Features American Success Entrepreneurs

NASA Commander Shares What’s in Store for the Next Moon Mission and Future of Space Exploration

On December 14, 1972, surrounded by darkness and light and standing where only 11 others had ever stood before, Gene Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon. As he prepared to depart, he announced over the radio, “As we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission, died in 2017 and never got to witness another return to the moon. That hope of returning, however, remains very much alive at NASA, and with the Artemis missions, mankind will once again take that giant leap to the moon. 

Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. (NASA)

The Artemis Missions

The first of the Artemis missions took place on November 16, 2022, with the unmanned Orion spacecraft traveling more than 1.4 million miles over the course of 25 days. The spacecraft traveled thousands of miles beyond and around the moon before it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 25,000 miles per hour, finally splashing down into the Pacific Ocean. 

The next mission, Artemis II, is scheduled for a 10-day flight around the moon in November 2024 with a crew of four: mission commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover, mission specialist Christina Koch, and the Canadian Space Agency’s mission specialist Jeremy Hansen. For the Americans, it will be a return to space, but even for them, humanity has never gone this far away from Earth before. The Artemis II mission could break the record for distance traveled during a manned space flight.


“It will depend on where the Earth-moon system is when we launch,” said Mr. Wiseman, who has been a NASA astronaut since 2009. Apollo 13 currently holds the record, at 249,205 miles from Earth; Artemis II could end up reaching 10,000 miles farther. “Hopefully a year later, we will eclipse it again, and a year after that we will eclipse it again,” he said of future NASA missions.

The Artemis II mission is the beginning of what is expected to be not just a return to the moon, but eventually, the establishment of a base camp on the lunar surface, and a future trip to Mars. NASA’s goals are lofty, and Wiseman believes that those goals are not just achievable, but inevitable.

“I think we are definitely looking at humankind living on the moon, living on Mars, getting out into the solar system,” he said. “If you look back at what humans have done on Earth, we can’t sit still as a group of beings. We are restless and we are very inquisitive. I think we will always look at the moon and want to go there. And for those of us who find Mars in the night sky, we want to go there. I would love to go to the moons of Saturn and wake up in my living room and see the rings of Saturn in the morning. I think that is just where we are headed. We are never going to quit.”

(This is a short preview of a story from the Dec. Issue, Volume 3.)

Features American Success

From Batmobiles to Space Capsules, Art Thompson Designs Projects That Make the Imagination Soar

Babies’ chew toys, Batmobiles, rocket engines—Art Thompson makes them all.

Thompson is a modern-day da Vinci, the rare sort of individual these days who is equally comfortable in the worlds of arts and technology, and more often than not bringing the two together. One of his earliest jobs involved running a sign shop—the owner handed it over to him a day after he’d started. He was still a teenager. Later, his art background came in handy at the aerospace company Northrop, where he made architectural models and was pulled into working on the B2 stealth bomber for over 10 years.

Thompson’s own companies, Sage Cheshire Aerospace and A2ZFX, share a workshop space in Lancaster, California, devoted to design, engineering, prototyping, fabrication, and testing.

This Jeep Grand Cherokee was transformed into a commuter’s dream for a viral Verizon ad. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

Sage Cheshire regularly makes parts for government agencies or aerospace companies—from aircraft fairings and components to antennae for the U.S. Navy—much faster and cheaper than they could do themselves.

“We’re a super small organization and highly efficient,” Thompson said. “So while a company like Northrop or Lockheed or Boeing spends a lot of time in bureaucracy trying to figure out what they want to do, we’re already finished with the project. And so they realize that and use that to their advantage by contracting work.”

The company can take on larger projects, too, such as scanning and reverse-engineering an airplane that an aerospace company bought from a foreign provider, who wouldn’t give them the plans. 

Thompson also has his own projects. Working with a space plane, he started to think about how he could develop the technology for a better defense system. Instead of using a hypersonic weapon against a hypersonic missile—the equivalent of launching a bullet to hit a bullet—he envisions launching a space plane at 250,000 or 350,000 feet in altitude, firing pulses of laser, which would have a better chance of hitting the target, since the speed of light is faster than the speed of a hypersonic missile. With its small footprint, the plane could also be used for reconnaissance and be transported easily anywhere around the world and launched from a regular runway, unlike a rocket.

