KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Sending supplies and hardware to NASA’s orbiting moon outpost, the pitstop for astronauts before heading down to the lunar surface will require a whole new logistical game plan but that’s where a key Kennedy Space Center team comes into play.
Johnny Nguyễn is the associate manager of integration and analysis of Deep Space Logistics for NASA’s Gateway, a smaller space station that will orbit the moon.
“We’re delivering logistics into the deep space facility. So we’re gonna get you all the cargo, all the supplies, food, water, air, all the equipment you need out there, ready to go for the astronauts to use,” Nguyễn explained of the Kennedy Space Center’s role in the Gateway program.
Gateway is the first stop on an astronaut’s journey to the moon under the Artemis program.
America, European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts will fly to Gateway in NASA’s Orion spacecraft launching on the Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39B. Once they are docked at the Gateway it will serve as a rest stop before they head down to the moon.
“The way I like to think about it, you’ve got the International Space Station orbiting around the Earth, that’s like your six-bedroom house, you can live there permanently doing all your experiments. But with Gateway, that’s more like your van life, right? You’re just going out there for the trip, you probably don’t want to live there. But it’s good enough, do your expedition and get your mission accomplished,” Nguyễn says of the orbiting outpost.
One of the missions the Deep Space Logistic team will handle is getting the Canadian Space Agency’s robotic arm to Gateway. The CSA is building a new CanadaArm, similar to the one on the space station for the lunar outpost.
“The concept is that the normal bread and butter missions we have are delivering that cargo stuff, right? So obviously, with delivering that robotic arm that’s a big ole contraption right on top of it,” Nguyễn said. “So we’ll probably have to shrink the amount of cargo we send, but then we will build up the apparatus to attach the arm to it and we’ll shoot that out there towards the moon.”
NASA recently selected SpaceX’s Starship spaceship to shuttle astronauts to and from the moon as part of a $2.9 billion human landing system contract. It will later select more commercial companies to carry astronauts and supplies down to the moon.
The exact timeline of when Gateway and the first Artemis astronauts will launch to the moon is under review right now but NASA plans to launch the SLS rocket on its first test flight without astronauts sending the Orion spacecraft around the moon as soon as late this year.
Under the Biden Administration, the goal to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 continues to be the current target.
From intern to top pick for Deep Space Logistics endeavor
Nguyễn has been with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for 23 years. The University of Central Florida graduate started as an intern.
“Why would you ever leave?” he joked.
Nguyen is the youngest of four, his older siblings are also engineers and fellow UCF alum. His parents left Vietnam during the Vietnam war and moved to California and eventually, Brevard County.
Raising first-generation Americans, his parents instilled a strong sense of education, especially in the sciences, Nguyễn said.
“Seeing them start a whole new life from scratch, with nothing, raising four kids. Yeah, that’s just tremendous,” he said of his parents. “I think the takeaway I get from them, is seeing how much empathy is needed and is needed just for everybody’s success.”
A Star Trek and science fiction fan, Nguyen said he knew he wanted to work in the space industry just wasn’t sure he would get the chance -- but he did. Now, he’s helping NASA return astronauts to the moon.
“Growing up I was very passionate about astronomy,” he said. “Something about space exploration always spoke to me the idea of doing something that was transcending the Earth, bringing humanity together for a common goal and in a very peaceful endeavor.”
Nguyễn was among the very first team members selected by Mark Wiese, manager of the Gateway program’s Deep Space Logistics at KSC, to work on the project.
KSC public Affairs Officer Tammy Long says the DSL team was handpicked by Wiese from “the best of the best.”
“Johnny was on the ground floor,” Long said. “He literally helped create this from nothing, out of a whisper. So that’s pretty extraordinary.”
Right away they started planning, drawing out ideas on a whiteboard.
There are now about 30 team members working on logistics for Gateway.
“I think that’s a testament to maybe Mark, to the project, and to NASA, where I think they really do value a diversity of opinion,” Nguyễn said.
NASA added inclusion as the fifth core value to its agency policy last summer.
According to Long, KSC is unique among the NASA centers where 55% of women are in leadership roles, 25% of leadership are people of color with 15% of that being women of color. According to an April Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. government data, Black and Hispanic employees are underrepresented in STEM fields making up just 8% and 9% of jobs.
“I think it’s underestimated, I think, the valuable in this of being able to see somebody above you, that looks like you,” Nguyễn said. “It’s the idea that this person, probably more than likely understands my cultural value, my cultural upbringing, and then they can relate to me. And if I can identify with that, then I can take the next step and start learning from their leadership style and their tips and best practices.”
Nguyễn said there is always room to grow.
“When I look around, I do see the diversity. I think when I look around and hear discussions, I hear the unique viewpoints that people bring to it,” Nguyễn said. “I think we should always strive to do better, and keep vigilant. And making sure that people feel really part of the conversation really including that and not just invited, but actually part of it.”
NASA taps commercial companies to run supplies to Gateway
Gateway is one piece of NASA’s Artemis program that will be built and assembled around the moon by the space agency, the European Space Agency and commercial partners. Canada and Japan are also part of the Artemis Accords, an international treaty to create a safe and transparent environment for exploration.
Similar to the commercial cargo resupply program delivering goods to the International Space Station, NASA will again rely on private space companies such as SpaceX to make supply runs to the Gateway.
“The twist is going to deep space vicinity, of course, for a little bit of a longer duration,” Nguyễn said. “But it’s something that industry can handle. And that’s what the government’s here to do to help spur that along. So yeah, so we’ve got providers, the first one is SpaceX. So they’re on tap to hopefully deliver this first mission for us.”
An adventurer by nature, Nguyễn enjoys hiking and mountaineering and looks at NASA’s long-term vision for the moon like a trek up a formidable peak.
“Delivering cargo to a far, far off place, we kind of equate that to maybe trying to climb a mountain like Mount Everest,” Nguyễn said. “To get up there, you need to a lot of logistics, you don’t just go in one straight shot to the top, you have to pack up a lot of stuff, you pre-position and deposit supplies along the way to make sure you have them later on during your journey all the way to the top. So it’s not too different from what we’re trying to achieve with the Deep Space Logistics and getting the stuff out there.”
With the growing number of private spaceflights planned from SpaceX and other companies, Nguyễn said he would “absolutely” add a trip to the moon to his adventure bucket list.