(Posted Oct. 18, 2022)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
On Sept. 3, Thomas Howard Smith sat at his desk in his London home, perched on the chair, staring intently at a large computer monitor. A television screen in an adjoining room could have offered him a more expansive view, but his satellite signal was not working well that day–a fact that he found to be humorous and somewhat ironic considering the technological advances that were to occur before his eyes.
Locked into a live stream via the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web page, Smith soaked in the sight of a 322-foot tall rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) that was minutes away from blasting off into the atmosphere. Ever since childhood, he has had a passion for airplanes and spacecraft (real and fictional), but looking at this marvel of design, engineering, and operation hit him a little differently.
“It was just parts being assembled when I started working on the SLS and the Artemis program with our [NASA] team, and seeing it completed and ready to launch was a real treat for me,” he said.
Unlike most people who were watching the feed through the web stream or live on a cable news, Sith was familiar with the verbiage from the mission control booth and knew something was amiss during the systems test prior to the scheduled launch. Sure enough, the initial mission that would take the uncrewed spacecraft Orion into a month-long distant retrograde orbit around the moon was postponed when a liquid hydrogen leak was detected.
Retired from NASA for the past three years and living more than a thousand miles from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Smith said he was ready to pack a bag, get in his car and drive down I-71 to help the operations crew find and fix the problem so they could get the rocket and spacecraft into the sky for exploration of the lunar surface.
“Lisa [his wife] told me to sit back down,” he said with a laugh. “I have the utmost confidence that they can find and fix the problem, but I just wanted to go there and help.”
Smith said he wasn’t too disappointed that the SLS did not launch initially because “reality is, nothing new goes on the first try.” Even so, he could not quell the buzzing sensations that were coursing through his body from the experience.
“I am so excited about this program and the implications it could have on our future, finding life outside of our planet and the possibilities of new scientific breakthroughs and discovery,” he said. “And to know that I played a part–a very small part, mind you, but a part nonetheless–in this new phase of space exploration that could inspire a new generation of scientific minds and the science-curious is still hard to wrap my head around.”
Smith recalls liking science and “space stuff” as a young boy. His dream to work at the space agency started to take root at the age of 7 when, on July 20, 1969, he watched Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin land and walk on the moon from the television set in his home in London.
He said prior to that event, he really had no knowledge of NASA and what it would come to mean to him and so many others.
“Watching the landings on the moon was just very exciting to me, just from the point of view of people exploring a place no one had been before,” he said. “Added to that, I was then what would be called a ‘tech-nerd’ now.”
After the historic event took place, Smith went on something akin to a personal mission as he attempted to get his hands on any book or magazine or piece of literature on space and science fiction. He started to build his own miniature rockets that he and his friends would try to launch. His father, George, who would later retire as the deputy warden of London Correctional Institution, and his mother, Shirley, who was a local sixth-grade teacher, encouraged their son’s interest but they were not always amused by his antics.
“They were supportive of my interest, but they didn’t always appreciate the racket we would make with our rocket launches,” he quipped.
After graduating from London High School in 1980, Smith attended Michigan State University where he joined their Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. Four years later, equipped with a bachelor of science in physics and astronomy, the second lieutenant requested a transfer to the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, Calif., which was collaborating with NASA on Space Shuttle missions.
“For the first half of my Air Force career, I was working on planning and hardware processing for the first shuttle mission that was to have been launched from Vandenberg, and I did some training at the (Kennedy Space Center) in Florida,” he said.
When the shuttle launch facilities at Vandenberg closed shortly after the 1986 Challenger disaster, Smith transferred to a program at the base in charge of Titan, a heavy lift rocket that carried large intelligence and reconnaissance satellites into orbit. There, he provided engineering and analysis assistance to get the program back on its feet after it experienced an uncrewed accident in a manner similar to the crewed Challenger mission.