In 2012, Thompson built a giant, 45-foot-long, 800-pound paper airplane that took to the Arizona skies for six seconds. It was part of the Pima Air & Space Museum’s Great Paper Airplane Fly-Off competition, to spark interest in aviation and engineering. The plane was based on a model by 12-year-old Arturo Valderamo. (Flight Test Museum)

While Sage Cheshire handles some serious business, A2ZFX focuses on product development and special effects—from the mundane to the spectacular. For example, the blister-like yellow bumps on sidewalks? Thompson’s team made the original version of these “truncated domes,” as they’re formally known. “And I cursed myself every time going over them with a shopping cart—along with millions of other people,” he said good-naturedly. A more dramatic, and flammable, example involved recreating a flying object zooming around in the air, to mimic the Human Torch for the promotion of a “Fantastic Four” movie. 

Some of his projects not only have an undeniable flair for fun but also are marketing gold—like the Hum Rider, engineered to show off a marvelous solution to traffic jams. Envision a Jeep Grand Cherokee, with a wheelbase that widens and a body that elevates several feet above traffic, leaving stunned commuters below in the dust. Conceived to promote Verizon’s Hum dongle and smart app, the video made ripples through the internet, receiving a billion views. 

The energy drink company Red Bull, with its marketing strategy embracing extreme sports and jaw-dropping stunts, was another client that was a natural fit. 

When Red Bull was in its early stages of entering the U.S. market, it hired Thompson to make its eye-catching “can cars”—Mini Coopers outfitted with giant Red Bull cans on top, deployed with reps all over the country to offer samples of its product. Thompson built over 1,000 of these vehicles, although he jokes he had to build 3,000 cans to replace the ones that got destroyed. He said, “We would always tell [the drivers], ‘Don’t drive into the parking structure,’” which they invariably would.

(Samira Bouaou)

Mission to the Edge of Space

In 2005, Thompson got a call from Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian friend whom he’d met at a Red Bull go-kart race in Austria. A daredevil and base jumper, Baumgartner was best known for his unpowered winged flight across the English Channel from 30,000-foot altitude in 2003 and jumping off the world’s tallest buildings, such as the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. 

He asked Thompson if he knew Joe Kittinger, who had jumped from a balloon at 102,800 feet in 1960 and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour, sustaining freefall for 4 minutes, 36 seconds. It was a record that stood unbroken. 

Then he asked Thompson: If you were to break Kittinger’s record, how would you do it? Baumgartner wanted to know if it was possible to jump from space or the stratosphere and fall at supersonic speed. 

“You know,” Thompson recalls telling him, “It’s 3:30 in the morning in Austria. Why don’t you go back to sleep, I’ll call you tomorrow and I’ll tell you some ideas.”

He ended up writing an 87-page proposal including how a pressurized capsule could be built, with redundant life support, spacesuits, and stratospheric balloons. 

Thompson flew to Austria to present the idea to Dietrich Mateschitz, the late owner of Red Bull, who engaged Thompson as the technical project director for the Stratos project. But Thompson didn’t want it to just be a marketing stunt. It needed to be real science with a purpose.

Art Thompson started making one “can car” for Red Bull and eventually produced over 1,000 of them. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

Though Kittinger had made his jump over 50 years ago, the protocols around high-altitude freefall were few. Thompson saw a real-world opportunity. For him, it was about developing and researching how a U.S. Air Force or NASA pilot could safely exit a high-altitude craft, as well as medical systems to treat astronauts and pilots in case of ejection and rapid decompression. 

“The beauty of it is, the government didn’t pay one dime for it,” he said. “I got an Austrian energy drink company to pay for all of the development. We then shared this knowledge with the government for free.

“That’s the future of business, because the power of social media is that tool that can be used to fund future research,” he said. 

Say you wanted to go to Mars, Thompson offered by way of example. “The government doesn’t want to pay for going to Mars. … But if you could go to a tennis shoe company and say your tennis shoes are going to be the first ones going to Mars, and it’s going to cost this much,” these companies, with their huge marketing budgets, could step in and fund research programs that the government isn’t willing to fund. 

Doing the Impossible

During the Stratos project, another project turned up that Thompson couldn’t refuse. The Pima Air and Space Museum asked him: Would he build the world’s largest paper airplane?

When he was young, he would use newspaper and coat hangers and build giant paper airplanes. The largest he got was about 5 feet.

