NH's Lee Morin helping NASA return to the moon

·5 min read

Sep. 18—Lee Morin was a teenager when those astonishing, 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 return humans to the moon and usher in a new era of space exploration.

From Johnson Space Center in Houston, Morin has been closely watching 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 will 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 fields. With activities for students of all ages, the event will be held at the Hampshire Dome in Milford on Saturday, Sept. 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Artemis I is an unmanned, integrated test of the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System rocket and ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once that mission is complete, Morin said, "Then the focus will switch to 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 that's about 5 feet across.

The new spacecraft looks a lot different inside and out than the Atlantis space shuttle on which he flew 20 years ago to the International Space Station, Morin said.

"The shuttle of course had 100 panels and they had 10 computer screens, but Orion is a capsule, so it's smaller," he said. "A lot of things that used to be switches are now icons, and what used to be books are now electronic procedures."

Morin also worked on a prototype for one of the new landers that will take astronauts down to the lunar surface. He's partnering with engineers at Lockheed to finalize the cockpit software, and he's writing the user guides.

He builds a lot of the early prototypes in his home garage.

Being part of the new moon missions means a great deal to him, Morin said. "It will be about 50 years since the last time someone walked on the moon," he said. "We're now going to have people walking on the moon in a couple more years.

"It's very exciting to be part of humanity keeping going with that, getting people off the planet out into space."

Another piece of the Artemis missions is the Gateway, a small outpost that will orbit the moon. Like the ISS, Gateway will be an international endeavor. "International partners ... are very anxious to participate with us on that," he said. "That's very positive."

After Morin graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1974, he went on to earn first a master's degree in biochemistry at New York University School of Medicine, then a medical degree and a Ph.D. in microbiology. He served in the Navy as a medical officer on a submarine, became a flight surgeon, and deployed as a diving medical officer and flight surgeon during Operation Desert Shield.

That 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 most, looking back at Earth, was how thin the atmosphere that protects us appears from space, Morin said. "And it makes you realize ... how fragile it is," he said. "It's just that little bubble of air we're totally dependent on."

NASA started out as the ultimate boys' club, but that has changed. The new moon missions are named for Artemis, the sister of Apollo, and for the first time in history, a woman will set foot on the lunar surface.

"It's the ultimate glass ceiling," Morin said.

That's a reflection of the diversity at the space agency, Morin said. "This isn't just a thing for white men," he said.

But, he went on, "I can tell you within the astronaut office, ... we're just all part of the same team. And whether someone is a man or a woman is not an important part of the equation."

There is intense international interest in participating in the moon missions, Morin said.

"It was really in the year 2000 that we began a permanent human presence off the planet with the manning of the space station," he said. "It looks as if that will continue, and there will always be at least a few people living off the planet, and that number will increase to a more sustained presence."

Moon resources will be critical 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 will be in place to begin to make that happen.

Given the strife and discord in the world today, can nations truly cooperate in such an endeavor instead of competing for precious moon resources? "I think that we will find a way to do this peacefully," Morin said. "I'm very optimistic about that. "

When the first moon landing happened, Morin's family was living in Algeria; his father was an American diplomat stationed there at the time. "The moon landings really captivated people around the world," he recalled.

He expects the upcoming missions will have a similar impact on humanity. "I think that it will be another inspiring moment, and I think that it can be viewed as an island of peace, as the space station is right now," he said.

"Countries putting their best foot forward and their best efforts."

swickham@unionleader.comwill