On July 20, 1969, an 11- year-old John Hanson ’75 sat starry-eyed in front of his family’s black-and-white television in its bulky armoire, watching ghost-like images flash across the screen. John was mesmerized by the low-resolution pictures—the first-ever footage transmitted from the surface of the Moon. As the newscasters discussed the successful Apollo 11 mission, John used his plastic model rocket and spacecraft to describe to his grandfather how each piece worked as it reached the Moon, landed, and docked.
John fell in love with the space program and astronomy when he was 10 years old. For his 11th birthday, his parents gave him an astronomy encyclopedia that he read cover to cover more than once. That passion only continued to grow when John got to The Mount. Physics with Mr. Tom Hughes and calculus with Mr. Robert Lilley ’69 helped lay the foundation that would support him through an undergraduate degree in physics at Loyola University Maryland. John went on to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and set out to build the rockets he’d glued together as a kid.
John has been at NASA now for over 30 years. He started in flight mechanics, designing trajectories and simulating how launch vehicles and spacecrafts fly. He moved on to become the lead systems engineer for Exploration Upper Stage of the Space Launch System (SLS). According to NASA, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket they have ever built. The SLS will be the primary launch vehicle of NASA’s deep space exploration plans, including the Artemis program, which is working to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. John and his team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are responsible for building the SLS rocket that will send astronauts to lunar orbit.
Recently promoted to chief engineer of Exploration Systems Development, John will now be focusing on the big picture, helping to prepare for the first Artemis flight.
Over the years, John has also led a number of small teams dedicated to tackling individual problems as they arise. “There’s never a dull moment,” John admits. “There are always plenty of things to worry about. We have to worry about the fuel sloshing around in the tanks, how the rocket vibrates and whether you’re going to lose control because of the vibration. We worry about how the tanks expand and contract as they get warmer and cooler. There are a lot of variables, but you can work on each part of it and then pull it all together. It’s a team effort."
John has won several awards for his work, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 2016 de Florez Award for Flight Simulation for his contributions in flight simulation applications for SLS design, development, and requirements verification. John also received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and a Silver Snoopy Award, which is one of the agency’s highest honors for outstanding achievements related to flight safety or mission success.
While there have been many important discoveries and scientific advancements over the course of John’s career at NASA, he is most excited about the potential implications of the SLS rocket and Artemis program. Artemis III will be the first crewed mission to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in December of 1972, and as such, there are some very specific goals. First, they plan to land near the Moon’s South Pole because this location provides continuous sunlight.
“There is also ice there, so they believe they can get water out of the ground,” John explains. “Using the Moon to learn how we can live somewhere other than Earth and to get what we need there is probably one of the biggest goals. There are science goals as well, like learning about the Moon and about how the solar system formed. There is some good astronomy you can do from the Moon because you don’t have an atmosphere.”
With so much of the universe still vastly undiscovered, the little boy who watched in awe as Neil Armstrong took that ‘one giant leap’ all those years ago isn’t satisfied with stopping there. He is looking forward to the next step.
“Over the years, they’ve had various anniversary celebrations of when Apollo landed on the Moon, but I’ve become uninterested in those because I want us to go back and do more, not just remember what we did before,” John says.
With any luck, John’s dream will be realized in less than five years. And the next time he watches astronauts take off for the Moon, it will be on a rocket he helped build.