Back to the moon: NH’s Lee Morin is working on Orion, NASA’s next lunar spacecraft

Union Leader |

Lee Morin was a teenager when Neil Armstrong took that “one giant leap for mankind” onto the surface of the moon. He grew up to become a Navy flight surgeon, then an astronaut, flying on a 2002 shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

Now the Manchester native is leading a NASA team that’s working on Orion, the spacecraft that is scheduled to return astronauts to the moon in 2024.

Morin, 66, remembers the national shock and embarrassment when Russia beat America in sending the first person into space. But by 1969, he said, “We had leapfrogged the Russians.”

Morin’s father worked for the U.S. Department of State, and in 1969 the family was living in Algeria. Morin watched the moon landing on a U.S. Navy base in Morocco. “They got the live broadcasts from the Apollo mission as it happened, and they broadcast it over the whole base,” he said.

Morin recalls that the moon held “a special place” for the local Muslim population. The whole world was riveted by the July 21 moonwalk, he recalled. The Vietnam War was very unpopular among Algerians, and the Apollo mission, Morin said, “gave people something else to talk about besides war.”

The success of the mission was a huge milestone for America, he said. “It was a tremendous can-do attitude and technical prowess. … We were ahead of the rest of the world.”

Cockpit changes

The cockpit software Morin’s team is designing for Orion is a radical departure from spacecraft of the past. “It basically has three computer screens, each about the size of a laptop screen,” he said.

Contrast that with the space shuttle, which flew with 250 pounds of books, filled with checklists that were vital to the operation of the spacecraft.

Orion will have just one book: “The reboot-the-computer book,” Morin said. “Don’t lose that one.”

The shuttle’s cockpit had 2,000 buttons, switches, dials and knobs, Morin said. Orion’s will have just seven little panels, with fewer than 100 buttons — again, mostly to reboot the computer, and to turn on the lights after Orion lands in the ocean after re-entry.

Morin said he actually builds a lot of prototypes for the project in his home garage.

Always fascinated with technology, Morin took a circuitous route to the astronaut corps. He majored in mathematical/electrical science at the University of New Hampshire and then took classes at MIT, where he worked with a professor who developed the first video card.

After earning a combined M.D./Ph.D. from New York University, he joined the Navy and attended the Naval Undersea Medical Institute in Connecticut. He trained as both a submarine medical officer and later a diving medical officer. He went on to the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Fla., becoming a naval flight officer.

“Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait,” he recalled. Morin, who in 1990 was in the Naval Reserve, was called up and sent to Bahrain for Operation Desert Storm. “They needed someone who was both a flight surgeon and diving medicine person in theater,” he explained.

Returning stateside, he went back to practicing medicine, working on the side to develop a computer program that could translate 800 medical phrases into any language.

40-something rookie

Then, in his early 40s, he decided to apply to NASA’s astronaut corps. “I said I’m probably too old, but if I don’t apply, I’ll wish I had,” he said.

Morin initially didn’t tell his wife, Rose, what he had done. Then came the friendly postcard from the University of New Hampshire: “Your transcript has been sent to NASA.”

“I was busted,” he laughed.

And it turned out that between his multiple degrees, technical expertise, flight surgeon training and overseas deployment, NASA in 1996 decided he had the right stuff to be an astronaut.

259 hours in space

Morin got his chance to fly as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Atlantis for a 2002 mission to the space station. He logged 259 hours in space, including 14 hours on two spacewalks; it was the first time the station’s robotic arm was used to maneuver the astronauts around the station.

Morin and his wife have two grown children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren with a third on the way. He said he’d love to be one of the astronauts who return to the moon, but it won’t be him. “I’m a little over the age window,” he said.

America and the world are entering a whole new era in the space program, Morin said. While people often forget about the International Space Station orbiting above, he said, “There have been people off the planet permanently for the entire length of the millennium so far, and the odds are there are going to be people permanently in space from that point forward.”

A space-faring civilization

Why go back to the moon? The moon “has absolutely tremendous resources and possibilities for the Earth,” Morin said.

“And the key to having humanity become a space-faring civilization is you’ve got to be self-sustaining,” he said. That requires establishing an industrial base off-planet, “being able to build up everything you need so you don’t have to bring everything from Earth,” he said. “The moon has tremendous resources, and it is in a high orbit that is the stepping stone to the rest of our solar system.”

It’s cost-prohibitive to keep bringing materials from Earth, Morin said. Building infrastructure on the moon using lunar materials and solar energy solves that problem.

The moon is covered with regolith, a powdered rock that consists of minerals, clay, sand, calcium, titanium and other metals, he explained. “And the key is to use the energy of the sun on the surface of the moon to convert these things into the things you need to be self-sustaining.”

The technology to do these things is already well-understood, Morin said. It’s a matter of converting it to industrial production on the moon. “That’s there like a cake mix, ready to use as soon as we get the toehold and get started. There’s tremendous potential.”

NASA plans to build a spacecraft called the Gateway, a small outpost orbiting the moon in a stable orbit. It can be used as a way station for future missions to Mars and beyond, Morin said.

Future moon missions

The upcoming moon missions are called Artemis, named for Apollo’s twin sister, the goddess of the moon. The first Artemis mission will be an unmanned flight around the moon, followed by a manned orbit of the moon in 2022. “That will be the first time that anyone has left low-earth orbit since 1972,” Morin said.

Subsequent missions will take up and assemble pieces of the Gateway. And the plan is for the first female astronaut to land on the moon in 2024.

Will we meet that ambitious deadline? “I think so,” Morin said. “It’s a matter of national will. The technology is there.”

Morin envisions a not-too-distant future when robots can be deployed on the moon’s surface, using similar technology to what is currently used in tele-medicine, to build bricks, roads, even other robots.

He even has ideas for funding all this, such as selling personalized moon bricks or renting moon robots to companies interested in developing their own products there. “You could create the ability for people to create intellectual properties and buy commodities,” he said.

Fifty years from now, Morin predicted, “We will have a sustained presence on the surface of the moon and a very significant lunar infrastructure. … And I think that we will have been to the surface of Mars.”

Morin also believes there will be permanent outposts on the moons of Mars, and “the beginnings of a civilization spread on the asteroids.”

“For people that want to get away from other people and make a new life, there is a potential there on the asteroids,” he said. “That’s the goal, isn’t it, for humanity to really become a space-faring civilization and really move humanity outwards?”

The U.S. still has an advantage in pursuing space exploration, but that could disappear, Morin warned. “We were way ahead and we have a tremendous lead, but it’s been 50 years now,” he said.

America can’t afford to get left behind, he said. “Other countries are certainly interested. If we don’t do it, they are going to.”

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