Alumni Trio Help NASA, SpaceX Set Course for America’s Space Frontiers

Thursday, November 17, 2022
Alumni Trio Help NASA, SpaceX Set Course for America’s Space Frontiers

Alumni (from left) Tim Kibbey, Justin Smith and Luke Gelfius are actively involved with the Artemis project that has once again launched America’s space exploration horizons – to the Moon and beyond.

In the closing scene of the “Apollo 13” movie about NASA’s aborted 1970 Moon landing mission, flight commander Jim Lovell (voiced by actor Tom Hanks) asks the rhetorical question about America’s space exploration horizons: “I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back and who will that be?”

Well, that achievement will once again be happening during this decade, with NASA’s three-staged Artemis space program set to return humans to the Moon and set a foundation for deep space exploration. And, just like the original Apollo program, several Rose-Hulman alumni are making considerable contributions to make it all possible.

Launched this fall, Artemis I is the first uncrewed integrated test of the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It features the most powerful rocket in the world and will fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown – demonstrating the performance of the SLS rocket and Orion, and test capabilities to orbit the Moon and return to Earth. This will set the tone for increasingly complex missions to demonstrate America’s commitment and capability to extend human existence, including the first woman and first person of color, on the Moon’s surface.

In the winter of 2006, as an aerospace engineer with ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman Aerospace) 2003 mechanical engineering alumnus Tim Kibbey led the analysis of a mentor’s basic “grain designs” for the concept that would use a five-segment Space Shuttle-derived solid rocket motor. There was no prescribed mission in mind at that time. A few months later, Kibbey was given design authority, with some constraints and goals, to finish the rocket’s design, and by that summer the shape of the propellant tooling system was set in motion.

The propellant formulation had to be adjusted by other engineers and scientists to meet Kibbey’s burn rate requirements. The case insulation, protecting the interior from the hot combustion products, was designed according to exposure times based on the Rose-Hulman graduate’s propellant grain geometry. He also assisted in the design of the nozzle and thrust vector control, major structures connecting to the launch vehicle and the ground control system, and electronics systems for igniting, controlling, instrumenting, and, just in case, flight termination. 

That motor system was the basis of the SLS Booster rocket that launched Artemis I on its maiden mission on Wednesday, November 16.

“It doesn’t have to take 16 years to get to flight, but sometimes it does,” said Kibbey before Artemis’ launch. “This has been a long time coming and I’ve had a part in it the whole time. Therefore, I feel a bit of ownership in the rocket … I’m glad it’s finally getting to fly, and I look forward to watching our sturdy booster and the job it does for spaceflight. And at the end, this team will try to apply what we’ve done here to the next steps in exploring, both the cosmos and the physics and operation of rocket systems.”

Kibbey’s role in the Artemis and other space exploration projects have expanded as a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He is currently helping develop future Artemis booster rockets to meet expectations of having multiple human flights to build and test systems providing a gateway for exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars.

“I'm intrigued by all things flow, energy and motion, so there could be plenty of opportunities in Artemis to keep me interested,” remarked Kibbey, who also has contributed to NASA’s Mars Sample Return and Europa Lander projects as well as designed and tested solid and hybrid rocket motors for other missions. “I have looked for ways to keep it interesting, staying curious intentionally, and I'm grateful that the NASA culture enabled that.”

Meanwhile, electrical engineering alumnus Luke Gelfius is a lead software engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center who supports Artemis mission launch countdown operations. He helps diagnose and correct issues that happen during a launch countdown, while also handling several software tools and applications secondary support roles that assist in the launch of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance projects. 

The massive Artemis project is filled with complicated software engineering issues requiring Gelfius and others to handle problems head-on.

“Software is the glue that integrates all portions of the rocket together,” said the 2019 graduate. “Every piece of technology needs to be tracked and accounted for to ensure the rocket launches successfully. Software is no different. Each script, command, display, and program needs to maintain a level of maturity and pedigree in order to establish a baseline for launching America's largest rocket.”

