Back to the moon: Johnson Space Center to play key role in NASA’s mission to the moon, beyond

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An Intuitive Machine
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Nova-C Lunar Lander

Among the first words astronauts said after landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, were, “Houston ... the eagle has landed.”


Now, as the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake celebrates the 50th anniversary of that monumental day, the Bay Area prepares to repeat history: NASA wants to be back on the moon by 2024 to learn more about traveling and surviving in deep space before humanity attempts to reach Mars, officials told Community Impact Newspaper.


But before man walks on the moon for the first time in decades, it will be companies in the Bay Area who test technology and send landers and other machines to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, the Johnson Space Center will train astronauts and prepare technology used to achieve NASA’s goal, and the center’s mission control center willbe the link connecting Earth to those who next walk on the moon, said Bob Mitchell, the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.


The Johnson Space Center and private companies alike will hire more personnel over the next several years in preparation for NASA’s most ambitious mission yet. As a result, officials said they expect a slow but steady boost to the Bay Area’s economy.


“What used to be science fiction is not science fiction today,” Mitchell said. ”It’s all extremely exciting. It’s going to be very beneficial to our community.”


MOON TO MARS


Intuitive Machines is one of about 40 aerospace companies in the Bay Area. The 6-year-old business provides autonomous systems for manufacturing and other industries, including spaceflight.


When NASA unveiled its plans to revisit the moon, three companies, including Intuitive Machines in May, won contracts to help, making the small Bay Area business likely to be one of the first private companies to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, President Steve Altemus said.


“We’re like the lead-off batter for NASA’s mission to the moon,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be that company.”


Intuitive Machines has a $77.25 million contract to deliver several payloads, or science experiments, to the moon. The first will be the company’s Nova-C lunar lander, which is being built and tested at the Houston Spaceport and is scheduled to launch to the moon on July 16, 2021, to collect data for NASA’s mission, Altemus said.


Advancements and investments in global technology from the 1970s in software coding, analytics processing and more make it possible for small companies such as Intuitive Machines to go to the moon today, Altemus said.


“It’s really a new modern twist on Apollo to leverage the technology base that didn’t exist before … that now we can apply,” Altemus said.


The Nova-C’s engine has already been tested at the Houston Spaceport. After the Nova-C mission, Intuitive Machines will launch to the moon one payload a year until the 10-year contract expires, he said.


“It’s really interesting to be in Houston, Texas, as a lander company on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11,” Altemus said. “That’s history right there. You couldn’t write a better script.”


Other Bay Area-based aerospace companies will be involved in NASA’s mission as well.


The Boeing Company, which has a Houston presence, helps operate the International Space Station and is working on the Commercial Crew Development program that will allow commercial companies to fly crews to the ISS. Later this year, Boeing will launch a crewed test flight of its Starliner spacecraft, which could possibly be the first time astronauts will launch from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, said Peter McGrath, Boeing’s director of marketing for space exploration.


Boeing is also developing the Space Launch System, the only existing rocket capable of getting past low Earth orbit and to the moon, McGrath said.


Such projects will allow NASA to expedite the bigger projects that will eventually get humans back to the moon and beyond, a mission many Bay Area residents are excited about, Mitchell said.


Bay Area resident Clayton Anderson is a retired astronaut who helped build and spent months aboard the ISS. He said going back to the moon is the right move for NASA.


“Mars is the glory destination. Returning to the moon, I think, is a key step in being able to get humans to Mars,” Anderson said. “We have so much to learn before we can send people to Mars successfully.”


One of the components of NASA’s mission to the moon is a lunar Gateway that would orbit the moon. Astronauts would use a spacecraft to reach the Gateway and use the Gateway to go to and from the moon’s surface or on other deep-space missions, said Altemus, who was the initial architect of the NASA project.


NASA wants to create a permanent space colony to allow astronauts to live and work on the moon’s surface. What they learn could be used to fly to Mars, which takes months, not mere days, to reach, Altemus said. Astronauts might even use the moon as a launch surface, considering its lower gravity requires less fuel to launch, Anderson said.


The Johnson Space Center did not return a request for comment before press time.


ECONOMIC BOON


The effects of NASA’s mission to the moon and beyond will be felt on Earth, particularly in the Bay Area, business owner Norman Frede said.


Frede, who has owned Norman Frede Chevrolet in Clear Lake since 1968, said before Apollo 11, the Bay Area had only a few bars and motels along NASA Parkway. Business grew throughout the 1970s during the Apollo missions, and a similar insurgence could happen as NASA goes back to the moon, he said.


“It certainly would be positive, but how positive, I don’t know,” Frede said.


Intuitive Machines, which employs 90 people, plans to hire 30 more this year as it develops its lunar lander. Many who work at Intuitive Machines are already accomplished in the aerospace industry, and the company’s growth will be a natural extension, Altemus said.


“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for space industry-related jobs,” he said. “Other industries benefit from having space industry jobs here.”


McGrath agreed, noting other Bay Area aerospace companies and contractors could see an influx of work to supplement NASA.


“There’s a lot of growth opportunities as we look at going back to the moon,” he said.


The Johnson Space Center will also see a boost. The center will not create hundreds of jobs overnight, but its number of employees will slowly climb up, Mitchell said.


The space center is the cornerstone of Bay Area’s economy. It employs 3,000 civil servants and 10,200 contractors, all of whom live in about a 20-mile radius. The


Johnson Space Center’s annual budget is about $4.4 billion, $1.2 billion of which is for salaries, Mitchell said.


NASA’s funding has fluxed over the years, but its existing budget is about $21 billion. When adjusted for inflation, it is the highest budget NASA has seen in several years but equals less than 0.5% of all annual federal spending, Mitchell said.


“We’re not going to gripe about the funding because we’re at the highest level of funding since the Apollo program, but you gotta put it in perspective,” Mitchell said.


SKILLED WORKFORCE


NASA’s Space Shuttle program ran from 1981 to 2011 and included shuttles such as Columbia, Challenger and Endeavor. Crews aboard these crafts helped repair satellites and construct the ISS. At the height of the Space Shuttle program, the Johnson Space Center’s budget was about $5.7 billion, Mitchell said.


When the program ended, several Johnson Space Center employees were let go. Many wondered what would become of the Bay Area considering the Johnson Space Center’s importance to the economy, Mitchell said.


BAHEP partnered with the state to cross-train the space center’s skilled employees. Of the about 3,200 laid-off workers BAHEP was able to account for, 88% went into petrochemical, medical and related industries, and those industries have flourished as a result, he said.


“Without NASA, would we have a medical center the way it is today? Would we just have oil and gas here and not be the energy capital of the world?” Mitchell said. “That innovation has come from the space industry.”


Mitchell said the Johnson Space Center accounts for about 20%-22% of the Bay Area’s workforce today, though it was once much higher. Despite the decline, the space center is still largely the reason why the Bay Area is the way it is today, Mitchell said.


“The Johnson Space Center is still the heart and soul of this region and still makes it tick,” he said. “If it weren’t for Johnson Space Center, all these small businesses wouldn’t exist.”


Anderson agreed the Johnson Space Center played a huge role in making the Bay Area what it is today.


“Let’s hope we can do that again,” he said. “It would be nice to keep and maintain the Johnson Space Center as a large chunk of what we do in space.”


Johnson Space Center has created a sense of pride among Bay Area residents, so much so that even streets and businesses have space-related names, Mitchell said.


“That’s just how Texans are,” he said. “Everybody’s proud to be a part of it.”

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By Jake Magee

Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.

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