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Utahns Taking Steps For More ‘Giant Leaps’

PROMONTORY, Utah — When Neil Armstrong took the first human step on the moon and unforgettably labeled it “one giant leap for mankind,” Charlie Precourt was just 14 years old watching on TV with pretty much the whole world.

“For me it was very exciting,” Precourt said recently. “I thought right then and there I’d love to be doing what they’re doing.”

Saturday will mark 50 years since Armstrong’s historic walk in 1969, but very few followed in his famous footsteps. Only 11 other astronauts walked on the moon, the last in 1972. The nation abandoned its Apollo program when Precourt was 17 and no one ever went back to the moon.

A new mission for Utah’s boosters

Precourt got only part way there, earning his stripes as an astronaut on four space shuttle missions in the 1990s. Now he’s leading an effort by hundreds of workers in Utah aimed at finally giving humans a return ticket to the moon and, perhaps, to Mars.

“Well, you know,” he said to several Northrop Grumman employees as he pointed to one of the company’s huge booster segments, “the new plan is, these things are going to the moon.”

He is general manager of propulsion systems for the company. It’s one of numerous contractors building the so-called Space Launch System, an enormous rocket that could go to the moon and possibly beyond. Precourt thinks Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo team would be pleased.

“They would be delighted to see we’re on the cusp of doing it again,” he said, “likely to ask, ‘What’s taken so long?’ But we want to get there and be a sustainable exploration enterprise when we do.”

Northrop Grumman now owns the rocket works previously known as Thiokol and, later, Alliant Techsystems or ATK. For three decades the Box Elder County facility built the boosters that helped blast the space shuttles into orbit. Now, a new mission is beckoning.

Assembling the launch system in Florida

In the gigantic building at Cape Canaveral known as the VAB, NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, Utah-made boosters will be strapped to the giant SLS rocket for a test flight possibly as early as next year.

“It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty,” said Kay Anderson, Northrop Grumman’s communications manager as she gazed toward the upper reaches of the VAB where the SLS will top out at 322 feet.”

On launch day when everything lights up — including the Utah boosters on the side — it promises to be quite a show.

“It will knock your socks off, no doubt about it,” Precourt said. Each booster will have five segments that have been adapted from their earlier mission.

“These segments were used on space shuttles,” Anderson said. “They were recovered and refurbished for use on the Space Launch System.”

Near the lofty top of the SLS will be a large crew vehicle called the Orion capsule. It could take astronauts to the moon as early as 2024, if the timetable laid out by President Donald Trump holds up. Skeptics in Congress have expressed doubts, noting that the project already has a history of delays.

Critics have also questioned the fact that the boosters will not be recovered and reused as they were on space shuttle missions. But Precourt defends that choice because economic analysis showed it’s the most cost-efficient approach.

“We made a decision to make these expendable,” Precourt said, “and not have the expense of refurbishment and recovery piled on to the program.”

A Utah-made escape system

Northrop Grumman employees in Utah are making another important component: a small rocket that will be perched on the very top of the SLS, attached to the crew-carrying Orion capsule.

“This part is the launch abort motor that’s manufactured in Utah,” Anderson said, showing off a version of the rocket that NASA has on display near the VAB. NASA officials hope it will never be used because it’s designed to function only in the case of a dire emergency. Its purpose is to save the crew.

“It’s like an ejection seat of a fighter aircraft,” Precourt said. “We actually extract the entire capsule off the top of the rocket if something should go wrong.”

A stepping stone to Mars

Assuming nothing does go wrong, the Orion capsule will head to the moon to establish sustainable research facilities.

“It’s a stepping stone, if you will,” Anderson said, envisioning future SLS missions to the red planet, Mars.

“But beyond moon and Mars,” Precourt said, “there’s also this thought that we might find life somewhere else in the universe. And one of the more intriguing places to go would be the moon of Jupiter known as Europa.”

That dream of going back to the moon — and beyond — keeps over a hundred Northrop Grumman workers busy in Florida. About a thousand people work part-time on the project in Utah, the equivalent of 500 full-time positions, jobs that could continue for decades if the dream stays alive.

“You know, to go back to the moon is something that I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime,” Anderson said. “And so, to go to the moon and then on to Mars is enormously exciting to me.”

Precourt will almost certainly never fulfill his teenage dream of getting to the moon. But if NASA should ever ask him to fly again?

“Sign me up,” he said. “Absolutely, I’d go in a heartbeat.”

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