Several Artemis I launches were scrubbed by mechanical issues on multiple occasions this summer before the successful launch late this fall. Each delay called upon Gelfius to help engineering teams review all software systems in search of continuing to improve the launch processes.

“There are countless checks we need to launch,” he stated. “One check is a tanking test and there are several launch abort checks. We’re required to make sure all systems are checked out before attempting another launch … I've done more than 15 different launches. Artemis is right now the biggest launch I've ever supported.”

Computer and software technology advances have greatly enhanced modern-day space exploration, according to 2003 mechanical engineering alumnus Justin Smith. He’s the senior manager of guidance, navigation and controls (GNC) team within SpaceX’s Artemis III program.

“The amount of computing horsepower on board modern spacecraft would have been unfathomable back in the Apollo, or even Space Shuttle eras,” he said. “Similarly, the tools that engineers have available for space system design and analysis allow for high confidence in a spacecraft’s ability to satisfy mission objectives and therefore makes spaceflight more reliable and less risky than it once was.”

Smith partnered with NASA astronauts on implementing the crew capabilities he designed with his SpaceX team, and in 2020 worked in mission control at SpaceX headquarters during the first crewed spaceflight flown by a commercial provider. That crewed spaceflight experience is now helping lead the SpaceX GNC team on the development of the first commercial human landing system to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface under NASA’s Artemis III program, expected to take place in 2025 or 2026. The company also plans to conduct an uncrewed test flight to the lunar surface with its Starship HLS lander in 2024.

“Once you see someone flying in a rocket that you helped design and having the responsibility of their lives partially lying in your hands and for them to get safely home to their families is what makes all your efforts worth it,” described Smith, who earned the Rose-Hulman Alumni Association’s Honor Alumni Award early in 2022.

He had an instrumental role in designing key aspects of the revolutionary booster recovery technology that the company has pioneered for SpaceX’s revolutionary Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

“That changed the game (in space exploration). At that point [SpaceX] became the most affordable rocket launch service in the world,” he says.

The NASA-SpaceX alumni trio is enthusiastic the U.S. is resuming its space exploration aspirations through the Artemis program. The last human crewed lunar landing came with the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

“Working on Artemis has truly been a blessing,” said Gelfius. “Watching ‘Apollo 13’ as a kid inspired me to get into engineering. I know that the work we are doing today setting up the steppingstone to the moon and beyond will inspire the next generation of engineers to make that great leap.”

Smith had similar thoughts, stating “Human space exploration has long been my passion, so it’s been particularly exciting to get to play a part in the latest surge towards that goal. When the Space Shuttle was retired, it felt like I may have been quite unfortunate to pick this field as my career since it seemed like U.S. space exploration was going on hiatus. However, it was right around that same time that I joined SpaceX (2015) and the last decade has seen a true renaissance in space as an enterprise.” 

He added, “Taking humans outside of the Earth’s gravitational pull is a landmark in history. Having a piece of responsibility in that goal is where I get great pride and satisfaction.”

Kibbey and Smith supplemented their mechanical engineering studies at Rose-Hulman with master’s degrees in aeronautics and astronautics engineering, respectively. 

“I got into engineering just being curious about using math and science to solve problems,” said Kibbey. “Then as I got into it, I came to really enjoy flight and jet propulsion, intending to work on fighter jets. But then graduate school led to the rocket opportunities, and I subsequently found that was a great way to work with smoke and fire, which of course still excited the latent little boy in me.”

He continued, “There's something special about how we humanly connect with the great exploration when humans are doing it through manned spaceflight. So, it's great to be working manned spaceflight in NASA at this time of a focused plan with a broad base of support shown by two administrations, the NASA workforce, the industry, and the public.”

Justin Smith talks about his journey from Rose-Hulman to help lead SpaceX’s space exploration projects at