A Countdown Made Possible by Computing

During the early morning hours of November 16, Illinois Computer Science alumnus Ken Jacobs (BS ’84) stood in what NASA calls Firing Room Two about three miles from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

Ken Jacobs (right) 
(All images courtesy of NASA)
Ken Jacobs, right, in a role with NASA, helped monitor the Artemis I launch in November that successfully delivered Orion to the moon.

Despite working with NASA for nearly 40 years, he couldn’t help but feel the same sense of profound concentration and nerve-wracking anticipation everyone surrounding him felt in that moment.

Jacobs’ role as an Operations Project Engineer meant that he – alongside approximately 200 colleagues in the Launch Control Center and hundreds of support personnel around the country – closely monitored the Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket that was destined to leave Earth’s atmosphere and help the Orion spacecraft travel to the moon.

“During launch countdown – once we get to a point where the vehicle is in a stable configuration, and it's fully loaded with fuel – the intensity rises. Our nerves are on edge. We know that we're about to go to what's called 'terminal count,’ during which we are getting very close to lighting the engines and then firing the solid rocket boosters,” Jacobs said.

“The last few minutes seem like you can hear a pin drop in the control center. Nobody's really breathing. And the adrenaline is amazing. After liftoff, for two minutes, the solid rocket boosters run and then the core stage engines run for another six or so minutes. Everybody's holding their breath. It's extremely exciting. This launch took place at 1:47 a.m. (Eastern Time). By the time it was all said and done, and the rocket performed flawlessly delivering Orion to space, we were all on an adrenaline rush. All involved were reflecting on what we had just accomplished.”

What he and his colleagues had accomplished, of course, was the successful launch of Artemis I, marking NASA’s return to the moon in a human-rated craft for the first time since 1972.

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.

Ken Jacobs stands in front of the RS25 engine.
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.

“Our plans are in place to have a sustainable presence for manned deep space exploration. And we want to do it in the right way," Jacobs said. “It’s very satisfying to see the way in which Artemis and Orion programs are being developed to help establish a presence on both the moon and eventually on Mars.

“Americans are explorers. We lost part of that ability to explore the heavens with a manned presence in space launching from American soil over the last decade, but the Artemis missions represent a chance to get some of that momentum back, now with the ability to launch people farther into the solar system than ever before.”

Ken Jacobs, NASA

"I'm at a point in my career that I won’t be around long enough to witness most of the deep space objectives to come from this planning."

Who might help power the next 40 years of this effort?

Jacobs would like nothing better than if a few came from this university and this computer science department.

“I’m hopeful that the success of Artemis I will instill a heightened sense of curiosity for the next generation,” Jacobs said. “And I’m hopeful that students at the University of Illinois might feel an accomplishment like this is within their grasp.”

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This story was published December 15, 2022.