program The Sky is Not the Limit is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Meijer Theater at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and is open to the public free of charge.

The US government has made a renewed commitment to space exploration beyond activities aboard the International Space Station. Vice-president Mike Pence made that clear at a meeting of the reinstated National Space Council. “We will return to the moon not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and Beyond.”

NASA is well along in testing mockups of the Orion capsule for both utility and buoyancy. (They will “splash down” as Apollo capsules did.) The first operational capsule is expected to be delivered by prime contractor Lockhead Martin later this year. Unlike Apollo, Orion has lots of reusable components.

Meanwhile, a mega rocket successor to the Saturn V, which hoisted Apollo space capsules to earth orbit and then on to the moon, is under development. Called simply the “Space Launch System,” it has a critical assignment: send heavy payloads including four or more astronauts, their life support systems, and scientific packages, not just to the moon, but beyond.

So much of what NASA hopes to achieve in once again sending humans beyond earth orbit hinges on the success of Orion and the Space Launch System, programs Mann helps coordinate. An incentive for success is a growing alliance with high profile private companies investing millions in commercial efforts to cross the space frontier.

A successful test of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy a few weeks ago produced a media blitz, complete with video of spent auxiliary boosters essentially landing themselves. Activity at SpaceX and Boeing brings with it anticipation that humans will have the means to venture deep into space within a decade or so.

Test flights of ferrying modules Crew Dragon from SpaceX and CST-100 Starliner from Boeing later this year means that the day is near when US astronauts will no longer have to rely on Russian spacecraft to get them to and from the International Space Station. Mann told me in a recent phone conversation that she fully expects to be among those flying aboard new generation spacecraft.

NASA is planning to send an Orion vehicle into sweeping multiple circuits of the moon in December of 2019, and then bring it back to earth. That initial flight will not have a crew, but its timing brings to mind the first human voyage to lunar orbit during the holiday season in 1968, nearly a half century ago.

Barring setbacks from test flights, the first human crew will depart for a lunar orbital mission in 2022. Mann noted in our conversation that with her anticipated time aboard ISS, timing might not be right for her to be assigned on that one, but so much more would still be coming during her time as an active astronaut.

She could certainly spend time aboard “Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway” targeted for launch into lunar orbit or possibly a hovering position where the gravity of the moon and earth are equal. Gateway will be a smaller version of the ISS, with solar panels for power and modules for science and habitation, but with the added advantage of a propulsion system to change its location.

Mann is excited about Gateway’s potential as a springboard for return missions to the lunar surface, and initial forays into deeper space.

Mann’s training with today’s new technology, along with administrative responsibilities, makes for an intense regimen. A Commission as a Second Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps prepared her for the rigors of active spaceflight. She has participated in high profile test flights and 47 combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Orion, Gateway, Space Launch Systems, and a NASA-commercial partnership work out as anticipated, humans may set foot on the moon again by 2025, and Mann would like to be among them.

Learning to live and to endure for extended periods beyond the comfort of earth, and developing advanced spacecraft and propulsion systems required to make that feasible are subjects that Nicole Mann thinks about constantly.

While doing so, she is likely to gaze upward from time to time this summer, with millions of others worldwide, at the planet Mars, which will be swinging closer to earth, and gleaming brighter in our evening sky, than at any time since 2003. Nicole Mann muses that it might be a stretch to picture herself as among the first voyagers to Mars, but she feels she is contributing to the incentive, and to building its foundation. “I am, in a sense, part of that total mission, even if I don’t go,” she said.


The Sky is Not the Limit presented by Nicole Aunapu Mann, LtCol, US Marine Corps., NASA Astronaut

When: Wednesday, May 9, 7:30 pm Where: Meijer Theater, Grand Rapids Public Museum Admission: Free Sponsored By: Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund, Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association, Grand Rapids Public Museum

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