To the Moon and Back Again

Alumnus Helping NASA Return to the Moon by 2024

No one on Earth has stepped foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 landed there in December 1972. But NASA is relying on the new space exploration program, Artemis, to change history and take the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024.

Georgia Southern alumnus Andy Warren (’87) is one of the engineers helping NASA return astronauts to the moon. He started his career with the space agency in 1988, two years after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

“I was looking for a job and they were hiring. Honestly it was never something I thought about doing growing up but it gets in your blood,” Warren said. “It’s very exciting and fulfilling work. I have a passion for it.”

Warren works at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, as manager of the Cross-Program Integration team for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). A team at MSFC is designing the powerful SLS rocket that will send the crew in the Orion spacecraft to the moon and eventually to Mars. The Orion crew capsule is being developed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the ground systems including the launch pad are being handled by a team at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Warren said the cross-agency team “ensures that the systems, including the rocket components, all work together when the flight vehicle gets assembled and launched at KSC.”

Prior to the Artemis program, Warren worked on the Space Shuttle program in various capacities from 1988 through the last mission in 2011. In his early years, he worked on ground systems including the large cranes that were used to assemble the shuttle. After that, he served as the management intern to the launch director, the person who gives the final “go” for launch on launch day.

“I sat right next to him in the control room during several shuttle launches,” said Warren, who grew up in North Augusta, South Carolina. “It was an amazing experience because you could just feel the raw power. You could actually physically feel it rumbling off the launch pad.”

Remembering a Shuttle Disaster

Warren was a Georgia Southern student when he watched the Challenger explosion. It was later determined that the accident was caused by the solid rocket booster O-rings not working properly at cold temperatures. During Shuttle mission STS-132 in May 2010, Warren served as the solid rocket booster representative on the Shuttle Mission Management Team and gave the final concurrence (“go”) that the solid rocket boosters were safe for launch.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “When talking with students, I present it in the context that there’s nothing special about me, but you never know where you’ll end up and the opportunities that you’ll have in the future if you apply yourself.”

As the Cross-Program Integration manager for the SLS program, Warren is excited about the upcoming test of the ambitious rocket that has been in development for the past decade. The SLS relies on long-proven hardware from the space shuttle, including the engines and solid-fuel boosters. But the rocket is different in that it has been designed for launching both astronauts and robotic scientific missions for deep space exploration hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, while the space shuttle was designed for travel a few hundred miles above the Earth.

“Our first flight will be a test to demonstrate the ground systems, rocket and crew systems. It will go around the back of the moon next year,” Warren said. “Then about two years later, we’ll launch astronauts in the Orion crew capsule beyond the moon and back to Earth. That’s further than any humans have ever been from Earth. Then we’ll launch a crew, which will land on the moon.”

As NASA embarks on this next era of space flight, Warren is confident it will inspire a new generation of explorers.

“I think the future is really bright,” he said. “In the 60s, we had the beginnings of space flight and ever since we went to the moon, people have been dreaming of going to Mars and deep space exploration. And now we’re actually building the rockets. We dream big and we’re currently building a really big rocket to achieve those dreams.”

Warren is an active Georgia Southern alumnus. He serves on the College of Science and Mathematics advisory board and returns to campus every year to meet with students, professors and administrators. — Sandra Bennett