A Countdown Made Possible by Computing | Computer Science

A Countdown Made Possible by Computing | Computer Science

Applying critical thinking skills from an Illinois CS education in his daily work

Jacobs said his specialty is the liquid engines.

And what amazing engines they are. Holdovers from the Space Shuttle program, and retrofitted for the Artemis program, the four liquid engines helped power the SLS rocket, along with the two solid boosters. Combined, there was 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

A Countdown Made Possible by Computing | Computer Science
Jacobs stands in front of the RS25 engine, explaining some of its intricacies as an expert of the liquid engines that powered the Artemis I launch.

The SLS is 322 feet tall and weighs 5.75 million pounds at liftoff. It is made up of the core stage – with the four liquid engines, two solid boosters, and the Orion Spacecraft on top of an ICPS upper stage (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage).  This configuration meets the current needs of placing humans into deep space. Unmanned during this mission, the Orion spacecraft is 26 feet tall and includes about 53,000 pounds of mass at trans-lunar insertion on the trip to the moon.

During the launch countdown, Jacobs watches computer monitors that quicky fill up with near instantaneous data from the liquid engines and other vehicle systems. He gauges how well the rocket comes to life as the launch countdown process introduces liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the core stage propellant tanks and the upper stage tanks in preparation for liftoff.

“If anything goes wrong in that time frame, we have to very quickly understand what the implications are of the issue to potentially put the vehicle in a safe configuration, and determine how to proceed,” Jacobs said.

It’s not only his 30+ years of experience with NASA that prepared him for this responsibility.

Thinking back on his undergraduate experience with Illinois CS, Jacobs admits the technology he trained on is now antiquated. But what he did learn that remains relevant is critical thinking skills.

Jacobs elected to study engineering and computer science in college because of its application within so many different areas of life that surrounds us.

Of course, while he studied CS here, he learned technical capabilities. Beyond that, though, he learned how to use those capabilities to make quick decisions.

“We work on complex systems and sift through data to screen for potential problems on a daily basis. If you’re not accustomed to critical thinking, then this already challenging work can be overwhelming. My biggest takeaway from the education I received at the University of Illinois is that I learned the ability to think critically, which set up my foundation for success here at NASA.”

Ken Jacobs, NASA


Artemis I overcomes challenges of the past to plot a path toward an exciting future

One year after Jacobs started at NASA in 1985, the Challenger accident occurred.

It was a tragic incident that killed all seven crew members and left the status of flight missions in doubt. In 1988, Jacobs did end up back at Kennedy Space Center for NASA’s return to flight preparations. Moments like the Challenger accident will forever remain in his mind, as well as the people he works with.

But one thing that NASA represents is an eye toward the future. In overcoming the challenge of that terrible moment, as well as the Columbia accident which was lost returning from space in 2003 along with its seven crew, Artemis I continued to prove the dedication of so many to further deep space exploration – while bearing in mind the knowledge of what can go wrong, and applying lessons learned every step of the way.

The success of this mission means a new future is upon us for space exploration in this country. Currently, there are plans for up to 10 more Artemis missions.

Already Jacobs and his co-workers at NASA are busy reviewing data from the mission, and refurbishing Pad 39B and the mobile launcher for the Artemis II mission – which will have crew aboard. They’ve monitored Orion’s data, awaiting its return to Earth – which occurred on Sunday Dec. 11, splashing down successfully southwest of San Diego. The Orion will be returned to KSC over the coming weeks for additional post flight evaluation. They’re taking all the proper next steps to continue this journey as safely as possible.

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