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.

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ND club aims to build Mars rover

A newly formed Notre Dame student group is dedicated to building a fully functioning Mars rover from scratch. The Domer Rover club hopes to compete in the University Rover Challenge. The competition, held annually at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah, focuses on each step of the learning process along the way.

The founding members are sophomores Dorothy Crumlish, Matthew Egan, Sean Egan and Griffin Vrdolyak. Crumlish, a mechanical engineering major originally from South Bend, is president of the club. “I was sort of the one who brought it to the table, and then took the lead on it,” she said. 

Across the country, schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Brigham Young University and the University of Michigan, the reigning champions, have official Mars rover clubs dedicated to competing in the University Rover Challenge. The group saw these other schools and thought to bring the idea to Notre Dame. 

They began to organize the club at the end of last fall semester and continued to meet once a week throughout the following spring, sorting through administrative logistics like funding and coordination with SAO. “We’re not an official club yet,” Sean Egan, a mechanical engineering major, said. “But if you’re interested, there’s a role for you.” 

This semester they have met often with their advisor Paul Rumbach, an associate teaching professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, and looked at smaller models of rovers. Soon they will split into teams and start building their own rover from scratch. The group has access to 3D printers through the College of Engineering and can print the necessary parts. 

“It’s going to be a lot of hands-on stuff,” Vrdolyak, also a mechanical engineering major, said. No prior experience building rovers is necessary to be a part of the club, he said. “We’re gonna be learning along with everyone else, and we think it’s a great opportunity to explore a part of engineering that a lot of people don’t get to see,” Vrdolyak said.

In the competition, the rover has four missions it must successfully complete. The first is the science mission, where part of the rover’s job is to “collect soil samples and analyze them for life,” Crumlish said. The extreme retrieval and delivery mission requires the rover to navigate irregular terrain, as if it were on Mars, and deliver something to the “astronaut.” The equipment servicing mission tests the rover’s ability to perform “dexterous” operations, including typing on a keyboard, flipping switches and fixing various objects, she said. The last is the autonomous navigation mission, where the rover must go through a series of different gates, testing its capability to navigate a challenging environment on its own.

There are multiple stages of judging before making it to the competition in Utah. The preliminary design review is due this December, and a system acceptance review is due in March 2023. The system acceptance review consists of a video sent to the Mars Society, which runs the competition, of the rover doing all four missions. The Mars society then picks around 30 to 40 teams to continue on to the final competition, currently set to take place in June 2023. 

Though the competition is the ultimate end goal, right now, the club is focused on the learning process. This semester they hope to actually build a rover, even if it isn’t to full scale. Once the rover is built, it will be given a name. “We all have some ideas,” Crumlish said.

“Our goal for this year is basically just to learn as much about the design process and the manufacturing process of building a Mars rover,” Vrdolyak said. “And then, you know, a few years down the road, maybe before I graduate, we can win it all and finally beat Michigan.”