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His goal ... A Safe Landing
, Courier Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 03, 2012 11:00 AM
Madison native Tom Lemm, of Airborne Systems, a parachute manufacturing company in southern California talks about how he ended up working on NASA’s Orion space program. Lemm is a test engineer with the team at Airborne Systems responsible for creating the parachute system for the Orion space capsule. The Orion project is similar to the Apollo program in that the astronauts return to Earth via their space capsule parachuting back and landing in the Pacific Ocean.
(Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
A C-17 plane dropped this test version of Orion from 25,000 feet above the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona. The test uses an Orion craft that mimics the full size and shape of the spacecraft. The main objective of that drop test was to determine how the entire system would respond if one of the three main parachutes inflated too quickly. Madison native Tom Lemm is a test engineer with the team tasked to create the parachutes for the real Orion spacecraft. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)
Tom Lemm remembers sitting in his Jefferson County childhood home and watching the television as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but he never had childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut himself.
Yet some of his work will be aboard the NASA spacecraft when new manned space capsules launch into space in 2021. Lemm currently works with a team of engineers on the Capsule Parachute Assembly System (CPAS) that consists of eight parachutes to be used for the capsule's landing after a mission.
"It's so complex," he said of the NASA's Orion capsule project, which will replace the agency's retired space shuttles. "The parachute is one little part."
Still, the parachutes are a major component of the project. The eight parachutes that make up the assembly system have to withstand re-entry conditions to ensure a safe landing for the capsule.
"You'd hate to go all the way to Mars and not make it back because of (the parachutes)," he said.
Even though Lemm has spent most of his career as an engineer in the aerospace industry, this is the first time he's worked on a NASA project.
Lemm grew up in Madison and graduated from Shawe Memorial High School. His teachers at Shawe encouraged him to pursue a degree in mathematics. Lemm attended the University of Dayton, earning a degree in mechanical engineering.
Yet Lemm's journey to work with NASA wasn't a direct path - or even a goal.
"It didn't happen overnight, that's for sure," he said.
After college, Lemm decided to find a job in the "Sunbelt" and began looking for employment in California and southern states to get away from cold winters in Indiana, he said. His first job after graduation was with for McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace manufacturer and defense contractor, in California.
After working a few years with the company, Lemm took a voluntary layoff from the company and began a two-month cross-country vacation back to Indiana. Once back in Indiana, Lemm found that his mother had already helped with his job search - even though he had planned to return to California to look for a job after his trip.
"She had job interviews lined up for me when I got here," he said.
Lemm interviewed at Jefferson Proving Grounds, was offered a job and began testing operation of ammunition at JPG for about three years. He decided to go back to McDonnell Douglas once the business picked up again, working in flight testing as he had done before. Lemm continued to work with McDonnell Douglas for almost two decades before transferring to Seattle to work on test programs with Boeing airplanes after the airline company bought out McDonnell Douglas.
Yet being away from his home and family in California eventually led Lemm to another job search. On a visit home, Lemm's wife mentioned a local engineering job possibility with Airborne Systems.
"She had a little ad circled (in the local newspaper)," Lemm said.
Even though he called and interviewed for the job, the first contract for work was awarded to another company. Yet a second contract - the NASA parachutes - was awarded to the company. Lemm received one of eight engineering jobs for the project.
Lemm's current employer, Airborne Systems, normally provides parachutes used by the United States Army. The company received a sub-contract to design and create the parachutes for NASA's Orion space capsule recovery system.
Lemm and the team of engineers he works with have spent the past three years creating and designing the parachute system - which consists of two drough chutes, three pilot chutes, and three main chutes - that will allow the spacecraft to land in the Pacific Ocean after missions to space. The main parachutes are 116 feet in diameter and are made of nylon. The cords attached to the chutes are Kevlar, which is stronger than steel.
The team of engineers has spent the last three years testing and documenting how the parachutes perform with test vehicles similar to the Orion capsules.
"We put all the pieces together for a test, and there's a lot of pieces," Lemm said. "If there's one piece that doesn't work, we have a failure."
In the past two and a half years, no failures have occurred during tests at the U.S. Yuma Army Proving Ground in Arizona. An unmanned Orion test vehicle is expected to launch into space for a test run in 2014, with a manned launch expected in 2021.
While still part of aerospace engineering community, Lemm said his job working on the parachute project for NASA does have differences than the other jobs over the years.
Most of his career, Lemm often had daily analysis of testing, he said, but testing for these parachutes only take place a few times each year. This project requires many more hours spent on presentations and video conferencing about previous tests. The aerodynamics of the projects differ as well.
"Instead of speeding things up, I'm trying to slow them down," he said of the parachute project. "It's a totally different end of the spectrum."
Parachute Testing Gallery
Orion Parachute Test Video
PHOTOS: His goal ... A Safe Landing
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