Thompson’s parents were science teachers who imparted to him a love of science. His mother, Alice, is pictured here with George, a pet mountain lion, in 1956. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

This time, the dimensions were only limited by the need to fit the plane onto a semi truck. Built entirely out of paper, it was 45.5 feet long, with a 24-foot wingspan, and required 20 gallons of wood glue to put it together.  

As 300 schoolchildren watched, a Sikorsky S-58T helicopter took the plane up to 1,400 feet in the desert, and it was cut loose. It hit 98 miles per hour and flew just short of a mile. For Thompson, the main goal was achieved: to promote STEM education, and “help kids think outside of the box—that anything’s possible.”

“If I could have $1 for every person who told me the Red Bull Stratos was impossible, I’d be a millionaire,” Thompson said. There were physicists screaming at the end, ‘Don’t do it, his arms and legs will tear off.’” 

Kittinger calmly responded, “Thank you for your concern, you may want to recheck your calculations.”

There was certainly a lot at stake, and the project team of fewer than 100 people was working hard to solve problems as they arose. Thompson said, “I was told ‘no’ every time I turned around and just found a way around the issue to make it a ‘yes.’ That is the lesson for the next generation. Never take ‘no’ as a final outcome.”

Then there was the unpredictable human factor.

Thompson (R) served as the technical project director for Red Bull Stratos. Joe Kittinger (C) was the primary point of radio contact with jumper Felix Baumgartner during the ascent. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

After years of testing and development and only weeks before the first manned flight, Baumgartner got cold feet—he was at the airport in Los Angeles and called up Thompson, who rushed to go see him. Baumgartner, as it turned out, had developed severe claustrophobia inside his pressurized space suit. Human factors specialists Andy Walshe and psychologist Michael Gervais were brought in to help Baumgartner, pushing him into various uncomfortable situations and reminding him that he was a superhero and his pressurized suit was specifically designed for him. 

Early on, it was decided that Kittinger, the one mission team adviser who understood firsthand what Baumgartner would experience, would communicate with him throughout his journey and talk him through the 47-point checklist before exiting the capsule.

The Space Capsule

Like Kittinger’s gondola traveling into space, the Stratos capsule was tethered to a helium balloon—but 10 times larger. At the size of 30 million cubic feet, it was the largest manned balloon ever flown. The ascent to an altitude of 127,852 feet took about two and a half hours. 

Just as he prepared to jump off the ledge of the capsule, Baumgartner said, “I’m coming home now.” 

“I know the whole world is watching and I wish the whole world could see what I see. Sometimes you have to go really high up to understand how small you really are.”

Thirty-four seconds after jumping, he hit Mach 1—just under 700 miles per hour. Fifty seconds after jumping, he reached March 1.25, a record speed of 843.6 miles per hour for a freefall. For 30 seconds, Baumgartner was supersonic.

He also set two other world records: the highest balloon flight (superseded by Alan Eustace in 2014) and the highest unassisted freefall. This Red Bull Stratos record is still a standing record, as Eustace’s jump was assisted with the use of a drogue parachute.

On Oct. 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner made a freefall jump from space. Thirty-four seconds after jumping, he reached a top speed of 844 miles per hour and achieved his goal of being the first person to break the sound barrier without an aircraft. From a height of 127,852 feet in altitude, it took him nine minutes to get back to Earth, half of that time being in freefall. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

It was just 65 years before, to the day, that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier piloting the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis.

Back on Earth, about 9.5 million concurrent viewers were transfixed watching the feat, as 3.1 million tweets pinged across the globe. 

In all, it would be viewed by 3 billion people. 

It was an unmitigated success for Red Bull, a marketing coup—delivering a big uptick in sales, by 7 percent to $1.6 billion in the United States, and by 13 percent to $5.2 billion globally. 

Igniting people’s imagination was certainly one part of the formula, Thompson said. But he also brought to the table a more intangible ability: an ability to connect with and understand people from different backgrounds—scientific, medical, military, aerospace, and yes, even daredevil mindsets.

The Flight Test Museum and the Future

Stratos also made Thompson proud, partly because many kids told him it inspired them to get into engineering. As chair of the Flight Test Museum Foundation, he sees a unique opportunity. 

California’s Antelope Valley, also known as Aerospace Valley, is home to many aviation firsts due to the presence of Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Air Force (USAF) Plant 42, and NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, as well as companies such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and Scaled Composites.

“Some of the most brilliant minds in the world are located [here],” Thompson noted.

