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Meet the Notre Dame alum leading efforts to return humans to the moon

When Jon Olansen was a child, he wanted to be an astronaut. This dream doesn’t pan out for most children, but Olansen, a Notre Dame alumnus, has come close to living it out.

Although he personally will not be walking on the moon, Olansen has spent the past three decades enabling astronauts to travel to space. Currently, he manages the Habitation and Logistics Outpost Office (HALO), a module that will house up to four astronauts in space at a time.

“As the first pressurized element for NASA’s lunar Gateway, HALO will be humanity’s first permanent home away from earth,” according to a Northrop Grumman press release. North Grumman is working with NASA to build HALO. 

A diagram depicting the HALO module. (Courtesy of Dylan Connell)

HALO is part of Gateway, which consists of HALO, the power and propulsion element (PPE), a logistics module, a lunar lander and the Orion spacecraft. The astronauts will depart Earth for lunar orbit on Orion, which launches on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Orion will dock to Gateway, transfer the crew to the Human Landing System (HLS) lander — which is also docked to Gateway — which will transport the crew to the Moon’s surface. 

Gateway’s orbit is expected to be about six and a half days, meaning inhabitants can travel to the lunar surface once every six and a half days. 

Olansen said Gateway is designed for a minimum of a 15-year life. This particular design is focused on propulsion capability efficiency to help the module maintain its lunar orbit into the future.

“So we want to expand our technology base, and we want to prove out concepts that can be used for further deep exploration once we go beyond the moon,” he said.

When Gateway is complete, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch the module. The Falcon Heavy is partially reusable and built for transporting heavy lifts. This launch will take about a year, Olansen said.

“It’ll take us about a year to expand our orbit from Earth orbit and just continue to raise that orbit using solar electric propulsion to get out into lunar orbit. So it’s a slow transfer. It’s a much more efficient, fuel economical approach, but it takes us about a year to go do so,” he said.

The HALO module will be about three meters in diameter. The living quarters will resemble two hallways. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency will each add future modules and parts to the Gateway, Olansen said.  

A rendering of the inside of HALO. (Courtesy of Dylan Connell)

Olansen said HALO and PPE are a few years out from launch. They currently await critical design reviews in the next few months before beginning full production.

The module will be available for crews as soon as it is ready, Olansen said. The Artemis program, which plans to launch its first mission Wednesday, eventually expects to return humans to the moon in preparation for hopefully reaching Mars. 

Olansen’s project office, based out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, has responsibility for overseeing the development of the HALO module itself, the integration of the PPE and HALO modules and the autonomous vehicle system manager software, which will run the Gateway. 

The team Olansen is responsible for consists of over 1,500 employees when including contractors, he estimated. Additionally, Olansen’s team needs to coordinate with foreign space agencies to ensure their technologies are compatible.

Graduating from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1987 and with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1989, Olansen started working at NASA soon after graduation in mission control. After working in mission control, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering before returning to NASA and eventually working his way up to leading projects. 

Most recently, he led a project that built the crew module for Orion’s Ascent Abort-2 test flight in 2019. The launch tested the launch abort system, which will be in use on the Artemis I launch this week.

Contact Ryan Peters at rpeters5@nd.edu.