REDMOND, Wash. — One of NASA’s most celebrated awards was handed out today, but it didn’t go to an astronaut. Instead, it was an astronaut who was doing the handing out.
The Silver Snoopy Award winner was the one holding a fussy 18-month-old toddler.
Erica Raine, an engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond facility, received the Snoopy pin for work above and beyond the call to duty, resulting in the fabrication, testing delivery of eight auxiliary rocket engines for the service module on NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle. Raine was the lead engineer for the project.
The engines will be put to use on the Orion program’s uncrewed EM-1 test flight, which is due to launch in 2019 and travel beyond the moon and back.
That test will be a not-so-small step in NASA’s drive to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo moon program. The plan calls for crewed flights to begin in the 2020s and culminate in missions to Mars by the 2030s.
NASA created the Silver Snoopy Award in 1968 for the space agency’s employees and contractors, to recognize outstanding achievements related to human flight safety and mission success. Back in the Apollo era, Charles M. Schulz’s Snoopy character from the Peanuts comic strip was an unofficial mascot for the astronauts, and Schulz agreed that NASA could use Snoopy’s image at no charge.
The sterling-silver pin, which is less than an inch wide, shows the broadly smiling beagle wearing a spacesuit and helmet. The pin awarded today flew on the Orion program’s EFT-1 test flight in 2014.
NASA’s rules dictate that the pins should go to no more than 1 percent of the eligible workers, and should be awarded only by an astronaut. Over nearly a half-century, a little more than 15,000 of the pins have been awarded.
Raine’s award was meant to be a surprise until the last moment.
NASA astronaut James Kelly, a veteran of two space shuttle flights, called out to have her parents and her husband Wesley Battle – who was holding their daughter, Eleanor – come out from Aerojet’s main office building and join scores of employees and VIPs who had assembled under a tent in front of the building.
“If you recognize those people, then it’s time for you to come up to the front,” Kelly said.
Raine came up to the front. Her husband handed Eleanor over to her, took the Silver Snoopy from Kelly and pinned it on Raine’s jacket.
“It’s been a true team event, and I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help,” Raine said after the presentation.
Kelly presented another award to Alex Mathers, director of operations for the Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond facility. Mathers was nominated for the NASA Space Flight Awareness Management Award in recognition of his leadership skills, high integrity, focus on accountability and proactive approach to supporting Aerojet’s role in the multibillion-dollar Orion program.
Like Raine, Mathers spread the credit to his co-workers.
“I’d like to just thank the test team. … It’s a job that requires incredible attention to detail and safety. They get through that every day safely and get home safely,” he said. “And at the end of the day they’ll make sure that astronauts get up and back safely.”
Kelly acknowledged the Aerojet team in his remarks as well. “Really, the people who make the space program fly is every single one of you sitting in this room,” he said.
Aerojet’s Orion program manager, Cheryl Rehm, told GeekWire that she and other executives keep track of how their employees are doing and draw up a list of award nominees for NASA to review.
“Where does that excellence really shine through? Where do you really see that they step into that leadership role, and go the extra mile? If you have a problem, if you have an issue, it’s like, ‘OK, here’s an opportunity for us to excel. How are we going to make that happen?'” she said. “That’s how we do it.”
Among the visiting VIPs was Larry Price, Lockheed Martin’s Orion deputy program manager, who provided an update on the status of the development program.
Price noted that the Orion capsule destined to fly on the EM-1 mission was powered up for the first time last month at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There were “a few flags in testing,” he said, but the test schedule is on track for a 2019 launch on NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion program, is already talking with NASA about the pace of production going forward into the next decade.
“We’re working closely with NASA to organize the structure so it’s cost-effective and efficient, and that we can build at least a vehicle a year, hopefully two,” Price said.
Price said Orion should help set the stage for an outpost in lunar orbit that will serve as the jumping-off point for Mars and other solar system destinations. “With a new president and the ability to ‘architect’ what the exploration architecture should be, the moon is a very important place,” he said.
“You are at the beginning of the next step,” Price told the Aerojet crowd. “Your work is not going unnoticed. It is very tremendous, what it’s doing for the country, the economy and inspiring the youth. And besides, we’re just a bunch of nerds building a cool machine.”