September 18 — Lee Morin was a teenager when these stunning grainy black-and-white images appeared on television: American astronauts walking on the surface of the moon.
Now the Manchester native is part of the NASA team working on the Artemis missions, which aims to bring humans back to the moon and usher in a new era of space exploration.
From the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Morin closely followed NASA’s attempts to launch the Artemis I mission this month. “It’s the culmination of this program that I’ve been involved with since 2005,” he said in a recent phone interview.
After several delays due to technical issues, NASA has another launch window for Artemis I in late September.
“It’s important to realize that these are test flights,” Morin said. “They’ll have delays and they’ll find things, and that’s why they do them.”
Morin, 70, will be the keynote speaker at the union leader’s Wicked STEM event, where high school and college students can connect with companies in science and technology. With activities for students of all ages, the event will take place at the Hampshire Dome in Milford on Saturday, September 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Artemis I is an integrated, unmanned test of the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once this mission is complete, Morin said: “Next the focus will be on the Artemis II with the crew.”
The second Artemis mission will be a test flight with astronauts on board. Artemis III will bring astronauts – including, for the first time, a woman – to the lunar surface.
Morin’s work focuses on the design of the Orion cockpit. Inside his lab at JSC is a prototype, with three computer screens about 5 feet in diameter.
The new spacecraft is very different inside and out from the space shuttle Atlantis it flew on 20 years ago to the International Space Station, Morin said.
“The shuttle of course had 100 panels and 10 computer screens, but Orion is a capsule, so it’s smaller,” he said. “A lot of things that were once switches are now icons, and what were once books are now electronic procedures.”
Morin also worked on a prototype for one of the new landers that will take astronauts to the lunar surface. He works in partnership with Lockheed engineers to finalize the cockpit software and he writes the user guides.
He builds many of the early prototypes in his garage.
Being part of the new moon missions means a lot to him, Morin said. “It will be about 50 years since the last time someone walked on the moon,” he said. “We are now going to see people walking on the moon in a few years.
“It’s very exciting to be part of humanity and to continue with that, to get people off the planet into space.”
Another element of the Artemis missions is the Gateway, a small outpost that will orbit the moon. Like the ISS, Gateway will be an international company. “The international partners … are very eager to participate with us in this,” he said. “It’s very positive.”
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1974, Morin first earned a master’s degree in biochemistry at New York University School of Medicine, followed by an MD and a doctorate. in microbiology. He served in the Navy as a medic on a submarine, became a flight surgeon, and was deployed as a dive doctor and flight surgeon during Operation Desert Shield.
This diverse background paid off when he applied to NASA in his early 40s to become an astronaut. He was selected in 1996 and flew on Atlantis in 2002, performing two spacewalks.
What struck him the most, looking at Earth, was how thin the atmosphere that protects us looks from space, Morin said. “And it makes you realize… how fragile he is,” he said. “It’s just that little bubble of air that we totally depend on.”
NASA started out as the quintessential boys’ club, but that has changed. The new moon missions are named after Artemis, Apollo’s sister, and for the first time in history, a woman will set foot on the lunar surface.
“It’s the ultimate glass ceiling,” Morin said.
This reflects the diversity of the space agency, Morin said. “It’s not just a white male thing,” he said.
But, he continued, “I can tell you in the astronaut office, … we’re all part of the same team. And whether someone is male or female is not a big part of the equation.”
There is intense international interest in participating in lunar missions, Morin said.
“It was really in the year 2000 that we started a permanent human presence off the planet with the crew of the space station,” he said. “It looks like this will continue, and there will always be at least a few people living off-planet, and that number will grow to a more sustained presence.”
Lunar resources will be essential to provide materials and fuel for future space exploration, including missions to Mars, Morin said.
By the end of this decade, he expects a program to be in place to begin to achieve this.
Given the conflicts and discord in the world today, can nations really cooperate in such an endeavor instead of competing for precious lunar resources? “I think we’ll find a way to do this peacefully,” Morin said. “I’m very optimistic about it.”
When the first moon landing occurred, Morin’s family was living in Algeria; his father was an American diplomat stationed there at the time. “The moon landings really captivated people all over the world,” he recalls.
He expects future missions to have a similar impact on humanity. “I think it will be another inspiring moment, and I think it can be considered an island of peace, like the space station is right now,” he said.
“Countries are doing their best and doing their best.”