In 1988, a friend told Smith that NASA was hiring for its operations staff and he decided to apply. Having given up the dream of being an astronaut at 10 due to poor eyesight–“I knew it would disqualify me for being any kind of military pilot, which was the primary background for most astronauts at that point”–he knew he could process the data and set schedules and help find a solution to any mechanical issue that could arise. Still, he didn’t think he would be selected.
Then he was.
“I think I sat there [after the initial interview when he was told he was unofficially, but mostly officially, hired] for about an hour just absorbing what had happened,” he stated.
From 1988 to 1997, Smith worked operations for the Space Shuttle processing, a job he described as scheduling backwards from a planned launch date to make sure the right parts are getting ordered and the right people are being called to fix problems that occur to ensure the safety of the missions, especially the manned crews.
He said one of the most difficult things he had to do while working at NASA was to find the mechanical parts of the manned Columbia Space Shuttle that experienced a catastrophic failure as it reentered the atmosphere in 2003.
In 1997, Smith went to work in International Space Station (ISS) processing, which he said was interesting, albeit frustrating, because the largest modular space station was being constructed in “chunks.”
“Each chunk that went up–and we’re talking like 40 chunks–changed the configuration of the station, and all of the configurations had to work,” he explained. “So, it was like if you bought a car and you had two tires and part of an engine and maybe a seat, you had to find a way to make it operate. And then later, you would bring up maybe a couple more times, a bigger gas tank and another seat, and you would have to find a way to reconfigure the parts in order to make it work because people are [now] living on this station and they need power, and electrical power, and their life support units have to work.”
Smith said those stressors were compounded when the teams at their partner agencies in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia would have a different way of finding solutions to problems.
“I loved working with the Italians, but they had a very different way of doing things, you might say,” he laughed. “If you were working on a [launch] problem in August and tried to get ahold of one of their operations team members, you wouldn’t be able to get ahold of them because August is their vacation month.
“It was sometimes stressful, but always interesting working with all of these different agencies and all of these different personalities.”
During his time in ISS processing, Smith got involved with planning for Mars missions and later came to work on operations planning for the Ares I program which later became the Artemis program. Although the initial mission of the Artemis program is to create a long-term human presence on the lunar surface for further exploration of the moon, its ultimate goal is to send humans to Mars via a series of experiments to determine how astronauts could get to the Red Planet and live on it for a duration of time.
“The moon will essentially be a testing ground [for Mars expeditions],” Smith explained. “The equipment wouldn’t necessarily be the same, but a lot of the concepts of how the equipment is used–like the space suits, the science equipment, the vehicles that the astronauts roll around in and go to different places–you can test that stuff out on the moon where they’re close to Earth. If something goes wrong, you can bail out and come to Earth within a few days, but once they get to Mars, they’re not going to have that option.
“It takes months to get there, and you can only return to Earth during a specific window in our rotation.”
Smith reiterated his excitement about the potential of the Artemis program and its implications for science, space exploration, life on Earth, and life within the universe.
“Carl Sagan, who is one of the people I think had a pretty big clue about what was going on, outside of his own personal life, said, ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself’, and I take that to heart,” Smith said. “If we are the only intelligent species around, that means we have a responsibility to try to keep understanding the universe. We have a responsibility to try not to let ourselves get wiped out in some way, and we have a responsibility to keep trying to understand the universe.
“And if there are other kinds of life, not civilizations, but just life like amoebas or bacteria, we have to try to understand how it works, how they work, and add that to our library of what life looks like on another planet, in another place, and compare it to our extensive library of what life looks like here on Earth.”
Smith said it will be a great day for science, a great day for space exploration, when the Artemis I program officially launches. The launch is now scheduled for mid-November. He added that he hopes it will inspire a new generation of explorers who go out and discover, and build their own backyard rockets, and dream.
Thomas Howard Smith holds master of science degrees in engineering management and space science. He teaches an introductory astronomy course at Columbus State Community College.