Are We Ready to Leave Low Earth Orbit?

| October 9, 2018

“First Man” screening event celebrates Neil Armstrong (M.S. ’70), spotlights Trojan space pioneers and “the next giant leap” in space exploration

Thanks to Universal Pictures and a joint effort by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC Visions and Voices, USC students together with L.A. high school students from the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative got to see “First Man” – the film depicting the giant moonshot made by legendary astronaut and USC Viterbi alumnus, Neil Armstrong (M.S. ’70), a week before it opens on October 12, 2018.

Armstrong’s turbulent journey, his close brushes with death, and subsequent steps on the moon have opened up a window of opportunity for humanity to become a multi-planetary species.

That vision and how to get there was the subject of a panel of extraordinary Trojan space pioneers that included Wanda Austin (Ph.D. ’88), USC interim president and former president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation; Charles Bolden (M.S. ’77), former NASA chief administrator, astronaut and USC trustee whose flights included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope; and Garrett Reisman, a NASA veteran astronaut and former director of space operations at SpaceX, now a faculty member in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at USC Viterbi.

The panel was moderated by rocket scientist and space engineer, Anita Sengupta (M.S. ’00, Ph.D. ’05).  An adjunct research associate professor of astronautics at USC Viterbi, Sengupta was responsible for the supersonic parachute system that was integral to the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. She is now senior vice president of systems engineering at Virgin Hyperloop One.

“We’re going to leave low earth orbit because we’re going to discover that there are amazing things that we can do once we get beyond low Earth orbit,” Austin said reminding students that it was a series of small steps, trials and errors and a combustible journey that included many unsung heroes that allowed us to zoom into the void of space and reach the moon.

The Next Frontier

“In the 1990s we had the IT revolution, which has facilitated a whole new sector of the economy relating to being able to transfer large amounts of information very quickly,” Sengupta said. “Many are now saying that the 2020s are the transportation revolution. And why I work on the Hyperloop is part of that transportation revolution. It will be hyperloops, sub-orbital rockets and eventually going to Mars.”

USC interim president and former president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation Wanda Austin, right, speaks as USC alumni, NASA astronaut and former NASA head administrator Charles Bolden, left looks on during the “Visions and Voices” signature event with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering presentation of Trojan Space Pioneers an exclusive advance screening and discussion of the movie “First Man,” Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Bolden said we are now closer than we’ve ever been to reaching Mars in part due to the commercialization of the space industry: “What we concern with ourselves with today is what is the quality of life going to be like long-term for somebody who ventures off to Mars.”

He went on to say that NASA relies on data from companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin about coming back from hypersonic speeds and landing a vehicle to fly again, clues on how to eventually land a vehicle on Mars.

“I think it’s important before we go to have a sustainable reason for why we’re going,” said Reisman, who is the senior advisor on SpaceX’s commercial crew program. “We were on a tremendous trajectory with Apollo, but a lot of it was predicated on geopolitics.”

We’re going to leave low earth orbit because we’re going to discover that there are amazing things that we can do once we get beyond low Earth orbit.

Wanda Austin, USC president

Reisman added that it’s important to have other reasons to go: “First of all, the exploration. To go there and see a volcano that’s 50,000 feet high and to see a canyon that’s the size of the entire United States, can you imagine that?”

A new kind of astronaut

Sengupta opened a discussion on how private access to space is also changing the way in which people become astronauts.

“If you look at astronauts today, they’re totally different from the days of Apollo when pilots dominated,” Bolden said.  “One of the astronauts, a young lady [Zena Cardman], getting ready to go the International Space Station is a microbiologist and her passion is extremophiles.  She spent her professional life in Antarctica scraping ice from under the arctic ice sheet to find microbes.  She’s been diving around thermal vents, the beginnings of volcanoes, scraping up lava to find extremophiles, forms of life that can exist in very extreme conditions, which is exactly what we’re looking for on Mars. We’re looking for people who’ve had these extreme experiences as students and young professionals.  It’s a totally different world for the group of astronauts today.”

As part of the “First Man” screening event, Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean, exhorted students in the audience to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong: “In the history of the world, only 536 people have ever gone into space. At least 12 of them, including Charlie Bolden, are USC Viterbi alumni . . . Who here tonight will join them?”

Watch a video of USC Viterbi’s two premier student-run groups for space: the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) and the USC Liquid Propulsion Laboratory (LPL):

Published on October 9th, 2018

Last updated on May 11th, 2021

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