Scientists at University of Denver Contribute to the Orion Space Project

Teddy Long (MS ’13) says the rocket was about three miles away as he sat with his wife in the Kennedy Space Center in December to watch the first test launch of the Orion space capsule — NASA’s effort to put humans on Mars.

Sixty-six University of Denver alumni worked at Lockheed Martin on Orion, which launched its first test flight on Dec. 5. Photo courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

“We were sitting next to coworkers wearing the Orion T-shirts we put together,” Long says. “We heard the countdown — ‘t-minus 3, t-minus 2, t-minus 1’ — and then just silence … then a big fireball, and the flame was going so high we couldn’t see the tip of the rocket. We all thought, ‘Oh no!’ Then about two seconds later, we saw the rocket rising from the flame. We all felt the relief and started laughing and clapping.”

Palpable excitement. And who wouldn’t be excited to leave a small footprint on human exploration of the great beyond? Those are the shoes Long wears as an engineer at Denver-based aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, where he wrote software for the flight.

“It’s definitely an honor being a part of a meaningful and successful space project,” Long says. “Maybe my contribution was small, but I did have a contribution.”

Long is one of 66 University of Denver alumni working at Lockheed Martin on Orion. Twenty-three of those alumni have taken part in a joint educational effort between the two organizations. In 2005, DU’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science partnered with Lockheed to offer master’s degrees, certificates and a PhD to Lockheed employees.

To date, more than 160 staffers working at Lockheed’s Denver facility have earned advanced degrees through the program.

Long, who earned a master’s in mechatronics systems engineering, says he saved his lecture slides and class notes. “I still use them frequently. The idea of thinking outside of the box was what I got most from DU. You have to keep in mind that there has to be a solution to every challenge.”

DU alumni spend most of their time on Orion’s avionics and propulsion systems, software, the launch abort system, thermal protection and mechanics.

Adam Pender, a propulsion engineer at Lockheed and an adjunct professor at DU, says the program is a clear success.

“So often in our jobs, we get wrapped up in the immediate task at hand, but DU brings a broader academic perspective that would likely be lost in a business-specific training program,” Pender says. “The DU faculty members readily share their experience. Their stories are an essential part of the learning process because they highlight the academics while anchoring it in a relevant real-world situation.”

Chris Homolac (MS ’11), a Lockheed mechanical engineer who began working on Orion in 2007, says his DU courses in human spaceflight, space robotics and project management helped him understand the enormity of the project.

“I learned how a project as large as Orion functions,” Homolac says. “All of the various aspects were easier for me to understand after seeing how the engineering process flows. Just about every course I took had some immediate tangible effect on what I was doing, and I was able to apply it and grow as an engineer the further into my degree.”

If all goes as planned, Orion’s next flight will be a seven-day mission in 2018, followed by the first mission with a crew in 2021 that will take humans out of low-Earth orbit for the first time since Cernan’s Apollo 17 trip to the moon in 1972.

Like Long, Homolac watched the Orion launch with delight.

“That’s when it became very real to me, and I felt proud and honored that my coworkers and I are giving the nation the best product we can — a product that will lead us back into the human exploration of space,” he says.

Long agrees. “I’m proud for being part of history, and I’m proud to tell my kids that their daddy builds rocket ships. I hope my kids will be inspired to pursue their own destiny one day.”

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