September 26, 2022

image of nasa's orion spacecraft in flight
During Artemis I, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the moon during an approximately four to six-week mission. Credit: NASA

Humans are going back to the moon and NASA is leading the way with its Artemis mission, with the goal of establishing a long-term presence on the Moon. Why the Moon? NASA plans to build on over 50 years of space exploration experience to reignite America’s passion for discovery, to fuel new industries by growing the lunar economy, and to inspire a new generation of international partners and audiences. Ultimately, the agency plans to use what it learns from Artemis to get astronauts to Mars.

The first phase of the mission, Artemis I, will attempt its next launch of the Orion spacecraft in the near future (Hurricane Ian halted the planned Sep. 27 launch date). Orion, which will be uncrewed during this phase, will launch on NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The spacecraft is built to fly further than humans have ever flown before, traveling 280,000 miles from Earth and thousands of miles past the Moon. The maiden flight will test all of the mission’s deep space exploration systems to ensure they are safe before sending a crew to fly aboard Orion.

At the helm of Orion’s navigation system is alumnus Greg Holt (B.S. ASE 2000, M.S. ASE 2002, Ph.D. ASE 2006). Holt, who works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as the Orion spacecraft navigation system manager for Artemis, took some time from his very busy schedule to talk with us about the mission and reminisce about his days as a student in UT Austin’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

Greg Holt
Alumnus Greg Holt, Orion spacecraft navigation system manager for Artemis

What does your role entail as the navigation system manager for the Orion spacecraft?

I lead the team that designs, builds and tests the Orion navigation system. We write the software, test the algorithms and analyze them. And of course, we install and test all of the hardware that we support on the spacecraft. Now that we are getting close to flying Orion, we are involved with the engineering team that supports the execution of the mission.

Tell us a little about the launch itself. How long will it take and how long with Orion be in flight?

Good question. The Artemis I mission is several weeks long and is intended to be a stress test to make sure we thoroughly test all systems before putting a crew on board. We’ll be spending about a week to get to the Moon and then it could take another two to four weeks of Orion orbiting the Moon, with another week to return. That entire time my team will be on console 24/7 monitoring systems. As you can imagine for a mission like this, there are a lot of flight test objectives – around 120 or so I think – and we’re responsible for about a dozen of those.

Can you expand on one of the objectives for which your team is responsible?

One of the biggest test objectives that my team is responsible for is the optical navigation system. We’ll be flying a brand-new technology on Orion for the first time which will allow the spacecraft to navigate autonomously. So, we’ll be testing that out to make sure it’s ready for the crew when they fly on the Artemis II mission.

Why do you personally feel it’s important for us to go to the Moon again?

I think there are a lot of good reasons – it’s obviously very inspirational for the next generation to have these kinds of monumental moments to mark and see – and I’m hopeful missions like this will encourage them to pursue their own careers in science and technology. And as a NASA civil servant, I of course support our goal of a peaceful exploration of space.

What inspired you to pursue an education and career in aerospace engineering?

I enjoyed airplanes and aviation growing up. I’d go sit at the end of the runway at the airport and watch the planes take off, so there was always an interest and fascination with flight. In high school I was fortunate to have a physics teacher who had a background in the field and that’s how I became interested in spacecraft and rocketry.

How did your experience at UT Aerospace help get you to your role on Artemis I?

My time spent at UT was incredibly valuable, not only for having a thorough understanding for aerospace and all facets of engineering, but also learning those soft skills of teamwork, how to work through challenges in a real practical sense while working on our lab builds.

Can you share a favorite memory of your time as a student in the ASE/EM Department?

I would say establishing the Texas Spacecraft Lab in the WRW building to support our first nanosatellite project is the most memorable. Former faculty member Glenn Lightsey asked me to be the project manager and afterward I thought wow, I hope I never have to do that again. But now here I am again [laughing]. Some of the best memories go back to the late-night builds with the team in the lab, soldering solar panels or baking our components in a makeshift thermal chamber which was really just a second-hand turkey oven. We repurposed a lot of things for that first build – we even built our own clean room tent using PVC pipe and plastic sheeting and recycled air conditioning units.

What are you most excited about for Artemis I?

I think the very first time we see those images come back from our optical navigation system that’s going to be a pretty special moment. We’ve been working on it for several years and being able to see those images come back live in mission control and up on the big screen should be rewarding. And not only will it be the culmination of all the hard work we put into it over the years, but knowing that it’s also going to be a huge contributor to the success of the Artemis missions for the life of the program is very rewarding.

What do you think will be your biggest challenge during the flight?

The team I manage is made up of around 25 members, including a handful of UT ASE alums; about half of them are here in Houston and the other half are spread throughout the country. I think probably the most challenging thing will be keeping the team focused during this long mission. We just need to make sure we maintain awareness and be diligent during the entire flight.

What are the next steps for your team after Artemis I is complete?

We are already deep into the planning and execution for Artemis II which will fly a crew to and around the Moon. So, we’re continuing to prepare all of the software and hardware ready for that. Right now, I’m really looking forward to this first launch. It’s going to be a busy but exciting time.