Updated: Urbana native Hopkins works on Orion spacecraft project

Updated: Urbana native Hopkins works on Orion spacecraft project

From The Associated Press:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA's new Orion spacecraft made a "bull's-eye" splashdown in the Pacific on Friday following a dramatic test flight that took it to a zenith height of 3,600 miles and ushered in a new era of human exploration aiming for Mars.

The unmanned test flight ended 4½ hours after it began and achieved at least one record: flying farther and faster than any capsule built for humans since the Apollo moon program.

NASA is counting on future Orions to carry astronauts beyond Earth's orbit, to asteroids and ultimately the grand prize: Mars.

"There's your new spacecraft, America," Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said as the Orion capsule neared the water.

Navies called the four-hour, 24-minute journey "the most perfect flight you could ever imagine."

NASA said the capsule's computers were not affected by high radiation, one of the key questions they hoped to answer with the test.

Orion's return was captured by an unmanned drone flying over the recovery zone, providing spectacular views of the descending capsule. Helicopters then relayed images of the crew module bobbing in the water. Three of the five air bags deployed properly, enough to keep the capsule floating upright.

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No one was more disappointed with the delay of NASA's Orion spacecraft launch than Josh Hopkins.

The Urbana native, a space exploration architect with Lockheed Martin, was at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday for the test voyage of Orion, a new spacecraft designed to take astronauts into deep space and eventually to Mars.

But with strong crosswinds and a couple of minor glitches, NASA missed its 2.5-hour launch window. The launch was rescheduled for 7:05 a.m. today. Hopkins, who had to fly back to Denver on Thursday afternoon, planned to watch online.

"There's a lot of tired people," said Hopkins, one of several thousand employees and spectators who got up at 3 a.m. to watch the launch. "You really want to make sure you get it right the first time, so people understand."

The launch of Orion is the first step toward human exploration of the solar system. It's built to travel farther into space than any human spacecraft since Apollo 17 returned to Earth in 1972.

On today's unmanned flight, however, Orion was to orbit the Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific, reaching altitudes of 3,600 miles above Earth, about 14 times the altitude of the International Space Station. The 4.5-hour flight was designed to test the spacecraft's ability to meet some of the greatest risks to astronauts on future missions — reaching speeds of 20,000 mph upon re-entry and generating temperatures of 4,000 degrees on its heat shields.

Hopkins' job is to think about space projects in their early phases and come up with the big picture — how something should work and what it should be — then turn it over to people who design it and make it work.

For Orion, "my team's job is to figure out what missions it will do once it's working, talk with scientists who study the moon or asteroids and try to figure out how we can help them answer the big science questions," he said in a phone interview.

The current version of Orion can carry four astronauts for 21 days, enough to take a fairly long visit to the moon or an asteroid in "Earth's neighborhood," he said. The plan is to use an unmanned robotic craft and advanced propulsion systems to nudge an asteroid 10 to 20 feet in diameter into orbit around the moon. Then NASA could send astronauts to explore it for a few weeks, he said.

A trip to Mars is still decades away. It would take six months to get there, plus exploration time and the return trip, or at least 18 months total, Hopkins said. The crew would also need a bigger habitat for that trip; NASA envisions a craft assembled in Earth orbit, and astronauts would use Orion to get to it from Earth, he said.

Hopkins, 41, has loved space since he was a kid playing with space toys and watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series on TV.

"Just being able to work in a field where people are constantly exploring new worlds and tackling really hard engineering problems is a really rewarding career," he said. "That's what drew me into it."

(For the record, he is not related to astronaut and University of Illinois graduate Mike Hopkins, but he went through the same aerospace engineering program at the UI two years later. "A straight-A football team captain rocket scientist was a tough act to follow," he said.)

He considered other options, including history or computer science, but decided that "doing space was pretty much the coolest thing I could think of."

Being at the UI was beneficial, with access to the Internet before it became mainstream, he said. His mom, Susan Hopkins, remembers her son posting some early documents that caught the attention of scientists at Fermilab.

"He said to my husband, 'Do you think I should tell them I'm just in high school?'" she said. His father is Lewis Hopkins, a retired UI professor of urban and regional planning and member of the Urbana Plan Commission.

While at the UI — "back when the Internet was black and white" — Josh Hopkins created a document about rockets that wound up being a resource for people in the industry. Those contacts eventually led to his first job at Lockheed Martin, working on the Athena launch vehicle.

Orion resembles the Apollo spacecraft in its shape, but on the inside it's completely different, Hopkins said, with modern electronics and manufacturing techniques. It's bigger, with room for four astronauts, and has a real bathroom.

"It takes advantage of all the things we've learned doing spaceflight in the last 50 years," he said.

Consider: The Apollo astronauts couldn't exercise, partly because the craft wasn't big enough and partly because the life support systems couldn't handle the extra carbon dioxide and sweat. Today's systems have much more capacity.

Orion also has design features that allow it to travel farther than the Apollo spacecraft or space shuttle, he said. Rather than fuel cells — essentially large batteries that run out of stored energy — it has solar arrays, "which means we have power for as long as we want to stay in space."

The system that maintains the cabin atmosphere for astronauts is also updated. Remember the scene in the movie "Apollo 13" when the canisters that collected carbon dioxide malfunctioned, the astronauts were slowly suffocating, and Mission Control had to help them build a new system with materials on board?

Orion's system can continue to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere "pretty much indefinitely," he said.

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