He is now overseeing the move of the museum, currently on-base, to a new home—75,000 square feet of space just outside of the base. It’ll house the museum’s rare aircraft, but it will also be a STEM education center, as well as “neutral ground” for industry players, government, and schools to come together to discuss the future and inspire the next generation to want to be part of something greater.

What concerns him is the phenomenon of students being “plugged into the Internet permanently” and being “spoon-fed” set answers like “a stone wheel is the best thing on a car.”

A rendering of the planned building for the Flight Test Museum outside the gates of Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Antelope Valley. Designed by architecture firm Gensler, it resembles the shape of the Nighthawk, a stealth plane built in the 1980s. The museum will hold more than 80 historic aircraft; completion is due in 2024. (Courtesy of Art Thompson)

People want the answer quickly, Thompson said, but they don’t always know why they’re getting it. “We lose some of the creative aspects of invention and inspiration—because they settle for that answer.” 

Thompson’s parents, both science teachers, made it a point to expose him to as many interesting things as possible. “One of my best Christmas presents when I was a kid was when my parents got me a stack of lumber with a saw and hammer and nails. I was five or six years old in the backyard and started building pirate ships and forts.”

His inquisitive nature even became somewhat of a liability for his family. “One of the fears was, if they gave me something that I was going to take apart, and if I understood it really well, often, I didn’t bother putting it back together because—why?—I already knew how it worked.” 

When he was 13, he bought his first car, an old Karmann Ghia, for $500. He rebuilt the engine and redid the wiring harness—and drove it around without a license.

“Physics is so fascinating, because you see it in everything. And I remember as a kid, when math became a physical shape, all of a sudden, my mind exploded—because math formulas, you know, create not only two-dimensional shapes, but three-dimensional shapes.”

“If you can expose [children] to all the fascinating things in the world, at a really early age, that develops your synapses. All of that activity is making all those neural connections and mapping that make you want to do more and be more.”

It’s why he’s so passionate about the Flight Test Museum. “This becomes a world now that exposes people to what’s possible,” he said. “This is engineering in motion. It’s physics in motion.”

From February Issue, Volume 3

History American Success Entrepreneurs Features

Grumman Engineering Had to Get 30,200 Pounds of Apollo Spacecraft to Moon and Back

In the fall of 1962, a little airplane manufacturer on Long Island, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, beat out seven competitors for the lunar module contract. How did this happen?

The story begins when Leroy Grumman, the company’s founder, struck out on his own in 1929. Working out of a rented garage, he began developing some of his own experimental airplane designs. In 1932, he presented the U.S. Navy with the FF-1, his first production fighter aircraft. The plane’s design continued to be improved, leading eventually to the creation of the F4F Wildcat, Grumman’s first fighter with folding wings.

Diagram of the Apollo Lunar Module cockpit. (Jasmina Zhang for American Essence)

Grumman built tough planes. The “cat” series, built for the U.S. Navy, had a reputation for getting their crews home. The sturdy aircraft, designed and built for carrier deployment, earned the company the nickname “Grumman Iron Works.” Aluminum, however, was the material Grumman engineers had real mastery over, forming it into beautiful aerodynamic shapes to build their planes.

Enter Aeronautic Engineer Tom Kelly

Grumman engineer Tom Kelly spoke of his involvement in the early development of the moon lander: “I guess I’ve been involved in Apollo-related work as long as anybody in Grumman, actually. I started on the thing in 1960—April 1960.” Kelly and his team competed for NASA-funded studies. Though they didn’t win any of them, Kelly said, “we went down and gave our own study conclusions to the NASA people right along with everybody else—we had a very active interest in-house, and we just wouldn’t let it die; whether it was funded, or not, we kept going with it.” Kelly’s work ushered in a whole new era for the company.

Buzz Aldrin removes the passive seismometer from a compartment in the SEQ bay of the Lunar Lander (Apollo 11 “Eagle”), July 21, 1969. (Public domain)

Grumman was not one of the larger competitors for NASA contracts. They initially offered to be a subcontractor in General Electric’s bid to build the command module and service module. North American Aviation beat them out. NASA had originally intended for the command module and service module to land on the moon and take off directly from the lunar surface to return to Earth. That particular spacecraft configuration proved to be prohibitively massive. It would require a rocket larger than anything already developed just to get it into space. But an engineer at Langley Research Center, John Houbolt, suggested taking along a smaller spacecraft, just to land on the moon. It would then launch from the lunar surface and rejoin the command module, which would now remain in lunar orbit.

