THE NEXT GIANT LEAP: Women & the Future of Space Exploration. This is the second article of a three-part series leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In the series, we highlight Purdue University College of Engineering’s ongoing role in the story of human space travel.
Meet NASA’s Next-Generation Astronaut
Loral O’Hara says the future of space exploration is here. With the goal of being the latest product of Purdue’s “Cradle of Astronauts,” O’Hara feels the momentum and says what we learn from the stars will help us on Earth.
Growing up in Houston, a stone’s throw from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Loral O’Hara (MS ’09) got her first taste of the possibilities of space travel early on.
“NASA and the space program were always very much a part of my life,” she recalls. In second grade, her class sent tomato seeds up to the International Space Station to observe from a distance how plant life grows in space. Now, as a member of NASA’s 22nd group of astronaut candidates — which wraps up its training this fall just as the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing conclude — O’Hara is poised to one day go to space herself.
O’Hara says her training, combined with her Purdue experience, have prepared her for the innovative corner she believes the field of human space exploration is about to turn, with space programs gaining traction around the world and new lunar travel — and colonization — finally on the horizon after more than four decades.
“It feels like there’s a level of energy and an amount of momentum [about human space exploration] that I haven’t felt in my lifetime,” she says. “I’m very optimistic.”
In her quest for a constant human presence on the moon, O’Hara surely hopes to join the other 24 Purdue alumni who have taken that path to become astronauts, including the two who walked on the moon.
But Purdue is more than a talent pipeline for NASA, as the agency and others in the space travel industry rely on West Lafayette as it looks to break new ground. Earlier this year, NASA named Shirley Dyke, a Purdue Engineering professor, the head of a new institute that will focus on developing habitats for outer space. The Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH) institute is one of the latest in a long tradition, with more to come.
Purdue gives students more than a glimpse of an eventual career in space exploration. It provides a chance to truly immerse themselves in the subject matter, such as at Zucrow Laboratories, the nation’s largest university propulsion laboratory, where companies go to test experiments. O’Hara says Zucrow was a “big draw” for her when she was applying to Purdue, and the lab, as well as her entire educational experience, lived up to expectations because the work wasn’t just theoretical or conceptual but also required her to tackle the issues at hand.
“There’s not a sense that you’re working on contrived problems or schoolwork — you’re working on the same stuff challenging NASA and industry,” O’Hara says.
Global energy to return to the moon
How those challenges are being approached is what gives O’Hara optimism. The global community is on the cusp of a period reminiscent of the first big push for space exploration prior to 1969. The difference is the current and coming chapters of space exploration don’t carry the same implications as the Cold War and Space Race.
For starters, the playing field has expanded. Three governmental space programs (those of the United States, China and Russia) have human spaceflight capabilities, and an additional three (India, Japan and the European Union) have full launch capabilities. In total, 72 countries have declared space programs, although with varying levels of investment. Meanwhile, private companies are joining the growing number of countries beginning space programs. Year after year, commercial space companies are breaking records in investments.
For O’Hara and her peers, this is the beginning of a period of collaboration and problem-solving, in which sharing knowledge, insights and facilities is largely expected and beneficial. “Our international partners are enthusiastic [about the future of space travel], and they’re on board,” O’Hara says.
Back to the moon
O’Hara points to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway as a perfect example. Proposed in 2017, this planned new space station will orbit the moon, and though the effort will be spearheaded by NASA, international partners and commercial players will contribute. In May, for instance, NASA announced that Maxar Technologies in Colorado has received the contract for the power and propulsion element, which is the first phase of the assembly timeline in 2022. Getting Gateway in place is central to the Artemis program, which aims to return humans — including the first woman — to the moon by 2024.
“I hope that in the next 5, 10 years we’ll see human presence on the moon as a normal everyday thing, like having a space station orbiting around Earth today,” O’Hara says. “That’s just sort of taken for granted now.”
In many ways, space travel has become so ubiquitous that people might not realize how it impacts their daily lives, a trend likely to continue with future exploration. Gateway is an extension of the drive for scientific discovery that encouraged O’Hara’s predecessors to shoot for the stars — both figuratively and somewhat literally. O’Hara sees space travel — and the innovations surrounding it — continuing to help us to solve any number of challenges on Earth.
“We learn things about the world and about ourselves and develop new technology, all of which has implications for life here on Earth,” she explains. “It helps us be better here, too. There is so much potential and I find that exciting.”