In the early morning hours of November 16, after several setbacks, the world witnessed a historic event: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) successfully launched the Space Launch System Block 1 (SLS) rocket for the Artemis I mission to return to the Moon after 50 years.
NASA’s Artemis I Mission Launched with Lightning Protection System Designed by Venezuelan Engineer
Artemis I is an unmanned mission that will give way in the following years to Artemis II, which will perform a manned lunar flyby and Artemis III, which will be the first manned flight to set foot on the Moon in five decades.
To accomplish this first feat of the Artemis program, NASA needed three towers on its launch pad for the SLS Block 1 rocket to protect it, relying on instrumentation systems that monitor the weather through the electromagnetic waves of the current and the secondary effects of atmospheric discharges on the pad.
Both projects were designed by Venezuelan electrical engineer Carlos Tomás Mata.
Protecting the SLS Rocket: A Three-Tower System for Minimizing Electromagnetic Waves
“This system consisted of three towers, very tall, about 600 feet high, a little more than 200 meters. At the top they have huge electrical insulators that provide mechanical support to some cables that are responsible for intercepting the atmospheric discharges and taking them to the ground away from the vehicle,” explains the Cuman man.
This system aims to minimize the electromagnetic waves to which the SLS rocket could be exposed, thus reducing the likelihood that one of these atmospheric discharges could directly hit the vehicle.
After 17 years at NASA, the engineer founded Scientific Lightning Solutions, a company dedicated to developing and marketing lightning protection and engineering equipment.
In 2007, Mata was part of the group of experts that solved the sensor failure on the shuttle Atlantis, for which he received NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal.
During his career at the Kennedy Space Center’s Advanced Electronic Instrumentation Laboratory, he was invited and recognized by the White House for his contributions to U.S. space exploration.
The challenges of space design
During the design of the Artemis I mission, promoted in 2019 by the administration of former President Donald Trump, Mata added that there were obstacles and that the teams worked knowing that there could be a change in government that would postpone the project.
There were also limitations in the budget since NASA does not have an infinite economic fund but must adapt to the nation’s pocket.
“When they approved funding for the project, they told us, ‘We don’t know what size the vehicle will be, but what we do know is that it will need a lightning protection system, so design it,‘” he said.
To accomplish the task, he assembled a team of four Latinos (Venezuelans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans) and six Americans. The first months of implementation were complicated because they did not know the size of the vehicle to be protected.
They also had to take into account that it was not a static model, but a mobile one, since the rocket does not take off vertically but has to move to where the wind conditions are favorable for its flight and not knowing the size complicated the design of the towers, taking into account that they had to prevent the cables at the top from colliding when the vehicle moved.
He and his team spent about a year practicing the simulations, which the engineer describes as “a year of trial and error.”
Overcoming Constraints: The Challenge of Lightning Protection Design on the Launch Pad
One of the most difficult parts of the lightning protection design was that it had to go on top of the launch pad, which had tunnels with underground infrastructure, so the design had to fit perfectly, some details could not be changed, and you could not change a design that had already been built. It was an extremely constrained job.
“When they asked me to take over the project, it was because they had already given the job to a commercial company and they (NASA) suggested it because it was a bit of a headless problem. Then they decided to do the internal design and asked me to take charge of it,“ he explained.
Mata said the first thing he did was reduce the number of towers to just three, since the first design had four and that made the project more expensive.
“I achieved this by playing with the geometry, placing the towers in different places and heights and with the wiring that goes on the insulators (…) For the design, I used software that I had developed a few years earlier, which consists of an analysis system that simulates atmospheric discharges,” he explained.
Despite all these challenges, the Venezuelan engineer and his team tried to make sure that the options they had were the right ones. “So far, I don’t think we’ve had any problems with it,” he said.
In photos of the SLS rocket’s launch, the three towers are easy to see. The position of the conductors, the height of the localization structure and the instrumentation system to detect and characterize the atmospheric discharges were all designed by Mata and his team.
The mechanical design of the towers to test their ability to withstand a Category 4 hurricane and wind gusts was performed by a company that specializes in such analyses.
A dream come true
Mata graduated from the Universidad Simon Bolivar in 1993, although he had already found a job in Caracas, after graduation he decided to go to the United States to specialize in atmospheric discharges and the interaction of lightning with electrical systems.
In 1996 he entered the University of Florida, and with the exchange controls in place in Venezuela, he had to work to pay for his studies and strive for good academic performance to be eligible for scholarships. He later earned a Ph.D. in power control and electromagnetics from the same university.
“I had to learn English, I didn’t speak it, I didn’t master it, I had to pass exams to be accepted at the university (…) I think I was a bit lucky because I was working in a lightning laboratory where we had the opportunity to do experiments with some groups from the space center, that’s where I made contact,” he said.
The engineer recalled that the first time he walked into the Kennedy Space Center and saw a launch, he knew that was where he wanted to work.
“Where I was going to work was not a question mark, I was sure it was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be (…) I started working (at the Space Center) on December 18, 2000, which was a Monday and I remember it as if it were today,” he said.
He said it was intimidating to walk into the Space Center and interview for the job. During his first few days on the job, he said he felt a lot of uncertainty, but a coworker encouraged him to keep going.
“He said to me, ‘Carlos, you have no idea how much knowledge you have that’s going to be useful, so don’t worry about it, your knowledge is going to be very useful,’ and that reassured me to some extent.”
After 17 years at NASA, he founded his own company, Scientific Lightning Solutions, and while he continues to work as a consultant for the space center, he also develops projects for other companies, including SpaceX, the space manufacturing company founded by Elon Musk in 2002.
They have also worked with U.S. government institutions such as the Department of Defense.
Now that Venezuelans are all over the world, the engineer has been invited to events to give motivational speeches to his countrymen. He expressed that he is proud to be a Venezuelan working at NASA and that he is happy when his countrymen congratulate him.
“It is a great honor for me to say that I am Venezuelan and that I am where I am,” he added.
During his time at NASA, he has worked with many Latinos and described them as highly qualified people, excellent workers who are eager to leave their Latino community and their countries at a high level.
For those young people who see working at NASA as a distant goal, Mata recommends doing something every day that will help them achieve that dream. He explained that there are more opportunities to work in the field now because they are forming alliances with contractors who have a lot of people working for them.
“So the chances of getting a job at NASA are very good as long as you are a responsible and hardworking person,” he said.
The work of Mata and his team contributed to the successful launch of the Artemis I mission:
On November 21, the SLS rocket’s Orion spacecraft made two close approaches to the lunar surface; on December 5, it approached the Moon at a distance of nearly 129 km (74 miles); and on the same day, it prepared to return to Earth. It will land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California on December 11, 2022.
The second mission is scheduled for 2025 when the Orion spacecraft will carry the first Deep Space Gateway module into lunar orbit, a space station that will serve as a communications center.