The lander would be discarded after the astronauts transferred back inside the command module, which alone would return to Earth. Rendezvous in lunar orbit seemed risky, but it saved so much weight that it allowed the program to go forward at a pace that would meet President John Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon within the decade. When NASA decided that they would develop the program around the lunar-orbit rendezvous approach, Tom Kelly and his team were well prepared to offer their proposal. Grumman wrote up the proposal, and General Electric became the subcontractor for the lander’s electronics.

When they won the contract in 1962, Kelly and his engineering team realized that they would be faced with the same challenge that had faced Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright brothers, and Charles Lindbergh: weight! Every step forward in human flight had involved overcoming the limitations imposed by gravity. NASA gave them an initial estimate of 30,200 pounds for the spacecraft. The craft that landed on the moon and then launched from the lunar surface to rendezvous with the command module had to fit within this prescribed limitation. They had seven years.

Armstrong trains in the Lunar Module simulator at the Kennedy Space Center on June 19, 1969. (Public domain)

Overcoming Challenges

Kelly’s team worked tirelessly to conserve weight in unusual ways—in particular, the engineering of the astronauts’ seats. Grumman built 15 landers, 6 of which actually went to the moon. Some of the others are on display in museums, and visitors often ask where the astronauts’ seats are. In 1964, the design team eliminated them. The astronauts flew the lander standing up. In gravity that was one sixth that of Earth, the astronauts could fly, land, and take off standing in the craft. Their legs were all the shock absorbers they needed. With no seats, the astronauts also had more room for donning their space suits for the walk on the lunar surface. They could also hang their sleeping hammocks for the rest they needed while on the moon. Removing the seats saved weight in itself, but the move also allowed the astronauts to stand closer to the craft’s windows, allowing them to be significantly smaller. This saved hundreds of pounds of glass as well.

Astronaut Pete Conrad would refer to the cabin design as a “trolley car configuration.” Bethpage, New York, where the landers were built, is just 30 miles east of Brooklyn, where trolley car motormen actually stood up while operating a throttle with the left hand and a brake with the right. According to Kelly, those trolley cars had already inspired the name of a baseball team. Manhattan residents, who had more subways, sometimes referred to Brooklyn’s inhabitants as “trolley dodgers”; hence, the team’s name came to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. Did the trolleys of Brooklyn also influence the design of the lunar lander? Conrad’s reference suggests it might have.

The Apollo 9 Lunar Module (Spider) photographed from the Command Module on March 7, 1969, the fifth day of the Apollo 9 Earth-orbital mission. (Public domain)
Armstrong after the completion of the Lunar Extravehicular Activity on the Apollo 11 flight; photographed by Aldrin on July 20, 1969. (Public domain)

The landing module (LM) had to operate in extreme temperatures. The team came up with the Kapton sheeting (a kind of Mylar foil covered with gold leaf) that gives the lower part of the craft its “tinfoil” appearance. It simply reflected the solar heat away from the spacecraft, much like a windshield reflector does for a parked automobile. Because the lander never had to fly in atmosphere, it needed no aerodynamic design—no smooth, rounded surfaces to resist airflow. It could just be a long-legged, boxy shape. The first manned LM, flown in the Earth’s orbit by Apollo 9, would be called “Spider.” After one more dress rehearsal in lunar orbit by Apollo 10, the “Eagle,” flown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, would land on the moon. The date was July 20, 1969—eight years after John F. Kennedy laid down the challenge.

Tom Kelly and the Grumman team did some thinking beyond the task at hand that proved invaluable just two missions later. They recommended designing “lifeboat” capabilities into the LM. These capabilities would save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts when their command-service module was crippled by an explosion. The crew fired up the LM and used it to provide life support and navigation right up to the time that they jettisoned it. The command module was the only part of the spacecraft that could reenter the atmosphere. Though the LM “Aquarius” was consumed in a fiery reentry itself, the “Grumman Iron Works” team had successfully delivered one more crew safely home. In 1994, Grumman merged with the Northrup Corporation to become Northrup Grumman, one of the country’s largest aircraft manufacturers. In 1994, Grumman merged with the Northrup Corporation to become Northrup Grumman, one of the country’s largest aircraft manufacturers.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.