“One of the objectives of this program of trips to the Moon is to establish a permanent presence there”

Eduardo García Llama doesn’t give life at all these days. After almost 24 hours of silence on the phone, he writes a sudden WhatsApp: “I can do the interview in the next hour and a half or at your 11pm”, he offers. García Llama is a physicist, engineer and responsible for guidance and control of the Orion spacecraft on NASA’s Artemis I mission, the first of the three that make up the Artemis program, with which the North American agency intends to once again set foot in the Moon, and time is a scarce resource with only a few days to go before the launch of the rocket. This Saturday, NASA has canceled the launch of the mission for the second time, this time due to a problem with a leak in a hydrogen conduit that transfers fuel to the rocket.

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For this to end up happening, the work of this Valencian, who is in charge of ensuring that the ship reaches our satellite and not any other point in space, will be essential. García Llama, who has worked for NASA since 2004 after passing through the European Space Agency, explains that the ultimate objective of this mission is to take human beings to Mars, although he prefers not to draw a time horizon for it, and explains the difficulties it presents that company. In any case, the previous step to that feat will be to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon to develop and test the materials and techniques that will make this future trip to another planet possible.

This physicist and engineer, who also wrote the book apollo 11 (Ed. Crítica) on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, says that he experienced the cancellation of the launch of Artemis I last Monday with normality and resignation. Now, with the ship already in the air, it’s time to follow its evolution from the famous NASA control room in Houston.

What is your role in the mission?

I am responsible for the guidance and control of the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I mission. For the entire development part, ground tests, simulations… In the flight part and its preparation, I am the chief engineering flight controller for the Guidance and control of the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I. The guidance system tells the spacecraft what to do to correct its path to the Moon, enter lunar orbit, exit lunar orbit, and enter Earth by where you have to access to splash down where you should. The guidance system is what executes these maneuvers. Turning on the main engine, defining for how long, which propulsion system it has to run on (there are three), also orients the spacecraft, which is sometimes necessary to point a camera at the Moon or do various other tasks.

Why is NASA going back to the Moon now?

Truth to be told I do not know [se ríe]. I can tell you that the United States has already been to the Moon and has always had the aspiration to return, and for some reason that moment has now come. For many decades NASA has been flying space shuttle missions, until now it is also on the International Space Station… What we call low Earth orbits. The space station is only 400 kilometers from the earth. An important part of why we’re going now – I think it’s one of the keys – is that private space technology companies already have the ability to develop their own low-Earth orbit access systems. They can take care of that, and NASA can focus on exploring deep space, everything beyond low orbit. Go back to the Moon and, beyond, go to Mars. The technology is mature enough for private companies to take care of it, either through contracts in which NASA astronauts fly, but there is also the possibility that these companies make a private commercial exploitation of those systems that already They have developed. NASA no longer has to take direct responsibility for those lower missions and we can take that leap further to go back to the Moon.

NASA then has no problem with companies starting to colonize space.

This falls into a plan. NASA has not found itself with companies eating its land. The country’s policy at the space level has been to promote these companies so that NASA can untie itself from low orbits and look beyond. In addition, the Government, to promote this development, closes contracts with these companies for the transport of material or astronauts to the Space Station, among other things.

What is the goal of the Artemis program?

The plan takes us to Mars. To put it in perspective: during the last decades there has always been the question of what you have to do to get to Mars. If everything can be designed from Earth or do we have to develop the technology first in the lunar environment and learn there to use it later on Mars? There have been proponents of both ways (I am of the second, by the way). One of the goals of going to the Moon is to have a permanent human presence. If the plan goes ahead, a permanent base will be built for scientific research, to investigate local resources, but also to develop and test all the technologies necessary for a population to survive on its own off Earth: systems energy, use of local materials to manufacture components or equipment, etc. It will be a test bed.

When they first went to the moon [Neil] amstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin in 1969 were there for a few hours and in such a short period of time that the chances of something failing are smaller than if you were there for five months. If you go to Mars, because of the orbital conditions between Earth and Mars, the first crew to go would have to stay there for several months. And if they have to stay for several months, either everything is sent to them beforehand so that everything is there and it is verified that it is working and can be used or systems are developed so that the crew on Mars can take advantage of local resources to survive. These technologies to use these resources is what you want to test first on the Moon.

What time horizon are we talking about?

Artemis II is planned for no earlier than May 2024 and Artemis III for 2025.

But these two will already be manned.

Artemis II will be manned but without landing, it would be a short mission of 8 or 9 days. In Artemis III the plan is to land on the moon and the circumstance occurs that one of the people who will do so would be a woman, the first to step on the Moon.

Since you’ve got it out, I’m asking you about Mars. Are we close to going?

It is a difficult question to answer. I can put a little context so that it is understood. The Space Station or the space shuttle is very close to the earth, 400 kilometers away. But the Moon is a thousand times further away, three orders of magnitude, that is why it is so difficult to go. And we’re talking about manned missions, about sending people, not about missions where you don’t need food or water. But Mars, at its furthest point, is about 400 million kilometers away. A thousand times farther than the Moon from Earth, another three orders of magnitude. If it is so difficult to go to the Moon, imagine Mars. I wrote an article titled Why is it hard to go to Mars? when the movie came out The Martian, and what happens is that you really think about what you need to send a three-person crew to the Moon. Two go down to the Moon and the third stays orbiting. For that you need a moon rocket over 100 meters high, the most powerful in the world. Imagine taking six people to Mars; Twice as many people, a thousand times further away, so that they can be there for several months, not just a day, and then they can return from a world with more mass that costs more to take off, more power is needed. The number of launches to prepare a mission of that magnitude would be 10 or 11 sagebrush to send things. Now, if you think about creating technologies for people to live there on their own, you’d save yourself a lot of trouble. People ask me if we are going to go to Mars in Orion. No. It will be in this architecture, but a different ship. People who go will stay for several months before coming back. Landing on Mars for a manned mission is an unsolved problem and getting off the surface is also a big problem. It is very far away and the crew has to be there for several months. People do not imagine the complexity of the task.

How many people work in the entire Artemis program?

I read in some internal document that there are 70,000 people in the entire industrial complex, between direct and indirect positions. What I can tell you is that companies from all 50 states of the United States work.

This has a huge economic dimension, then.

The program reverts to the industrial fabric of the country. Companies have to innovate for missions because standard technology doesn’t work. All that innovation, that potential that increases the industrial fabric of the country makes your companies more competitive internationally. And a whole stimulus of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers is developed, all this is promoted and that talent that is created is applied to other fields. It really is an investment.

How do you live from within the interruption due to a failure of a scheduled launch, as happened last Saturday?

Accounts with which it can happen. You go home and away. Us [su departamento] we have nothing to do with the system that has failed, it has been in the engineering part of the rocket itself. We knew it could happen, it didn’t take us by surprise and so there is no frustration. Something else is assumed. I’m sorry, but it’s not epic.

How much does a NASA project manager sleep a week before launch?

[Se ríe] Very little. In recent weeks, four hours on average, although it becomes a little more bearable because we also telecommute.

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